Ryan Messer is the sort of successful, interesting, down-to-Earth human I could talk to for endless hours if I didn’t know I was cutting into the 9 million other things he has to do in a given day. He’s a director at Johnson & Johnson, where he helped reform the company’s paternity leave and fertility coverage policies. He’s the first openly gay member of the Cincinnati school board. And he’s raising his four children (Anderson, 12; Olivier, 5; Lillian, 4; and Rocco, 18 months) — plus a few interesting pets — with his husband, Jimmy, in the 1897 mansion they restored.
Even so, he parents much the same way his own parents did when he was growing up on a farm in rural southern Indiana, where the hallmarks of childhood were bare feet, hot breakfasts, and adventure.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood and how it shaped who you are today.
I think I was kind of the original breed of the free-range kids where you had adventures and there was a nice safety bubble around our small town of Rising Sun — which is as beautiful and quaint as the name implies.
I had a fairly traditional mother who was also a difference-maker. Well, she was a little edgy — God forbid, she wore pants to church — but she was traditional in the sense that you had a hot breakfast before you went to school, your favourite cookies were there when you were getting off the school bus, and you all sat down together for dinner.
And there was a whole lot of give-back in my childhood. I remember I learned how to make doll clothes, of all things; a family had lost everything in a fire and so we were making clothes for Christmas presents. That’s one of my early memories of that kind of thing. My dad worked outside of the house and on the farm, and it was a lot of hard work together as a team. It was a pretty picture-perfect childhood.
How did you meet your husband?
Well, we kind of met on a blind date, and it was just one of those things where you know when you know. He had just moved to the Cincinnati area for work, and we met and had a drink, and the date ended in me showing him this abandoned building that I wanted to buy. It was in an up-and-coming neighbourhood, and next thing you know, we were climbing through this building in the middle of the night that had no electricity and probably floors that would have collapsed if we’d been another pound heavier. He’s a designer, and the next day, he sent me blueprints and drawings of what the house would look like restored and where furniture would go and all this stuff. We ended up buying that house, and within 60 days, we were living together.
It was interesting because it went so quickly and as we were moving in that direction, Jimmy kept disappearing like for an entire weekend at a time; he’d say he had this urgent need to go take care of his mother, allegedly, who lived in Columbus, and I got very sceptical. So I called him and I said, “OK, enough. We’ve starting making plans to move in together. Come on, give me the facts — there’s somebody else.” And he goes, “Uh, yeah. He’s two and his name is Anderson. It’s a long story, but I have a baby, and I was afraid if I had a baby, you wouldn’t want anything to do with me.” And I was like, “What? You have a kid? Bring him down here right now.”
To me, it was such an added bonus, whereas Jimmy thought it was a liability for a gay guy. And maybe to some it would have been a liability, but my dream was always to have children. Jimmy had this sigh of relief, and I had this, like, sigh of joy. That kind of started our little journey together, but I think each of us knew that we’d like to have additional kids together.
How did you move forward with growing your family?
After we were together maybe two years, we decided it was time to start getting things moving. We were at dinner one night with some friends and one of them asked, “So when are you guys gonna have kids? You’re so good with ours.” And I was like, “Well, believe it or not, we’re kind of working on that.” And just that quick, his wife says, “You know Joey’s wife wants to be a surrogate again. They have four kids, and she loved being pregnant; there was a woman in Louisville who couldn’t have baby, so she had one for them. And she said just recently said that she’d like to do it again.” That was a Saturday night; Monday morning at eight o’clock, my phone rings and it was her, and she said, “I’d be honoured to have your child.”
So we had Olivier. Our surrogate knew that we’d like to have another one, and when Olivier was only here for about six months, she called and said, “Hey, I’m not getting any younger; I know you’d like to have another one, so if you want to just go ahead, I’m ready.” So we did, and that was Lillian. Both Lillian and Olivier are biologically mine, and I also wanted one who was biologically Jimmy’s. We had eggs from the same donor as Lillian and Olivier, and if we had one that was biologically Jimmy’s, that baby would connect the circle. It would be a blood brother to Anderson and have the same biological mother as the other two, so everybody was kind of interconnected. So that was Rocco.
Can you tell me about some of the advocacy work you did as you were growing your family?
I work at Johnson & Johnson and I’m very involved in diversity and inclusion. When we submitted the in-vitro fertilisation claim for payment, Aetna denied us, because you had to have a female with the diagnosis of infertility to pay for in-vitro. Well, I was able to convince Johnson & Johnson to expand the coverage before we had our daughter, who is our third child, and J & J became the first company in the United States — and probably the world — to pay for same sex in-vitro and they paid for the surrogacy.
And actually, with my first son [born via surrogacy], I was able to convince J & J that men deserve paternity leave, and I got eight paid weeks for all men. That was another big win, so both Olivier and Lillian, I say, had a big impact on the world by having a major company give eight paid weeks for paternity leave in the U.S., which is a big deal, and then to pay for in-vitro and the surrogacy.
What has fatherhood been like for you?
It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had. You know, when you have to work as hard as we did to figure it out, you know you really want to be a parent. That’s not to criticise other people, but the point is our parenthood was very deliberate choice. And I also, I was 40 when Olivier was born. And I am sure I’m 10 times a parent, I would have been at 20. To me, it’s a priority. It’s not just an extra thing; it’s job one for me.
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I understand you’re the first openly gay member of the Cincinnati Public Schools’ Board of Education. What has that experience been like for you?
Well, it was interesting in that, short of a couple comments that I was privy to, it was a non-issue. I ran against incumbents and, as a first-time candidate, handily got the highest votes against people who were much bigger household names. You know, when I first moved here, Cincinnati had Article 12 on the books, which made Cincinnati the only city that had a law where it effectively gave you permission to fire somebody simply based on their sexual orientation. It was a hideous law. So to then be able to run and not only get elected but get elected with the highest votes on my first try? To me, that was a great sign that the city has really progressed. It was red, but now it’s a dark blue city.
What I often heard at that time was, “I’m just so glad to have a parent running.” They didn’t say “gay parent,” they didn’t say “straight parent,” just “parent.” At one point, I was actually the only parent on the board. So I get messages all the time, thanking me for being the voice of the parent — with zero reference to anything else.
Switching gears, I have to ask you about the vehicle I see in the picture of you and your family [at the top of the post].
It’s a 1975 Airstream 9.45 m Sovereign. This one was originally bought by a family with four kids, and they raised their kids using it. And then this couple bought it from them and had it while they raised their four kids. And then we bought it from them with our four kids. It was like a childhood dream; I always thought I wanted one. And finally I was like, you know what, the kids are old enough now. So I did some searching, and I saw this one and it was just what I wanted. Jimmy was like, “You’re really doing this?” And I said, “You better believe it. We have memories to make.” So my sidekick — aka Lillian — hopped in the truck and we drove seven hours to pick this sucker up.
For our first big trip, I wanted something that was really memorable, so we did an extended trip to Mount Rushmore — and lots of places in between, to and from there. The kids absolutely love it and I think, frankly, that’s why Jimmy loves it now, too.
I have saved my most important question for last. Do you… do you have pet peacocks?
Please tell me about your pet peacocks.
So, we bought this old home in Cincinnati that was built in 1897 [pictured above]. It’s the second largest house in Cincinnati, but it was abandoned, no power, no nothing. This couple introduced us to the house and said, “You guys about the only two people dumb enough — or imaginative enough — to take this on. And so we sit on two acres in this historic neighbourhood called North Avondale; and I must say, it was a transformation for the record books.
I took on the outside and Jimmy took on the inside, him being the designer and me being the farm kid. I’ve planted 82 trees so far on our property; many of those have been peach trees, cherry trees, apple trees and plum trees. We taught the kids how to make plum jam, so that’s obviously a nod to my childhood, the sort of thing my mother would have done, and does still. And then, you know, I think you always have to have animals. So one Easter a couple of years ago, I decided the kids were old enough to start having animals and to be learning how to take care of animals, so I got them a group of chicks and two turkeys. And so, that started us, and at one point, Jimmy said, “You know, I’d love to have a pair of peacocks.” And I thought if he’s tiptoeing into my world of all this farming and outdoor stuff, what a perfect birthday gift that would be.
So, I found a guy who had a pair, a one-year-old pair of peacocks. And this past April, for Jimmy’s birthday, I came back to the house with this pair of peacocks. The kids came running out, and I asked Olivier who’s five years old, “What do you think their names should be?” And he said, “I think his name is Steve, and her name is Victoria.”
We also have a turkey named Tammy Faye. And we have five hens: Hilda, Wilma, Eleanor, Gertrude and Bess. So we have all these birds, and this is just like how my childhood was with the hot breakfast every morning — my kids want their bacon and eggs and all that — but then you run out of eggs and they’re like, “Oh, go get them out of the chicken house!” So we go get our eggs out of the chicken house and come in and make breakfast. That is definitely a thread of my childhood that’s been pulled through to theirs.
Editor’s note: The full conversation with Messer has been condensed and edited for flow and space.
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