How My Toddler Became the Star of the Cruise

And in the process opened the door to some complicated, personal conversations with total strangers.

by Alexander Fernández
Originally Published: 

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My toddler loves to dance. We were soaking up the sun on the lido deck when the DJ started Play that Funky Music and off he went to freestyle in his swim trunks. Pretty soon, he had a small crowd clapping around him on the dance floor, egging him on. Introvert, he is not. Playing with members of his circle posse, he pulled each one out, in turn, to share the spotlight with him, dancing in the center of the circle. Yes… he’s 2-years-old. And if you’re wondering how we keep up, well, we don’t. Most of the time, we sit back and watch; two dads happy to be acolytes in Kid’s world. Most of the time we are exhausted.

By the end of the day, everyone on the ship seemed to know his name. Every few yards, someone would give him a “high-five.” “Dale Cinco,” we’d dutifully oblige. “He’s precious, y’all are doing such a good job. We saw him dancing,” we’d hear mostly in light Texan drawls. Once people got used to seeing us around, we got the usual barrage of questions: “Where did you get him? (“Aisle 5,” or “the Stork brought him”); “What is he? (alluding to his skin color and the golden-brown Shirley Temple curls ⏤ “human”). We even got my favorite question: “Did you guys make him?” For this one, I flipped my imaginary bangs and said lowering my voice to a whisper, “Well, when two boys love each other very much . . . you know.” (Nervous laughter) People are sweet, curious, and verbally clumsy. Most are simply trying to get their heads around two dads and a toddler. No matter, on a ship sailing out of Galveston, Texas, our cruise was exceeding expectations.

Apparently, our son’s notoriety as a dancer extraordinaire got around the ship. While we were at dinner in the main dining room, one of the waitresses made a straight beeline for him and pulled him out to dance with the waitstaff for their “big number.” When I asked the waitress what possessed her, she replied: “We all know Kid.” “Come on, there are lots of children on board,” I teased. “Not with gay dads,” she answered, smiling brightly. It took us an hour to settle him down after the dance. One of us had to leave dinner because of an ensuing tantrum. Dancing while everyone watches has consequences.

On the fifth day of the cruise we took an excursion to Passion Island. (Don’t do it, there’s not much passion. Also, the drinks are watered-down drinks and overpriced.) As I’m sitting under the proverbial coconut tree, trying to get Kid to sleep, I hear “what lovely hair, can I touch it?” Again, the light Texan drawl. “No,” I answered flatly. This is a recurring request. At least she asked. Most people do not.

“Oh, I’m sorry, he’s just so precious. I didn’t mean to overstep,” she added. I managed a smile and said, “beautiful weather, isn’t it?” as she sat down next to us. She was about 65-years-old, golden-silvery hair and deeply tan — the type of tan you get from working the land, not from lying out on the beach. She fidgeted for a bit, smiling broadly. I could tell she had something on her mind. She looked as if she was filled with a thousand questions and didn’t know where to start. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question given your situation?”

I let out a loud laugh. “Given our situation? I’ve never heard it called that before. You mean because we’re gay parents?” “Yes,” she said looking down, “I don’t mean to offend.” “Oh, I’m not offended,” I answered quickly, “that particular expression is new to me. Believe me, when you’ve gone through all the stuff we’ve been through, you develop a thick skin.” She nodded. “What’s on your mind?” I asked genuinely wanting to know.

She started. “Well, I’ve seen your child dancing on the ship for the last few days and he is obviously a very loved, very happy little boy. So, y’all are doing something right.” I braced, waiting for a shoe to drop. She continued. “Last year, we got guardianship of our grandson who was being neglected by my daughter-in-law; she wasn’t feeding him, talking to him, or anything. He said he wanted to come live with us, so we said yes. Then, come to find out he’s cutting on his thigh and thinks he’s bisexual ⏤ at 17! I told him I loved him no matter what, but that it’s too early for him to start thinking about anything like that. What do you think?”

I let out a sigh; and, in a split second I realized that it was a sigh of relief and empathy ⏤ relief, because although I was expecting judgment for our “situation,” all she wanted was input from another parent; empathy because my heart ached for the boy and for her, both in unfamiliar and daunting situations.

“If he told you he thinks he’s bisexual, he’s not going to stop thinking about it, no matter what you tell him,” I answered. After a long discussion, I pulled out my cell phone and emailed to her information on SMYAL and PFLAG, two organizations that are dedicated to empowering LGBTQ youth and making sure that people who are lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer are not only valued by society, but take pride in and value themselves. “As for the cutting, you know the both of you can’t face that alone, right? It’s time to get a professional involved.” She nodded.

We spent the rest of the afternoon under that coconut tree. We talked about life, politics, and love. We drank. We watched Kid play in the sand. And, of course, we watched him dance.

Alexander Fernández shares a home with his husband and two-year-old toddler in Arlington, Virginia. He is a freelance writer, sometime theater director, and amateur photographer.

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