Gay parents wish some in Hong Kong wouldn’t rush to judgment about them and their children
Same-sex parents talk about the pressures they face bringing up their children in a conservative society which focuses on their sexuality rather than the happy families they have created, and see city’s hosting of Gay Games as a positive
My job comes with the privilege of being able to disguise a curiosity about people whose lives are different from mine with questions; journalism endorses my nosiness. But the real privilege is delivered in the answers people offer: the insight they lend on communities and circumstances about which my experience is limited.
And the announcement that the Gay Games are to be hosted in Hong Kong in 2022 lends a perfect opportunity to ask questions, to be educated, informed, and to ditch preconceptions.
Laura Simonsen, a Hong Kong photographer who recently held an exhibition to celebrate same-sex couples living in the city, says: “I don’t mind at all if people ask questions. I prefer it. As long as it doesn’t come with judgment.”
And the main questions she and her partner encounter are “who is the breadwinner” (what happened to sexual equality?) or “who is the mum?” which, she observes, is absurd.
“Society is conditioned to believe the man goes to work and the woman stays at home, and that there needs to be a gender divide in family roles. The answer we give is that we both work and we are both mums.”
Bess Hepworth, an activist who manages NGO Planet Ally and the Asia Pacific Rainbow Family Forum, lives in Hong Kong with her wife of 11 years, Kirsty Smith, and their two boys, five and three. She makes a valuable, emotive, point: family creation among the gay community often comes with more angst and consideration than in a heterosexual scenario.
“My wife and I both gave birth to one of our children. We received fertility treatment in Thailand, our sons’ donor was in San Francisco and the boys were delivered in Queen Mary Hospital,” Hepburn says. It was international baby making, she adds, which required planning, saving and strategising.
Same-sex couples don’t have babies by mistake; there are no unplanned pregnancies.
“If people only knew what it took to create a family within a same-sex partnership, how much love needs to be in place, how much painstaking preparation goes into it – how could anybody doubt that the child of same-sex parents is not loved, cared for, nurtured, appreciated; they are so wanted,” she says.
Hepworth says her demographic – well educated, financially secure, Caucasian – is lucky. “Socioeconomic reasons are why couples like Kirsty and I have a family – surrogacy, IVF or IUI are not options for everybody: fertility treatment is expensive, surrogacy is not well regulated in Asia.”
She says the situation is often very different for Asian couples, who face pressures to form traditional families. It’s this, she says, that results in the fake marriages seen in mainland China, between homosexual men and lesbian women who marry to “fulfil family obligations”.
It strikes me as odd that judgment of a person’s choices, lifestyle and family make-up can be based on their sexual preference. It reduces them to that single dimension of themselves when, as humans, we are brilliantly cut, multifaceted, made up of many parts.
Marty Forth, who moved to Hong Kong three years ago with his husband and their son, Grayson, who was adopted in New York, refers to this as intersectionality.
“It begs the question why we cannot be the owners of our own identity, and be able to be multiple identities at the same time, without that variation opening us up to discrimination and oppression,” he says.
Forth, an academic, is focusing his research on precisely this: “Why is it inconsistent to be a great dad and be gay at the same time?”
Like Hepworth, he reminds me of the involvement and considered steps gay parents must take in family creation. Adults can ask invasive questions about Grayson, he says, such as “Where did you get him? How did you get him? When did you get him”.
“Aside from being personal, they are also worded in a way that implies impersonal transaction – which adoption and foster care never are. We held and fed Grayson in the hospital on the day that he was born. We took him home from the hospital and celebrated with both our families and our friends, because they were part of the entire process. We are a unique family, but still a real family.”
I wonder what Grayson calls his respective dads – and I only wonder how he differentiates to avoid the confusion of both running when he hollers for “Dad”.
“He calls us both ‘daddy’ and ‘name’, Forth says. “Daddy Marty and Daddy Patrick. This is a topic of much discussion when guys become parents … they try to control what their kids will call them. Daddy and Papa are popular. However, Grayson chose this on his own. He calls most people by title and name – Godmother Danielle, Aunt Terry.”
An exception is his birth mother – with whom he and his fathers have a close connection; she has visited the family in Hong Kong. “He calls her by her first name only,” Forth says.
Much of the criticism that same-sex parents face comes in the guise of “it’s not fair on the children – to be part of something unconventional”. As a social worker who works with families and diverse populations, this was an area Forth was well prepped for.
“Grayson has conversations about his family and his dads often. He was prepared at a young age to talk about it. I don’t feel we fed him the answers, [but] rather talked with him to explore what they may be.
“The number one question is ‘why do you have two dads?’ and the answers vary … ‘because two is better than one’, ‘because my mum picked them to be my dads’ or – my personal favourite – ‘why do you only have one?’”
But one point needs emphasis here: children of loving, confident, happy parents will feel loved, confident and happy, irrespective of the sexuality of those parents. Consider that many children of traditional heterosexual unions are unhappy, incomplete, unsupported, and remember the words of Australian human rights lawyer and academic Michael Kirby, who said: “Love is the foundation of family life, love sustains family life, love is sufficient, sexuality is a mere detail.”
And while that detail is made much of in many parts of the world and people are persecuted for their sexual preference, photographer Simonsen believes that attitudes in Hong Kong are changing, if she compares it to 10 years ago, when she moved to Hong Kong. However, she says: “It still has a long way to go – this is a very conservative society.”
Hepworth’s wife grew up in Hong Kong and they have observed leaps in acceptance. “Our son’s preschool was wonderful in reaching out ahead of time on Father’s Day, asking us how we’d like to address that,” she recalls. “We really appreciated the dignity afforded us.
“In the event, grandpa, Kirsty’s dad, stood in. It was great that they recognised families come in all shapes and sizes.”
Forth and his husband have also noticed a change in attitudes, despite only being in Hong Kong for three years.
“There is just more of it … more LGBTQ+ stuff going on, more exposure. So the idea is not as foreign any more. Is this just a Western thing? No, but there are cultural barriers that need to be addressed that are unique to China, Asia, Hong Kong,” he says.
Hepworth is aware of the pressure Asian couples feel – the tussle between their sexuality and traditional expectations.
“Some of our rainbow families in Hong Kong don’t want to be acknowledged on social media, such as the couple who have a child but are in the closet to their families. The toll that must take – to hide who they are. I am glad they have been able to create a family, but it breaks my heart that they can’t be themselves.”
Forth, Simonsen and Hepworth agree that the Gay Games is a hugely positive thing for Hong Kong.
“I hope that people will feel they can be more open about their sexuality as a result,” Simonsen says. “I think it’s a giant leap in the right direction, so much awareness raised. People in Hong Kong can be open given the right influence and knowledge.”
The games are still five years away but Forth believes they are already helping. “They have brought many different groups together and helped to unify the community, and have forced the government to see that LGBTQ+ people really are here, that they want to be contributing citizens of this thriving city,” he says.
And sport, adds Hepworth, “has a unique way of bringing people together, and when you involve minority groups it amplifies the opportunity to change hearts and minds. We are not looking at risqué clothing or drag queens.”
In other words, we’re losing stigmatising stereotypes and instead “looking at something that is common – swimming, dragon boating, football, people getting on and being active”.
It’s a home win for Hong Kong, and an important win for Asia, she says.