Brett Webb-Mitchell, author of a book and blog titled “On Being a Gay Parent,” describes himself as a “scholar-activist-pastor-pilgrim.” Faith and fatherhood inform his work, and he’s outspoken about the hurdles LGBTQ parents have faced for decades and continue to face here and now. We talked with Webb-Mitchell about life as a gay parent and how things have – and haven’t – changed.
Q: What town do you live in, and what brought you here?
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A: I was born in Brooklyn, NY, and during my childhood I lived in New Jersey and Oregon. After living in many states, as well as living in London, England, for a year, my former wife, my children, and I moved to Chapel Hill when I was invited to teach at Duke University in 1993.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, and about your family.
A: I wear many hats at the same time: I am a speaker and writer on a wide variety of topics, from working with people living with disabilities and faith communities and LGBTQ parenting to leading actual pilgrimages here and abroad. While I currently teach Ethics, Religions and the World, and English composition courses at NCCU, I've also been ordained and worked as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for over 30 years. So I am a scholar-activist-pastor-pilgrim.
I was married to my best friend in my early 20s, and we are proud parents of two amazing young adults who live in Asheville and Wilmington. Currently, I've been in a partnered relationship for almost 19 years, and we live in Chapel Hill.
Q: Why did you decide to write the book “On Being a Gay Parent,” and why do you continue to maintain a blog of the same name now?
A: I wrote “On Being a Gay Parent” and maintain the blog because I was looking for such a book and blog when I came out of my big gay closet. I wanted a book that not only spoke to the issues of LGBTQ parenting, but also spoke respectively of faith communities. It should come as no surprise that since many churches have treated LGBTQ people as second-class citizens in God's realm, many LGBTQ continue to stay away from a church, though they may be people of deep faith.
Q: What’s changed about being a gay parent since your kids were small? Is it easier nowadays, or harder?
A: Even in the liberal bubble of Chapel Hill-Carrboro, during the time my children were in middle school and high school they were sometimes bullied for having a parent who was not only gay but also outspoken on LGBTQ issues. I'm aware that to this day we are identified and self-identify as "gay" or "lesbian" or "transgender" parents in public settings such as a school, while non-LGBTQ parents never have to say that they are, well, "non-LGBTQ." Being an LGBTQ parent is still a work of improvisational performance art, because we have few narratives, television shows, movies, or literary resources that reflect our family dynamics.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges gay parents face today?
A: In NC, the issue of not being able to or have the choice of marriage is a challenge. Second: employment discrimination. I was let go from a previous position because I was outed and ousted as a gay man. Third: housing issues, because in NC our families can be refused housing because we are LGBTQ. Fourth: health-care issues, especially for young people who are transgender. Fifth: discrimination in schools, especially during the rise of charter schools in this state, which are blossoming with public monies and allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ teachers and students. And finally: faith communities. Many faith communities will be the last "frontier" of change.
Q: Your faith, of course, is a big part of your life, your work, and your writings. What do you do or say when you run into people who think Christianity and homosexuality are incompatible?
A: Short answer for a deep and thick issue: it comes to how one reads or interprets Scripture. There are those in some communities of faith who read and interpret the Bible literally as a scientific, fact-based authority. They refuse to eat shellfish and wear polyester blends of clothes. Then there are those who, through and by modern historical-cultural criticism, are able to discern the nuances of Scripture, knowing what is of great moral consequence and what is merely a cultural construct for a certain day and age, but irrelevant to this modern day. It is also important to remember that the very term "homosexuality" and our modern understanding of sexuality is totally alien to the writers of Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
Q: What's the best parenting trick you picked up along the way?
A: To be yourself, God's good creation, with no apology.
Q: How does parenthood change when your kids become adults? Obviously you’re not changing diapers anymore, but are there less tangible changes, too?
A: In my case, along with other LGBTQ friends my age who are parents, we are writing new stories about being LGBTQ grandparents! There's a whole other book to be written!
Q: What's the best advice anyone ever gave you about being a dad?
A: That being a dad, a parent, comes with no "training" or "operating manual" (with apologies to writer Anne Lamott). It is improvisational art: we make the stuff of parenthood up each and every day.
For LGBTQ parents, we are the first and second generation of "out" parents. I hope our stories help the next generation have a better foothold of what to do and say in a still largely homophobic society.
Q: What advice do you give now to fellow parents, especially fellow gay parents?
A: We are still pioneers, meeting new roadblocks and hurdles that non-LGBTQ parents never experience. Keep pointing those hurdles and obstacles out, and kindly remove them for the next generation of LGBTQ parents. Second: we still are teaching non-LGBTQ parents that we are their equals, in marriage as well as parenthood. So get used to it.
Each month, we interview a local parent with a story to tell. If you've got suggestions for us, please drop us a line at email@example.com. Please put "Meet" in the subject line.