Gay parent support group a first for Hong Kong
Most kindergartens make a big deal of Mother's Day, getting the children to craft small gifts or cards that they could take home. But what if the child doesn't have a mum, what if he has two dads instead? It's a dilemma that pushed father-of-two Harun Sinha to form a Meetup group for gay parents.
"The teachers knew about our family and during an activity to make a gift for mothers, the teacher skipped my son to move to the next child. I realised that we'd probably face more of this while in Hong Kong so I wanted to look for other similar families," says Sinha, a pharmaceuticals consultant.
He checked with local gay groups and, unable to find a support network for gay parents, set up Rainbow Families in 2013. Almost two years on, it has 80 members. About 20 of those are families with children and the rest are mostly gay couples looking to adopt.
Sinha and his husband Austin Dowling have since moved back to New York with their two adopted boys, Alfie, now 4½ years old, and Ernest, who is one. The youngest was adopted while they were living in Hong Kong. A career opportunity for Dowling, who works in human resources for an investment bank, dictated their move but Sinha is finding life as a gay parent easier back home in the US.
"The LGBT family concept is not new in the States and certainly even less so in New York so we just feel more part of society. We are treated just like other parents at schools, playgrounds and everywhere we go as a family. When we meet anyone we don't anticipate the question, 'Where is the mother?' It's so clear that we are the parents," says Sinha, 41.
Hong Kong lags behind the US in recognition of gay parents, but even so Sinha says he has noticed some positive changes in the few years they lived in Hong Kong as well as a greater visibility of gay couples with children. The initial challenge to find similar families was quickly resolved and replaced by other challenges - immigration issues and the lack of a curriculum to introduce "different families" as a concept in schools.
"I was on a visitor visa because Hong Kong didn't recognise my relationship with my husband. This created a lot of inconvenience, having to leave the city every three months with a toddler," says Sinha.
Laura Simonsen, who now organises monthly meets for Rainbow Families, says life as a gay parent in Hong Kong is mostly smooth although there have been a few challenges.
She and her wife met 12 years ago and although they decided early on in the relationship they wanted children, it was seven years before they did something about it. A good friend offered to be the sperm donor and she returned to her native Sydney to give birth to her first son Leo, now 4½ years old.
"In Sydney they allow you to have two mothers recorded on the birth certificate, but for my second, Fin, who I had in Hong Kong, it's only me on the birth certificate," she says.
Giving birth in Hong Kong didn't start out as a pleasant experience. Far from the open-minded reception she'd received in Sydney, the doctor made his views known in no uncertain terms.
"The doctor at the Queen Mary Hospital didn't approve ... he was basically saying don't have any more," says Simonsen, a photographer and artist.
It came as a nasty shock, and Simonsen says she "kicked up a stink". She was invited to meet with a consultant at Queen Mary and explained their situation. The consultant not only understood and accepted their relationship, she asked if she could use their case notes for educational purposes.
"I said, 'Of course' - the Queen Mary is a teaching hospital. I think it's just about communication and raising awareness. They've probably never met families like us."
Simonsen's experience could well have smoothed the path for Bess Hepworth and her wife Kirsty Smith when the couple later delivered their children at Queen Mary Hospital. They took it in turns to give birth and have two boys - Flynn, 2½ years and Jude, six months old. Each time, they used an anonymous donor in San Francisco, then flew to a Thai clinic for treatment and delivered their babies in Hong Kong.
"We both gave birth in the Queen Mary and had the same midwife, it was so lovely. The first time we had to explain that I would be treated as the husband, but the second time they had made notes that we were a couple and remembered us and asked after our son. It felt amazing that they were acknowledging us as a couple," says Hepworth, a social media manager.
Doctors at the Queen Mary Hospital appear to have sat up and taken note, but not all government institutions are as enlightened. Hepworth gets anxious about visits to the doctor and worries whether he will understand their family dynamic, but she says it's usually just a matter of explaining the situation.
"I'm finding people's awareness of the LGBT community and gay families is lightening, that's the reaction we are getting more and more," says Hepworth.
But while gay parenting is relatively easy in Hong Kong for expats, it's still a tough road for local couples.
"Most expats who are openly gay have come out and have family support, but for Asian and Chinese gay couples there is a lot more to navigate around cultural acceptance; they face a lot more family pressure," says Hepworth.
Only 20 per cent of Rainbow Family members are Chinese and many of them choose not to be visible on the group's Facebook page, preferring to receive newsletters and emails privately.
Simonsen says it is refreshing for them to meet expat couples and see how open they are about their relationship, how involved they are with their child's school and community and the family support they get.
She knows a local gay couple who are fearful of coming out to their family and live separately, despite having a child.
"They ended up getting a surrogate and having a child, but they live separately and his mother doesn't know he has a partner. Culturally, the Chinese are much more reserved and it's harder to change the mindset," says Simonsen.
Attitudes towards gay parents on the mainland are even more conservative, Hepworth says. It's not uncommon for a lesbian and a gay man to marry to please their families, but she questions that will work out in the long run.
"It's a loophole in the system - they've ticked the box to be married and are then free to conduct their respective gay lives. But it will be interesting to see how that progresses now there is an expectation to have a family," she says.
Although local gay parents we approached turned down interview requests, that may change as gay couples become more visible. Hepworth says when she attended the annual gay pride march with her son in 2013, people assumed she was a "straight ally". At last November's march there was a greater awareness that she was a gay mother with a child.
"In the space of a year attitudes have changed. It's in part thanks to mainstream popular culture incorporating gay parents," she says, citing US television series The Fosters about two gay women who are fostering children together.
It's important to come out as a gay parent for the benefit of your children, Hepworth says. When the school knows about the child's family, teachers can better navigate tricky questions that might come up in class as well as on occasions such as Father's Day.
The Woodland Montessori Pre-school on Caine Road sends her child home with two cards on Mother's Day.
"They are totally supportive of the gay community and have fantastic teachers who go out of their way. You need to ensure your teacher has your back because there may be parents who are uncomfortable when they find out," Hepworth says.
Simonsen has had a similarly positive experience at her child's preschool in Wan Chai. After an initial discussion explaining that her son has two mums, the teachers were nurturing and accommodating, she says.
"People are becoming more aware. Hong Kong is very traditional, but this is something coming to the surface and it's about raising awareness. It's not people's fault if they don't know it exists," says Simonsen.
After the ordeal that many gay parents go through to conceive and have a child, Hepworth is a firm believer that gay couples make great parents.
"If people know what LGBT people, and some single people, go through - and especially surrogacy, which is an intensely complicated and time-consuming process - they are ready to be amazing parents," says Hepworth. "No one is doing it in a more premeditated way."