A Valentine's Day Love Story: Husbands and Dads

Pioneering Massachusetts couple finds resilience in marriage and fatherhood.

Posted Feb 13, 2018

The road to marriage and parenthood wasn’t a given, nor was it easy, for the first gay male couple in Suffolk county, Massachusetts, to coadopt a child that wasn’t either partner’s biological offspring.

“I always wanted to get married,” said Steve Cadwell, a leading psychotherapist in Boston’s LGBT community. “I fantasized this as a child. I didn’t get the male role in that; I probably fantasized more about being the bride than the groom in my early fantasies.” Cadwell believes this kind of fantasizing actually helps build gay kids’ resilience. “It builds the capacity to believe we can play any role we want, in spite of what others say,” he told me.

Many people would respond to Cadwell’s declaration that he was gay by saying “But you’d be such a good father!” He finally reached a point where he rejected the lies and hurtful labels—“child molesters,” for example—ignorant people impose on gay men. He finally understood that he didn’t have to grieve the loss of being a father just because he was gay. He could be gay and be a parent!

For his part, biologist Joe Levine said he probably would never have become a parent if he hadn’t paired up with Cadwell. He said he “internalized the party line” that becoming a father just wasn’t an option for gay men when he came out in the 1970s. “Steve hadn’t put the option of being a parent out of the picture the way I had,” he said. 

Cadwell helped Levine to think differently about parenting. Rather than assuming that being gay preemptively disqualified him from being a father, he began to think “just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I can’t become a parent.”

By the time the pair met, in 1986, Cadwell had worked through most of his family issues and was completely “integrated” into his family as an openly gay man. Levine’s full integration with his own family was unfolding in fits and starts, but didn’t fully happen until after he met Cadwell.

When they had their “first” commitment ceremony, in the fall of 1986, Levine’s mother wouldn’t let him invite her best friend because she hadn’t yet “come out” about having a gay son. “It was after meeting Steve,” said Levine, “and realizing what a wonderful man he is,” that Levine’s parents’ fears were finally put to rest. “At first their fear was that gay men don’t have relationships and they die alone,” he said. “Six months after the ceremony, a package arrived, and it was a wedding gift from Mom’s best friend.”

In 2003, Cadwell and Levine had a legal civil union in Vermont. Now their love was legally binding, at least in Vermont. They held the “big hoopla” in a Vermont hotel close to where Cadwell grew up, and where his family often celebrated Thanksgiving. Lots of family. Lots of friends. Levine’s mom and her best friend; his dad, sadly, had died by then. They even had a party planner who dubbed herself “dominatrix of ceremonies.” Then in 2004, the couple “eloped,” as they put it, and got legally married in their own state of Massachusetts after it made same-sex marriage legal that year.

After spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and a great deal of stress, Cadwell traveled to Guatemala to bring back their newborn son. He would be called Isaac, and would be raised in a love-filled home, thousands of miles, and worlds, away from his birthplace, by two devoted dads.

As fixtures of their neighborhood in the Dorchester section of Boston, Cadwell and Levine felt accepted before and after Cadwell became Isaac’s Daddy and Levine became his Abba. After losing in the lottery for magnet schools in Boston, the couple decided to relocate to Concord, twenty miles northwest of Boston, in part for its excellent school system.

“We went through our own ‘suburba-phobia’ about how people would see us,” said Levine. But their decision to choose Concord echoed their thinking about parenthood itself: “Why shouldn’t we be able to choose where we want to live?” as Cadwell put it. They formed their own local network with other parents they met. “There was less of the identifying as a ‘gay family’ per se,” said Cadwell, “and more as just another family. Our friends locally, at least at first, were the parents of Isaac’s buddies from school and soccer.”

That is certainly how Isaac remembers growing up. Over dinner in Burlington, Vermont, where he was living after recently graduating from Eckerd College, in Florida, I asked him whether anyone had harassed him for having two dads. 

“I was never bullied,” he said. “Concord was so accepting.” He even said having two dads gave him a competitive advantage with girls because of its uniqueness. “Girls in college didn’t know I had two dads,” he explained, “so I’d meet them at a party and they’d say ‘so tell me about yourself,’ and I’d say I have two gay dads. They love it. They think it’s so cool. It’s such a great ice-breaker.” After telling another friend in Florida that he had two gay dads, the guy said, “Really? You’re so normal.”

I reminded Isaac that one of the right-wing smears against gay men is that we try to recruit and convert children into homosexuals. “You are proof that two loving gay men were not out to corrupt a kid,” I said. He laughed and recalled a time when he was a boy. His parents bought him a leotard and took him to dance class. “I hated it,” said Isaac. “The leotard became part of a Superman outfit. That’s when Steve said they knew they were raising a straight child.”

I asked the men how marriage, and being co-dads, parents, has strengthened their resilience as individuals and as a couple. “The resilience we have had as individuals and as a couple,” said Levine, “is because our first ceremony, in Dorchester, offered an intentional venue for telling people that we know it’s not going to be a bed of roses, there will be rough spots, and we are asking for your help when those tough spots come—whether in the relationship, or in parenting, or parenting and society.” He added, “Knowing we have that backup from family and friends is a significant part of resilience.”