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About a boy: Irish actor Johnny O'Callaghan went to Africa to help a friend make a documentary about AIDS orphans--but what he found was his son.

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THOUGH NEITHER OF THEM sees it anymore, the visual contrasts between 6-year-old Odin and his adoptive father, Johnny, couldn't be more stark. I'm sitting on the lawn of the Grove, an outdoor Los Angeles shopping center, on a Sunday in May with the two, their friend Jackie, and Charlie, the family dog. Odin has dark brown skin, dangling cornrows, and big eyes that shine like black onyx. He's dressed in cargo shorts, red Crocs, and a matching red checkered shirt. Like many boys his age, he's constantly bounding about, blowing bubbles, petting dogs, and occasionally dancing to the live band playing oldies covers. Tall, with wavy blond hair and cerulean eyes, his dad, Johnny O'Callaghan, is an Irish-born actor who has a recurring role on SciFi Channel's Stargate Atlantis. As Johnny finishes off an ice-cream cone, struggles with Charlie's leash, and keeps one eye on Odin, he talks with me about being a single gay adoptive father. "You learn to multitask pretty quick with this job," he chuckles in his singsong Irish accent.

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Johnny adopted Odin from Uganda three years ago when Odin was just 3 and living in the House of Hope Orphanage in Kasese, a village in the foothills of the misty Rwenzori Mountains, which are sometimes called the Mountains of the Moon. Though Johnny had no intentions of ever adopting--particularly without a live-in significant other--the events that brought him to Odin just kind of fell into place. "Going to Uganda was very much last-minute," he said over breakfast at a Hollywood cafe a week before our trip to the Grove. "My friend Ellen-Ray Hennessy told me she was working on a documentary in Uganda and asked if I'd like to come. I got 10 vaccinations the next day," he recalls, adding that they left on the following Saturday, landed the following Monday, and drove 10 hours to get to the orphanage.

What awaited Johnny would change his life forever. It would also make him question everything he knew about raising kids and force him to confront the idea of what really makes a family. "I always wanted kids but thought I would do it with someone ... that perfect other person," he says, fiddling with his napkin but never losing eye contact with me. "But I'm a big believer that there's never a right time for anything. You get opportunities, and you either live life or you don't."

Seeing Odin for the first time was one of those opportunities, and, like many adoptive parents, Johnny relied on an instinctive hunch about Odin rather than paperwork or medical records. "I just had this feeling like, God, this is my son. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I instantly had this connection I can't explain," he says.

During a short break from our breakfast interview, Johnny and I walk to the car to let his dog, Charlie, out. "Cute dog," I say. O'Callaghan beams and rolls his eyes. "Charlie here was recently approached by an agent who wanted to cast him in a film," he says, chuckling before finishing his sentence. "They offered to pay us all sorts of money, but it meant Charlie being away from me and Odin for three months. I just couldn't do it because I want Odin to experience family stability."

This kind of loving, tight-knit family-management style--described by Johnny's best friend, actress Caraid O'Brien (another Irish transplant), as "very old-school"--is evident the minute you meet Johnny. You immediately understand his desire to protect Odin (and perhaps Charlie too) from the bad of the world by fostering the individual good within. "Johnny is a thoughtful, kind, generous, and loving parent, and he sees Odin as a reflection of himself," continues O'Brien. "He also believes the quantity of time you spend with your kid is just as important as the quality, so the two meditate together and pray before every meal. Johnny, Odin, and Charlie the dog are an incredibly beautiful and endearing family, and people are struck by that unique beauty. They're head-turners, the three of them."

O'Callaghan had spent time with other kids in the orphanage before he met and "fell in love" with Odin--but none of them spoke to him in the same way. "This one kid, Danny, was a bag of bones left on the doorstep," he says back in the cafe, periodically turning his head to check up on Charlie, who's happily tied up in the shade outside, greeting each new customer with a spunky little jump. "This kid at the orphanage had serious food issues and did things like eat bananas with the skin on," he continues. "I noticed that Odin would share his food with him, which I thought was incredible. Here was this little boy who had nothing himself but was able to recognize that others were in need too. And he was only 3."

That selflessness clearly struck O'Callaghan, who began the adoption process shortly after his first encounter with Odin. Adopting the boy involved the Uganda High Court, international lawyers, the FBI, and the U.S. Embassy, and it took nine months to complete, but surprisingly, O'Callaghan's sexuality didn't affect the process. There was no law in Uganda against a single father adopting, and O'Callaghan was never asked about--nor did he disclose-his sexual orientation. Back in the States he was out to the social worker assigned to Odin, and that was no problem either--not that any adversity would have dissuaded him. "Odin shares many traits with his father," says O'Brien. "He has Johnny's generosity, his inner strength, his beauty, his impishness, his charisma, and his determination of spirit. It's obvious that Odin and Johnny are father and son. Their body language and the way they interact clearly show how they are related."

And she's right. It's hard not to feel a certain warmth when watching the two interact on that sunny Sunday afternoon. Their affection is evident to the curious onlookers as Odin tumbles in and out of his dad's arms with an ease rarely seen in biological families, let alone adoptive ones.

Before Johnny came along, Odin was named Benson and spoke only Rwandese. He was born in a village called Kasinga in Uganda along the border of the Congo and Rwanda. "I had to piece together a lot of the information about Odin's family," explains Johnny. "His family or tribe was Tutsi, and I believe his biological mom died of HIV-related causes while giving birth to him. The father [still living] is also HIV-positive. Odin is a little miracle because he's HIV-negative." Like most children born in AIDS-stricken areas of Africa, Odin had his mother's antibodies for the first 18 months of his life and then developed his own and tests HIV-negative.

A lot of people in the orphanage assumed he was HIV-positive, but he hadn't been tested, and O'Callaghan didn't know when he first met him what Odin's serostatus was. "Of course, it wouldn't have mattered to me," he says, "but looking back, it would've been complicated due to the U.S.'s strict visa and immigration policies. As far as I know, America would not have allowed me to bring Odin into the country if he'd been HIV-positive, which is wrong really, because so many kids in the world need better access to medicine."

Though Uganda is one of the few countries in Africa where HIV infections have declined, largely because of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Reliefs "ABC" approach ("abstinence, be faithful, use condoms"), antiretroviral treatments still reached only about 41% of Ugandans needing them in 2006, according to the World Health Organization.

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Johnny is currently in a relationship with the Australian actor Jaason Simmons, who formerly played a lifeguard hunk on Baywatch. Simmons is close to Odin but not exactly a second father. "I tell Odin he has a morn and dad rolled up into one," says Johnny. "Some people have a dad and a dad, or a mom and dad, but Odin got a two-for-one special with me. I joke about it now, but I just don't want people coming in and out of his life," Johnny says, turning serious. "You know, sometimes we go to these really big houses on play dates where they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on parties, and in the beginning Odin would look at me and say, 'Daddy, I'm OK here. You can leave me now,'" he continues, laughing again. "But seriously, I don't think he quite grasped the concept that a daddy is someone for life and that a family is something that doesn't change. So, yeah, Jaason and I would love to adopt together someday, and if we get there, that's great."

For now, the couple seems to be enjoying the slow pace of things. "It's interesting watching us all adjust," says Simmons, who hadn't really thought about adoption until his 30s but is enjoying creating little traditions with Odin, like going out for pot pies at KFC (their first meal together). "Stability for Odin is the main focus, so we are in no rush with our relationship," he continues. "I know next to nothing about parenthood, but Johnny is a wonderful reference, so I feel I'm on the right track."

Though Johnny and Odin live in a small house in posh Nichols Canyon now, Johnny grew up in the working-class suburbs of Dublin, the third of four children in a mixed Protestant and Catholic household. He always wanted a lot of kids, which is something he remembered during a recent trip to Ireland to have Odin christened. "It was really an excuse to celebrate him in Ireland in a way that my family could understand," explains Johnny. "It was beautiful, and they all fell in love with him straightaway." In many ways it was harder for Johnny's family to accept his sexuality than it was for them to support his adoption. "You know, it took some time, but now my family is very comfortable and supportive of my sexuality. I think my mom and dad are the generation that's been educated by Oprah Winfrey. That woman has had a huge impact throughout the world, even in Ireland. They all watch it, and they learn," he says. "Now, as a gay parent, I want to talk more about it, because we need more stories to normalize the experience of being gay. It's important to Odin and me that we're connecting with other gay families to accomplish this."

Johnny and Odin are involved in a variety of community activities, such as soccer practice and church. "Sometimes being a gay parent in the U.S. makes you feel like you're being observed and have a lot to measure up to," he says. "And when you adopt a child, people seem to think they can say anything they want to about it. I don't understand that. They see brown and white and automatically assume there's no way he's yours. People talk to you like you're doing some random kid a favor. I used to get a lot of 'Where's that kid's mama?' And a few complete strangers came up to me in the grocery store and asked if they could give him a hug or give him some chocolate, which I thought was just weird.

"But sometimes you can look into these things too much or overanalyze the situation," he admits, leaning back in his chair and taking a deep breath. "For me, Odin is my son, not an accessory or a kid that I've helped out in life. He's not an orphan anymore."

Perhaps the most common misconception is that Odin was the only one to benefit from this adoption. "In many ways, I feel like Odin saved me as much as I saved him," Johnny says. "So many people live their lives for themselves only, and I could see myself heading down that same unfulfilling track. Especially being an actor in L.A., the business can make you so self-obsessed," he says, laughing. "It's much more interesting to hear and talk about Odin than it is to hear people tell you for the 20th time about when they worked with Elizabeth Taylor."

For more information about Johnny and Odin, visit www.johnnyocallaghan.com.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:FAMILY
Author:Graham, Adam H.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 15, 2008
Words:2040
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