IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘I’ve always wanted to be a dad’: Photo book celebrates gay fatherhood

Belgian photographer Bart Heynen traveled across the United States to document the daily lives of gay men and their children for his book "Dads."
Harrison and Christopher with their daughter Genhi in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Harrison Thompson, left, and Christopher Hibma with their daughter, Genhi, in Brooklyn, N.Y.Bart Heynen

The question was simple: “Would you guys like to be dads?”

That’s the message Christopher Hibma recalls receiving from an old friend on Facebook in early 2015. She was reaching out on behalf of her daughter, who was pregnant at the time but “not quite ready to be a mother.”

Hibma was initially resistant to the idea, so he did not immediately share the unexpected inquiry with his husband, Harrison Thompson, until he casually mentioned it over food and drinks with friends a few weeks later. Thompson was stunned by the news, but like his husband, he also didn’t think it was feasible, as the idea of a child did not fit into the fabric of their lives.

Things started to change, however, when they hosted Thompson’s 9-year-old nephew for a week and realized the shared experience of caring for a child was a beautiful thing, Hibma said. Over the course of that summer and into autumn, they pursued the adoption process and became the parents of a baby girl, Genhi.

Their story is one of many told in a new photography book called “Dads” by the Belgian photographer Bart Heynen.

Bart Heynen and his family at 6:30 a.m. in Antwerp, Belgium.Bart Heynen

Heynen and his husband were living with their two children in New York when he felt the need to foster a sense of community.

“I really wanted to meet more gay dads,” Heynen said of why he started the project.

He saw, too, that friends of his children were asking questions about where their mother was. Heynen envisioned the project as a way to help not just his own family, but other gay fathers and their families as well. Given his own experience and understanding, Heynen knew that he would have an easier time gaining the trust of fathers he hoped to photograph.

The project, which will be released on June 29 by PowerHouse Books, has the feel of a family album with its mix of posed portraits and candid documentary photographs. 

Vernon and Ricardo with their twins at home in Clinton, MarylandBart Heynen

In one picture, Hibma, Thompson and Genhi are lying in bed. Hibma is cradling Genhi’s foot in one hand, and holding Thompson with the other as they both look lovingly at her. It’s a tender moment that is familiar to any new parent.

The book is notable, too, for its diversity, both in who Heynen photographed and the range of their stories — as there are many roads to fatherhood.

For Hibma and Thompson, their road was through adoption by way of a chance message on social media.

Devon Gibby’s path was one that some might consider to be more conventional: He married a woman, and they had children. As time wore on, however, Gibby’s acceptance of himself as a gay man collided with his marriage and his Mormon faith. Yet, he said it changed nothing for him about being a father.

“I’ve always wanted to be a dad,” Gibby said. “The idea of having kids with another man was not even an option to me. Awareness is not always there when you just don’t have other role models that are gay parents.”

Devon holds a birthday present for his son in front of his apartment in Salt Lake City.Bart Heynen

Gibby’s story is told across five photographs in the book. The first shows Gibby at 8 years old in a family photo. The second is a portrait where he seemingly blends into the vast Utah landscape. In the third, he exudes optimism as he’s about to make his weekly journey from his apartment in Salt Lake City to Logan, Utah, where his children live with his ex-wife. In the fourth, Gibby is spending time with his children in a hotel, as that’s their ritual. In the fifth, Gibby is silhouetted against the late-day sun, a deeply contemplative and evocative image that speaks to his journey.

His hope is that his story can help those who might be struggling like he did before he came out, especially for those living in parts of the country where acceptance is harder to come by.

“I would just hope that people would see me, someone living in Utah, and be able to relate to that and find some inspiration in that to be who they are,” Gibby said.

The book encompasses a wide range of stories with a common thread: men who love and care for their children. 

“I don’t wake up thinking, ‘Oh, we’re gay dads,’” Thompson said. “It’s a labor of love. You’re not really thinking about identity.”

Instead, he said, he’s typically focused on “everything that any parent has to worry about, like, “How do I get her to school on time? Does she have clean clothes? What is she wearing?”

Dennis combs Elan's hair at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.Bart Heynen

What distinguishes the book, too, is how seemingly ordinary the photographs are. Men play with their kids. They get ready for the day. They travel. They relax. They eat. They live their lives. In many ways, they’re no different than any other family.

What sets some of these families apart are the ways in which they came to be, and Heynen does include some of the women who were necessary in helping these families get started. 

“They are crucial in the sense that without them, there would be no gay dads,” Heynen said. “It would be very disrespectful just to have only these dads. I can tell with several families that they are still so influential.”

Perhaps the most surprising story is that of Matthew Eledge and Eliot Dougherty. They got married in 2015 and began exploring the process of starting a family two years later. Yet, because they live in Nebraska, the prospect of having to navigate adoption agencies as a gay couple in a conservative state seemed insurmountable, so they set their sights on in vitro fertilization. 

“When we first started doing meetings with our IVF doctor, it started to come together,” Eledge said. “But it was really daunting. Eliot’s a hair stylist. I’m a teacher. It’s not like we have these really lucrative fields that we work in. As we were trying to search for options, our family members stepped in.”

Uma Dougherty-Eledge with her dads, aunt and grandmother in Omaha, NebraskaBart Heynen

First, Dougherty’s sister, Lea Yribe, offered to donate her eggs, and Eledge would be the biological father. Then as they searched for a surrogate, they had a friend who was willing, but given some health complications, their IVF doctor was concerned the risk would be too great. Then, the unlikeliest of candidates stepped forward: Eledge’s mother, Cecile. Even though she was in her early 60s, she passed all the necessary exams and was given a clean bill of health.

“That’s when it started to feel possible,” Eledge said, “when all of these people that love us teamed up.”

Eledge’s mother gave birth to her own granddaughter, Uma Louise Dougherty-Eledge, at 6:06 a.m. on March 25, 2019. Their story is told across three photos in the book. In one, Yribe holds Uma, as Dougherty, Eledge and his mom look at Uma, all of them with expressions of joy. In the second, Uma, who’s gazing into the camera, is being held by her grandmother. In the third, Dougherty holds Uma as Eledge kisses her forehead.

Visually, these moments may be familiar to many parents, and it is that familiarity that Heynen leans into with "Dads." It’s a tapestry of the ways in which people come together to make families.

“It’s exciting to realize that we’re a part of something bigger,” Eledge said of being included in the book. “It’s really not about us. Even though we feel very alone at times because we don’t see a lot of people doing what we’re doing where we’re from. But to know that there’s this whole wave of queer parents coming up, that gives me such hope.”

Follow NBC Out on TwitterFacebook & Instagram