On Tuesday, June 10, PBS Channel 9 will air “Daddy & Papa,” a film by Oakland independent filmmaker Johnny Symons. I caught up with Johnny and his partner William at their comfortable craftsman bungalow a few blocks from the Daily Planet office. Actually, I did more than catch up with them. I weeded their garden. (Like most wildly successful writers in the Bay Area, I do a little gardening, babysitting, housecleaning and light hauling on the side.)
And believe me, their garden needed tending. Johnny and William have been too busy lately to pay much attention to their yard. They are the parents of two rambunctious little boys, Zach and Kenyon, and Johnny’s film is getting lots of national and international attention.
In fact, while I was wrestling with the wild blackberry vines in their backyard, Johnny was showing “Daddy & Papa” at a film festival in Denmark and William was at his full-time job as director of policy, administration and program development for the Berkeley Public Health Department. Johnny’s mother and stepfather, Susie Symons and John Glick, were visiting from Michigan and watching over Zach (almost four) and Kenyon (18 months).
After pulling weeds for seven hours I got a chance to watch “Daddy & Papa.” It’s a warm, heartfelt documentary that explores the personal, cultural and political ramifications of gay men making the decision to become dads. “Daddy & Papa” follows four gay male families and examines the issues they face: marriage and divorce, the legalities of gay parenthood, surrogacy and interracial adoption. It also highlights the ways in which their households resemble more traditional families: sleepless nights, soccer games, messy bedrooms, picnics, homework and non-stop togetherness. And it underlines the additional challenges that gay dads encounter including conservatives who regard them as the antithesis of family, antipathy from parts of the gay community and discrimination from the law. (In 2000 Utah and Mississippi joined Florida in banning gay adoption.)
Kelly Wallace is a 38-year-old single white gay man who lives in the Castro district of San Francisco. In 1998 he adopted a pair of biracial brothers, ages two and three, from the foster care system. Over 500,000 children are currently in foster care; one-fifth of them are awaiting adoption. The majority of these are children of color and labeled “hard to place.” Kelly is open and honest about his desire for a family, and also painfully candid about the difficulties of raising two boys alone in a neighborhood that is not family-oriented.
Doug Houghton is a nurse in Miami and a classical pianist. He first met Oscar, a homeless, abandoned African-American boy five years ago when Oscar visited his out-patient clinic. Shortly thereafter Doug became Oscar’s legal guardian and, at the invitation of the ACLU, he joined a lawsuit to sue the state of Florida and legally establish his parental rights. In “Daddy & Papa,” eight-year old Oscar tries with difficulty to explain what it’s like not to have a mother and to have a father who is single and white.
Phillip Himburg and Jim Ballantine arranged with Phillip’s high school sweetheart, Cathy Smith, to have a child. The result is Fanny Ballantine-Himburg, an adorable, precocious little girl who wrestles a decade later with the break-up of her fathers and the complexity of adjusting to their new partners. Fanny’s biggest problem is not that her fathers are gay, but that they are divorced.
Filmmaker Johnny and his partner, William, are also profiled in the film, which shows them dealing with a lot of bureaucratic and emotional baggage. William complains about the adoption process to his partner’s camera: “It was tedious. I mean, they have to ask you every question about every aspect of your life. All straight people have to do is fuck and they get a kid. We have to be grilled. It’s ridiculous!” Zachary’s foster mom, Dora Dean Bradley, an active member of Oakland’s Mingleton Temple of God in Christ Church, had difficulty accepting Johnny and William’s sexual orientation and was, at first, reluctant to give nine-month-old Zachary to the gay couple.
Through interviews, on-location shooting around the country, archival footage and photos and personal narrative, “Daddy & Papa” uncovers the struggles, challenges and triumphs of gay fathers and their children. A backyard with weeds three feet high and in desperate need of a lawnmower are predictable side effects of being the kind of busy, devoted, extraordinary activist-parents William and Johnny are.
“Daddy & Papa,” hosted by Angela Bassett on the weekly series Independent Lens, airs locally on Tuesday, June 10, on Channel 9 at 10 p.m.. For a complete list of national viewing go to the Web site: www.daddyandpapa.com.