Gay Uncle Knows Best

Former local Brett Berk's parenting tips might shock some (pick your nose! throw snowballs!), but he's queer - so he's right.

By Chris Azzopardi

For a man who doesn't have any kids - and has zero desire to raise one, or two, or five - Brett Berk is the Tim Gunn of child-rearing. Like the "Project Runway" know-it-all's venture into publishing, Berk's book debut, "The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting," a hilariously hip how-to read, offers input on potty-training, nose-picking and spanking (hey, we're talking about raising kids here!). And like Gunn, the formerly Farmington Hills-based author, who will sign copies at 7 p.m. March 19 at Borders in Birmingham, is also queer - and that, when considering that gays are the new grandmas, makes him wholly qualified. Right?

"If we look at contemporary culture in recent years, people have been willing to entrust all sorts of things to gay men - how to dress themselves, how to feed themselves, how to decorate their homes," says the 39-year-old, who now lives with his partner of 18 years in New York. And since Berk's not Gunn or a member of the Fab Five, he took the next (maybe?) logical gay-guru step: Using his outside perspective to give kids' and parents' lives a facelift. Or a Cher.

As a former classroom teacher, preschool director and currently - aside from writing up the wazoo and being an uncle - a research consultant to some of the world's biggest producers of children's media, toys and consumer products, Berk's got the creds. And as much wit as a trained comedian and a potty-mouth like a 14-year-old. All of which likely will be selling points for those interested in knowing why they shouldn't be ashamed of nasal mining or why boys - and men! - should pee sitting down.

"Hopefully the book will help not just parents," he says, "but people who aren't parents understand a little bit more about kids." Factoids like: Why shouldn't we consider them miniature grown-ups? Or why, sometimes, kid-less folks can't go anywhere without hearing someone-kill-me crying. Curious? Then don't head to your local Christian bookstore to pick this one up.

Pretending, for a (really) brief moment, that holy outlets start carrying the guide, Berk quips: "You'll probably see the plumes of smoke rising off of the Christian-living stores."

Berk's book was released last Tuesday, the day before Michigan - where Berk lived until he left for college in Ohio - turned into a white mess, and kids everywhere launched snowballs at their buddies. "I'm all in favor of snowballs, and water balloons as well - and mud balls, too," Berk says. "Throwing almost anything is fun, as long as everyone is on the same page about it."

Taking a long pause, he clarifies: "Throwing knives is probably not a good idea."

Berk should know. As a teenager he cared for his younger brother and babysat. While in high school he tutored underprivileged children and then in college he participated in a work-study at a preschool. Later, he landed his first teaching job at one.

"I've always felt a connection with kids," he says, "and just been interested in trying to help them become the best people that they can." That includes seven official nieces between him and his partner and dozens of "nieces" and "nephews" whom are friends' kids and former students - but no children of their own. Why?

"Well, in part, because we know so much about them," he laughs. "Having worked with kids for so long, I've seen sort of exactly what's involved in order to do the job right and that's - I have other things that I'm immersed in, and that's not a top priority for me. Working with kids is great, and understanding them is great, but, I think - yeah, that's where it ends."

But Berk's first book, which he wrote in "concentrated bursts" over a year, is where something begins, he hopes. If this takes off faster than a toddler that's just learned to walk, his Detroit-based novel might get published, and he'll then pen a book on separation, divorce and "blended" families - and his long-shelved "Beyond Pink and Blue," which examines gender issues, might just find new life.

"No one wants to buy another one of these if this one's a big flop," he says, chuckling.

And even if it is, he can turn to television, where we might just see him dropping the "Uncle" title and substituting one he'll never endure in his own life: "Parent."

"I'm actually working on developing a sitcom idea with my boyfriend - he's a screenwriter - based on 'The Gay Uncle's Guide,''' Berk says, adding he's working with a television agent in Los Angeles. Don't count on some Bravo-housed parenting reality show; the premise would revolve around a straight and lesbian couple, and a single dad. Think of it as "Sex in the City" for toddlers, he says.

No doubt then, Brett: The gays will eat it up quicker than any kid'll devour a Hershey's bar.

Brett Berk

'The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting'

7 p.m. March 19

Borders, Birmingham

http://www.brettberk.com

Chris Azzopardi is the entertainment editor of Between The Lines. Bored? Visit BTL's pop culture blog at gotgay.blogspot.com.

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