Jack: It’s more common than you’d think. But you’re right in the sense that most Beijingers have no idea that gay parenting is even a thing. We get various reactions when it’s just us out with the kids – ‘Oh, look at those dads, giving their poor wives a day off!’ is a common one. Once an old lady shuffled up to my daughter – who I was holding at the time – and started asking ‘Where’s your mummy? Where’s your mummy?’ Obviously when the kids are tiny that’s not an issue, but it’s something we’ll need to prepare them for later.
When people ask, we vary the response depending on who it is. If it’s another queer person, or a friend, then we give the full story. With strangers – and it’s usually strangers asking – we just say that the kids’ mum (in reality they have two – their ‘egg mum’ and their ‘birth mum’) doesn’t live with us. You can tell that conjures a tonne of follow-up questions, but, whether in China or the West, most people choose not to pry.
What are the unique advantages or challenges to being gay parents?
J: If you’re both cisgendered men, then neither of you had to endure pregnancy or childbirth, which means you’re fighting fit and ready for action from the moment they come into the world. There’s no breastfeeding to coordinate or physical postnatal issues to manage, which is also a major plus. Other than that, I’d say there’s very little difference in how gay people experience parenting. You put up with the same sleepless nights, the worry, the irritability, the chaotic home environment and the usual tensions with grandparents.
If there weren’t so many extra bureaucratic obstacles that gay parents have to face – especially those who conceive via surrogacy – we’d barely notice the difference. But our legal status as parents has been dictated by the legal systems of three countries – the kids’ birthplace (Cambodia), China and the UK. Only one of these places will acknowledge our equal rights as parents – and even then, only with a High Court ruling. That’s something that straight people who might imagine anti-LGBT discrimination is no longer a big problem in the West could do to be aware of.
Jack, you were involved in a lot of LGBT activism before the twins were born. Have you kept that up post-twins?
J: We’re part of a community that I never want to leave behind. I’ve kept writing for Time Out – my employer, the British Embassy generously encouraged me to keep it up – and raising awareness by sharing the stories of the queer Beijingers who truly are changing China’s attitude to LGBT people.
The ‘scene’ in Beijing is nightlife-heavy, so that’s had to take a backseat, but as the kids grow we mean to involve them in our lives as queer people, and we’re taking them to Pride in London this year. Regardless of who our children grow up to be, whatever their sexual or gender identity, I want them to be a part of a bigger queer family, too. I also hope to resurrect my drag alter ego Elizabeth Stride once I’ve dropped my baby weight!
What issues face gay families in China?
J: The main obstacles are legal and administrative. There’s no provision in law for unmarried co-parenting, never mind queer co-parenting, and so couples who have kids together, unless they enter fake marriages with opposite-sex partners (which is depressingly common – and understandable given the immense pressure to have kids), do not have their status protected in law. Surrogacy is also flat-out illegal, as is queer adoption, which seriously limits the avenues available to have kids.
When you pair the two elements – the complete lack of legal provision for queer people with the enormous societal and familial pressure to procreate – you create the perfect environment for unsafe, unethical and potentially harmful practices to thrive. No matter what your views on LGBT parenting, it’s going to happen with or without society’s blessing. Stable, legally secure families are going to be healthier environments than those with absolutely no rights, protections or security.
Oddly, we’ve seen little evidence that family attitudes are a major problem for queer parents. In fact, opposition to gay children coming out and committing to same-sex partners seems to melt away once the parents involved discover that they can become grandparents. My view has always been that Chinese parents couldn’t give two hoots who their child marries, so long as they get grandchildren to spoil!