Bringing Up Baby
When Brian Rosenberg found a scarcity of support & resources for navigating fatherhood, he helped launch the Web site, Gays with Kids
by Dann Dulin
Photos by Robert Figueroa / FotoFig.com
You’re gay. Now I won’t have grandkids….” I recall the mother of my friend mournfully saying this to him in the seventies. The antiquated thinking was formulated when being gay was considered a disorder. It was even listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM as a mental disorder. If you were gay, being married or having children was not an option. This has changed.
With greater societal acceptance, gays expanded their thinking and realized that they, too, could have the “white picket fence,” including children. Brian Rosenberg and his husband, Ferd van Gameren (of Dutch descent), are just two of the New Order of gays. Celebrating over twenty years together (they married in 2013 on their twentieth anniversary), the fathers have three kids, a son, Levi, five years-old, and twins, Sadie and Ella, three. Levi was adopted on his fifth day of life, and the girls were born through surrogacy, using Brian’s sperm, who is HIV-positive.
Brian was diagnosed in the early nineties (has been on meds since then), so the fathers initially planned to just adopt. After several years of trying, though, they were unsuccessful. Intent on being parents, they tried another path. Ferd located a lab in Boston that could help HIV-positive men become biological dads of HIV-negative offspring. They contracted with an agency to find an egg donor and a gestational carrier who was comfortable with an HIV-positive sperm donor. Just four days later they (finally!) received a call from the adoption agency—and Levi was born. The twins were born seventeen months later. Brian and Ferd’s original plan was to use both of their sperm, but it turned out that Ferd’s sperm was not fertile and so they used Brian’s sperm.
Parenthood is a challenging role, especially when the father is gay. They sought advice and support, but felt isolated when they only found a mother-focused culture. They encountered “mommy-tested mommy approved” or “for moms by moms,” and even shopped in such stores as Bump to Baby and Moms to Be and More. Four years into fatherhood, in June of this year, the men, along with Jonah Arnold (a lawyer who has two sons with his wife), launched Gays With Kids to help support gay dads.
Along with photos of diverse dads with their families, the site offers professionals who offer insights and tips, and dads sharing their everyday experiences. A community of bloggers, and original content from writers and journalists on the subject of parenthood are also offered on the site.
Before becoming a parent, Brian was active in the HIV/AIDS community. He joined the Boston AIDS Action Committee’s speaker’s bureau and spoke to local high school and college students about being gay and living with HIV. He worked at Boston’s LGBT health center, The Fenway Community Health Center (Fenway Health), facilitating health programs, including its “Living Well Series,” to support HIV-positive gay men. In 1995, he and Ferd rode in the very first Boston-to-New York AIDS bike ride.
Brian grew up in a Boston suburb and lived in New York City. Now residing in Toronto, Brian started off in the world of technology (sales, marketing, software) then sidestepped into building corporate partnerships. Gays With Kids is now his full-time job. “One of the best things about the site is that I have much more flexibility, so I get to spend more time with the family than ever before!”
Dann Dulin: Have you always wanted to be a father?
Brian Rosenberg: Yes, I suppose I always have. I’ve certainly always loved toddlers and little kids. Ferd is a teacher by trade, and he’s always done very well with kids who are a little older, after they can talk and reason. But between being HIV-positive and gay, I just assumed parenthood was not an option for me.
Are there any special challenges to fatherhood when it comes to being HIV-positive?
As long as I remain healthy, I don’t feel like I have special challenges being an HIV-positive dad. My T-cell count has never been high, always hovering throughout the years between 200–300, and my viral load has almost always been undetectable. Over the years I have done many things to try boosting my T-cell count, and while I have seen good results, they were always short-term. It’s like my body wants to function at a fairly low T-cell count.
I’ve always been a very compliant patient when it comes to taking my medications. I see doctors regularly and try to get my blood work checked regularly. My secret ingredient to staying healthy is lots and lots and lots of hugs and kisses with my kids. They are incredibly healing!
When do you plan on sharing your status with your children?
We’ve told them their stories in age-appropriate manners since they were born. Similarly, that’s how I plan to deal with my HIV status. They have seen me take my pills since they can remember, and they know these pills are daddy’s special medicines to keep him healthy. When it’s time to talk specifically about HIV, they’ll already understand that I take care of myself and there’s no need to worry about my health.
Has the AIDS epidemic impacted your life in other ways?
It has affected me profoundly. After finally coming to terms with my sexuality in the early nineties, my free time was spent doing everything I could to remain as healthy as possible with a mix of Western and Eastern modes of therapy. I also participated in different support groups. My entire life revolved around my HIV status. I watched many friends die and attended way too many funerals and memorial services, typically of men in their twenties or early thirties. A close friend died of AIDS only a couple of weeks before I appeared in the Boston Globe, which touted me as the poster child for the new “HIV cocktail.”
For me, AIDS represented a label given to those of us who became sick, experiencing one or more of a host of what could be life-threatening infections. So while I became quite comfortable living with HIV, I’ve always been frightened of AIDS.
Do you remember when you first heard about the epidemic?
It was my freshman year of college (1983–1984), when a gay man with AIDS was invited to speak at an all-campus forum. As a group of middle and upper-class straight guys, my friends and I did not think this particular discussion would affect us, so we did not attend. Perhaps if I had gone, I would have learned how to avoid HIV when I finally started dealing with my true sexuality.
Do you have any idea how you contracted HIV?
I met my first two sexual partners shortly after my birthday in 1988, the year after I graduated from college. I had sex with the first guy several times, and then went on to the second guy, with whom I had sex many times over the course of a few months. I did not practice safe sex with either partner. When I was about to have sex with the first guy, I casually mentioned condoms. He said we didn’t need to worry because neither of us could become pregnant. And when I mentioned AIDS, he explained that he wasn’t sick and that I didn’t look sick so we didn’t need to worry. Plus, I had already told him that I wasn’t gay so he was sure he didn’t have anything to worry about with me. Unfortunately, things didn’t go much differently with the second guy.
It’s hard to admit all this now, but the truth is that I was incredibly naive. Fortunately, my third sex partner explained how HIV was transmitted and so I practiced safe sex from then on. So while I don’t know exactly who gave me HIV, it must have been either one or both of my first partners.
Whom do you consider a role model in the HIV/AIDS world?
Many come to mind. One of my first doctors, the incredibly compassionate Jerome Groopman, is a role model. Also, the doctors in Boston I worked with at the Fenway Community Health Center. This group of pioneers kept the entire gay community of Greater Boston abreast of the latest information in a way that provided hope and gave us back our future. They included Cal Cohen, Harvey Makadon, Steve Boswell, and Ken Mayer. My doctor for the past ten-plus years, Bisher Akil, is a role model. Mary Fisher [A&U, February 2001], whom I saw speak in the early nineties—and it was her speech that prompted me to come out as a gay, HIV-positive man, and to start speaking out against stigmas associated with being gay and HIV-positive. The inimitable Ann Webster, who taught me the important connection between mind and body. Gregg Cassin [A&U, May 2002] who brought smiles and laughs to interrupt the many tears. So many of the friends I lost to AIDS, who taught me about dignity and the value of friendship.
Last, and most importantly for me, Ferdinand, my HIV-negative husband. He wasn’t afraid to be intimate back in a time when so many others were. He not only gave up his dreams, but he adopted mine as if they were his own. He pushed me to pursue fatherhood as he knew my life would not feel complete without children, and he was absolutely right. As any long-term couple, we’ve been through so much together. But no matter what we’ve faced, I always knew, and continue to know, that his love, adoration, and support for me is unwavering. He always makes me feel safe and comforted.
What was the turning point for you and your husband to go forward having children?
We were living in New York City, my health was going well, Ferd had passed forty, and I was quickly approaching it. We realized our lives were very self-centered, and we thought there needed to be more for us. So we got a puppy, a Chihuahua we named Duke. We quickly realized how awesome it was to focus our energy on taking care of some entity other than ourselves. We’d leave dinner parties or escape from nights out early just to get home to walk Duke. As much as we loved Duke, however, we realized that having a pet could not replace my long-buried desire to become a dad. So after a couple of years, Ferd brought up the subject of fatherhood. He took the lead to learn about our different options.
Any quick tips for new fathers?
You’ll no doubt receive lots of offers of help and unsolicited advice from family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. When it comes from those you trust—take it! It truly does take a village to raise a child and there’s no shame in admitting when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed as both are a rite of passage for fatherhood.
Any advice for those who teeter-totter on whether to have children?
Don’t let your HIV status stop you from becoming a parent. I eventually used my HIV diagnosis as a catalyst to make some very positive changes in my life, and I hope your readers do the same. To others living with HIV, I encourage you not to give up on your dreams. You can make them come true.
Take a stroll at GaysWithKids.com.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.