By Michael Kearns, in conversation with his daughter Katherine
Many balked at the notion of a single man raising a daughter—a son, maybe, but a little girl? Many insisted a white man could not raise a Black child. Others were outraged that he was gay. When the agency learned the adoptive father was HIV-positive, they did their best to stop the adoption. Besides, he was too old (44) and who would do her hair?
Every naysayer, every voice in his head, every sugar-toned bit of advice from the well-meaning: all of it merely strengthened his resolve to adopt the baby that he knew would be his daughter in every conceivable way. While he saw the barriers, he also found a way to silence them, destroy them, vanquish any hurdle that presented itself. As it turns out, that he was me.
My daughter Katherine came into the world with a host of challenges. Now 23, she is a sturdy young woman with varied interests, including the television and film industry, and ongoing issues that plague those of us who march—no, dance—to a different drummer.
Katherine has taught me, and continues to teach me—even though I have been an activist for decades—about issues of race and intersectionality that have decidedly informed my work and my day-to-day life. As a single parent, I embraced my female self from the get-go but I also perceived the bias that mommies face but daddies don’t. As a daddy who did mommy things with ease, there was a subtle sense of emasculation that I’d feel in spite of the ostensible praise for my gender fluidity.
Before graduating from high school, Katherine directed a documentary, A Family Like Mine, that was broadcast on PBS sold to the local PBS station for three years usage. She was named Most Outstanding Arts Student 2012-2013 at the prestigious Idyllwild Arts. After studying in London for a year at the Bournemouth Arts College, she returned to Los Angeles where she worked in the writer’s room of one of the most revered shows in television. She has continued to work in development, assisting several producers on a wide-range of subjects, including many addressing social issues. Most recently, Katherine was hired to work for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member Sheila Kuehl while she actively pursues several TV/film projects that feed her soul.
When did you realize that being black was a challenge?
I’m not sure that I see my blackness as a challenge. I’m sure it’s challenged others, but it hasn’t challenged me. I think being a woman of color is a struggle that I deal with every day, but to answer your question, I probably first realized that my race held me back when I went to college. I was in a foreign country; I didn’t know anyone and had no one to shield me from the real world. I didn’t experience overt racism, or I subconsciously ignored it. But I definitely had to prove myself in ways that my counterparts didn’t.
When did you realize that being female was a challenge?
Again, I think it’s more of a struggle. It probably starts in pre-school. It’s a battle to treat girls equally to boys, even at an early age, when it’s a concerted effort. Most boys simply come hard-wired with privilege. Little girls have to fight, and little girls of color read the cues more acutely and respond accordingly. It doesn’t change. And ultimately, I think being a woman is hard enough as it is, but being a woman of color adds another layer.
As the daughter of a single gay man, were you treated differently by your peers?
I was fortunate enough to go to a progressive school where people were very open-minded. There were all types of families at my school growing up. I never really felt judged, but sometimes people would think of my family as the exception to the rule. “We love you, because you don’t act the way ‘others’ do.” And they doted on my dad because he had a skill set that other dads didn’t; for school fundraisers; he could climb a ladder and decorate with panache.
Did you lean toward a career in TV and film because you were brought up in that world?
I think so. But my real motivation for wanting to be in the industry is to find ways to represent diverse communities that are rarely featured on screen. I started out as an actress and realized the people I wanted to play weren’t being written. People of color and women were being shoved into a box and weren’t being accurately represented with any degree of sensitivity. I want to change that. Think of some movies we see that take place in the middle of Manhattan and you don’t see any brown faces. What’s with that?
You made a documentary in high school that was highly sophisticated in terms of gender and race and the complications of LGBT parenting. How did your political consciousness take shape so early in your life?
I think my political consciousness was formed early on. I think it would have been impossible for me not to have an awareness of the world and political climate with a dad who is an openly gay actor and activist. Your openness and courage forced me to be honest with myself and the world I live in.
As a young Black woman, can you identify the greatest challenges you face?
I think one of our greatest challenges as black women is the lack of opportunity. And once black women, and all women of color, and all-women-period are given the same opportunities as white straight men, things might start to feel equal. I think it’s great that Millennials are active and involved with women’s rights. We are at a point in time when we realize we deserve the same rights as men. I think the next step in modern day feminism is intersectionality: understanding that not all women have the same rights as each other, so we need to open our eyes to those differences and find common ground.
Michael Kearns is an activist-artist who teaches writing classes in Los Angeles.
**A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HERS issue, summer 2017 edition.