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Do the Rite Thing

We'd only been dads for a few months but already we couldn't agree on anything.



By Dan Savage

My boyfriend and I had been together two years when we started thinking about adoption. That may seem a little early in a relationship--especially a gay one--but kids had been on our relationship radar all along. When we first met, I was about to "co-parent" with a lesbian couple, providing them with sperm in exchange for the role of glorified baby-sitter. When that plan fell through, Terry and I initiated the "adoption process," opening our hearts, souls, medical records, and checking account to a progressive adoption agency in Portland, Oregon.

Our agency does only open adoptions, meaning a birth mother selects a family then maintains ongoing, lifelong contact with the child. Open adoptions spook some couples, who may not want "another mom" in the picture, but we weren't spooked: we wanted a mom in our son's life. After we were done with our paperwork and intake interviews, we were quickly selected by a birth mom, Melissa, and a few short weeks later, we were at the hospital in Oregon, holding a 20-minute-old baby.

In the first few months of D.J.'s life, Terry and I deadlocked on just two issues: circumcision and baptism.

Logic is on the side of the anticircumcision activists. Not even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the procedure routinely anymore. And the pro-circumcision arguments don't hold much water. Family resemblance? Not something we usually judge on the appearance of genitals. Teasing in the locker room? Half of all boys born in America today are not circumcised; if your son gets teased, he and the other uncut kids can form a gang and beat the shit out of the snip-dicks. Hard to keep clean? We don't cut off other body parts that need a little extra attention. Do we yank out our teeth to avoid the bother of flossing? But what does logic have to do with kids? Is there anyone less rational than a new parent?

Terry felt very strongly about circumcision: he was for it. I felt strongly about it too: I was opposed. Terry wanted his son's dick to look like his own, while I didn't foresee D.J. and me spending much quality time comparing dicks. There was some danger, as my aunt warned me, that D.J. having an uncut penis might put off future sex partners. But the slight possibility that he'd get a little less head than his cut friends bothered me less than the idea of taking a knife and lopping off the end of his dick.

At the hospital, when Terry had asked Melissa how she felt about it, Melissa had shrugged. Terry analyzed the shrug and claimed it was two against one in favor of cutting D.J. I gave in. Terry could go ahead and have D.J. circumcised, but I wasn't going to lift a finger to help. Terry made an appointment with a urologist, and then, having lifted a finger--he pushed the buttons on the phone all by himself!--he decided it was my job to find us a ride to the hospital. I told him no, I meant it when I said I wasn't going to help. If he wanted D.J.'s foreskin cut off, he would have to get it done without me.

Terry called my friend Dave and asked if he would drive him and the baby to a doctor's appointment. Dave and his boyfriend, Eric, are huge foreskin fans, so when Terry told me Dave would be taking D.J. to the urologist, I couldn't believe it.

"Did you tell Dave what kind of appointment this is?"

"No. It's none of his business," said Terry, knowing full well that if he had told him, Dave wouldn't be driving him to the doctor.

I lifted a finger and called Dave, filling him in on the purpose of this doctor's appointment. Dave called Terry and told him he wouldn't be giving him a lift after all. Terry, furious, called the doctor and canceled D.J.'s appointment, then harrumphed around the house about how disrespectful I was being of Melissa's wishes.

"If D.J. grows up with a complex about not looking like us, or gets beat up in locker rooms, or can't find anyone who'll give him a blow job," Terry warned me, "I'm going to tell him it's all your fault."

I assumed these risks, and D.J. remained intact. Barring infectious complications, or a conversion to Judaism, he'll remain uncut for life.

On the other issue, baptism, I was pro and Terry was con.

My grandfather was baptized wearing a white linen gown. My mother was baptized wearing the same gown. My brothers and sisters and I were all baptized wearing my grandfather's gown, as were all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Hundreds of members of my family have been baptized wearing that gown, and I wanted D.J. baptized in it too. Not that I wanted to raise D.J. Catholic. I waver between a cop-out agnosticism and principled atheism, and nothing about becoming a parent made me want to return to the Church or any church. But still, when anyone asks about my heritage, I describe myself as Irish Catholic. It's a cultural thing.

From the look on Terry's face when I told him I wanted a baptism, you would have thought I wanted to take D.J. home and throw him in a wood chipper.

"You don't go to church," Terry said. "You don't believe in anything."

But do you have to believe? Almost all of my Jewish friends are bright, atheistic pork eaters who don't believe in much of anything either, but they get together and celebrate Jewish holidays because doing so matters to them culturally. They're not wasting time waiting for the Messiah to come, but they do get together every once in a while and act like great big Jews. Why can't I do the same? Why can't I get together with my family and act like a great big Catholic?

"And it would be a nice thing to do for my mother and my great-aunts," I told Terry. "They go out of their way to be nice to us; why can't we go out of our way and do this small thing for them?" My family was great about the gay thing, and now they were being great about this gay adoption thing--couldn't we be great about the Catholic thing just once? And if we wanted them to take our relationship seriously, and recognize D.J. as a member of the family, would it be too much for us to take him to Chicago, put him in a white linen gown, and let a priest sprinkle some water on his head?

"I'll get on a plane and go to Chicago," Terry said. "But I'm not going to lift a finger to help with the baptism."

I assumed that once Terry agreed, I would call my mom, my mom would call our old parish, and we would make an appointment. I hadn't been in a Catholic church in ten years so I wasn't aware that in its tireless efforts to drive Catholics into the arms of dangerous radical sects (like the Lutherans and Unitarians), the American Catholic Church has become stingy with the sacraments. Apparently they don't want cultural Catholics showing up for the occasional baptism, wedding, or funeral.

The pastor at the Rogers Park church where I was baptized, my mother was baptized, my parents were married, and my grandparents were married refused to baptize D.J. My great-grandparents helped build his stinking church, for Christ's sake: there are stained-glass windows with our family names on them. He also refused to let another priest baptize D.J. in "his" church. He told my mother it had nothing to do with her grandson's parents being homos, and my mother almost believed him.

My mother knows more priests than a Roman male prostitute, so she tracked down another one, an old family friend, who told her he would be happy to baptize D.J. This man, one of the priests at our parish when I was growing up and the last to hear me make a confession, believed an expression of cultural Catholicism was better than no expression of Catholicism at all. Using her connections, mom quickly found us a church, one where my great-aunt Katie volunteered. It was in a neighboring parish, which would make it easy to run over to our old church and throw cans of peas through the stained-glass windows my great-grandparents paid for.

When we tried to board our flight to Chicago, the woman behind the ticket counter wanted to know why the baby didn't have the same last name as either of the adults he was traveling with. Who were we? Where was his mother? What was our relationship to each other? She was about to call security when I started telling her the long story of how little adopted D.J. came to have a different last name than either of his dads. As I spoke, she slowly lowered the phone, peering at Terry and then back at me. Apparently we looked enough like fags. She bought our story, hung up the phone, and gave us our boarding passes. (Now we carry a copy of D.J.'s birth certificate in our wallets, along with the adoption decree.)

On the plane, more problems presented themselves. The passengers in our row, the flight attendants, even the captain walked up and asked D.J. questions:

"Where's mommy today?"

"Are you on your way to mommy's house?"

"Are your baby-sitters taking good care of you for mommy?"

"Did these two boys steal you from your mommy?"

"Whose baby are you?"

D.J. was going to have to answer questions about his mother for the rest of his life. Where's mommy? Since we know where Melissa is, we can answer questions about mommy truthfully. But answering "Whose baby are you?" will mean coming out over and over again, forever. Whose baby is he? He's our baby.

I hadn't been to a baptism in 18 years, not since my cousin Amie was baptized and I stood as her godfather, and I'd forgotten about the Q and A. Most of the Catholic baptism rite consists of the priest grilling the parents and godparents about their beliefs. Whatever the priest asks, you're supposed to respond, "I do." Do you believe in the virgin birth? I do. Do you believe in the miracle of transubstantiation? I do. Do you believe the pope poops lilac water? I do.

Terry wasn't thrilled about having to profess his faith. He threatened to stand at the baptismal font with his mouth clamped shut, refusing to play along. But once we got to the church, where my mother dressed D.J. in the newly cleaned and restored baptismal gown, Terry was swept up in the moment. With Amie standing as D.J.'s godmother, with my stepfather, Jerry, standing as godfather, with my mother, my siblings, my nephew Mars, and 40 of my other relatives standing around him, Terry felt compelled to say "I do" after each of the priest's questions, loud enough for all to hear. Under his breath, and only loud enough for me to hear, he whispered "not" after each one.

After the sprinkle and the "I dos" and before the picture taking, the priest made a little speech and welcomed D.J. into the Catholic community. Then he turned to me and Terry. He raised his hand and, in front of my great-aunts, my brothers and sister, my mom, and Christ on the cross, he blessed our relationship. I was stunned.

The same church that blesses restaurants and racehorses won't bless gay relationships, and our priest was taking some risk in blessing ours. It was a wonderfully brave thing for him to do. And we did feel blessed.

We left the church and headed to my sister's apartment, where D.J.'s baptism cake was set up on the dining room table. Mom had ordered it from the Swedish Bakery, the same bakery where she'd ordered all her kids' baptism and birthday and first communion and confirmation and graduation cakes. D.J.'s baptism cake was chocolate, with white icing, blue roses, and a yellow icing cross on top.

The next day, my brother Billy bought us all tickets to a Cubs game. In the bleachers at Wrigley Field, with my mother holding D.J., and my brother Eddie, sister Laura, nephew Mars, and cousins Tracey and Kevin serving as witnesses, Billy asked us if we believed in family, in the Cubs, and in beer.

"In that order?" Eddie asked.

"No," said Billy. "Normally, beer would come first, but mom's here."

"Do you believe in beer, the Cubs, and family?" Billy asked again.

"I do," we all said, and Billy poured about half a pint of beer over the back of D.J.'s head.

Excerpted from Dan Savage's book The Kid, due to be published by Dutton this month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.

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