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BOOKS Skokie native writes about creating an LGBTQ family
by Melissa Wasserman
2020-06-24

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Steve Disselhorst dreamed of being a parent since he was a kid growing up in Skokie. On June 16, his first book, Determined To Be Dad, was released, and it details his journey to fulfill that dream.

Disselhorst grew up in a Catholic, mostly Irish family. Transfering from a Catholic school in Skokie to Edison Elementary School, a public school in Morton Grove, in the fifth grade was a big change, as Disselhorst explained the majority of Skokie residents were Jewish and about 10 percent of people were Holocaust survivors. He recalled it was when he made this move, in the late '70s, that he first interacted with Jewish people since he was "living in this cocoon in my Catholic school setting. "It was the same time the Illinois Nazi party was trying to march in Skokie," he said.

Disselhorst added, "I had been in a sheltered world and didn't know what was happening, but I could understand there was tremendous pain," Disselhorst said of his surroundings. "It was really this life-altering experience on how different minorities are discriminated against and how people do hateful, violent things to people that are different. At that time I didn't know I was gay, but I could empathize with that pain and suffering and it sort of changed my view of the world."

The writer described himself as a sensitive, empathetic child, always connecting relationships to the foundation of his family life. The empathy was something he attributed in part to his grandmother, who immigrated from Ireland under harsh circumstances when she was 14 and building a "tremendous life;" and his father, who he described as a kind, giving person. Being the new kid in school furthered his empathy and understanding toward outsiders.

From the outside, Disselhorst led what could be described as a heteronormative life as he went on to graduate from Niles West High School and the University of Iowa. It was during his junior year abroad and senior year that he began the process of exploring and understanding his sexuality and attraction to men. However, he was caught between the Catholic teachings he grew up with and his interest in men, one of the reasons was because he wanted a big family like the one he grew up in and thought he could only have that if he were heterosexual. Seeing the AIDS epidemic happening around him, he said, also had a big impact.

"It was really sort of a challenging time and a challenging time of self-acceptance," he said.

Sharing his struggle of coming out in his early 20s, he went to visit his brother in California for a summer and ended up staying. When he finally accepted his sexuality and started being true to his identity as a gay man, he dismissed his dream of being a parent. In 2003, he met his current husband—who also wanted a family.

Surrogacy or adoption? Disselhorst said he and his husband spent a lot of time thinking about which option was best for them to start their family. Both of them agreed their genetics were not critical for creating a family but they were not in a position, financially, for surrogacy to be a choice. However, they had faith "God [would] bring us the kids that are meant to be." These factors brought them to the decision of a private, open adoption.

"It took two years," Disselhorst said of their experience, which he shares in his book. "We waited two years and, over [those] years we were contacted by 14 different women at various stages of their pregnancies—and all 14 of those fell through, until our daughter was born. So it was very emotional, exhausting, toward the end of it we became really cynical.

"We really kind of started to think maybe this wasn't in the cards for us, maybe this isn't God's plan for us to have kids. At the time there were a lot of messages around, like, 'Gay people really shouldn't have families' so it was kind of, like, 'Maybe there's truth to this, right?' We started to second-guess ourselves."

Disselhorst and his husband did not give up and now they have two children they are raising in the suburbs outside of San Francisco. Their daughter is now 8 and their son, who came into their lives through the foster-to-adopt program, is 4.

Determined To Be Dad is Disselhorst's personal story filled with the trials and tribulations of going through self-discovery and acceptance, building a new life and creating the family he always wanted, accompanied by some practical information for educational context.

"My mission is really around helping other LGBTQ people and also beyond LGBTQ community, people who are really thinking about creating a family through sort of non-traditional ways," he said.

In 2018, Disselhorst was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was laid off from his corporate job in healthcare marketing, which he said sent him into an identity crisis, resembling his coming out. These life-altering events, he described were motivations for writing the book. ( Incidentally, he is now cancer-free. )

"One of the motivations for writing the book was the fact that there are like 3.8 million LGBTQ millennials considering expanding their families and having children, and I wanted to help them," explained Disselhorst. "The other thing about writing the book was really it was a [cathartic] experience. We had been through these difficult adoptions and it was a way to just sort of get it all out, and I think it was a way for me to heal from the cancer as well. I did a lot of the writing when I was on hormone therapy after I had radiation treatments and so I was going through my treatment and I was writing. It was a way to sort of cleanse and let go of things from the past."

Past the LGBTQ community, he added, this audience extends to parents, in some cases to help them understand their LGBTQ kids can have a family one day and LGBTQ allies.

In addition to being a dad, Disselhorst has his own coaching and consulting firm where he currently works as a leadership coach and a diversity and inclusion consultant. He also serves on the board of directors for the LGBTQ non-profit Our Family Coalition, and is a San Mateo County California LGBTQ commissioner.

Disselhorst is passionate about creating inclusive environments and equity for all minorities, including LGBTQ and racial groups. He even does this at his children's school, talking to the superintendent about creating cultures for kids whose parents are queer and kids who are queer in the school. He has also been featured on the podcast Daddy Squared, talking on this topic.

"It's really about giving hope to people," said Disselhorst. "That ... and my kids keep me going."

Disselhorst added that what continues to drive him is the fact that President Trump and the current administration are changing the foster/adopt laws.

"What's tragic, and this is where I get really worked up, is the fact is that LGBTQ people adopt out of the foster system seven to one, [compared] to heterosexual people," said Disselhorst. "LGBTQ people are willing to take the children that other people are not willing to adopt and they're the ones that are doing it. Now, we have a government that's going to take that away, we're going to end up with more children lingering in the foster system because they don't want LGBTQ people being parents."

In addition, Disselhorst said he sees himself as "an angel [who] helps LGBTQ people create families."

He added, "I'm very tied to spirituality, so it's like you're there, but you're not there, you're an angel—you're kind of in and out.That's what I hope to accomplish with the book is that I'm able to get it to a broad enough audience [to] give them hope."

To learn more about Steve Disselhorst and where to purchase Determined To Be Dad, visit SteveDisselhorst.com .


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