Wednesday morning, I watched in awe as “tough guy” Robert De Niro lovingly discussed his gay father in an interview on the Today Show. It really touched my heart in more ways than one – I obviously felt the love De Niro had for his beloved father, but I was also left feeling sad for him too. I wasn’t sad that De Niro’s father was gay, but sad for De Niro because his father felt that he could not share this part of his life with his son.
Obviously, Robert De Niro, Sr. raised his son during a time when the world was not very understanding or accepting of gay men or gay parents. I can only imagine that De Niro’s father felt some pressure to live a more traditional life, thus marrying the actor’s mother and then divorcing her after only a year of marriage. In the new HBO documentary of Robert De Niro, Sr., Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro Sr., the artist’s son recalls how, as he grew older, he figured out that his father was gay, yet he never had a conversation with his father about it.
This is the part that struck a chord with me. It made me think of my own little modern family – where my ex-husband is gay and I am straight – and I became overwhelmed with appreciation for my own family. I am so happy that the De Niro family is able to provide a high-profile example (because, let’s face it, there are tons great examples out there in the “real world” but we just don’t hear of them!) of how having a gay parent does not necessarily equal a “death sentence” for my children’s futures. Robert De Niro the actor is a happy, functioning, successful actor who had the benefit of being raised by a loving mother and a gay father. Yes! I said benefit because I’m sure this experience contributed to the successful person he is today.
I’m also happy that my kids and I live in a time where we can be open about our modern family. This comfort with our status as a modern family could not have happened if it hadn’t been for the brave modern families who came before us. These pioneering gay parents fought hard to break through the discrimination barriers, were willing to be held up as examples of functioning families that led to earning social acceptance in our traditionally-minded society, and they endured personal sacrifices in order to do the right thing for their own families. If it hadn’t been for these inspiring parents who came before me, my little modern family would not be able to enjoy the benefits we enjoy today that include acceptance, pride, and success.
Finally, this news segment also made me appreciative of the fact that my ex-husband, Jeff, does not feel pressured to hide the fact that he is gay from both society and from our children. How sad it would be if our kids did not truly know their father! Keeping an important part of our lives from our children is like putting an emotional wall up from the people around us. As a child psychologist, I have seen the consequences of this in countless other families. Usually, when a parent puts up a wall like this, the children perceive this as rejection, invalidation, and a refusal to give the love that the child feels they deserve.
So this morning, as the daughter and I (the son is busy at a mandatory school event) watch Jeff and his partner Keith and thousands of other gay and straight cyclists ride into the finish line during the 2014 AIDS/LifeCycle Ride to End AIDS fundraiser, our hearts will be full of pride for both our little modern family and for the modern families that came before us. This will be the third year Jeff and Keith will have participated in this massive fundraiser where thousands of cyclists bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles IN JUST ONE WEEK! This means they will have biked over 545 miles in 7 days! Since this fundraiser began in 1993, these courageous cyclists have raised over $180 million dollars to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
So I know this post might seem very random, but in order to appreciate how far modern families in 2014 have come, we need to appreciate and commemorate those modern families that have come before us. It doesn’t matter if you are a gay parent, straight parent, single parent, married parent, or any other types of parent, we all are trying to raise great kids in this modern world and we need to support each other. So, as the cyclists cross through the finish line today, I will be thinking of all those modern families (like the De Niro family) that helped pave the way before me, and my heart will be filled with thanks.