In this week’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family” series installment, Rich Valenza of RaiseAChild.US takes us along on a dinner that delivers a surprise he will always remember.
DeKalb Street is the first stop over the Manhattan Bridge on the B train. Climb out of the subway station and walk north on the street that is lined with brownstone townhouses, a few just waiting to be reborn. On the other side, a neighborhood park with green rolling knolls.
At 6:30 p.m., it is nearly dusk on this last Monday evening in April. It is different here on this side of the East River. There are so many children out walking and playing with their parents that you nearly forget you are in New York City. No snooty school uniforms on these kids. Just very attentive parents trying to make up for the work hours they have been away from their little ones.
At 166 DeKalb is a corner restaurant called Walter’s. It’s the first trendy restaurant this part of Brooklyn has seen in decades. Walk in past the bar and at the first booth on the left I see an interracial male couple and a young boy. It’s Hugo Redwood, Denis O’Hare and Declan, the child they adopted from the foster system.
Hugo is a strikingly handsome and stylish man with sharp angular features and a smile that puts you at ease immediately. His husband I know better from TV and Broadway. I first saw actor Denis O’Hare in his Tony Award winning role in “Take Me Out.” Today, Denis is a true working actor with a long list of credits -- including “American Horror Story,” “True Blood,” and “The Good Wife.” On Sunday, May 25, Denis will appear in the much-anticipated premiere of “The Normal Heart” on HBO.
The men introduce their son and I’m captivated. At three years of age, Declan has the face of an angel. His eyes twinkle and his teeth are perfect. You can tell that his hairstyle took his dads a lot of time to perfect.
Rich Valenza: How was it you decided to build a family?
The waiter interrupts and the first rule of dining with a little one is to order food as soon as possible.
Hugo: The idea of starting a family started with me. I talked about it with Denis. I brought it up first. I like to say it took us seven years to get to the “period” of the sentence. We would talk about it. We would get really excited. And then it would sort of go away. Then it would come back. And for a while, I thought the issue was dead. All of a sudden, Denis came home one day and said, “I’ve been doing some research and I’ve made contact with these people.” In the end, Denis was actually the active one.
Denis: Well, I agree with that. If it weren’t for Hugo, I don’t think I would have become a parent. And now that I’m a parent, I can’t imagine missing out on that experience, I’m so grateful to him for having that desire. It’s not that I didn’t have the desire but I didn’t have the imagination. You know, for me it’s been a sort of weird form of homophobia. Internalized homophobia where I thought I wasn’t allowed to be a parent. I never imagined myself as a parent. It took me a long time. I mean, seven years to get my head around the idea of being a dad.
Rich: Denis, when did you come out publicly?
Denis: I kind of have always been out. I was out in high school. Yeah, I never really came out. I’ve just always been out.
Rich: And Hugo how was it that you felt this need to be a parent before Denis?
Hugo: Maybe it’s from my family. There are like 14,000 of them (laughing). It’s actually 10 to 15, depending who is counting. Maybe I got the need to raise my own family from my mother. I only have an older brother and a younger sister. I think that, maybe it was my mother’s family that inspired me to want my own family. But, I also think it is part of my nature. I think it’s definitely part of my nature to want to take care of people and, you know, to be a nurturer. It’s sort of a natural extension.
Rich: Denis, do you come from a large family?
Denis: Relatively. I mean, we are five kids and in my parish it wasn’t considered large because a lot of them had 9, 10, and 11 kids. But I think that today it’s considered a large family. I was 4th of 5. My dad came from a family of 5 kids. We have tons of relatives. Tons of cousins. To this day, we hang out with cousins. I think it’s a cliché to say that family is important to you, but it really is important to me. I talk to my sister once a week. We text all the time. I like my family.
Rich: So, how did you decide, of all the different options for family building, how did you decide to foster and adopt?
Hugo: We had talked about all the many ways. What really sort of brought it home was we took an online webinar with an adoption agency in Pennsylvania. It was this online thing that was like a virtual classroom. Finally someone asked the instructor about their fee structure and we learned that it was between $15,000 and $30,000 to adopt a baby. And then she said, “However, if you adopt a young black male child, our agency will discount our fees by 30 percent.” That made me angry and sad at the same time. I said, “So wait. Little black boys are on sale?” She said, “Well, it could look that way. But actually, we’re trying to encourage more people to consider adopting African American boys. Unfortunately, they’re the last ones to get adopted. The young black male child has a fewer than one in ten chance of ever being adopted.” That made me really, really sad. I got off the webinar, turned to Denis and I said, “I want six!”
Hugo: So, we decided that if we were going to do this, our adopted child would be a black boy. We have have a place in Brooklyn so we found a chapter of a foster care agency, which is basically a walk through the park about 10 minutes away. We couldn’t really find a good reason for going to somebody else’s country to adopt their unwanted children when there are so many in Brooklyn. There are 1,700 children every year that need adopting right here in Brooklyn.
Denis: Our boy from the Bronx. I love the fact that he’s a New Yorker. And as we raise him, we always tell him, “You’re a Tri-borough baby. You were born in the Bronx, you were delivered in Queens, and you have a home in Brooklyn.”
Rich: Tell me, how has having your son has changed your outlook on life, your career goals, your friends, your family relationships, your life priorities? Any one of those you want to take and run with, go ahead.
Denis: l’ll say that, on an incredibly selfish level, just the opportunity to learn what it is to be a parent is such a great opportunity. Declan is somebody that I am deeply in love with. It’s a crazy thing. I think one of the funny things for us is that we’ve made a whole new set of friends. We had a great social circle. And suddenly we encountered other people in our neighborhood who have kids. And we have a new circle of friends—people we may not have ever met otherwise. I’ve found there is absolutely no distinction between gay parenting and straight parenting. We all have the same issues with our kids. When you parent and you have a kid, you just realize how absurd it is to try and divide the world up into any kind of faction. Parents are parents.
Hugo: This neighborhood is super liberal. Affluent. Progressive. Couples and families come in all sorts of different varieties. An interracial, gay couple with a child just isn’t startling… or even noteworthy. It’s a very comfortable place for us. I can imagine our experience would be very different in different places in the country Kansas, Florida, or Virginia where we wouldn’t feel so lucky. Here, we blend in. So, becoming a parent, to answer your question bluntly, everything changed because all of a sudden you’re not at the center of your decision-making. Every single decision that we make now is like, what’s in it for Declan? How does this work for Declan? What about his school? What about his socialization? Everything. I can’t think of one thing that I would just decide obliquely without thinking about how it would affect Declan or touch him in some way.
At that moment, Hugo’s mobile phone lights up on the table just in front of him with a call. I’m not sure if he is ignoring it to be polite or if he is so engrossed in the conversation and the arriving plates of food that he doesn’t notice.
Denis: There’s this crazy thing that happens when you begin to pass on your values to your son or daughter. You have to ask yourself, “What are my values?” I’m an atheist. We’re both atheists. And I was raised very Catholic. But I realize I was raised with universal morals. They’re not Catholic morals. They’re universal morals. I think we are raising Declan with kindness, respect, discipline, good nutrition, self-respect, and empathy for others. These are all universal values.
Our conversation is interrupted when the waiter delivers our food.
Rich: So now that you’re Dads, how is it that you balance your careers and family lives?
Denis laughs and asks Hugo if he wants to go first.
Hugo: I’m an interior designer. I’ve worked for myself for the last 10 years, and my schedule has always been more flexible than Denis. Denis makes the money. So, if he needs to go to do a series in another city, he goes and we adjust around that, but he’s also incredibly generous with his time. He will come home for a day from almost wherever he is, if it is needed. When he was away the last few weeks, he would fly home on Friday just to be with us and fly back on Monday. So, how do we balance this? I take over a lot of the childcare. Yes, my career has taken a hit, but I don’t even think that way. I enjoy my time and my function and my service to my family, my children, and my husband so much that this is beyond my creating a career for myself.
Hugo’s phone lights up again and this time he notices. He answers, “Hello?” There is a pause and Hugo plugs his other ear with a finger to hear. “Who?” He looks at Denis. “Wait!” he shoots a confused look at Denis then bolts outside to take the call. In that moment, I am shy to ask the question in my head.
Rich: How has your relationship with each other changed?
Denis: Hugo and I are very clear with each other. We’re very honest with each other. We say whatever’s on our mind. So early on when we talked about having a child, I said, “You know, I’m going to probably end up working a lot and that means I’m not going to be able to contribute as much.” And he said, “I know! I’ll be the one to be staying home.” You can’t underestimate the importance of saying these things out loud. You cannot assume that one person is going to carry the bigger load of childcare without having a conversation about it. So, I worry about Hugo not working. I worry about his identity, that he didn’t get to be as much of a designer. Now my agent and I have this conversation about every offer: How long is the commitment? What is my commute going to be like? Can my family come out and see me? Our rule is that I can’t be away for more than two weeks without seeing them. And so, that does affect the jobs that I get excited by and some jobs I won’t even look at because it’s just out of the question.
Rich: Even to do Broadway in New York must be a challenge. I mean, you can make it home every night, I imagine, but, the hours and all.
Denis: Yeah. There’s a point at which you’re in rehearsal and techs where you won’t be home at all for two to four weeks. And your kid doesn’t understand why you’re not there. They want you every night. We Skype a lot, which I love. We do FaceTime a lot, which I love. But there’s no substitute for getting to see Declan’s face.
Dessert arrives and Denis looks over his shoulder for Hugo. Declan is comfortable.
Rich: So, my last question, what kind of advice would you give to LGBT folks who are thinking about building a family?
Denis: The first thing I would say is, do it before you’re ready. I don’t think anybody’s ever 100% ready. I don’t think anybody has enough money or is confident enough or is settled enough. We’re thinking about having a second child. Hugo came up with an adjective for having a kid. Scare-cited. Scared and excited. He’s scare-cited. But it can also be thrilling. And, I would say that for me, I still have an issue with homophobia as I did. But a lot of this has to do with me and not the rest of the world. My own self-perception of the real world. In my life as a gay man, there was definitely a level of insecurity.
Hugo is back at the booth and Declan is up dancing with the wait staff.
Hugo: You know what, Denis? I think that your public fear is more about you being a white father with a black child.
Denis: There’s some of that.
Hugo: You always seem like you are going through perceived judgment when I am not around. But people do what they do. I think the world needs to catch up and grow up.
Denis: I have no problem with being a gay dad.
Hugo sits down at the table and his manner is different. He is more quiet and deep in thought. He looks at Denis, puts his head on Denis’ shoulder, and then kisses him on the neck. I had no idea what was coming next.
Hugo: We’ve been selected.
Hugo: That was the adoption lawyer. Our second child was born yesterday! The mother selected us and we have to go right away to pick up the baby.
Denis: Like now?!?!
Hugo: Tonight or tomorrow.
Denis: Wait! Tell me what she said. We have our second son?
Hugo stops and looks Denis directly in the eye.
Hugo: No. This time, it’s a baby girl! Our Elliot has arrived!
Denis is completely overcome with emotion and covers his eyes with one hand and holds on to Hugo with the other. Hugo comforts him. This moment is so tender and so very personal that I am both honored and embarrassed to witness it.
I allow some time to pass and try to be invisible as their minds and hearts are swimming. When I feel the time is right, I congratulate the men, offer my assistance, and help them gather Declan and his things. We make our way to the street. I give each of them a hug that is meant to be reassuring. We say goodbye.
As I walk back to the subway station alone, I think about the magic of what I just witnessed. I wonder about the birth mother all the way across the country. And I think about the great future Elliot will have in her new adoptive family.
On Sunday, May 18, 2014, Denis O’Hare and Hugo Redwood will be presented with a “Let Love Define Family” award at the annual RaiseAChild.US HONORS gala. For more information about the RaiseAChild.US HONORS gala, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “RSVP.”
Rich Valenza is Founder and CEO at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. RaiseAChild.US works with foster and adoption agencies that have received training in LGBT cultural competence through the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s “All Children-All Families” initiative. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,000 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.”