The lady from the Red Cross rings one morning.
There are many ways I could start this story, but this call marks the point when I committed to the idea of surrogacy, and since this is a surrogacy story, I might as well start with the beginning. So here goes …
The lady from the Red Cross rings one morning.
I pick up the phone when I see her name on the display, defying my manager’s absolute ban on personal calls. I’m not in the boss’s good books, anyway. I have little to lose.
Phone in hand, I hurry my plump shape across the open-plan office and hide in the emergency staircase. ‘Hello.’
‘Hi Laurent, How are you?’ Before I can reply, she adds, ‘I wanted to catch up with you on your adoption application.’
‘Is there news?’
‘Yes. It’s not going to happen.’
She keeps talking but I stop listening. I knew this was coming. The odds weren’t in our favour. I’m more disappointed than I should be.
When I return to my desk, my colleagues give me angry glares. Someone murmurs, ‘Alicia wants to see you.’
I change direction and walk to Our Holy Queen’s shoebox office.
‘Hello Laurent, please enter and close the door behind you’, she says, leaving unspoken the rest of her thoughts: ‘… so I can murder you in private.’
I squeeze myself inside the tiny office, trying to stay as far as possible from her triple chin and her greasy blond hair.
‘There are rules in this world, and rules in this office. Do you understand the importance of structure?’
Alicia speaks in riddles that rarely make sense. It’s never a good idea to ask her to clarify what she’s just said, or to ask any questions, for that matter. My usual strategy is to listen, nod at regular intervals, praise her, apologise for my sins, and slip out of her office at the first opportunity.
‘Structure and rules preserve us from the chaos trying to bring down this organisation. If I want coffee, I can’t simply walk to the kitchen and have a coffee.’ She brandishes the cup of coffee she has just brought back from the kitchen. ‘I could. But I can’t. Because there are rules. And even me, I need to respect the rules. I’m not here to blame you, Laurent. No one is holding a grudge. There is you and there is me. And the door is closed. I’m putting all my confidence in you. Now, I know this is hard and …’
… and she forgot why she wanted to see me. She goes on for twenty minutes, telling me about when she first arrived in Luxembourg from the UK and decided to learn French, babbling on about the renovation of her house, letting me know that her son chose not to go to college, and insisting that it’s important to think outside the box.
“Think outside the box” is Alicia’s personal motto. And indeed, in our department, all the thinking is done outside the box she sits in.
She concludes her monologue with a misogynist diatribe, which I had not expected to hear from a woman and a mother.
‘You’re the only one I can trust here. Look at them, all these whining ladies who keep asking for part-time arrangements, and want to leave early so that they can pick up their kids. I can’t trust them. I can’t. They’re not dedicated to their jobs. They think this place is a social club for bored housewives. At least you will not have children.’
Should I be happy I’m the only one she can trust? Or worried about her theory that I will not have children? There are indeed very few men in our department, and I am most certainly the only gay in this village.
At least you will not have children.
Alicia’s assumption is not just wrong, it’s sexist and homophobic. Just as she presumes women aren’t taking their jobs seriously because they need to leave work early to pick up their kids, she decides that I will devote myself to the company because my being gay supposedly implies that I will not have children. That’s the problem, isn’t it? We trap ourselves in our own stereotypes. Straight women are pressed to have children, and gay men are expected not to.
Well, hold on tight to your desk, Alicia. What I’m about to tell you might throw you off your chair. I do want a family. I will have children, and I will leave work early every day to pick them up, just like the whining ladies.
But I don’t say any of that. As soon as the lecture is over, I duck out and return to my desk.
At six on the dot, I turn off my computer, leave the office, and resume my normal life as a gay man living in Luxembourg who’s lodged an application to adopt a child in Bulgaria.
My boyfriend Harry and I tried adoption first, knowing that it was not likely to succeed. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Harry’s surrogacy idea, and insisted we give adoption a chance. We had contacted all the agencies licensed to organise adoptions in Luxembourg. There are not that many of them: four in total.
All but the Red Cross turned us down. They didn’t do gays. The lady from the Red Cross, on the other hand, was very excited. ‘You’ll be our first!’
Same-sex marriage and adoption were not legal when we initiated our journey. We couldn’t apply as a couple, so I lodged an application as a single man. That was perfectly legal.
I’m not ashamed of who I am and whom I love. I am not into hiding. The official application was registered for a single man, but we went to the Red Cross as a couple. This, you will tell me, could only lead to failure. But how is society ever going to stop shutting us out if we never come out of our burrow? I put myself on display and let adoption agencies scrutinise me. Three didn’t like what they saw. Only the Red Cross invited us in.
We went through the whole process in earnest. First, we attended an “Awareness Cycle”. It consisted of three afternoon sessions with two social workers and several other intended parents, during which we were given information on what adoption truly means. We were told it was far harder than we thought. Abandoned children are hurt. It won’t be the baby of your dreams you will bring into your home. It will be a two-year-old who believes they are not worthy of love. I thought I was ready for that. Harry thought it was all bullshit. Harry tends to believe that everything is bullshit.
During the first session, I spent time gauging the other participants. A pair of smug Parisians in fancy clothes wanted to adopt a poor orphan from Africa to save the child from doom and misery. All the other couples were struggling with infertility issues. I felt sympathy for them and wished them success in their endeavour. And yet, I knew that they were our competition. I read somewhere that for every child who can be adopted, ten couples apply. I don’t know if that figure is accurate, but the idea that we might not make it to the end of the journey certainly turned out to be true.
Because there are few, if any, children available for adoption every year in Luxembourg, international adoption was the only realistic option. At the time of our application, the Luxembourg Red Cross worked only with Bulgaria. If all went well, once we received official approval from Luxembourg, our files would be transmitted to the Bulgarian authorities, who would vet us a second time.
We were told that the entire adoption process would take about two years, and that the youngest adoptable children would also be around two, since the local authorities would need to ensure the children did not have any family and could not be adopted in their country of birth.
In a moment of heedlessness, I let myself believe that this was going to work. I pictured a two-year-old boy with dark hair and olive skin waiting for me on a bench in a Bulgarian orphanage. He would have been born around the time we lodged our application. I imagined how I would one day sit next to him on that bench and tell him, ‘This is me. I have finally found you.’
Once the awareness cycle was over and we had earned our certificate of attendance, we met a social worker and a psychologist. We let a medical doctor inspect our physical health. We showed our bank statements. We gave references and shared the phone numbers of our friends. We allowed people to come into our home to make sure it met their requirements.
The psychologist came to our apartment to list all its flaws, real or chimerical. In her report, the middle-aged woman with long black hair spent a great deal of time describing the pictures on our walls. She said there were lots of them, and that they were all from our travels around the world. She described us as travellers. I prefer wanderers, but it’s her report; she gets to choose the words. In a follow-up interview, she asked us if we had really thought it through.
‘You won’t be able to travel anymore’, she warned us.
The psychologist was particularly keen on asking questions we could only answer wrongly. She asked us about the languages.
‘You speak too many of them. That’s not good. It will be confusing for the child’, she declared.
We speak four languages at home. By Luxembourgish standards, it is rather average. I replied that if it became a problem, we would concentrate on French and German. That was not the right answer. Never tell Luxembourgish people that speaking their language is not your priority. The psychologist was very angry. She said we couldn’t come to Luxembourg and not even try to integrate. She declared that learning Luxembourgish should come first.
A few weeks later we had an appointment with the social worker, and I made sure to correct my mistake. I proactively declared my love for Luxembourg and informed her that I was on a waiting list to take Luxembourgish classes. I also told her that the kindergarten at the corner of our street was a Luxembourgish-speaking one. ‘Put it in our file’, I instructed her.
Throughout the process, the social worker kept looking at us as if we were an endangered species, long beyond saving. She thought that it was so sad that we couldn’t have children. She told us from the beginning that it was unlikely to work out.
‘There are more potential parents than adoptable children’, she said. ‘It’s unlikely you’ll receive a positive answer, but it’s so courageous of you to try the way you do.’
We didn’t tell her that we were already considering an alternative to our doomed adoption attempt.
As predicted by the social worker, Harry, my friends, and the entire universe, we failed. After we passed all possible tests and were deemed appropriate by all the people in charge, the lady from the Red Cross rang one morning to say it wasn’t good enough after all.
‘You see, we only facilitate the adoption of Bulgarian children’, she told me as I sat in the emergency staircase, my phone clutched in my hand.
I knew that, thank you.
‘And when I mentioned your case to my Bulgarian counterpart yesterday she told me it wasn’t going to work out. They have received adoption requests from gay men from other countries. They put these cases at the bottom of the pile and never reply. They don’t actually have to say yes or no, you see. So they just let gay parents hang in limbo until they stop asking.’
Maybe we should have lied. Harry could have moved out during the process. I could have said I’m straight. Then the psychologist wouldn’t have written “HOMOSEXUAL” on every page of her report. They don’t describe you as “HETEROSEXUAL” if you like pussy, do they? The four-page report contained the word “homosexual” five times, accompanied by a long litany of biased ideas. Half a page was dedicated to how I intended to protect my child against homophobia.
After the lady from the Red Cross gives her news, I wonder for an instant if we should sue Bulgaria but quickly drop the idea. I am not that kind of person. One of the other couples who attended the awareness cycle will sit on that bench in the Bulgarian orphanage. They were all kind and loving couples. I know the little boy I saw in my reverie will find a home.
Maybe we should have lied. But we are not liars. We do not hide. There isn’t anything shameful about us. We’ll stand there and wave our otherness in their faces until they stop seeing it.
We do not hide.
We do not hide.