I Sent Pictures To A Boy I Liked And Shouldn't Have
How an Instagram Photo Changed These Gay Dads' Lives Forever
Kordale Lewis and Kaleb Anthony like to call theirs a "modern family" — because they’re two dads raising three kids. But walking into their big, handsome home in suburban Atlanta, I see another reason. The family photo blown-up poster-size and hanging in the foyer here is a shirtless, in-the-mirror Instagram selfie. You know it when you see it — the ornately tatted couple brushing and ponytailing their daughters’ hair before school — because it was all over the Internet last year.
announced a BuzzFeed list that amassed more than 1 million views. Then came The Huffington Post,People, andDaily Mailposts; commenters gone wild ("rock on, guys!", "will you please adopt me?") from Denmark to Australia; 150,000 new Insta followers; a national Nikon commercial that paid "a lot of money," Lewis confirms; and Lewis’s gut-wrenching, self-published memoirPicture Perfect, ("a ’Precious’ story," his book agent, Annette Johnson, told me by phone, in which he writes about being molested by a family friend as a little boy, and the absence of his dad, who was serving two life sentences for double murder, convicted in the stabbing deaths of two people in Lewis’s hometown of Chicago.)
But going viral also meant haters and trolls, both racist and homophobic (sample comment: "May God be with those kids … this is dead wrong"), creeps finding their personal emails and sending with anti-gay rants, and, worst of all, comments accusing them of using their kids for fame and money.
"I cried sometimes," Lewis tells me. "It hurt so much that people in our own community would say these things. These are my babies. I’ve always put up pictures of my children, for years. Honestly, that picture was just a picture to me."
But even if they weren’t trying, the family is pure Instagram gold. When I meet them on a sunny Saturday in April, Lewis and his 6-year-old son, Kordale Jr., are planting a little tree in the yard. Eight-year-old Desmiray and 7-year-old Maliyah are having a sassy, Iggy Azalea-themed dance party. And Anthony, who looks like Tyson Beckford’s twin, is corralling the three dogs, Dino, Pebbles, and Bam Bam. Unfortunately for their 175,000 followers, no one’s posting a thing.
Right after the photo became huge, "I felt like I had an obligation, specifically to the gay community, to post more and give people insight into our life. If it was going to help our community, I was going to keep posting," Lewis says. "But it became too much of a distraction. I have six other [people and animals] that I have obligations to before I have an obligation to get on social media."
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These days, they put up a few posts a week — pictures of the kids riding their bikes and the occasional #TBT of Daddy (Lewis) and Pops (Anthony) kissing at the club — even though they could be living off their feed, like some other viral stars. "If you have 300,000 followers, you can charge 0 a post, and if four people hit you up [for sponsored posts] in one day…" Anthony explains. But they choose not to. "That takes all of the depth about what we stand for out of it, " Lewis says. "That’s not the image that we want."
(They did do one paid post in the last 16 months when a marketing company invited them to an Atlanta premiere of the animated movieThe Book of Life. "But if someone wants us to blog about hair weaves, we’re like, ’No,’" laughs Anthony. Instead, he supports the family with his job in IT network infrastructure, while Lewis works part-time at Anthony’s family’s medical patient transportation business and stays home with the kids.)
They’re open to being famous — as long as it’s for something they want to be famous for. Hair weaves? No. Heartwarming national commercials spotlighting their modern family at a time when this country is still deciding how it feels about gay marriage? Absolutely.
Anthony’s thinking about modeling on the side (hence the tasteful nudes on their IG account) if the right agent comes around. And a production company has approached Lewis about making a movie based on his memoir. When I ask them if they’d be open to a reality show, Anthony says they’d "probably do it," in the interest of showing people that a two-dad family really isn’t as weird as you might think.
But they’ve pretty much already done that. With a snap of their selfie, Lewis and Anthony became the faces of the African-American gay community, faces that aren’t represented nearly enough in the media, pop culture, or public policy.
"You see a lot of professional Caucasian gay men with kids. It’s mainstream," Lewis says. "But it’s rare to see a gay African-American couple raising kids. I’m not saying there aren’t other people out there doing this, but it’s rare to see it."
Some bloggers were offended on the couple’s behalf that it seemed so surprising and so special that this gay African-American couple get their kids ready for school. "There’s something about the virality of these photos … that yells: ’OMG black men can be gayandthey can be gay-dads and isn’t it the cutest thing you haveeverseen?!’" wrote Courtney Baxter at Feministing. "It sounds like they’re talking about goddamn puppies."
But Anthony and Lewis say being singled out felt positive to them. "I think we gave the gay black community a bit of hope," Lewis says (by now you can tell he loves to talk, and Anthony, who is ironing a shirt in the background, is a great listener). "We offer a sense of, ’This is possible. Just because you’re gay, you can still be happy and have a son or a daughter.’"
The picture also stoked debate about African-American dads, gay or not. A popular backhanded compliment kept popping up,Mused Magazinepointed out: "That it was nice to see black men taking care of children." It’s a problematic generalization, especially when a recent CDC report found that African-American dads are as present in their kids’ lives as white and Latino men. Anthony, for one, was raised by both of his loving parents, who have been married for more than 30 years. But Lewis says the image of men doing children’s hair feels especially beautiful "in the African-American community, where so many fathers have abandoned their children, like my father abandoned me."
Of course, as Anthony changes into a "California Love" T-shirt showing one grizzly bear doing the other from behind and flashes his six-pack in the process, I’m reminded that there’s also the man candy theory. The less political reason they went viral isn’t because they’re gay or African-American, but because they’re straight-up hot. Some variation of "I want ur sperm" is a frequent comment from women on their sweet family photo and "at least 10" women they’ve met in person have offered to be their surrogate.
"Even when I tell them I’m gay," Anthony shrugs, "They’re like" — here he adopts a sultry diva voice — "I don’t care. We can all have fun."
It also seems worth noting that the men are only 26 years old (25 when the pic blew up). They’re so young that they are each other’s first real boyfriend. Just four years ago, Kaleb was in college at Jackson State University in Mississippi, a fraternity bro (he still has the Omega tattoo on his shoulder to prove it) who was "DL," or in in the closet, and had cheated on his girlfriend with "some guy" because it was hard to come to terms with being gay.
"It still is," Anthony says later, feasting on chicken wings and fries at Midtown Bowl, while the kids gleefully haul bowling balls at the bumper rails.
"Society makes it hard," Lewis jumps in. His mom teased him for playing with Barbies growing up, and his close gay friend hanged himself in his teens. He tried being with women before coming out and ended up having his three kids with one, all by age 19, in his Iowa hometown. (He asked me not to name their mother, saying, "She’ll let people know who she is when she’s ready.") He’d attempted suicide with pills in the past, but having Desmiray at 17, he said, "gave me the will to live."
When Anthony friended him on Facebook four years ago, after seeing him in his "suggested friends" list, Lewis was convinced he was being catfished and made Anthony Skype him to prove he was both real and gay. Two days later, he sent Lewis a dozen roses. The next weekend, Anthony drove five hours from Jackson to Atlanta to meet him.
"I thought, ’I’m going to have sex with him and send him back to Mississippi,’" Lewis laughs. Within six months, they were living together. "Kaleb touched a sentimental spot in my heart," Lewis wrote in his memoir. After the hell he went through with his family, Anthony was just pure, unconditional love. For his part, Lewis was Anthony’s rock as he came out to his family (who accepted him). "I love Kordale’s ambition to be better and to always want more even when it seems to be unattainable," Anthony told me. Despite the stark difference in the way they grew up, they bonded over a simple, shared wish — to have a family, a home, dogs running in the yard.
It wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect — Lewis admits that after his rough childhood, he pushed Anthony away. "I was hard for me to understand love and to receive it," he wrote inPicture Perfect. They got into heated arguments; Anthony threatened to leave him. But they worked through it, and when the mother of Lewis’s kids called a year later asking the guys to take them for a little while, Anthony didn’t blink. They enrolled the children in school in Atlanta.
"I wasn’t looking for somebody to just date. I was looking for somebody to be with," Anthony says. "I love being in love, and I love being in love with him."
He proposed to Lewis a month after the picture went viral, on Valentine’s Day 2014. They want to get married here but are waiting for gay marriage to become legal in Georgia.
"We can go to New York and get married. We can go right over to Alabama or Florida, but what point would that make?" Anthony says. "Once we get back, it don’t mean shit."
Sixteen months after their selfie went viral, Lewis and Anthony are doing what they can to give back to the gay community that embraced them. The whole family appeared in a NOH8 campaign ad for marriage and gender equality, and Anthony and Lewis recently hosted a cocktail party for the Human Rights Campaign at a hotel in Atlanta. They’re both considering becoming more active gay activists in the future, when they have more time for travel and speeches.
For now, parenthood is their focus: They’re trying for a fourth baby with a surrogate, a process they say was made possible by their Nikon ad residuals. "I think God is going to bless us with a boy," Anthony says. Desmiray, Maliyah, and Kordale Jr. are all on the principal’s list for their good grades and are pretty unimpressed with their dads’ fame. Kordale Jr. is a little young to get it; the girls tell me they’ve seen their dads "on YouTube" and know about the selfie that started it all, that "a lot of people liked it," according to Desmiray. But she’s not one of them.
"It’s a horrible picture," she says, with a respectable tween eye roll at the version hanging up in her house. "I didn’t want to get my hair done, and them two"— her dads — "aren’t even wearing shirts!"
Though the Nikon checks are sizable, this is not the house that a shirtless selfie built — they had this house before they took the pic, and this is where they’ll stay. Talking about the future, Kordale laughs suddenly, remembering a comment on their famous photo. "It was a white guy who said, ’They’re niggers. They’re gay. They got no chance in America,’" he remembers. It’s really not funny, but he’s laughing. "I saw it and I was like, ’No chance in America? We’re in America. We’re living free. We’re living happy. We’re raising a family.
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