When Did 'Sperm Washing' Replace Disco Dates?
Sperm washing, along with surrogates and baby showers, have all but replaced disco dates. Has the new gay world morphed into the old straight one?
“I think I’m going to have my sperm washed,” a friend said on our drive back to Manhattan from our summer places in Provincetown. What was shocking to me is not this bit of information he slipped into the usual badinage that a couple of homosexuals bat about inside an SUV, but that the term “sperm washing” itself had become so anodyne. Turning and yawning at Connecticut outside the tinted windows, I simply asked when his appointment for the procedure was scheduled at Growing Generations, the surrogacy agency favored by a certain economic stratum of gay men who want to become fathers and prefer the egg donor route to the adoption one.
“Tomorrow,” he said.
All of these fathers have a certain amount of financial stability. There is going to be a whole generation of upper-class children soon growing up with rich gay parents.
We paused for a moment of silence to consider how, if the procedure were successful, his life would change even more profoundly than when he got his diagnosis a few years ago that he was HIV positive. But the pause wasn’t so long that it signaled anything singularly profound, for we already had so many friends who had been through the surrogacy procedure—which entails choosing, for a fee, an egg donor; the in vitro fertilization of that egg with one’s sperm; and then inserting the fertilized egg, for a second fee, into another woman, the surrogate, who will carry the child to term. Attending baby showers for gay friends over these past few years has become the newest social norm in the gay community. Showers have taken the place of disco dates. One’s own DNA , it is often joked, has become the ultimate designer label. Who would have thought a stroller would become the latest status symbol?
Most of the gay men who go the surrogacy route are HIV negative, but because of the “sperm washing” technique initially developed for heterosexual couples dealing with infertility issues, HIV positive men, who are living long and healthy lives because of the drugs now available to them, are also increasingly becoming fathers. At first they had to travel to other countries to get the procedure done because American companies could not yet see the profit in it, but Dr. Anne Kiessling of Harvard, a reproductive biologist, a pioneer in the procedure, began to offer it to HIV positive men here in this country about ten years ago. (However, the oldest American child, Baby Ryan, born from this technique in upstate New York in 1999, was the son of a married heterosexual couple, the husband of which was a hemophiliac who contacted the virus from a blood transfusion.)
Kiessling at first had to set up her special embryology lab in a camper van outside the confines of her research lab for fear of the HIV virus, but now the procedure is offered in more than two dozen US surrogacy agencies.
HIV is found in the seminal fluid but not the semen cells themselves. The process is a basic one of putting the semen in a centrifuge tube, separating the fluid from the cells, and then inserting the cells that test negative for the virus into the chosen egg. This is a kind of reproductive technology in a kind of brave new world that even Aldous Huxley did not imagine.
Off the top of my head, I can name about 20 of my friends and acquaintances who have gone the surrogacy route. In fact, just this morning when I opened my email I had a message from an old friend who moved to Austin last year from Manhattan updating me about his surrogate, who is starting her third trimester. He’s going to have a son. The due date is January 14.
But all of these fathers—future and present—have a certain amount of financial stability. There is going to be a whole generation of upper-class children soon growing up with rich gay parents. What should we call such an emerging demographic? “The Spawn of Carefully Spent Sperm,” a waggish still childless friend of mine suggested.
How much exactly does it cost? “Usually between $120,000 and $140,000,” a friend who didn’t need his sperm washed told me when I rang him up as he was heading home to give his baby nurse a break from tending to his own new son. “At Growing Generations you put that money in a trust account and they disperse it for you as the expenses come in.”
“Does Growing Generations give its clients any sort of psychological testing to determine if they are fit for parenthood?” I ask.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “That’s an insulting question,” he said. “Nobody puts heterosexual married couples through a psychological test to determine if they are fit to have children. This is just regular parenthood when you come down to it. It’s about babies being loved. It’s odd to think that something so deeply felt is being written about as a pop cultural trend. ”
When one considers what gays have been fighting for in the last several years—the right to marry, the right to serve in the military, the right to be ordained as ministers, the right to have or adopt children, the right to be in the Boy Scouts, for God’s sake—one is astonished how conservative those desires are. Indeed, the only desire that could finally be deemed libertine is our sexual one. But as a 52-year-old homosexual man who marched against Anita Bryant and survived the AIDS epidemic this is, in 2008, the most astonishing fact of all: The new gay world is nothing but the old straight one.