I was nervous and excited to visit China. Growing up in the Midwest in the 1960s and ’70s, I had the impression of China as a communist country where creativity, ideas, and social change were deeply repressed. I had been told that homosexuality was tolerated but kept very undercover and away from one’s family.
As a gay reproductive endocrinologist in Southern California, where I have helped many gay and lesbian patients build families through assisted reproductive procedures over the past 20 years, I was nervous about the country’s openness to seminars on gay family building. Would the government censor our lectures and prevent us from presenting information on the treatment options available to help gay men and lesbians have families of their own? Would anyone show up at the seminars, or would fear of being outed drive them away?
Our first presentation of the “road show” in China took place in Shanghai at the W Hotel. The conference organizers had advertised on gay social media but were not quite sure how many people would turn out. A large conference room was ready, with banners promoting the talk at the hall entrance. Thirty minutes before the start of the conference, well-dressed young professional men and women began to arrive and sign in at the registration desk.
As the guests streamed in, it became obvious that we would need additional seating to accommodate them all. By starting time, the room was filled with over 170 attendees, and they kept piling into the room. The audience was gay and lesbian young professionals accompanied by their partners, friends, and a few parents, all seeking information on how they could have children and a family of their own.
We had organized a very thorough presentation covering all aspects of gay family building including the medical treatment options available, the legal issues involved with gestational surrogacy, and the social aspects of raising children in a family headed by parents of the same sex. My role was to present the medical aspects of gay family building, including intrauterine insemination with donor sperm, reciprocal in vitro fertilization for lesbian couples where one partner supplies the eggs and her partner carries the pregnancy, and the use of egg donation and gestational surrogacy for gay men to have children of their own.
Audience members were glued to the presenters. It was clear they were hungry for the information and wanted to learn. By the end of the evening we had nearly 200 attendees registered. Questions varied from technical aspects of the medical procedures to legal issues regarding parental control to how the children were treated by other members of their local communities. It was clear that these men and women were seriously considering and planning their future families.
Additional seminars were presented in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chongqing. Each lecture hall was filled to capacity with eager listeners and hopeful future parents. It was inspiring to see the great interest and excitement over the possibility that they too may be able to have children like their heterosexual family members and friends.
I was invited to dinner in Beijing by patients of mine — a gay couple who’ve been together for over 10 years and lived together for nearly eight. They were close with their families, who know they were “friends” and living together but never asked questions about the details of their relationship. They told me that people in China were very tolerant of gays as long as they didn’t have to “deal” with the issue within their own family. In other words, it’s fine to be gay as long as you are not part of my family.
I asked how their parents would respond when their baby arrived. They assured me that both of their families would lovingly accept their child as one of their own. It was clear that their child would be a much-loved son or daughter and a grandchild of very loving and attentive grandparents.
Social change moves slowly — especially in a repressed nation like China — but I’m heartened by the commitment demonstrated by the gay and lesbian people I spoke with. I’m convinced that once their families, friends, and peers start seeing their genuine desire to be parents, Chinese society will move more toward acceptance and understanding. During that time, I look forward to helping my new Chinese patients and friends start their families.
GUY RINGLER is a board certified physician in both obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive endocrinology and infertility. He is a partner with California Fertility Partners.