FRAMED PHOTOGRAPHS LINE the television console of a 1,450 sq ft flat in central Singapore. One shows a large group of family members in a rented villa in Bali several months ago, another is of a beaming couple and a third has the couple and their son.
A two-metre-tall Christmas tree stands on the right, with three bears – two large with a smaller one tucked between them – all sharing a red scarf.
It is Friday in the home of James, Shawn and their five-year-old son Noel. The family made the news on December 17 when a Singapore court ruled James could adopt Noel, the son he fathered using an egg donor. Both men’s sperm was used for the fertilisation of the embryo, which was carried by an American surrogate mother.
While the judges stressed their decision was made to prioritise the child’s welfare, even though it violated “public policy against the formation of same-sex family units”, the judgment was viewed as Singapore’s first legal acknowledgement of such families.
Yet since the ruling, the government, which opposed Noel’s adoption, has warned it would review adoption laws and policies. Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said since the court recognised the government’s stance was a “relevant consideration”, other gay couples in similar circumstances may find it harder to argue that they did not intentionally seek to oppose policies against forming same-sex families.
For now, Singaporeans James and Shawn (not their real names) are relieved – and thankful – they have passed a major hurdle in their lives.
“It was a huge load off our shoulders,” James told This Week in Asia at their dining table on December 21.
Bright daylight streamed in from all sides of this spacious and airy flat that sits above the 20th floor. A wide balcony runs L-shaped along two sides of the rectangular living and dining room and the couple had opened the floor-to-ceiling glass doors separating the spaces. The view is impressive, stretching to include the neighbourhood James’ parents live in.
The couple brought Noel home from the United States in 2013 but were not allowed to get him citizenship. In 2014, James applied as a single parent to adopt the boy. When the case went to a lower court in December 2017, it was rejected. The recent judgment means they now stand a better chance.
Throughout a two-hour conversation, during which Noel shot styrofoam toy peas around, the couple reflected on their journey of uncertainty and their hopes for the future.
Both 46, they finished their compulsory national service like all local men and did most of their studies in the republic. They were certain Singapore was the place to set up home and give Noel a similar life.
But society in the city state is largely conservative and gay sex a criminal offence even though the government has said it will not enforce the law. Public policies promote heterosexual marriage and childbearing.
James’ father had worried about Noel being made fun of at school.
James said: “I will want to empower him with his self worth and dignity about who he is, where he comes from and about his family.”
Noel has been told families comes in all shapes and sizes – his has two dads, some have a mother and a father, others two mums or maybe just one parent.
“We’ve not faced discrimination and never felt uncomfortable,” said Shawn, adding that the only roadblocks came from the government during the adoption process.
When Noel came home as an infant, a neighbour they barely knew offered her help with the baby and gave them a child’s car seat she did not need. Noel plays with his classmates while the parents chat about which primary school they want their children to go to.
Could it be the circles they run in – gay and lesbian friends and parents at Noel’s private kindergarten – shield them from conservative opinions many Singaporeans may hold?
No, insisted Shawn: “We are in the heartlands a lot, we eat at the market and Noel goes to his grandparents’ after school, plays at the [public housing] playground every evening.”
This Christmas, the couple’s families will gather at their home for dinner cooked by Shawn. Nasi ulam, a Malay steamed rice dish mixed with herbs will be the highlight.
“It will be a very, very nice Christmas,” pronounced Shawn’s 47-year-old sister.
The families grew close after Noel entered their lives, with both sides meeting most weekends.
The adoption order has made everyone very happy, said James’ sister, 45, who was not expecting a favourable ruling after the previous rejection. “I almost fell off my chair when I heard,” she said. “It was a very, very, very nice surprise.”
Previously, there was always the possibility James, Shawn and Noel would have to leave Singapore if the child did not get his dependent’s pass renewed.
Those plans are on the back burner for now. After the adoption process goes through, the couple will apply for citizenship for Noel again and try to make Shawn Noel’s legal guardian.
There is one more matter they are mulling over.
“Noel has always been asking for a sibling,” revealed the couple, who have lived together for 13 years.
James pointed to the Christmas tree and described how five years ago after they had Noel, they bought a baby bear in a Santa hat and placed it between two larger bears given to them by friends a decade ago.
The bears have been on all their trees since.
“The whole process, we realised that we have got to cling on to each other for strength and resolve to ride it out,” said James.
Shawn added: “So we’re not going to close the door on this (possibility of having another child).”
On their future Christmas trees, there may be more baby bears.