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  • Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival

Fertility treatment and parenting in a heteronormative world

Whilst the routes to parenthood are often (but not always) different for LGBTQIA+ parents, and the systems around it rarely reflect that accurately, I’m not sure we feel that differently to other parents of young children.


Content Warnings: Fertility treatment and chronic illness


By Sophie Bane


Family Values means different things to different people. If you’re LGBTQIA+ and see ‘family values’ in the bio of a politician, you will know what they mean – not your family, not your values.

Whilst my wife and I have had a successful journey to becoming parents and haven’t yet faced any overt hostility towards us as LGBTQIA+ parents, there’s nothing quite like trying to become a parent that makes you notice exactly how heteronormative the world is, and that all of the tabloid talk of equality ‘going too far’ is as nonsensical as it sounds. Most recently, there was tabloid outrage (link to Daily Mail article available here) against schools using the term ‘grown ups’ instead of ‘mum and dad’ because it might benefit some LGBTQIA+ people (as well as single or widowed parents, kinship carers, foster carers and anybody else outside of heteronormative assumptions, who can happily be thrown under the bus if there’s a chance to be homophobic in print). A number of these articles were presumably written by people who grew up, like me, in the 80s and 90s and had conveniently forgotten that ‘parents and carers’ was already a widely-used, inclusive term.


As the ‘other mother’, who did not carry or give birth to our children, I have tended to encounter these assumptions more often than my wife. For example, I had to apply for ‘paternity’ leave, despite the term being entirely inaccurate and the fact that ‘parent’ is a perfectly acceptable gender-neutral term whenever it’s not the queers using it.


My wife and I had always wanted to have two children, and our initial plan was that we would carry one each, and I would go first as I am older. This plan was ripped apart by the results of the initial fertility screening tests that couples have to undertake. We had – naively? I’m still not sure that it was naïve – assumed that, as a gay couple, we knew what the problem would be, and it could be addressed using donor sperm. However, these initial tests picked up on some abnormalities, and further investigations diagnosed me with stage four (of four) endometriosis; proceeding with the plan for me to get pregnant would require major abdominal surgery to excise the lesions caused by the disease, and then IVF which would have had a lower chance of success. As I am lucky in having only minor endometriosis symptoms (it is a weird condition where the stage of damage doesn’t correspond very well to the severity of symptoms), this seemed like a risk we didn’t need to take when my wife’s initial tests came back clear.


This put me in the position of moving from the patient to the other parent. Or rather, the not-husband. On every consent form we needed to complete, I had to cross out the word ‘husband’ – despite the fact that same sex marriages (including ours) had been taking place in the UK from 2014. This was 2016-17 and there was still no adequate word on the paperwork to describe my relationship with my wife. It was not until 2021, when we were attempting to conceive our second daughter, that the clinic amended the paperwork to be reflective of same-sex couples; after the first Covid-19 lockdown, when fertility clinics were forced to close. In other words, they only managed to reflect the needs of a proportion of their patients following an unprecedented interruption in treatment.


Does this really sound like a culture of LGBTQIA+ rights in healthcare going ‘too far’? And of course, I didn’t say any of this at the time; I remember actually feeling grateful that they had bothered at all, so low are our expectations around inclusion.


It’s worth bearing in mind that this was under a system in which same-sex female couples only get their initial fertility screenings covered on the NHS; which, in my case, were actually an important health screening and ended up diagnosing me with a chronic condition that I am now able to manage through hormonal medication. Beyond that, eligibility for IVF only kicked in within our CCG after same-sex couples had self-funded six unsuccessful cycles of inter-uterine insemination (IUI). This has been judged to be the equivalent of the eligibility criteria for heterosexual couples, who are required to have been trying for a baby unsuccessfully for a period of time. We were paying for all of our cycles of treatment, and yet our family was excluded from the clinic’s language. Again, I ask – does this sound like equality ‘going too far’? Happily, in July 2022, following campaigns by organisations such as Stonewall, the government announced that this discriminatory requirement would be dropped, and single women and female same-sex couples would now have access to NHS fertility treatment if they were unable to self-fund IUI cycles.


Whilst the routes to parenthood are often (but not always) different for LGBTQIA+ parents, and the systems around it rarely reflect that accurately, I’m not sure we feel that differently to other parents of young children (apart from the gender divide; we’re both on the school WhatsApp parents’ group, where there’s a noticeable absence of dads…). We’re equally as tired, we have as many tantrums to deal with, we have the same anxieties for our children, and we spend just as much time Googling ‘is this a sleep regression or is the baby just being an arse?’.


We’re all just parents doing our best, and it’s possible to be inclusive with very little effort – for example, the dads in our National Childbirth Trust (NCT) group were happy to be referred to as ‘non-pregnant partners’ so that I didn’t feel left out. That’s just human beings being decent towards each other; it’s not earth-shattering, and it’s not controversial outside of the pages of right-wing newspapers. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’ve been up with the baby since 4am so could you please keep the noise down?


Sophie is an aspiring crime writer, originally from Birmingham and now living in Leeds with her wife and two young children. Sophie currently works in local government as her day job and her ultimate aim is to get agents and publishers enthused by her ambition to establish Brummie Noir as a new sub-genre of crime fiction. Nobody has quite grasped the vision yet, but she's sure it's only a matter of time...


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