On our first date, Avie and I met at a restaurant in Carroll Gardens, his neighborhood. We sat at the bar, ordered wine and tapas, and talked. Handsome and warm, he told me about how he had immigrated from northern Spain to get his master’s degree in restaurant management from Cornell. He had a fierce love for his country but had been a Brooklynite for the past 30 years. After graduation, he started a business and a family, raising two daughters.
When he paused, I took a breath as I prepared to share my story, not knowing how he would react. “I have kids, too, two boys. I had them with a woman I was with for 13 years.”
Avie listened attentively, nodded. I noted no surprise on his face. By the end of the evening, we had arranged to see each other again.
And so I became a lesbian who was dating a man. Although I imagined that there would be some challenges, I hoped they would be surmountable. As far as we have come in integrating gay couples and families into our culture, the straight world is full of hidden biases. With Avie, I found that, even when unintended, these biases revealed themselves in subtle ways.
When we began our relationship, Avie told me he was moved by the diverse community he was being introduced to. We lived in Park Slope, which has a thriving LGBT community. My sons, Luca and Angelo, grew up in this strong, creative and accepting place. My kids were never stigmatized for having two moms. Two moms and their children got no strange looks, caused no embarrassed confusion as would have been unavoidable less than a decade earlier.
From the start, Avie was enthusiastic about getting to know my two sons. At 13, Luca was figuring out how to move from boy to man. As if to compensate for his lifelong immersion in our women’s world, Luca took on a John Wayne kind of posturing. He started smoking cigarettes, began walking with a swagger. Our phones were linked for a brief period, so I could see some of Luca’s earliest efforts at chatting up girls. When I noted he was using the same “seductive” lines on more than one girl, I tried not to be overly concerned. I wanted him to connect sex with love and be genuinely interested in both, maybe too much to expect from a 13-year-old boy.
One day, I opened my computer to find it on a page that provided answers to questions about sex. While loosely educational in nature, the site depicted an alluring blond woman with enormous breasts as a model to illustrate the things a man could do with a woman. I was surprised and concerned about this particular source of information. Obviously, he was curious and had questions, but when I tried to talk to him about what I had found, he denied having any idea of how it got there. “Mom! I don’t want to talk about this!” he bellowed in embarrassment. It was clear that I could not be the person to provide him with answers.
My father, and then Avie, stepped in. They reassured, commiserated and conspired with my son as they gently guided his transition to manhood. My dad showed him how to shave at the first glimpse of a facial hair. He told Luca stories about when he was a teenager during the 1950s, about his antics and escapades both adventurous and dangerous, such as sneaking into the drive-in or smoking cigarettes with his friends.
I appreciated their efforts. At the same time, I feared that their lessons and guidance ran counter to our family values. My job, as I saw it, was to maintain the integrity of our two-mom family, even if the second mom was no longer my wife. When Luca used “gay” as an insult, I’d challenge him. His little brother Angelo would say: “Luca! Do you know that you’re insulting our moms when you say that?!” Avie, on the other hand, would mumble, “He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
Avie seemed interested in offering a more traditional view of relationships than the egalitarian foundation on which we based our lives. It would start with an innocent question, “How’s it going with the girls?” and end up being a lesson in the wiles of women. “Keep them guessing,” he would advise, and “play the field.” It was never vulgar or insulting, just paternalistic, old-world thinking that didn’t align with how I hoped my sons would view relationships. My kids respectfully submitted to these discussions, and often found them amusing in their stereotypical depictions of heterosexual relationships. Still, these chats bothered me. They reinforced a bias that began to feel like an agenda.
When we had started dating, I had found Avie to be an open-hearted person. I had enjoyed trying different cuisines and learning about new wines with him. I liked listening to his stories and enjoyed introducing him to new experiences and new ways of seeing the world.
Still, I had to acknowledge that I had growing concerns I needed to address.
I told Avie that I needed him to learn as we moved forward together. I asked him specifically to stop using heterosexual relationships as a default. I let him know that it bothered me, telling him that I didn’t want my boys assuming any superiority or being confined to defined roles because of their gender. “They have been immersed in a family with two competent women at the helm,” I told him. “I don’t want that perception diminished in any way.”
Avie said he understood, but his behavior didn’t change much. He still winced when he learned that the kids and I were going to the gay pride parade. He would avert his eyes when he saw two men holding hands on the street. He would still give my boys a wink and an elbow when he would check in about their “love lives.” Avie did not seem to understand that my children had not lived in a world where anyone felt sorry for them because they had two moms. They did not need to be protected because of it.
A few months after our talk, Avie and I split up. He remained devoted to my boys and to me, but in the end, his deeply ingrained reactions to our gay-positive world were too powerful for him to overcome and for me to ignore.