Henry Amador-Batten, a 52-year-old gay man, and his five-year-old son, Benjamin, were on the last leg of their trip home to Raleigh, North Carolina on May 20. The two had just come from Puerto Rico visiting Amador-Batten’s ailing father, who passed away during their visit. Wearied from heartache and traveling since the early a.m., the two sought solace in some shut-eye. Benjamin slept against his dad’s broad shoulder and laced his small arm around his dad’s large one. Wrapped in his favorite blanket—the one his grandmother made him—Benjamin fell asleep with his father’s hand resting over his blanket on his lap.
Amador-Batten never thought that would lead a flight attendant on their United Airlines flight to accuse him of having his hand too close to his son’s genitals.
Midway through their flight, a male flight attendant walked by and gazed at them quizzically, but moved on. About fifteen minutes later, the same attendant walked up to them and asked Amador-Batten if he and Ben were traveling with the people in the row ahead of them, which included two women, one man and one child. “No,” he replied, “it’s just us.”
“I think he was trying to create a normalized picture,” Amador-Batten tells ELLE.com, “If I’d been traveling with the people ahead of me: it would have been two women, two men and two children.” That is—two heterosexual families.
As the one-hour flight connecting from Newark, New Jersey began to descend into Raleigh, the pilot offered the usual salutations and ‘thank yous’ over loudspeaker, but said there was a “situation at the gate,” which would delay deplaning.
“When we got to the exit of the plane,” Amador-Batten recalls, “I noticed in the corner of my eye that one of the flight attendants put her hand out behind Ben and I so that no other passengers could follow us out.” Even in that moment, Amador-Batten had no idea what any of this meant—not even when he went up the ramp and a small band of policemen began following them. He remembers thinking: ‘Well, that was the thing at the gate the pilot mentioned.’ But when they reached the top of the ramp, a police officer asked Amador-Batten to follow him. “That’s when I started thinking: ‘Wait, are we the situation at the gate?”
“That’s when I started thinking: ‘Wait, are we the situation at the gate?”
“Ben started getting nervous. He said, ‘Daddy, what is going on?’ I said, ‘I don’t know baby.’ Then the officer walking with us said, ‘Sorry that we have to do this, but there was an allegation made on the flight that you were seen—and he said all of this in front of my son—with your hands too close to that child’s genitals.”
When Amador-Batten told the officer that Ben was his son, the officer said, “Can you prove that?” As a gay man and adoptive dad who’s hyper aware of his vulnerability to discrimination, Amador-Batten always travels with his adoption decree, Ben’s birth certificate and he and his husband Joel’s marriage license. After nearly an hour of questioning, the officers released him.
(United said of the incident: “In this instance, the crew believed it was appropriate to ask authorities to meet the plane and interview the customer. After speaking with the customer, authorities determined that no further action was necessary. Our customers should always be treated with the utmost respect and we have followed up with our customer to apologize for the misunderstanding.”)
Three months after the traumatic experience, Amador-Batten thinks it was just as much about gender discrimination as it was about heterosexism and homophobia.
“There’s no doubt at all in my mind,” he says, “that if I had been a female this never would have happened. Never,” he emphasizes.
It’s hard to argue with that assessment. The only instance I can think of where a woman traveling alone with a child on a plane might fall under the eye of suspicion would be if she were intoxicated or exhibiting behaviors that suggest an inability to properly care for the kid entrusted to her. I can’t imagine a scenario remotely similar to Amador-Batten’s where a woman would be called out and questioned.
I can’t imagine a scenario remotely similar to Amador-Batten’s where a woman would be called out and questioned.
The reasons why are manifold. First, there’s the enduring essentialist belief that women are children’s most suitable caretakers, which extends from the biological fact of pregnancy. The thinking goes: Women are physically designed to create children and are therefore their rightful and proper guardians. Within this framework, men, or fathers, are seen as marginal players and less equipped to oversee offspring. (Think of all the dumb movies where dads are seen as bumbling fools without mommy.) Consequently, a situation without a mom may seem askew or suspect. Alongside the cultural narrative that reifies and center-stages motherhood is the false and pernicious conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia, which may have also played a part in putting Amador-Batten on the flight attendant’s radar. Finally, men are more likely to molest children than women – thus women are seen as less threatening.
Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men and internationally renowned expert on men and masculinities, puts it this way: “We are living in a moment, in which men’s participation in childcare and caregiving is relatively new even though it’s quite normal.” (Men may do triple the amount of childcare they did in 1965, but women continue to carry a disproportionate amount of the parental and household burdens.) Juxtaposed beside that, he adds, is “a constant barrage of stories about pedophilia, and we are just beginning to understand how prevalent it is. These two things are converging to make men’s caregiving seem possibly problematic.”
Kimmel recounts a recent story in which he was jogging at his local park when a boy of about eight-years-old fell off his two-wheeler ten feet away from him. “I walked over to him to see if he was hurt because I didn’t see any grown-ups around,” he recalls. “He was tangled up in his bicycle. But when I tried to lift the bicycle, his mom came up to me, and she was absolutely enraged that I was even close to her son. I read the situation and I just stood up immediately and said, ‘He’s O.K. I don’t think he hurt himself.’ She was very relieved, and I went on my way.”
Like Kimmel, I’ve witnessed the weird anxiety that hovers over men and children on several occasions. A recent example involves one of my closest friends. We were on a Manhattan-bound D train when an adorable toddler rolled onto the train in a stroller pushed by her mother. To the little girl’s delight, a male subway passenger was playfully interacting with her for the duration of our ride. I noticed my friend kept darting him hard looks. When he got off the train, she fumed, “That man was freaking me out! What man does that? Creepy.”
Distinguished family historian and author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz says “a certain amount of caution is certainly in order, as we know that men are more likely to abuse children than women,” but she worries about caution becoming a generalized mistrust of men. “Men face a real uphill battle in terms of what we expect of them,” she says, “We want them to be gentle and loving and warm, but as soon as they exhibit what we consider to be traditionally female ways of relating there’s also this element of suspicion.”
A trans man I once interviewed profoundly illustrates Coontz’s point: Once an effusive and physically affectionate mom—he transitioned after having three children—he had to learn to rein it in once he started presenting and being perceived as a man. “If I lavished too much love on my kids, too many hugs and kisses, I’d get alarmed looks in public,” he says.
The mixed message of wanting men to express their tenderness and demonstrate an equal stake in parenting and then scorning them for it when they do works against women by helping maintain the cultural myth that women are children’s “natural” and “proper” caretakers, rendering men “improper” and “unnatural” caregivers. That false dichotomy feeds the toxic notion that motherhood is more central and sacred to the life of the family than fatherhood.
The mixed message of wanting men to express their tenderness and demonstrate an equal stake in parenting and then scorning them for it when they do works against women by helping maintain the cultural myth that women are children’s “natural” and “proper” caretakers
Coontz, however, isn’t so sure moms are ready to surrender their special status. “Sociologists call it gatekeeping,” she says, “Women only want men to help on their terms. They still want to be specialists in the family, even if it involves self-sacrifice.” Driving the desire to remain at the seat of the family throne, she says, is the same one that compels people to over-achieve in the paid labor force. “There’s a certain cachet in being the hardest worker, the most experienced person, and above all, the-go-to expert. Add to that the emotional rewards of being ‘the only one’ who can kiss an owwie better or figure out how to organize the household or make the family’s favorite meal and you can see why women keep doing things that tire them out but perpetuate that expertise.”
Unfortunately, our willingness to carry far more of the familial burdens involves a level of self-sacrifice that hurts us professionally, economically and emotionally. It also hurts men—and children. “Accusations about child abuse or molestation don’t go away,” says Amador-Batten, who was in the midst of adopting his second son from foster care when these allegations were hurled. “The adoption went through, but we’re still struggling with the aftermath. Ben is still not right. He has nightmares and he doesn’t want to fly anymore, and he loved flying.”
Amador-Batten rejects the advice to get Ben therapy because he doesn’t want to re-traumatize him, he says. And yet, it’s clear that the issue at hand is far greater than the harrowing tale of one father being wrongly accused of inappropriately touching his son on a plane. Amador-Batten’s chilling experience on United is symptomatic of the cultural costs of our fraught attitudes toward men and their changing roles vis-à-vis children and childcare.
A poignant exchange between Amador-Batten and Ben during the police questioning crystalizes how quickly little boys learn the limits of what is and is not gender-appropriate behavior—and I believe it thwarts their future investment in parenthood: “Ben asked, ‘Am I in trouble because of this?’ And I said, ‘Why would you be in trouble, baby?’ And he said, ‘Because I was holding you and sitting too close to you, daddy.’ ‘No, that’s not the problem,'” Amador-Batten said. Determined to disrupt the noxious message, he added: “You can sit as close to me as you want to for as long as you want to.”