On Sunday, June 16, actor-director-playwright Michael Kearns will, like millions of other men with children across the United States, be celebrated on Father’s Day.
Kearns is looking forward to hearing from his daughter Katherine, now 24, who lives in New York and works in the television industry there.
Kearns will also be directing the play “The Woman in Me,” this Sunday, written by the group QueerWise,
He wishes Katherine could be with him at the play. There are references to some of the lessons learned from being Katherine’s dad. “How can they not be?” Kearns asks.
“It’s about issues of ‘female-ness’, gender, race and class. How we look at what is female and what is male,” Kearns said. The play is premiering at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, and again on June 30 by the Spoken Word Collective at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers.
“We started working on this play way before the [current] explosion of the abortion issue," a topic noted in this play.
Kearns, 69, is a well known trailblazer.
He’s widely considered the first actor to publicly come out as a gay man in the 1970s, when such an admission could have meant the end of his career as a mainstream performer. He was also the first working actor to publicly reveal he was HIV-positive, making the announcement on the television show “Entertainment Tonight” in 1991.
Originally from St. Louis, Kearns began his career in 1972 after moving to Los Angeles following his graduation from the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, and worked steadily in movies, television and the stage.
Kearns has been, and still is, a well known activist for gay rights as a contributor for a wide range of publications including Frontiers and L.A. Parent magazines. He has authored five books, two of which were nominated for the Lambda Literary Awards which honors published works celebrating LGBT literature. In 1984 Kearns, along with playwright James Carroll Pickett, co-founded Artists Confronting Aids, and had been a commissioner of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
But ask him about his most important contribution. He’ll tell you that’s being a Dad.
“The most amazing thing [about being a parent]…I could never have imagined the responsibility of it,” Kearns said. “It still goes on to this day. And I could never have imagined that I could love someone so much.”
A Long Adoption Process
When Kearns’ partner passed away in 1992, “that was the turning point. I wondered what I would do with the rest of my life,” he said.
He decided to adopt a child.
“I had always wanted to be a Dad,” Kearns said. “When I was [growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s], my mother took me to a therapist because I wanted to play with dolls. She thought it was a sign that I was gay. The therapist told her ‘it doesn’t matter if he is or isn’t [gay], he wants to be a father.’”
In 1992 Kearns started the adoption process through Los Angeles county, but at first “nothing was working. Of course everyone, including my close friends, was saying it was a sign that I shouldn’t be adopting; it was not working out. I said I would keep pursuing it.”
He finally got Katherine — who was born in 1994 — in 1995. She was five months old.
He was her foster parent at first. The adoption was finalized in 1997.
“The county was not the most ideal situation because, at that point, it was giving unwanted children to gays and lesbians,” Kearns said. “In other words, the LGBT community would get the kids no one else wanted. But I didn’t care about it [having to be a] blonde, blue-eyed kid to start with. I wanted a child. I didn’t care what race the child was. I didn’t care if they had an illness. I didn’t care if they were prenatally exposed — which my daughter was.”
Raising a daughter who is African American brought along its own set of challenges.
“We would be lying or in denial to say she wasn’t raised primarily in a white culture,” Kearns said.
“That portended issues, and we had to face them. I had to face the fact that I was a person living in a ‘white privilege’ world. She taught me about that. It was a big, huge lesson for me.
“I wanted her to connect with her racial identity. I did all the sort of superficial things — I got her books, read her the Martin Luther King speech every year. We went to South Africa. She met and connected with my Black friends. I made sure she had peers who were Black. I took her to Black beauty shops and braided her hair. We tried to do everything. But still, the overriding truth was she had to find the Black [people’s] culture — her ‘blackness’ — in herself and on her own, in the way she was going to do it.”
Kearns paused. “I did my best. I don’t know if my best was good enough. I’m not sure any white male could do much better than I could. But then it was up to her. And she’s done beautifully. She’s finding herself as we all are. I’m almost 70 years old and I’m still finding myself.”
Losing Hard-Fought For Rights
While American society is slowly becoming more accepting of same-sex marriages and LGBTQIA people as parents, that acceptance is not universal or without obstacles. Even today gay men, lesbian and transgender people are still targets for verbal and physical attacks.
Kearns continues to be angered by the current political and social climate where discrimination against gay people is being legalized, along with the diminishing or outright elimination of the right to have an abortion.
“It’s awful, but it’s true,” Kearns said. “All the rights we’ve worked for all these many years — way before gay marriage happened, and abortion rights — they’re all part of an opening up of a freedom, of the way things should be, and now we’re seeing those doors are trying to be shut.
“There’s also a big contingency of people like myself and others in the world who are enjoying being parents and showing they are doing it successfully and beautifully. They are going to argue that these [opponents] are ridiculous in saying you can’t be a single parent, or a gay or lesbian parent. Being a parent has nothing to do with what you do in bed.”