Durham's Rockwood Park is virtually empty when Henry Amador-Batten suggests that his son, Benjamin, take a turn on the long blue slide. The sun is shining and the temperature is mild, maybe eighty degrees. But the boy hesitates.
"It's OK," his father says. "I'll be right here."
The five-year-old flashes a wide smile and sets his toy truck in the grass. He takes off in a sprint, his curly hair bouncing as he runs. Every few strides, he looks over his shoulder to make sure his father is still on the park bench.
"He's been really clingy for the last few days," Amador-Batten says. "He wants to be near me."
It's been that way since May 19, when father and son were surrounded by police and detained at Raleigh-Durham International Airport moments after they stepped off a United Airlines flight. By night's end, Amador-Batten stood accused of having his hands "too close to his son's genitals" while the two were sleeping next to each other on the flight back from Puerto Rico.
Of course, the flight attendant who leveled the charge didn't know that Amador-Batten was Benjamin's adoptive father or that the boy has had two daddies since he came into the world in 2011. He had no way of knowing that Amador-Batten and his husband, Joel, were the first gay couple to legally adopt a child in Broward County, Florida, or that they're licensed foster parents, the founders of a gay fathers advocacy group, or that they always travel with proof that their family is legal.
And he certainly wasn't aware that Benjamin and his fathers have been fighters since seconds after the boy was born, or that when the RDU police finally allowed Amador-Batten and Benjamin to reunite with Joel at the terminal gate, they would begin perhaps their most significant battle to date.
"It's situations like this and accusations like this that continue to make people feel like gay people are monsters. There is still a population of people that believes that we're pedophiles," Amador-Batten says. "People aren't going to look at me first as a father. They are going to see me as gay, so being a father doesn't mean I'm not a predator. That man perpetuated that stereotype. So I'm not going to let this go."
In South Florida's foster system, the Amador-Battens were known as the "baby whisperers."
"We had lots of babies in our house. They would call us baby whisperers, because here are these two guys who were always good with babies. But they would always end up going to a different home," Amador-Batten says.
They found fostering rewarding, but after getting married in Boston in 2009, they longed to have a child of their own. Through a friend, they met a woman who was pregnant with a child she didn't want to keep.
"A week later, she sent me a text message," Amador-Batten says. "It was his sonogram picture. She said, 'Here's your son.'"
They were guardedly optimistic. Adoption, as Amador-Batten puts it, can be "murky water." The mother could change her mind. Something could happen to the baby. Even when the boy's mother went into labor a month ahead of schedule, their pending fatherhood didn't seem real. By law, she had until seventy-two hours after he took his first breath to cancel the adoption.
But on October 27, 2011, Joel broke down inside the hospital when the nurse asked what name they'd chosen for their son. A few weeks later, Benjamin, too young to understand that his parents were setting a precedent, made history when he became the first child in Broward County to be successfully adopted by a married gay couple.
"Our attorney at the time said, 'Listen, you guys have the opportunity to maybe open the door to other families,'" Amador-Batten says.
Two years later, the family moved to North Carolina to be closer to Joel's family. Durham was inclusive, but the adoption, which had been legal in Florida, was not yet recognized in their new home state. (North Carolina did not legalize second-parent adoption by same-sex couples until after the marriage ban was lifted in October 2014.)
"We had our wills and the documents for our estates and for Benjamin that protected our family in that way, but we had to fill out different tax returns and stuff like that," Amador-Batten says. "I tell people that we're like a Trojan horse. We kind of sneak in and fight from within."
Leaning on their experience as foster and adoptive parents, they founded DADsquared, a "global community by and for gay fathers" that advocates for those gay men who want to start families by referring and connecting them to lawyers and surrogates.
"We founded it in 2011, just after Ben was born, because we felt very alone and knew very few other gay dads. We knew if we felt that way, that there must have been so many others," Amador-Batten says. "So it started as a Facebook group and then the website was born. We say that we're changing the world one family at a time."
The days leading up to that flight to RDU were emotionally draining. Amador-Batten had traveled with Ben to Puerto Rico to visit and ultimately bury his ailing father, whom he describes as "a lousy dad but an amazing grandfather."
"I think I've spent the majority of my life trying to be a better dad than my dad was, but Ben met [him] when he was two, and my dad was an amazing grandfather. And for the past five years, he's been very present," Amador-Batten says. "So if anything, I felt like I had to go back to Puerto Rico so Ben could say goodbye."
While his relationship with his father was complicated, experiencing his death was difficult. So by the time he and Ben boarded a connecting flight from Newark to Raleigh, the two were "pretty exhausted."
"Ben was really tired. He just got on that plane and got his blue blanket out—like he always does when we travel—and he just got himself comfortable next to me and fell asleep," Amador-Batten says. "And I was in and out of napping."
A male flight attendant walked by them and "looked at us a little funny," Amador-Batten says, but he tried not to read too much into it. "And when I say funny, most people who are minorities, especially gay people, we sense when we're being looked at not nicely. It's just a sense that you grew up with."
A few minutes later, the same flight attendant stopped in the aisle and asked, "Excuse me. Are you traveling with the family that's seated in front of you?"
"I looked up and said, 'No. It's just he and I.' But still, I didn't attach anything to it," Amador-Batten says.
The plane landed, and the captain came out of the cockpit and looked at the father and son. When the captain got back to the front of the plane, he got on the speaker and told the passengers there was a "situation going on at the gate" and he couldn't allow anyone to disembark.
"When Ben and I finally got to the exit of the plane, the crew didn't look at me, but when I turned to my right, I noticed there were a lot of police there. Then, as we started to walk up the ramp, the police all came up behind us," Amador-Batten recalls. "Ben said, 'Daddy, there are a lot of policemen.' But I'm so stupid that I still didn't realize that we were the situation."
Moments later, as they got to the terminal, reality set it.
"One of the officers said, 'I'm sorry to say this, but there was an allegation from the flight that one of the flight attendants saw your hand too close to your son's genitals,'" Amador-Batten says. "Then it all started clicking. OK. It was that dude who kept looking at us. At first, I didn't say anything. I was just stunned. I'm pretty sure I kept repeating, 'What?' Then they asked me, 'Are you his guardian? Who are you to this child?' I said, 'I'm his dad.'"
Fortunately, he was able to prove it.
"Being a gay family, we travel with our marriage certificate, passports, Ben's adoption certificate," he says. "You've really got to make sure you're covered in this world, you know? And I thought about it afterwards, like, What if I didn't have any ID for Ben? What if I had nothing that proved he was my son? What would have happened then? Would they have taken him? I asked them to repeat the allegation, and they said, 'Your hand was too close to his genitals.' That's a sentence that I'm probably never going to forget."
Benjamin hasn't forgotten either. Since the incident, he hasn't slept in his own bed. He's asked his father if the police were mad because he "was too close to you."
"I said, 'No. No. You can never be too close to me,'" Amador-Batten says. "'I want you to be close to me.'"
Neither United nor RDU has responded to the INDY's request for comment. United, however, provided CNN with this statement on the incident: "Our customers should always be treated with the utmost respect and we have followed up with our customer to apologize for the misunderstanding."
- Photo by Ben McKeown
- Benjamin and Henry Amador-Batten
The Amador-Battens' ordeal is not the only public relations nightmare United has faced in recent months. In April, Dr. David Dao was injured and sued the airline after he was violently dragged off a plane after refusing to give up his seat. His case has since been settled for an undisclosed sum. That incident was caught on a video that went viral, causing United's stock to plummet.
Amador-Batten has hired Florida-based attorney Ken Padowitz to "open up a dialogue" with the airline about the way their employees treat gay men. A lawsuit is possible, he says, but money isn't the goal.
"At first, I just wanted it to go away, and then I wanted to feel whole again," he says. "But now, I really believe that this is sparking a great conversation about how society still views gay men as predators and men in general as inferior parents. I have no doubt in my mind that if I had been a female traveling with my child, that never would have happened."
This article appeared in print with the headline " 'I'm Not a Predator.' "