When he was only 20-years-old, Detroit native Royale Theus discovered he was going to be a father. It wasn’t exactly what he had planned for his future.
"I had my son with my best friend," said Theus, who is gay. "Life happens."
For Theus, now 30, life has been a series of curveballs. His parents divorced when he was only two. When he was five, he was sexually abused by a relative. It took him three years to tell his mother.
"It was so hurtful for her," said Theus, the director of programs for the Michigan AIDS Coalition, a Ferndale-based organization that promotes the health and well being of the HIV/AIDS community. "She always told me that it wasn’t my fault and that she still loved me."
Theus’s father, however, was an abusive alcoholic who was in and out of Theus’s life after the divorce.
"When I was a kid, I thought he was a hero -- he had a big car, nice clothes and worked at Ford," said Theus. "But he’d only want to come over when he was intoxicated."
By the time Theus turned 18, he was eager to get out into the world and experience life. He worked at FOCUS: Hope and then with the Detroit Health Department doing HIV testing and counseling in a mobile unit. He’d barely established himself when he discovered he was going to be a father.
But instead of throwing him into a tailspin, fatherhood was a wake-up call.
"Having a son saved my life," said Theus, whose son is now 11. "He was my 'Stay Out of Jail' card. I knew there was someone depending on me."
Taking care of others seems to bring out the best in Theus.
"I was raised by a strong, independent, hardworking woman," he said of his mother, who joined the Army Reserve and earned a nursing degree as a single parent. In 1985, he watched as his mother took care of his grandmother until she died of breast cancer in 1990.
It’s his mother’s nurturing influence that Theus brings to his relationship with his son.
"I hug him, I kiss him," said Theus, who is fully engaged in his son’s life. "I show more emotion and affection than my father showed."
Despite his comfort with his role as a father, he’s not so comfortable with his role as a gay father. Theus has yet to broach the topic of his sexuality with his son, a shy kid who is a car fanatic.
"I’m waiting until he’s older," said Theus. "He’s mentioned that someone called another classmate 'gay.' I asked him what that meant and he didn’t know."
But there’s a hesitation in Theus’s voice, as if he is still coming to terms with his own sexuality. "I am struggling with it," he acknowledged. "The more comfortable that I can be with who I am, the easier it will be for me to talk to my son about it. Being gay is not easy."
There are at least 650,000 same-sex couples in the United States, and one in five of them are raising children, according to Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy. Much less is known about the number of gay or lesbian single parents.
"LGBTQ parents face the issues that other parents don’t face," Theus said. "They have to deal with outsiders who do not believe that gays can be parents. And they have to deal with their own children not accepting them because of what other children may say."
There’s also guilt associated with "adding another dimension of challenge to your own child’s life," said Theus, who graduated from Mumford High School in 1999. "My son needs to know about different sexual orientations so that he can be tolerant. But right now, I’m just dealing with class work and girlfriends. I don’t want to put my sexuality on him now."
Living to give
Sheltered in the apostolic church, Theus never talked to anyone about sexuality growing up -- especially not homosexuality.
"Back then, I questioned God, 'Why me?'" said Theus, who did everything for the church from driving the bus, to singing in the choir and cleaning after events. "I was afraid to talk to anyone about the feelings I was having for men. They preached to me that everything I was feeling was wrong."
In high school, he came out to his mother and became an activist. As a member of an African American LGBT health organization, he went to Detroit’s Palmer Park to pass out health information. After graduation, he eventually landed a job in the Detroit Health Department’s HIV mobile testing unit, bringing healthcare services to soup kitchens, methadone clinics and distressed neighborhoods.
"That was a whole new world for me," he said. "I liked helping people with diverse needs."
By the time he joined the Michigan AIDS Coalition in 2004, the questions he’d asked of God as a young man were finally being answered.
"Whenever I share with people their HIV status and help them go through the process of dealing with the diagnosis--from the medical regimen, to attending their first doctor’s appointments, to providing them food out of my freezer and clothes if they need it--I understand why I’m here," Theus said. "This is why I had to go through what I had to go through."
By the age of 25, Theus was the program director at the Michigan AIDS Coalition.
"I have to thank Craig Covey who started this organization for giving me a chance to demonstrate leadership," he said. "Whatever they needed, I was efficient and dependable. That’s from my mother: No matter what you’re doing, always do your best."
The demands of family
Now he is living out another lesson he learned watching his mother nurse his grandmother: Honor thy mother and father.
"In 2005, my mother was in a head-on collision when she was driving to church," he said. "She survived, but she was diagnosed with dementia and a serious brain injury."
So in addition to raising a son, he is the sole caretaker of his 62-year-old mother.
A year ago, his father was incarcerated for a violent crime -- at 90 years old. Diagnosed with dementia, his father served time in jail and was released into Theus’s custody. Now he is also his dad’s legal guardian.
It’s a crushing responsibility, but Theus, takes his family demands in stride. "I see this as being normal," said Theus, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human services from the University of Phoenix. "This is what I should be doing and I’m blessed to be able to do it. To those who much is given, much is required."
Desiree Cooper is a freelance writer and editor. This story first appeared in Between the Lines.