Nick Metcalf on Gay Parent Magazine

Yellow Hawk and the Child of His Heart

An Interview with Nicholas Metcalf

Interview by Angeline Acain

In 1999, when he was 27, Nicholas Metcalf adopted an infant whom he named Sonny. Although with a partner at the time of Sonny’s arrival, Metcalf’s relationship ended shortly after. Also in 1999, Metcalf helped create an organization named Minnesota Men of Color. While directing his new organization and raising a young child as a single parent, Metcalf also managed to attend and finish graduate school. One could say that Metcalf, a Lakota Native American, has the tenacity of a hawk regarding his accomplishments, because he is also HIV positive. In the following interview, Metcalf shares his experiences and views.

Minnesota Men of Color serves the African American, Arab/Middle Eastern, Asian Pacific Islander, Chicano/Latino and Native American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) population in the state of Minnesota. Services include HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, intervention, outreach, and support groups. The organization also offers social, cultural and educational activities and even a social network for families. You currently serve as executive director.

I’m also one of the founders of the organization which has been in existence for three years now. We actually won’t be known as Minnesota Men of Color by the time this interview is published. Last year 25% of our clients were women so we’re shifting, making changes and adding more women at the board level and staff recruitment.

What is Sonny like?

He’s three and half and calls me “mommy.” Ever since he started talking he’s called me “mommy.” If you try to correct him he’ll say, “No, that’s my mom!” He’s very adamant. Recently he said, “Mom you’re my dad too aren’t you?” I replied, “Yes honey, you’re one of those special kids that have a mom and a dad in one.” So he goes around saying, “I’m special, I have a mom and a dad in one!” His biological parents are my sister and her boyfriend, and interestingly Sonny calls his biological mother, “mom,” and his biological father, “dad.”

Sonny’s siblings address me as “Uncle” but refer to me as, “Sonny’s mom.” One day we were sitting around with Sonny’s brother and Sonny called me, “Uncle.” I said, “I’m not your Uncle, son.” Then Sonny’s brother said, “Sonny, you have two moms. Mom is right here and mom is upstairs too.” Every one who knows me refer to me as his mom. Even his preschool child care providers refer to me as his mom. I think he’ll do this for another year and then figure out that I’m just dad.

Sonny’s big thing right now is Spiderman and he’s getting into Sponge Bob. We’re just getting into potty training and I’m very adamant with his child care providers in telling them we’re not doing it until he’s showing interest. I want to make sure he wants to do it on his own and not make him feel guilty about wanting to be a “big boy” or not. He’s very talkative and sometimes he comes out with amazingly complex questions like, “Are you my dad?” I think, “Wow, where did you get that?” There are times when I have to call his biological dad to say that he needs to talk to Sonny because Sonny wants to know who his dad is.

What will you teach Sonny about the Lakota culture?

Our history, where we’re from, pride. Up until I was eight my grandmother had us involved but once she passed away that was it. My parents are from the last generation of Native Americans on our reservation who were influenced by the catholic church. They were part of the generation of native children who were sent to boarding school where they weren’t allowed to speak Lakota or participate in any traditional Lakota ceremonies. The catholic church was trying to “civilize the heathens.” This started in the mid 1800’s and went on until the 1970’s when the last of the schools were turned over to the tribes.

For my parents this created internalized racism within them. So my parents decided not to teach us anything about our traditional Lakota culture, in order to save us from the humiliation they thought we would also endure. Even though we grew up on a reservation, they refused to participate in any of the events going on around us. Not until I was in college did I get actively involved again in tradition and my parents are starting to get involved as well. In fact, my father gave me my great grandfather’s Indian name, Cetanzi which means “Yellow Hawk.” Sonny’s Lakota name is Hoksicila Cante Ma Yuha, which means “Child of My Heart.”

What are your views on being a person of color?

Racism in the queer community is the same as in society as a whole and we, as people of color, don’t feel any safer here than we do as in the larger community. Racism is very much alive and well in the queer community by lacking inclusion of people of color in all levels of planning, strategy, and the developing of initiatives that look like me, behave like me, and know my world. HRC (Human Rights Campaign) and NGLTF (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) are not on my reservation. PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays) isn’t there either. Institutions that are sort of pro-white LGBT people are good but they don’t look or behave anything like my world. They’re part of my world in regards to being gay, they are great institutions in that sense. But they only accept part of me, not all of me.

It’s interesting for me to be raising a Native American son. One day Sonny did not want to wash up and get dressed and I was so mad I said to him, “You know honey you can never go into this world not dressed and not clean.” How quickly we teach our children that racism is alive and well. The tools to get passed it is to behave a certain way. In order to manage the system you have to learn the skills to get through it appropriately. When we visit my family on the reservation in South Dakota I think my biggest fear of having Sonny growing up in the city is that he won’t have the skills of knowing how to deal with those crazy people who live around the reservation.

Is the Lakota culture accepting of LGBTs or not?

I came out when I was in college and going home was not a big deal, my family has been incredibly supportive. My mother always said that I was special. I’m the “golden child” because I was the first one from both sides of my family to get a college education.

Growing up I never ventured outside of the reservation. I was a very effeminate kid. My best friend in grade school was also gay, little girls were always running around him all the time. I think it’s fascinating that nobody “corrected” us. Instead, everybody use to say, “Oh, isn’t that cute.” My mother was very supportive and would coo, “Ohhh”, when my friend and I used to play with dolls. My father didn’t say anything until later in my life when my father wanted us to go out and do sports. He told me that I would be half the man my straight brother was. I just loved it when I showed him my college diploma. My undergraduate degree is in psychology and math and my masters degree is in social work. I also have a degree in massage.

How do you balance being a single dad, working, and caring for your health?

Friends help me with my son especially when I have work in the evenings and when I travel out of town I arrange to have one of my family members live here. Recently, I had one of my siblings living with me but now I’m trying to adjust to being single living in the city again without family. Sonny being in preschool helps and sometimes he does come to my evening work meetings. People are used to having him around, he’s one of those things you have to accept, he’s part of the package.

In another interview I was asked, “As a single parent how do you do it?” I said I never ask questions like that, I just wake up in the morning, if my kid is hungry, I feed him, if I have homework, I do it. I manage deadlines as best as I can and if I stop and think about everything it gets too overwhelming (laughs). You go into auto pilot really quickly. There are times when work gets demanding but I think about the impact it has on the future of my child. So I give it all up and say, “Well I’m going to have to wait for that paper, get a lesser grade, or the proposal is not going to go out and we’re not going to get the money.” I just want to make sure my kid is fine and healthy and know that he is loved. I have lots of helpful friends who watched Sonny while I was in class, studying, or getting my papers done. Sometimes Sonny would sit with me drawing while I was writing. Then from 7 to 9 PM it would be Sonny time and we would do anything Sonny wanted to do.

Once I was battling a case of shingles and Sonny had chicken pox at the same time. Shingles is really painful and I thought, “I don’t want to be here if this is how it’s going to be. My kid is miserable, I’m miserable, and I’m alone.” But I have to think it’ll get better, the last thing you want to do is give up hope.

The world is not a kid-friendly place and neither is the LGBT community. But if you go to a Rainbow Families LGBT parent support group meeting there are kids running all over the place. Parents there learn how to talk amongst themselves while letting their kids engage with them at the same time. The kids may want to be part of the conversation and you just integrate them, you learn to flow with it. But people who are not around children enough get sort of distracted quickly. I’m a regular attendee of Rainbow Families (, 612-827-7731), it’s wonderful. Executive director, Deb Talen does a great job.

Also, I attend Spirit of the Lakes, Church of Christ, an LGBT congregation. There are about ten families who attend. At home on the reservation, catholicism is still pretty dominant and traditional people are catholic at the same time. The church on our reservation is the second largest employer.

Since being a dad, has being HIV positive been a problem?

No, it’s not been a problem. Sonny’s pediatrician knows and his concern is about how nervous I am and how this could create stress which could affect my health. When I change my drug regimen some of the side effects can make me real tired. Sonny’s pretty busy and sometimes I have to negotiate and tell him, “Mommy’s world is running into Sonny’s world right now, we’re going to have to wait just a minute, okay?” He replies, “Okay.” Part of the process is working through issues of, “Oh, I’m not going to be up and running around every minute of the day.” Even healthy parents go through that.

Are there times when you don’t feel like taking your medication?

Oh, yes. It’s interesting because my health had to get bad enough that finally my doctor said to me, “If you don’t get on meds, Nick, you’ll be dead within a year.” The whole process of finding a set of meds that will work is really hard and my sisters would stay with me at different times to help me get through the side effects. They would manage Sonny when I was too tired. It’s really sad to be laying on the couch, my son jumping all over me and I’m feeling so miserable that I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” But then I’m compelled to get up and keep going when Sonny makes me laugh. I hope to one day see my grandkids.

An HIV-positive mom I interviewed said her family experienced discrimination from neighbors. The neighbor kids weren’t allowed to play with her kids. Have you faced discrimination based on your sexuality or health status?

I currently live in a complex for people living with HIV. There are other families living here and it hasn’t been an issue. Although, I did hear of a problem with neighbor kids coming in and harassing some of the kids living here. Before I selected Sonny’s day care I asked how they were with gay parents and they were fine with it.

I moved to Minneapolis in 1994 because being gay, I felt safe to raise a child here. It is a great organizing city especially regarding human rights for gays, but not if you are brown. However, Minnesota is a real socialist state and it is a great place to be.

It’s interesting for me to watch Sonny because I work in an organization for gay men and women and he’s surrounded by gay people but when he goes home to the reservation it’s predominantly heterosexual. It will be interesting to see whether or not he will become attune to the difference. A big concern is, here I am, an effeminate gay man, am I preparing or confusing my son to deal with the challenges of being a man? Oh well, he will be a sensitive man.

Are you dating?

I’ve been trying (laughs)! When I tell men I have a child many say they’re not interested. After I get passed that then I have to say I’m HIV positive too. They may reply, “Oh, you got some issues going on (laughs)!” No one has really “stuck.” Sometimes Sonny will meet the men I date. There was one that I was dating for a while who was very helpful and the nice part is that he and other men I’ve dated are still active in my life. I think a lot of them understand about attachment and have really attached with Sonny. Sonny’s very personable and friendly, you know kids, you can’t help but fall in love with them. One of the things that happened this summer was one day Sonny and I were having dinner and he looked at me and said, “Mom when are you going to get me a dad?” I said, “Where did you learn that?”

Just today I had a conversation with my ex, David, who I was with when Sonny came into this world. We were together until Sonny was several months old. We talked about whether he perceived Sonny as his child because I’ve always perceived Sonny as our child. He felt like I didn’t allow him the opportunity for Sonny to be part of his life and because he didn’t have any legal right to Sonny, he felt he couldn’t fight it. There were other issues as well. I think the adjustment of becoming a parent was a big deal. David and I were raising my 13 year old niece for a period and then Sonny came along. Even though we had negotiated about children at the beginning of our relationship, David later decided that he didn’t want children. But I think the hardest part for David was the legal aspect and getting recognized. I could go off and take Sonny and he would be stuck without him. Since I live with HIV, we’ve talked about Sonny going back to David if I was to become very sick. David’s family sees Sonny as part of their family.

Sonny just became legally mine this June, so David and I started talking today about doing a second parent adoption which is legal here. This was one of the things we had agreed upon when Sonny was born, once he became legally mine then we would do a second parent adoption. It’s interesting to have that conversation now when we are no longer together.

Three years is a long time for an adoption process.

It took three years for his adoption because the tribe had to get involved. The Indian Child Welfare Act requires tribal involvement in all matters concerning Native American children. My tribe had to be involved to insure that Sonny wasn’t being adopted by a white person. I had to schedule his biological mom and dad to come here from South Dakota because they had to terminate their rights in person. Once that was done we were able to move forward with the rest of the stuff. Even though it was an adoption within my family, I still did a home study, criminal background check, and interview. And at every point the tribe had to be involved which slowed everything down.

I feel a big sigh of relief now that the adoption is finalized. As part of an open adoption, his biological parents have him two weeks out of the year and can see him as often as they’d like. Now I feel that if my sister and her boyfriend break up, I don’t have to deal with her boyfriend unless he wants to negotiate to see Sonny. But I don’t have to get caught up in their fighting, his biological father could’ve suddenly decided to take Sonny away. I feel like I have much more legal right. Sonny and I celebrated by having a big “Gotcha Day” party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Has your life changed since becoming a father?

The first year was the hardest because the way I saw myself in the world fundamentally changed. It was not just me anymore, I had to deal with these enormous responsibilities for another life. My ideas, values, who I believed I was and who I believed I’d become changed when this little person dropped into my life. Friends are part of this process and my network of friends changed too. My friends loved to party and run around. Now the topic of conversation is how tired I am or Sonny just did this or isn’t this a cute picture, and that’s not interesting to them.

The other day Sonny and I were sitting around talking and I asked him how he’d feel about me having another baby. He got all excited which was good because I want to have one more. I figured I’d have another the same way that Sonny came, one of my family members will have a child that I could adopt. It’s pretty common for gay Native Americans to become parents by raising their nieces and nephews. In my family, counting first cousins, nieces and nephews, there’s over a hundred of us. Earlier this year I debated whether I should adopt a set of twin girls born to one of my family members. I decided not to because I thought, “Wow, twins, one of them was hard enough, two of them would drive me crazy.” I also thought it would be nice to be in a relationship when I have another baby. But if it doesn’t happen that’s fine and if the right opportunity comes for another child I’ll jump at it.

If I get the kids out of my house by the time I’m fifty, I’ll have the rest of my life, maybe I’ll move to New York. Minneapolis is nice and slow and offers a lot of support but it’s always been my dream to move east, it seems much more exciting there.

How will you and Sonny spend Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Sometimes my ex, David, joins us for Thanksgiving on the reservation and we tease him as being the pilgrim because he’s a white guy. Christmas this year will be in Minneapolis and next year it will be back home on the res in South Dakota. It’s been interesting because ever since I’ve been HIV positive my family is much more deliberate about having a nice Christmas dinner and are really into the rituals.

Last question, if you had a day to spend with someone famous or influential, who would it be?

I would say Maya Angelou because she continues to inspire me. Her and Oprah Winfrey. They have resilience, wisdom, and care about humanity, there’s a lot to learn from them.

This issue in which this article appears is no longer available. Order available back issues here

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