A thrilling new trend is emerging in American parenting: LGBTQ couples starting families. As one might suspect, they often live in thriving urban areas, but they’re also growing in numbers in bucolic suburbs and quiet rural regions. The one element these couples seem to have in common is joy.
What is causing this trend? As more members of the LGBTQ community tie the knot, an unexpected instinct steps into the picture—the desire to build a family. While that’s not always the case, why would we expect otherwise? The hetero side of humankind has felt the need to reproduce since the dawn of time. What better way to celebrate a loving LGBTQ relationship than to share that love with a child?
But how? There are several options for either assisted reproduction or adoption, and many local professionals are stepping up to help local LGBTQ couples make parenting a reality.
Exploring the Procreative Options
As a 20-something lesbian living in Houston, Liliana Galvan never dreamed she would marry the love of her life, Crystal Carvajal—or that the couple would give birth to a beautiful daughter. Galvan, 32, could not be happier. “Life today is pretty darned awesome,” she says, smiling.
When it comes to LGBTQ reproduction, there are more options than most people
realize. And in Houston, we have professionals who stand ready to help with every one
Galvan and her wife decided it was time to consider building a family at the seven-year mark in their relationship. “We decided to investigate the process after we lost some close friends, back to back,” recalled Carvajal. “When something like that happens, it makes you think about the ‘what if’ scenarios. We decided that if anything happened to either one of us, we wanted to leave each other something more.
“After our first consultation with Dr. Hoff at Houston Fertility Institute (HFI), we understood the options, but we also knew there were no guarantees. Lily and I agreed that if parenthood was meant to be for us, it would be. Then we searched HFI’s recommended sperm bank for donors and purchased four vials
“Lily surprised me on Valentine’s Day by telling me she was pregnant. It was the best Valentine’s Day ever!” Carvajal concluded.
“I carried our daughter,” Galvan added. “Crystal has a job that would have made a pregnancy difficult, so we knew it would be me. Working with Dr. Hoff, we searched sperm-bank files separately and then brought our favorites back to [share with each other]. There was one who stood out. We listened to an interview with him, and we both got very emotional. That’s when we knew we’d found our donor,” Galvan explained.
“Lily and Crystal used our medically assisted insemination process,” stated OB/GYN Heather Hoff, a specialist in the field of reproductive endodontology and infertility (REI) at Houston Fertility Institute. “We used a catheter to place the sperm in the center of her uterus. Success is not a sure thing, but we soon had a pregnancy. It was joyous moment for all of us.”
Lesbian couples have many donor options. Some turn to a friend for sperm; others ask a male relative of one of the women for help.
An interesting option is the use of in vitro fertilization. A sperm donor is identified and one woman contributes the egg, which is fertilized externally, then implanted in the second woman who carries the pregnancy to term. If the donor is a blood relative of one of the two, this process allows the biologically unrelated woman to carry, thus producing
a baby that is as connected to both women
There are many good sperm banks offering both frozen and fresh sperm. (Freezing is a safe option and has no effect on the child, says Dr. Hoff.) In the case of Houston Fertility Institute, the agency also works with a highly qualified sperm-bank service, thus providing lesbian couples a one-stop resource to meet all their needs.
The field of reproductive endodontology and infertility is a highly specialized one. For Dr. Hoff, the choice to pursue this particular field almost felt like a calling.
Dr. Hoff originally planned to be a veterinarian, but when she delivered her first child, it was a moving, life-changing experience that served as an epiphany. Even today, the thought of helping couples start families often brings tears to her eyes.
Dr. Hoff also believes that being a lesbian gives her a deeper understanding of the concerns and uncertainties that LGBTQ couples have. Dr. Hoff herself is considering the journey to parenting, making her profession all the more thrilling and personal.
Men and Reproductive Road Bumps
Gay male couples face more challenges bearing a biological baby than their lesbian sisters, and many assume parenting is simply not in their stars. Much to these couples’ surprise, very few of the challenges are insurmountable. For any sort of a genetic link to an offspring, it is necessary to utilize a surrogate.
Surrogacy comes in two forms. In a traditional surrogacy, the woman who carries the baby is also the genetic mother and supplies the egg. After the surrogate agrees, the gay couple decides which partner will supply the sperm to fertilize her ovum. In some cases, the couple will direct medical professionals to use sperm from both men and leave the genetics of the child up to fate.
The second type of surrogacy is called gestational. In this case, the gay couple will use an egg from a donor and choose a second woman—a gestational surrogate—to carry the child.
A gestational surrogate offers advantages. She enters the pregnancy with all of the cards on the table: she knows and has approved of the couple who will parent the child and, significantly, she will be less tempted to keep the infant because it is not biologically related to her.
Here again, there are options. Some gay couples decide to combine an egg from one man’s sister (or other female relative) with the sperm of the second, unrelated partner, and implant the ovum in a woman who will serve as the gestational carrier. This produces a baby genetically related to both men. Many male couples who choose this path consider such a birth to be a blessing, if not a miracle.
Who are these surrogates? Aspire Fertility works with a highly regarded agency to offer a selection of women candidates, all of whom have been thoroughly reviewed, medically tested, and investigated on relevant matters.
“Some people question the motives of surrogates, or as we call them, gestational carriers,” stated reproductive endocrinologist and OB/GYN Barbara Stegmann, a physician at Aspire Fertility. She is a doctor who derives great joy from her “dream position” at the clinic.
“The truth is, our gestational carriers are the nicest people you will ever meet. These women know they are giving the greatest gift there is to give a loving LGBTQ couple. They are delighted to help,” Dr. Stegmann explained.
Gestational carriers are selected by the future parents, and are required to have their own biological children first. When their birth children ask about the pregnancy, the carrier will generally say something like, “We are babysitting for some very happy parents.” (How sweet is that?)
“They are truly kind people, with their hearts and interests in the right place,” Dr. Stegmann added.
Aspire Fertility believes that families, like babies, come in all shapes and sizes, and actively seeks LGBTQ couples interested in starting families. Dr. Stegmann understands the questions that surround parenthood, and works to make the process as stress-free as possible. Aspire offers seven reproductive endocrinologists at six locations throughout the city, with a success rate that far exceeds the national average.
“When I meet an LGBTQ couple for the initial consultation, I spend a lot of time helping them sort through their uncertainties,” Dr. Stegmann explained. “Education is a big part of it. I ease their misgivings and share solutions. It is also important to let them know that they are not alone; we will be there for each step of their amazing journey. After all, that is the greatest reward for me, to start a new life and see the beginning of a loving family. That makes it all worthwhile,” Dr. Stegmann concluded, her eyes sparkling.
Transcending the Challenges of Transgender Parenting
There is another trend emerging in the LGBTQ community in Houston: more and more children are identifying as transgender at a younger age. This fact gives rise to some questions about the reproductive futures of transgender individuals. Can medical science provide answers?
“We see many trans patients in all stages of their transitions,” stated Dr. Hoff. “They are all excited about transitioning, but they also know they may want to have a family at some time. They want ‘insurance’ for down the line. Depending on where they are in their transition, we will take sperm or harvest eggs and freeze them for the future. It’s up to the patient what to do then, but that way they have possibilities,” the doctor explained.
“As for children, we see transgender teens and pre-teen kids too. They have no thoughts of a future family at this stage in their lives, but it is their parents who bring them into the clinic. The parents are thinking of potential grandchildren at some point. We work with the teen who is normally very comfortable with our suggestions to ensure options exist for the future.
“It is another amazing service we offer, and highly valued by the growing trans community,” Dr. Hoff concluded.
Financing the Future
Notably, both Aspire and HFI offer help identifying financing options for LGBTQ couples. A few insurance companies currently recognize the reproductive needs of the community, but the process is not cheap. A single vile of sperm runs about $750, and a small selection of unfertilized eggs is around $10,000. (These numbers do not take into account the tests and treatments needed to bring a child to term.)
The average compensation for a gestational surrogate in Texas runs about $50,000 plus expenses, depending on the individual arrangements. In states like California, where surrogates are in high demand, surrogates may be paid much more.
There is no other way to slice it: having and/or raising a child is expensive. Building a family remains beyond the financial reach of many loving LGBTQ couples. If partners enter the journey to parenthood thinking only about the expense of diapers and baby food, they need to think again.
No matter who you are, LGBTQ or otherwise, a prerequisite to reproduction in America may soon involve winning the lottery.
The Foster/Adoption Option
For some LGBTQ couples, the urgency presented by America’s overburdened foster-care and adoption system determines their choice for creating a family. Here again, there are some fine local agencies ready to help.
More than 400,000 American children are removed from homes as the result of abuse, neglect, or abandonment each year. Since 1966, Trinity Youth Services has answered this societal challenge by providing foster-care services and finding permanent adoptive homes. In these loving environments, kids often start to heal from the trauma in their lives.
Unlike other agencies, the California-based Trinity organization seeks foster and adoptive couples regardless of age, religion, ethnicity, race, or, notably, sexual orientation. All are welcome.
Trinity is fully prepared to help certify couples by assisting with background checks, the FBI fingerprinting process, home visits, and the safety inspections required for foster certification and licensing. Its knowledgeable staff helps by explaining the ins and outs of the foster-care system.
However, the agency’s services are by no means limited to foster care. Trinity strives to provide quality guardianship with one goal in mind—the permanency of adoption. If a couple expresses a desire to adopt, Trinity first requires the couple to foster the child for six months. If the request remains after that trial period, the agency will move heaven and earth to help with the adoption.
“Many of our most dedicated and loving foster families are LGBTQ couples,” states Brea Blaylock, director of marketing for Trinity Youth Services Houston. “And some of our happiest adoptions have been with LGBTQ families. We require their help. A child enters the foster system every two seconds in America. The need for families far outstrips the number of foster homes. We are fortunate and grateful for the love these couples are willing to share.”
Renee Barnes and Yuovene Spann are a lesbian couple who have been together 14 years and fostered five children. While the women are both African-American, their fosters represent nearly every ethnicity, and all were ultimately returned to their biological families by the courts. It is safe to say that each child was a bit happier and healthier thanks to Barnes and Spann.
“It is a very rewarding experience for us,” Barnes said, smiling. “We get to help the children heal, learn, and grow with us. Right now, we are shopping for a larger home. When we find it, we’ll start fostering more children—and hopefully, working with Trinity, we’ll eventually adopt one.
“We help the kids, but the kids help us, too. They bring us joy, and they keep us going. We are looking forward to plenty more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in our future,” Barnes concluded, laughing.
There are other ways to arrive at an adoption. Sometimes it takes lots of help from agencies, and sometimes it takes a heaping dollop of luck. Such was the case for Houstonians Blake Ellis and Shaun McDade Nelson.
These two happily married men spent the first years of their relationship solidifying their professional lives. When they reached the four-year mark in their marriage, they started to think about building a family—a dream that began to take up more and more space in their hearts.
In 2015, the couple took their first steps toward adoption by filing requests for an infant with three adoption agencies. Then they waited.
“We thought about various forms of reproduction, but we decided that the best route for us to take was to give a child a happy, loving home who might not otherwise have the chance,” Ellis stated. “We put no stipulation on the child’s sex, ethnicity, or background—we would have loved whoever he or she was. We were just looking forward to sharing our love,” Ellis explained.
It took three long years for the call to come. Finally, a woman who was expecting a girl chose Ellis and Nelson to parent her soon-to-be newborn. The men were overcome with anticipation and excitement. They immediately started to “nest.”
“A day before the mother gave birth, she decided to parent the baby herself. We were devastated. There are no words for our sadness. But that’s not where it ends. A short time after that, we got a call from some friends in Mississippi who had a friend seeking good parents for a child she would soon deliver. She was interested in meeting us. It was a shock and gift all wrapped in one, and we quickly got in the car and headed east,” Ellis recalled.
“We arrived at the hospital shortly after she gave birth to a baby boy,” Nelson added, smiling. “We didn’t participate in the delivery, but we met the birth mother and her family, and we all decided that it would be an open adoption from the beginning. The child’s biological relatives are welcome in his life. We think it will be best for his sake.”
Ellis and Nelson named their new son Calder Anthony Nelson-Ellis. Calder turned 16 months a short time ago, and the adoptive parents could not be happier.
“One of the things that we did not anticipate was the overwhelming and unrelenting joy and support we have received from all our friends, and particularly the LGBTQ community. It’s been wonderful. It’s sort of like we all had a baby,” Ellis stated, laughing.
“For me, I did not realize what a place Calder would take in my heart,” Nelson con-cluded. “I think about him constantly. Even now, as I wait for him to return from daycare,
I can’t wait to see him. It has amazed and humbled me. It is a love that only seems to grow.”
This article appears in the February 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.