When Bart Heynen showed up at a Brooklyn home of a family he hoped to photograph in 2015, his subjects weren't quite ready. One dad was busy finishing some ironing and the other was cleaning the house, newborn son in arms.
The scene struck Mr. Heynen, himself a father of two sons, as profoundly normal. "They just looked like any other parents that love their children," he said.
The family was the first of many Mr. Heynen planned to photograph for a book of photography featuring gay fathers and their children. His original idea was for each family to pose on the corner of their block to illustrate that, "See? We exist all over the city," he said. But after the Brooklyn shoot, he changed the concept to focus on fathers in the middle of their day-to-day realities. He spent the next four years with 40 families across the country, compiling their quiet moments into his recently-released book, "Dads."
American culture has not been particularly starved of images of gay fatherhood, particularly in recent years. Celebrities like Anderson Cooper have helped normalize the idea of gay men raising children, and it no longer feels revelatory to see them on television, as it did when "Modern Family" premiered in 2009.
Less common, Mr. Heynen said, are images of gay fathers who aren't Instagram ready — like two men combing their daughters' hair or tossing a football in the front yard. Capturing these honest, personal moments wasn't always easy. His subjects often wanted to present their families as traditionally as possible, he said, in their best clothes and smiling at the camera. It's an understandable impulse, which he attributes to a desire among gay parents to feel "normal" after having their capabilities as parents continually called into question.
Eventually the families relaxed, allowing him to capture their intimate moments. In one, two bare-chested dads engaged in skin-to-skin contact with their hours-old baby. In another, a gray-haired couple look on, beaming, as their son shares a kiss with his fiancé. The images aren't flashy, Mr. Heynen said, but rather a celebration of the day-to-day lives of gay fathers.
Clyde Rousseau said that it was important for his son, Ryan, to be surrounded by families like theirs when he was young
Not Just for the Young
Clyde Rousseau, 61, and Ryan, 12
Clyde Rousseau, who lives in Manhattan, was first photographed for "Dads" three years ago after meeting Mr. Heynen at an event at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City. Mr. Rousseau said he gives Mr. Heynen "a lot of credit" for including a father like him — a single dad in his 60s — since he said there is often a lack of representation of older gay people in art and media, which tends to focus on young, fit men.
"I'm not some millennial dad with a six pack," Mr. Rousseau said.
Dennis Williams, pictured here combing his son Élan's hair, said he was initially intimidated by becoming a single dad. But he gained confidence thanks to the support of his friends — one going so far as to donate her eggs.Credit...Bart Heynen
The New 'Leave It to Beaver' Dad
Dennis Williams, 47, Élan, 7
"This isn't the first time we've had photographers take pictures of the two of us," Dennis Williams said of himself and his son, Élan. The pair have also appeared in the magazine L'Uomo Vogue, among other outlets. As a Black, gay man raising a son on his own, Mr. Williams said he attributes the attention to not looking like a "'Leave-It-to-Beaver'-type family."
Though he is single, Mr. Williams, who works in social and corporate responsibility for Warner Media, said he has a lot of support from the people in his life — several of whom even helped make him a parent. "An amazing Black lesbian friend" donated her eggs, he said, for instance. Seeing those around him rally to help gave him the confidence he needed to pursue fatherhood on his own.
Al DiGiulio (left) and Chris Soucey were just about ready to give up on having children when they decided to give it one more try.
Last Chance to Start a Family
Al DiGiulio, 52, Chris Soucey, 50, and Tommy and Luca, 5
Al DiGiulio, a lawyer, and Chris Soucey, a video producer, in Jersey City, N.J., chose surrogacy over adoption for the control they hoped to have over the pregnancy process. "I was completely wrong about that," Mr. DiGiulio said. Their first surrogate experienced a late miscarriage, forcing them to match with a second, who was unable to conceive.
Two years into their surrogacy process, the couple had run out of embryos, "not to mention, money," Mr. DiGiulio said. "A part of me started to wish I was a straight person so I could just go have sex with someone to have a baby." Encouraged by their reproductive endocrinologist to give surrogacy a final try, the couple matched with a third gestational carrier and transferred two embryos resulting in their twin boys, Tommy and Luca.
Harrison Thompson (left) and Christopher Hibma felt it was important to model gay fatherhood on social media and connect with other L.G.B.T.Q. parents, but they eventually decided that posting online was distracting them from enjoying their time with their daughter, Genhi.
Learning to Savor the Moment
Harrison Thompson, 50, Christopher Hibma, 48, and Genhi, 5
Harrison Thompson and Christopher Hibma used to frequently post photos of their daughter, Genhi, on social media — in part for the visibility it brought to queer parents. "L.G.B.T.Q. people around the world were looking at the posts and messaging us that it meant something to them," said Mr. Hibma, a small-business owner.
One night, Mr. Thompson, a marketing manager for the software company Red Hat, was out to dinner with Genhi while Mr. Hibma was traveling. After he snapped a selfie with his daughter, Mr. Thompson began crafting a "perfect little quote" for the online post but was chided by Genhi. "She said, 'Daddy, put down your phone and have a conversation,'" Mr. Thompson said. She was just 3 years old at the time. The family, based in Minneapolis, Minn., hasn't posted to social media since.
Jonathan Bloom (left) and Eric Pliner don't remember much from their photo shoots with Mr. Heynen because they had their hands full with two newborns. But now Mr. Bloom is thankful for images of those "small, early moments."
A Suddenly Full House
Jonathan Bloom, 47, and Eric Pliner, 45
Several years after adopting their eldest child, who is now 8, Jonathan Bloom, a copywriter, and Eric Pliner, a consultant, began looking into expanding their family. Their adoption attorney presented them with two potential birth mothers to work with. "We decided to move forward with both of them," Mr. Bloom said. "We call them twiblings," he said of the resulting babies, who were born five days apart.
The dads participated in Mr. Heynen's photo project several months later, but barely remember it. "The kids were so young and we were delirious," Mr. Bloom said.
Eli (left) and Ido Bendet-Taicher have embraced all kinds of new experiences that come with having girls. Hairdressing with Milo (center) and Demi is just one of them.
Skills You Need for Daughters
Ido Bendet-Taicher, 43, Eli Bendet-Taicher, 41, Milo, 10, and Demi, 7
Several years ago, at a New York City hair salon, Ido Bendet-Taicher asked a stylist to give his eldest daughter a haircut that included bangs. An assistant, who was uncomfortable with the request, addressed his daughter directly, asking, "Are you sure? Where's your mom?" Ido said.
People are not used to seeing dads doing their daughters' hair, said Ido's husband, Eli Bendet-Taicher. "But it's a skill you learn when you have daughters." Over the years, the dads, who are both tech executives, have become proficient in many hairstyles for girls, thanks to a lot of YouTube tutorials, Eli said.
"Also, a lot of practice on Barbies," Ido said.
Tom Eagen (left) and Mike Lubin never spent much time on the sidelines of lacrosse fields until their son, Jack, fell in love with sports.
The Unlikely Sports Dads
Mike Lubin, 49, Tom Eagen, 58, and Jack, 19
Growing up, Mike Lubin, a Manhattan real estate broker, never played team sports. His son, Jack, couldn't get enough of them, playing everything from lacrosse to football. "It was an opportunity for me to be affiliated with club sports for the first time," Mr. Lubin said. "It was tremendously exciting, but daunting, to learn this new vocabulary."
Mr. Lubin and his husband, Tom Eagen, who works in finance, cheered at the sidelines of nearly every game Jack played. "We were always the only two-dad family," he said, which could be isolating, but felt important. "It was probably the first time most other parents were seeing a family like ours."
Pablo Lerma and Txema Ripa weren't sure they wanted a photographer with them during their first precious moments with their newborn son, Gael. But on the day, they barely noticed Mr. Heynen was there.
A Fly on the Wall During an Intimate Moment
Pablo Lerma, 34, Txema Ripa, 51, and Gael, 4
When Mr. Heynen asked Pablo Lerma and Txema Ripa if he could fly to Minnesota to capture the moments following the birth of their son via surrogacy, Mr. Lerma and Mr. Ripa had reservations. Did they really want a photographer there, documenting and experiencing such an intimate moment alongside them?
"But he's a father, too," Mr. Lerma said. "So he knew how important that moment would be." The couple said that Mr. Heynen was "curious, but respectful" as they held their newborn son against their skin for the first time. "To be honest, I don't recall him being there," Mr. Lerma said. "He was a fly on the wall," Mr. Ripa agreed.
Vernon Leftwich (left) and Ricardo Cooper knew they weren't romantic partners, but decided to become parenting partners with their twin daughters, Harper and Knox.
Vernon Leftwich, 29, Ricardo Cooper, 31, and Harper and Knox, 2
Vernon Leftwich and Ricardo Cooper, who both work for the federal government and live in Clinton, Md., began dating in 2013, but their relationship only lasted for a couple of years. "We knew we wanted to become dads, though, before a certain age," Mr. Leftwich said. The pair decided to pursue surrogacy together as friends, working with an egg donor and a surrogate.
The unorthodox setup of raising kids with a friend has its advantages when it comes to parenting, Mr. Leftwich said. Having dated, the dads are familiar with each other's communication styles, "and what works and doesn't work," Mr. Leftwich added. Parenting platonically "allows us to keep our entire focus on the girls."
David Dodge is a freelance writer focusing on L.G.B.T.Q. issues and non-traditional families. New York Times, Bart Heynen is a photographer. June 19, 2021
Bart Heynen (right) took this photo of himself napping with his husband, Rob Heyvaert, and their sons, Ethan and Noah. It's the kind of intimacy he hoped to capture with his "Dads" project.
June 20, 2021
Voices4America Post Script. Love is love. Family is family. #HappyFathersDay.