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Wednesday, April 25 News

Connecticut sees ‘gay baby boom’

NORWALK — The day Mark Leondires first held his baby in his arms, he felt a surge of love and responsibility. Finally his dream of being a father had become reality.

Like countless parents before him, he and his partner learned how to give a bath and change a diaper, guided by a helpful nurse. And like countless parents before him, he marvelled over his newborn son.

However, they were unusual patients at the Magee-Women’s Hospital in one regard. “We were two men staying at a women’s hospital,” Leondires recalled with a laugh. “All the other patients there were women.”

Leondires and his husband, Greg Zola, began their journey to that postpartum ward in a woman’s hospital years before. For a gay couple to have a biological child takes an extended family — an egg donor and a surrogate, but also mental health professionals to screen both and lawyers to ensure both fathers have parental rights. The entire process takes two to three years and between $100,000 and $200,000.

Reading through 15-page profiles of potential egg donors and poring over childhood photos, imagining how their own children might look, were sign posts on the path that led the Westport couple to the Pittsburgh delivery room where they became parents.

And similar journeys have been on an upswing, part of what has been called the gay baby boom — though the term implies an ease and speed that gay parents who have been through the process are quick to dispel.

The gay baby boom

While there are no official numbers on how many same-sex couples are having biological children, fertility clinics in Fairfield County can describe the increase in gay clients in recent years.

Leondires himself is a doctor at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut, a fertility clinic based out of Norwalk with satellite offices in Stamford, Danbury and Trumbull (“Obviously, I had an inside track,” he admitted regarding his path to fatherhood).

In recent years, he has seen the percentage of his clients who are same-sex couples rise from 0 to 80 percent. Roughly two-fifths of those same-sex couples are women, who use sperm donors and sometimes opt to carry embryos from their partner’s eggs, a process known as reciprocal in vitro fertilization.

Melvin Thornton, a doctor at CT Fertility out of Trumbull, has seen the same in his office. “We’ve seen probably a 40 to 50 percent increase in the past few years,” he said.

And while Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology does not track whether procedures are for heterosexual or homosexual families, it reports that surrogacy embryo transfers in the United States increased more than 250 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Leondires believes that the growing number of LGBTQ couples choosing to have children is due in part to growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality.

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“It became a safer place not only to be yourself, but to raise a child,” he said.

Chris Buckley, a father of twins living in Westport, can attest to that change. When his partner, Mark Ciano, raised the idea of having kids in the 1990s, Buckley was afraid stigma would be harmful to their children. “I didn’t think it would be fair to our kids,” he said.

But during the 2009 National Equality March for LGBTQ rights in Washington, D.C., he felt the tide had turned.

“It was being part of that march and being in the company of other couples, same-sex couples with kids, that really made it feel like it could be something for us. And that it was a possibility for us.”

Connecticut a hub

Connecticut is a destination for gay parents-to-be around the world.

Both Leondires and Thornton said they receive patients from as far as Europe and China.

“The reasons come down to issues of female autonomy,” Leondires said. “Surrogacy is illegal in every country in the world except the United States and Canada.”

But many who travel to receive services in Connecticut are from nearby New York and New Jersey, where surrogacy contracts are unenforceable.

The demand in New York is so high, Leondires travels to New York City once a month to do free consultations for gay parents-to-be. “Everybody who wants to have a child in their home should have all the tools they need to succeed,” he said.

“Connecticut is a very friendly state for surrogacy,” Thornton said. “So that’s why you see all of these centers in Connecticut.”

A costly prospect

While marriage equality has been affirmed, that does not mean that all people have the resources to become a parent. The six-figure price tag is prohibitive for many — the cost is more than what half of the married-couples in Norwalk make in a year, according to Census estimates.

Costs for lesbian couples to have a child are significantly lower, since there is no cost for an egg donor or surrogate, but in vitro fertilization and attorneys still rack up costs in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Connecticut is one of 15 states requiring insurance companies to offer fertility coverage for couples who have tried to conceive for a year without success. While that coverage applies to couples of any age, it does not yet extend to same-sex couples, who have no chance of conceiving from the outset.

But while not required to do so, some companies, including NBCUniversal and Google, have taken a step toward what is being called equal access to fertility treatment. LGBTQ employees there can access the same benefits, such as in vitro fertilization, as their heterosexual coworkers.

However such coverage is rare, and Hawaii’s attempt to pass a bill for equal access to fertility treatment failed in April.

Thornton said that a more likely way for couples to reduce their bills is for them to look for what’s known as a compassionate surrogate — a friend or family member who would be willing to carry the child without a fee — or to find their own egg donor.

“Right there, they may save themselves $45,000,” he said.

In addition, Men Having Babies offers the Gay Parenting Assistance Program, which annually facilitates over a million dollars worth of financial support for gay dads-to-be.

Family experience

In Leondires and Zola’s home, a map of the United States hangs on the wall. The couple had a second son, and at 4 and 6, the two can already point to where they were born (Pennsylvania and Idaho) and explain that they spent time in a woman’s “tummy” far away.

When the oldest, who recently met his surrogate this past summer, is asked who his mom is, he has no problem setting them straight. “No,” he says, “I have two dads.”

While some people worry that having gay parents will impact children’s well-being, Ellen C. Perrin, a professor at Tufts University, has concluded that children’s relationships with their parents and the social and economic stability of the family are much more important factors — factors that are nearly assured by the intense planning it takes for gay families to have children.

“This is kind of a joke, but there are no accidental pregnancies in the LGBTQ community,” Leondires said.

And at least some area schools have already begun to adjust to the change.

When Leondires and Zola’s first son went to a Westport preschool program called A Child’s Place, he wasn’t the only child with two dads. Buckley and Ciano’s twins were also in the class of eight.

The program had taken the families in stride. On Mother’s Day, the school announced that it had made up a new holiday: Family Day. The children drew portraits of their families, which were hung up in the school for a big reception.

Buckley still has the preschool portraits — wobbling figures in red and blue, labeled neatly in an adult’s handwriting: Ayla, Connor, DaDa and Daddy.

“They’re lovely,” he said. “It tears me up when I think about it.”

rschuetz@hearstmediact.com; @raschuetz

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