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Guest Writer Cheryl Dumesnil: The C Word

Walking into Richard Bargetto’s two bedroom San Francisco Victorian home, side effects you quickly realize the uniqueness of his family. Richard welcomes us warmly at the door carrying his two year old daughter whom he is giving instruction to in his native Italian. With them live his Brazilian partner Romualdo and the family’s Thai nanny, approved Tuely, capsule who together add an additional two languages in the home.

Isabella’s life represents the miracle of modern technology. She is raised by two gay dads and born via surrogacy, an egg donor, and washed sperm. And Isabella knows colors and numbers in four languages.  Beat that Modern Family.

Richard never imagined that he would be able to father a child. He came out to his mother at age 30. “She received two pieces of dramatic news at once: one that I was gay and two that I had AIDS. I only had 120 T cells when I found out I was positive. The doctor said that I would lose about 50 T-cells per year.  I calculated that I had just over two years to live.”

Fearing this short life span, Richard says “I learned to live with a daily presence instead of having a lot of future planning.” As a young lawyer, he altered his plans for a legal career to have a less stressful job and worked for his family’s wine business. After the 2 year deadline was broken, he shifted his career to working in HIV services “to give back to the community I was inserted into.” Richard is a now a Program Coordinator  for UCSF’s Positive Health Program.

Richard always enjoyed being a mentor and parental figure, starting as a volunteer for Big Brothers/ Big Sisters at age 19. He tried to adopt a child with his former partner and then as a single man six years ago. He explains, “I was matched with a child and that fell through. That was a painful process. All of the stops and starts were too precarious.”

Then Richard learned about a new procedure that was pioneered in northern Italy for HIV positive men to have children by “sperm washing.” “There were only a handful of states in the US where it was legal,” he explains, “I proceeded with surrogacy and had to go out of state to fulfill my dream.”

“The easy part is finding an egg donor, because that is all online now,” Richard says. “The most complicated part is trying to find the gestational carrier (surrogate). It was not easy. I went through two agencies. I had to find someone educated and not fearful about HIV. I found a wonderful woman who had three kids already. When we met, we hit it off immediately. She is a part of Isabella’s life. We just saw her three weeks ago.”

Richard explains to me the pregnancy process. “First the surrogate and the egg donor had to synchronize their cycles. I went in and gave my sample. Then the egg donor comes in, and embryo is created. Three days later the surrogate comes in and the embryo is placed in her.”

Richard says, “as Isabella gets older, we are going to be honest. I tell her now that she has an egg donor, a gestational carrier, a nanny, seven aunts and two godmothers. There are a lot of women who have contributed and continue to contribute to her life. I speak to her with honesty and with age-appropriate language. I speak the truth without any heavy tone. We make it very ordinary instead of saying “Isabella, there is something we have to talk about….”

What did his conservative Catholic family think of this? Richards says, “I was single at the time of the pregnancy.. I definitely didn’t get the response that my siblings got when they announced they were pregnant. There was no champagne that was uncorked. One of my sisters even left the table upon hearing my news.  However, some parts of my family held a wonderful baby shower. So I definitely had a spectrum of reactions .  Now that Isabella is two years old, it is becoming more normalized with those members of the family that had some initial struggles. They hand down clothes and interact with her as if she were any other kid in the family.”

When asked about discrimination trying to have a child as an HIV positive man, Richard stated that he has faced reactions that were “in some ways dramatic in some ways small. Part of my personality type is to live a little in denial and be overly optimistic.”

Now as a gay dad, Richard says he only has had a small handful of negative experiences. He says, “There have been rare moments of bigotry when someone screams ‘where’s the mommy?’ I think in San Francisco people are so well versed in how they ask me ‘How did Isabella come into your life?’ Ninety percent of the time it is done in a really graceful and respectful way.”

He continues, “The one feeling that is new for me is that people assume that I am straight. In her school there are only 3 gay families of 100 families. I have been told by other parents, “don’t forget to tell your wife.”  It’s harmless.   At the same time, when you have kids, so many more random people simply talk to you. When I am at a stop sign with a baby, everyone talks to you. It makes life a little less lonely. More people smile as you pass on the sidewalk. You are surrounded by more friendliness.”

These days, Richard has been asked by other gay men about becoming a dad. He says, “You absolutely should do it. I also say that you may not want to do it the way I did it. I was lucky that I became partnered while I was pregnant. It has had some obvious benefits. I would recommend co-parenting.  Someday, I would like to give Isabella a sibling.”  And with a smile, “Perhaps, this next time we may adopt.”

As we put the tape recorder away and finish our interview, we tell Richard how amazed we are by the chapters in his life, the welcoming family feel of his home, and the unique way Isabella develops in a loving household. We thank him for the interview and he tells us, “When I got an AIDS diagnosis, I think my grieving was about not being able to be a parent. I hope that my story encourages other gay men, whether they are positive or negative, single or partnered, to consider parenting. That is one life choice with no regrets.”

One of our very own Supergays, ampoule writer and poet Cheryl Dumesnil contributed this article to Out & Around. Thanks Cheryl for your contribution!

The first time I watched The L Word, treatment I hated it. A bunch of women drinking fifteen-dollar cosmos and making crappy relationship choices? Who needs it? I eschewed invitations to viewing parties, nurse panned the show whenever anyone talked about it, rolled my eyes over the fawning articles in lesbo magazines. Whatever. If I wanted to watch lesbians behave badly, I could drive to San Francisco anytime for a live show.

Fast-forward seven years. Recently my wife Tracie decided to download an episode of The L Word on Netflix. In protest, I decided to read a book. However, a few minutes into the show, I caught myself glancing up at Tracie’s computer screen. Halfway through, I adjusted my position on the couch for a better view. By the time that episode ended, I was begging for another one. Addicted. Shamelessly.

What the hell happened?

Well, for one thing, seven years ago, “Cheryl the L Word Hater” was a former San Francisco single who had shacked up in the ‘burbs with the love of her life. In other words, I was done with the bar scene and all its ensuing drama. Also, back then (read: before said love-of-my-life and I had kids), I could indulge in lesbian culture anytime I wanted. I took for granted my proximity to the trifecta of lesbian Meccas: San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland.

And then we had kids.

Parenthood messes with every newly-minted parent’s identity, regardless of sexual orientation. I got a sneak preview of this identity transformation one afternoon while I was strolling my six-months-pregnant belly around the block, past The Other Lesbian’s house. This is what Tracie and I called our neighbor: The Other Lesbian.

Me: “Hey, I saw Barbara today.”

Tracie: “Who?”

Me: “You know, The Other Lesbian.”

Anyway, that afternoon TOL was sitting on her porch with a friend as I walked by. TOL looked up and gave me that “I’m smiling at you because I’m friendly” smile—the one you give to strangers. I smiled back and waved, waiting for a look of recognition to flash across her face. No look. No recognition. In TOL’s eyes, I was not Cheryl-the-Lesbian-from-Around-the-Corner. I was Random-Pregnant-Woman-Walking-By. In that moment, my pregnancy trumped my lesbian identity.

What the . . . ?

Admittedly, because I’m a femmy-looking lesbian, strangers often presume I’m straight. Because Tracie is also femmy-looking, even when we’re together, people assume we’re straight, until we kiss, or hold hands, or call each other babe or honey or love. (Sometimes, even then.)

But for The Other Lesbian to miscast me? The only other sister on our block? That was some serious identity erasure.

And that was only the beginning. A couple hours after Baby B’s birth, an orderly was wheeling my exhausted-by-twenty-five-hours-of-labor body from the delivery room to the maternity ward, teeny B swaddled in my arms, bleary-eyed Tracie walking beside us.

The first thing the orderly said: “So, do you two want to have another one?”

The first thing I thought: “You don’t have kids, do you?”

The second thing I thought: “Wow. The division happens so fast. You aren’t a parent, and then you are one.”

Before Baby B was born, my “us” was queers and our allies; my “them” was everyone else. In a blink my “us” had become parents, my “them” non-parents. Go figure.

“I don’t have time to be a lesbian anymore. I’m too busy being a mom.” I confessed this one morning at a gathering of lesbian parents. “I know exactly what you mean,” a lesbo mama nodded. “Suddenly I have more in common with straight parents than I do with non-parenting lesbians.” Of course, neither one of us were giving up our card-carrying, placard-waving, stand-up-for-our-rights activism. But facts are facts: our days were consumed with nursing babies, evaluating diaper creams, and keeping up with the raging vaccination debate.

For the first few years of our kids’ lives, Tracie, Baby B, and eventually Baby K, and I gathered regularly with this same group of lesbo parents. All those families live in Berkeley and Oakland (see “lesbian Meccas” above). We live twenty minutes east, in ground-zero suburbia, complete with pop-up neighborhoods, neatly-clipped lawns, and chain stores with names like Barbeques Galore and Patio World. (I’m not kidding.) Each time our family left one of those lesbo parent gatherings, driving through the tunnel that divides our climate from theirs, I wondered what we might be missing, living where we are, our lesbo satellite orbiting so far from the mothership.

Tracie and I have chosen to stay in suburbia for the same reasons my own parents moved to the suburbs of my childhood: good public schools, open spaces, convenient parking. (Okay, that last one was mine.) When our Berkeley and Oakland lesbo friends have asked (with a tone of compassionate curiosity) what it’s like for us out here, we have had only good things to say: our neighbors are incredibly supportive, we have experienced no overt homophobia, and while we often need to educate people about queer family life, generally speaking people are eager to be educated. I mean, it’s still the Bay Area, right? How could I consider myself anything but extremely fortunate to live here?

As our kids have gotten older, we see less of our lesbo parent group. We’re all busy with our own school schedules and extracurricular activities. But I miss those folks. I miss the ease of conversation. I miss the not having to explain or educate. I miss those mirrors of my own family’s design. I miss the jokes and references my straight friends don’t get (well, except for the ones who read queer theory or, you know, watch The L Word). I miss the kick-ass potluck food and the unwavering support.

Let’s face it: the queer community knows how to step up for our own. We have a historical precedent, stemming from a time when no one but queers would help queers. I love that about us.

So far, in our suburban queer family life, Tracie and I have been the only lesbo mamas at karate class, in the parent-and-me soccer club, at the science fair, or standing on the sidewalk waiting for our kindergartener to be released from school. We are met with much love (and some curiosity), but we are the lone lesbos.

Which brings me back to The L Word. Why did I so willingly swan dive off my “I hate The L Word” soapbox? After ten years in suburbia and nearly seven years in suburban parenthood, I’m starved for lesbian culture. While I could still do without the bad decisions and fifteen-dollar cosmos, I long for the potlucks (okay, L Word lesbians are rich, so they cater, so let’s call it “the shared food”), the creative exploration of self, and the unfailing, got-your-back support.

So, what’s missing in my suburban lesbian housewife life? It all comes down to the C word. No, the other C word: community.

Parenting not only rearranges one’s identity, it fragments one’s daily schedule. These days my little red station wagon is a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between schools (pre- and elementary), extracurriculars, grocery stores, play dates, and yes, the occasional poetry gig (I am still a writer, after all, albeit a part-time one).

Beyond the polite chatter amongst parents in the parking lots of these various venues, where is the time for building true community? What is true community? As I’ve been contemplating this question over the past few weeks, the crap has been hitting the proverbial fan in the home of two of our closest friends, Susan and Becky, parents of Posy, Sophia, Maddy, and Nick.

Susan, a vibrant, seemingly healthy thirty-three-year-old, has been diagnosed with brain cancer, a midbrain glioma that is inoperable and incurable. That’s messed up. With a combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, doctors believe they can prolong Susan’s life for up to eight years. Seriously messed up.

Stunned by this news, Tracie and I have kicked into action. When we realized Susan would be undergoing treatment during the summer months, and coping with the side effects while living in a house with no air conditioning, in a town where summer temperatures regularly reach the upper nineties, our goal became clear: raise money to have an air conditioner installed in Susan and Becky’s house.

First, we called in our Wonderfamilies and our Superfriends, asking for donations. Then we turned to the mother of all social networks, Facebook. (Sorry, L Word fans, but “the chart” has nothing on FB.)

Within twenty-four hours, we had received donations from people of all walks of life—Susan’s elementary school classmate, Tracie’s college roommate, my friend’s ex-husband’s mother, a woman who had met Susan and Becky on a cruise, my parents’ next door neighbor from the apartment they had lived in as newlyweds. This is just a small sampling of the continually growing list of donors. (Shout out to all the angels flapping their broad wings behind the scenes of the Susan Nachand Wellness Fund: you’re amazing.)

Fortunately, we no longer live in a time when only queers help queers. (Well, in this geographic locale, at least.)

Undoubtedly this diverse list of donors would not find themselves checking the same boxes on voter ballots, or in some cases even sitting down at the same dinner table, but here they all are, stepping up for the same cause.

As I’ve watched money roll in to the fund, I’ve been overwhelmed by the tide of goodwill rising toward this family in need. And I’ve been reminded how, in addition to developing an L Word addiction, I have changed over the course of my suburban parenthood: I no longer divide the world in to “us” and “them.”

This is what Tracie and I are teaching our kids: we are all “us,” part of one human community, made up of many different stripes.

Sure, I appreciate the comfort that comes from hanging out with people whose stripes match mine. But there’s also an incredible kind of magic that happens when we reach across perceived differences, recognize our shared humanity, and work together toward a common goal.

When I look at it that way, I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds: a tried-and-true lesbian sisterhood (whom I want to see more often), and a blended community that steps up for my family (and for my friends) no matter what stripes we wear.

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6 Responses

  1. Hey Prof Dumensil (gotta call you that because of SCU), This column brought tears to my eyes. Parenting definitely erases/changes/blurs whatever identities I had. And being a medical student and a parent definitely felt isolating and wharping in many ways. And having my husband in Fresno, and co-parenting with my lesbian sister-in-law (a godsend) in SF has been incredible… And being mistaken for her partner at her softball games is a cheap price to pay for the awesome community that her lesbian compatriots have offered (and the puppies they bring that our toddler loves to play with).

  2. Just to explain “price to pay” – the endless explanations of how we came to coparent in the absence of the “male”.

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