B efore Qiguang Li could pass through customs and step on to US soil for the first time, he faced a three-hour detention where he learned that he needed to be more candid about his identity. It was September , after a long flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles.
They said they were friends. So Xu went first and passed the screening. After a while of anxious waiting, Xu returned to the checkpoint to look for Li, still unaware of his mistake, and they were both sent to a room for additional screening.
And then everything changed. Xu learned that if they had said they were partners from the beginning, they would have been allowed to go through border control together, avoiding all the drama. The unexpected incident was the prelude to a carefully planned trip into another country where their sexuality was much more accepted than at home. Li and Xu, a gay couple who have been together since , would walk out of the airport, get married two days later in Los Angeles, and, more important, start their journey toward parenthood.
From to , Li and Xu made four transpacific trips as part of their gestational surrogacy processes. An increasing number of Chinese gay men, like Li and Xu, are traveling thousands of miles and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue a dream that is impossible at home. Xu and Li met in Shanghai on 15 November They had both grown up in rural China before moving to big cities.
By they owned two properties together and had just started a small business, a dry cleaners in Shanghai. Because gay couples are not allowed to marry or adopt in China , they started thinking about surrogacy. Li was 36; Xu had just turned For this story, I spoke to a dozen gay Chinese men who have begun or completed surrogacy in the United States. Almost all of them started considering it between the ages of 30 and 40, and they often discussed how one needs to be extremely devoted to the idea of having his own child before embarking on the lengthy and often excruciating surrogacy journey.
Li says that for many gay men, the strong push for babies comes from the elder generation. The social and cultural norm in China, inherited from thousands of years of patriarchal traditions, is that having a descendant of your own blood is necessary for a good life. For some of the parents, that means going as far as pushing their sons into the surrogacy journey. David Wang, a single, gay man of 28, living in the south-western province of Sichuan, says it took years for his parents to accept his sexuality after he came out in But once they had, his parents offered to pay for all of the expenses of surrogacy — if he would start as soon as possible.
In February , Wang and his mother flew to Atlanta to be at the birth of his son and take him back home. Dr Guy Ringler, a physician with California Fertility Partners, tours in China to give medical consultations about surrogacy. Xu and Li were in a similar situation.
It was a smooth coming out. The parents soon joined the excitement over a prospective baby. Surrogacy was still a total mystery to most of the Chinese gay community when Xu and Li started their journey in None of their friends had done it. There was no guidance about what to do. The only thing Xu could find was one personal-experience post online.
He reached out with some questions, but the author disappeared after a few messages. Xu took responsibility for researching everything they needed to do. In January , eight months before he and Li were awkwardly detained by US customs, Xu went on a lonely trip to America to learn from scratch, with no knowledge about surrogacy except for the name and address of a Chinese American fertility doctor in California.
On the Chinese messaging app WeChat, groups for gay dads and future dads have mushroomed. In , the group had more than members, to whom more than 10 babies were born that year. The demand has lured many American agencies and clinics to expand their outreach to China through more advertisements and offline consultations.
Intermediary companies, many founded by the early surrogacy clients, provide packages of services, including everything from translation to references for attorneys and nannies. Having an American baby through surrogacy has now become a popular and accessible life goal for urban gay men in China. At the time, they already had an egg donor in mind and were working on the legal contract. Surrogacy usually involves both a surrogate mother and a different egg donor.
According to several surrogacy agency staff and fertility doctors, straight Chinese couples are often strict about finding Asian egg donors, since many of them wish to pretend that the baby has been conceived naturally. Being flexible on race also means significantly less waiting time and cost, because the demand for Asian egg donors in the United States far outnumbers the supply.
They met her in person on their California trip. In January , 28 eggs were retrieved from the donor, and 17 were successfully fertilized. Eight healthy embryos passed the test. The genetic testing, expensive but optional, not only enables parents to prevent implanting embryos with higher likelihoods of having genetic diseases; it also allows them to foresee the gender. Gender selection, though legal in the United States, is banned in China, where gender-based discrimination and the troubled history of the one-child policy have resulted in an absurdly unbalanced sex ratio at birth.
According to a recent World Economic Forum report, China has a female-to-male sex ratio at birth of 0. Many US agencies and clinics confirm that gay Chinese intended parents have a noticeable preference for sons, though some note that they see the same preference across gay men of all nationalities.
Xu wanted a son. The genetic testing reported that he had five male embryos to choose from among the eight healthy ones. It seemed like there were plenty of good options, considering that they only needed one. But the couple would soon learn that high-quality embryos were not always enough. In September , their chosen embryo was transferred to the surrogate. They received the good news 12 days later that the implantation was successful. Another week later, different news came: it was a biochemical pregnancy — a very early miscarriage, before the embryo grew large enough to be seen via ultrasound.
But now Xu and Li were nervous and wavering. They decided to give it another try. On 2 December , the second embryo was successfully transferred. Everything looked good in the weeks that followed. One morning seven weeks later, however, Xu received an email from the clinic: the surrogate mom had just gone to a regular examination, and no fetal heartbeat could be detected.
Li was devastated. How could this happen to them again, he kept thinking: was it because the surrogate was too old? They decided not to work with the surrogate again, and went back to searching the surrogate database. Xu and Li spent a full year looking through surrogate profiles and trying to match with an ideal one. Xu would refresh the online database two or three times a week to check whether a new surrogate had been added. In the US, legal regulation of surrogacy varies by state. About 10 states, including California, have either clear statutes permitting surrogacy or a history of favorable court orders.
New York and Michigan forbid any form of compensated surrogacy, while Louisiana only permits it for married heterosexual couples. The majority of states fall somewhere in between, with no law specifically prohibiting surrogacy. Agencies require surrogates to live in the more friendly states and deliver the baby there to avoid legal troubles. A woman in Denver was tested and her uterine lining was found to be too thick; a year-old was excluded because the nurse doubted whether she could handle the responsibility at such a young age; a woman in Kansas tested positive for chlamydia, the second time in her medical history, posing a threat of repeated occurrences.
Their fourth choice, an Atlanta woman, made it past all of the medical and psychological screenings only to get cold feet at the last minute. Ann Yous had never considered surrogacy. A woman of Latin American and African-American descent in her early 30s, Ann who asked me not to use her real name in this article to protect her privacy lives in San Diego with her husband — a navy officer — and five kids.
Then, at a holiday gathering, Ann was chatting with an acquaintance who had recently given birth. Ann asked how the child was doing. At the time, Ann was pregnant with her fifth child. After a little research about surrogacy, Ann told her husband that she wanted to become a surrogate to help unfortunate families.
What if I were to give that gift to someone? She went through the routine of becoming a surrogate: a psychological questionnaire with tons of yes-or-no questions; two different physicians combing through her medical history.
One day in late , Ann was told by the agency that she had been matched with a same-sex couple in China. She downloaded WeChat. In an hour-long video chat, Ann met Xu and Li for the first time. The first meeting was a back-and-forth of questions between Ann and the couple. They asked her about her daily life and her job, and she asked them about what their journey had been like so far. They are very warm. The couple seemed a little shy to her, but Ann also found that they could easily get her jokes.
Xu and Li liked Ann a lot too. They soon started to talk every day on WeChat. Ann began the in vitro fertilization IVF process, which required a two-hour drive from San Diego to the fertility clinic in Pasadena every other week during the IVF cycle. She also quit her job as a catering service manager at a hotel, because it had too much hands-on and late-hour work. In February , she successfully completed the embryo transfer, a five-minute process that, as she viewed it on the monitor, Ann compared to the flash of a firework.
She kept messaging the couple about her medical visits. Then one day, she sent them a recording of the fetal heartbeat. This was May , their third trip to the United States, after two years of struggle and disappointment. Ann took them to a 4D ultrasound screening, where the couple got to see their future baby for the first time.