I didn’t know what to expect as I sat in a taxi headed to speak at Japan’s first seminar on gay family-building.
In an LGBT-inclusive place like Los Angeles, the idea of same-sex couples having children through surrogacy and in vitro fertilization has become commonplace. People like Elton John and David Furnish, and most recently TV producer Greg Berlanti, very publicly having children have created a new normal for gay Americans.
In Japan the idea is completely foreign. “Traditional families” are codified in Japanese culture. Not only are same-sex marriages unrecognized by the government, but policies forbid Japan-based fertility doctors like myself from working with anyone but a straight couple, leaving same-sex couples (and straight or LGBT singles) unable to seek family-building assistance in the country.
While some lesbians have found ways to give birth to their own children, for gay men, having children wasn’t just difficult, it was not even considered by male couples.
“For gay men, we haven’t even had any conversations or interest in the topic here in Japan,” one of the event’s local coordinators, Hiroko Masuhara, told me. Hiroko is an LGBT consultant for corporations in Japan now suddenly very interested in learning more about their LGBT customers and employees. She and her wife, Koyuki Higashi, have been bravely fighting for legal recognition of their marriage for the last couple of years.
Traveling to the seminar, I wondered if anyone would show up. If there was a crowd, would it be simply a bunch of looky-loos? Would people sit quietly and nod, trying to just get through the talk?
As soon as I walked in the door, I was blown away by the energy and enthusiasm.
I had been a part of events like this before, speaking at conferences in London and San Francisco, hosting seminars in Los Angeles and Memphis. This was like nothing I had ever seen.
The room wasn’t just packed with people, it was bubbling with excitement. About 70 attendees — mostly gay men and same-sex couples — had turned out for a conversation that simply hadn’t taken place in Japan. We couldn’t fit another person. When organizers were looking for a space, they had decided on a smaller venue because not even they knew what the interest would be. I later learned that in the days leading up to the event, they had had to turn away many people interested in the work.
It was a diverse crowd of people from all walks of Tokyo. Some were stylish and trendy, others nerdy, with a healthy dose of business suits in the room as well — all across a range of ages. Gay people from across the city had found their way to the truly groundbreaking event.
A half-dozen media outlets, including PBS, had come to document the historic moment when the opportunity for gay men to have children in Japan would be discussed openly for the first time.
The enthusiasm for the afternoon’s conversation was palpable. The possibility of having children had simply not been on the radar screens of these folks ever before. It was like the conversation about some technology that suddenly made it possible for humans to fly — never a remote possibility in their minds, then a frenetic enthusiasm for the suddenly possible.
As I spoke. the energy in the room didn’t dissipate, it grew. People didn’t get tired, they became more and more energized. Even working through a translator — my Japanese is most definitely not conversation-ready — every single member of the audience was attentive, on the proverbial edge of their seats.
Questions flew at me from across the room about the selection and role of surrogates, the process of conceiving a child thousands of miles away, and whether two men can both donate sperm in the process. They even asked some personal questions about my husband and me.
Many of the questions also centered on the law. Because the concept of two gay men having a child together is so new, the law is murky at best. Despite a centuries-old history of adult adoption in Japan — today sometimes used in the place of same-sex marriage — currently two people of the same gender cannot legally adopt a child under 6 years old together in Japan. A same-sex couple named the two parents of a child born through surrogacy in the United States? The best guess of legal experts I’ve spoken to said that Japanese law would recognize the American surrogate as the mother, the sperm donor as the father, and not acknowledge both men as the legal parents. The family-law experts in both the U.S. and Japan have a challenge ahead to find a path forward for Japanese LGBT people.
Every shift in social consciousness — and ensuing access to legal protections — has to start somewhere. For same-sex couples in Japan, the spark, when we look back years from now, will have been this seminar. The overwhelming gratitude these folks showered on me and the other presenters at the event brought me a deep sense of pride. This may have been just the first step, but I’m committed to seeing the LGBT people of Japan all the way through this.
“Before that night having a family was just a story in foreign films,” Hiroko said after the event. “Now people here in Japan are talking about it. Now it is a possibility.”