Lim Li and Leo Yao are a gay couple living in Shanghai. For three years, they scraped together almost a whopping $150,000 just to have a baby.
Last September, their dream finally came true. A woman in Denver, Colorado, gave birth to a girl using Li’s sperm. They named her Ellie.
“We were so happy we couldn’t sleep,” Li recalls.
In China, gay couples are not allowed to adopt children, so many opt for surrogacy instead.
Often, this involves in vitro fertilization, where an egg from a donor is fertilized with sperm before going into a surrogate.
In order to minimize attachment issues at birth, the egg donor and surrogate are rarely the same mother, which is what makes the process so expensive, especially for Chinese couples who have to do it abroad.
Surrogacy remains prohibited in China, and in recent years, the United States has become a prime destination for Chinese couples after countries previously considered as affordable options, such as Cambodia, India, and Thailand, outlawed commercial surrogacy.
As a result, couples seeking the procedure have had to incur greater medical costs and travel expenses than before.
And there’s no guarantee that it will work. In vitro fertilization is a highly complicated process, with the chance of pregnancy fluctuating anywhere between 10% and 60% depending on factors such as the woman’s age and number of implanted embryos.
If a pregnancy isn’t achieved on the first try, few have the financial means to go for a second, making the process stressful and difficult. Many couples are literally putting all their eggs in one basket.
Luckily for Li and Yao, things worked out on the first try.
“I always knew that I wanted to have children,” Li says.
So far, the couple says they have received nothing but love and support from their family and friends. Li’s parents have even offered to move in with them to help take care of Ellie.
“Nobody has questioned us about how she came to be.”
“Nobody has questioned us about how she came to be,” Li says. “They only care that she’s a cute baby and love her so much.”
It’s not the narrative that many might expect in China, where same-sex marriage remains illegal and much of the population still holds conservative views on marriage.
But the situation is changing in cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where people are more open-minded, the couple says. It’s in smaller cities and villages where sensitivity to the issue and judgement from the community run high.
Now, the pair run a surrogacy consulting agency in Shanghai called True Baby, which has seen year-to-year growth in gay couples wanting to have children.
Many prospective parents come in with questions about how to pay for the process (lots of saving), what citizenship their child will hold (it’s complicated), and potential discrimination growing up.
Li and Yao are hoping to go through the surrogacy process again so that Ellie can have a sibling.
“I was born under the one-child policy,” Li says, referring to China’s decades-long birth control measure limiting the number of children that couples could have.
“I don’t have any siblings, and neither do my friends. I always wondered what it would be like to have a brother or sister. I think things would have been better if I did.”
Although Li and Yao are content, there are still obstacles.
Since same-sex marriage is still not legal in China, Li, as the biological father, is the only recognized legal guardian.
This effectively makes him a single father and means that in emergencies, he must be present while Yao is left on the sidelines.
“It’s sad, but I believe the situation will change in the future,” Li says.
One silver lining is the ease with which Li was able to obtain Ellie’s hukou 户口, a document that recognizes someone as the legal resident of a particular city.
Without it, a person would not be able to access health care, schools, and other public services provided by that city.
In 2016, as part of wider reforms to make hukou registration easier, the Chinese government began allowing single parents to register their children.
According to Li, all he had to do was go to his local police station to register Ellie, a process he described as “easy.”
What concerns Li and Yao most is how Ellie will thrive in school.
They worry that as a biracial child with two Chinese dads, she’ll stick out and attract unwanted attention from other kids.
“Surrogacy was the simple part.”
“That’s the real challenge,” says Yao. “Surrogacy was the simple part. For the next 18 years, Ellie will have to be in an educational system that’s aware of her background, which is why we are considering international school.”
(Read more: Is Taiwan culturally ready for same-sex marriage?)
It’s the same choice that Jack Smith and Eddy Luw, a couple in Beijing, made for their preschool-aged twins.
“We haven't had any adverse reactions whenever we show up for open houses,” says Smith, who chose to send his kids to a Montessori school. “Not because people don’t notice, but in Chinese culture, it’s incredibly rude to ask searching questions of people. I think it would be different dealing with public schools, but Montessori schools are fine.”
The couple had their twins in Cambodia when commercial surrogacy was still legal there. Luw’s sperm was used because it was more important for his family to continue the bloodline.
“There tends to be more gay families in China than you think, and most are getting along just fine.”
“Sometimes Eddy’s mother would ask me, ‘Don’t you think the kids will have a closer connection to their biological family?’” Smith says. “I told her not to worry at all because biology has nothing to do with emotion, and both my son and daughter are incredibly close to me.”
Smith says he notices a growing community of LGBTQ families in China. Although they rarely meet because they hold down full-time jobs on top of raising young kids, they remain close.
“There tends to be more gay families in China than you think,” Smith says, “and most are getting along just fine.”