Coming clean to his wife and two daughters about his homosexuality was a painful, uncertain process for Bob Rodgers, one fraught with pitfalls and miscues that he worked hard to overcome.
He knew going in that the experience would cause hurt, but what he hadn't prepared for was the variety of emotions he found himself sorting through: fear of rejection by his daughters, pain of ending his marriage to a woman he still cared for.
Even more surprising and reassuring as he ventured into his new life was how many Richmond men he encountered who shared his experiences.
"It's interesting looking back," Rodgers says, recalling events from more than a decade ago. "I remember meeting a couple of guys in social situations. When you're talking you find out, Oh, you're a dad, too."
He says what helped him through were the bonds he formed with other gay Richmond fathers. By sharing experiences they helped one another navigate fatherhood's common and not so common difficulties.
As their bonds grew, so did their ranks. Ten years later, the Gay Fathers Coalition-Richmond still meets "sort of monthly," he says. It boasts a core group of about 10 to 15 dads and sometimes draws as many as 25. On March 7, the group plans to celebrate with its 10th anniversary dinner and reunion.
"We're amazed that we're still in existence," Rodgers says. "Gay organizations in Richmond tend to not have a long life."
For the Gay Fathers Coalition, it almost seems like happy chance that the group got off the ground at all. Its founders Rodgers, Bob Greene, Randy Phelps and Dave White had no clue back then how to get the word out.
Two years after Rodgers finalized his divorce in 1994, that changed.
With thoughts of family still close in his mind, and with the idea of a support group for gay dads percolating, Rodgers found himself at a bed-and-breakfast in West Virginia.
He sat down for breakfast with other guests and struck up a conversation with two men from Washington, D.C. He was surprised to discover that he'd again stumbled upon gay men with children. The two were members of a D.C.-area gay fathers' support group.
"I said, 'Oh my God, it's fate that brought us together,'"Rodgers recalls. Rodgers, along with his three co-founders, brought the two Beltway dads to Richmond to help get their own group going.
Their first official meeting, at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in April 1997, attracted about seven men.
Maybe it was the allure of a mostly home-cooked potluck meal. More likely, it was the deep need to find someone to connect with. Many were still struggling to get their legs under them while working through the life-altering experience of coming out.
"The coming-out for, say, someone of my age I was in my 40s I didn't really know that many gay people," Rodgers says. "You're sort of dealing with these feelings that, for whatever reason, people suppress feelings for someone of the same sex."
Complicating that is the knowledge that for all these years they've tried to live the life they were expected to live as a husband and father.
"I think it's a very difficult situation for gay fathers, because many gay fathers didn't realize they were gay when they married and had children," says Dr. Jonathan Lebolt, a local counselor who deals with gay family issues. "Social stigma makes it difficult for people to be honest about who they are.
"I think it's necessary for parents to be who they are to be healthy role models," Lebolt says. But state laws can also complicate the relationships gay dads might have with their kids when the dust settles, he adds: "They fear being deprived of contact with their children if they're honest."
Such issues make an organization like the Gay Fathers Coalition all the more important, he says.
In fact, since the group was founded, new members often find their way to meetings through the group's Web site.
Rodgers says new members can be distraught, concerned for their families and pleading, "'I'm scared to death, can you help?' Often, we hear from them before their spouses."
New callers are often referred first to counselors like Lebolt.
"We only offer friendship, support and listening," Rodgers says,.
"I know for me it took a long time to figure it out," he says of his own reconciliation with his sexual orientation. "A lot of the guys when they first find us will leave going, 'Oh God, I'm not alone.'" S
For information on the group's reunion dinner, or to make reservations, contact Bob Rodgers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the Gay Fathers Coalition of Richmond website.