Gay women get a rough deal when it comes to fertility treatment
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In just over a month I’m having surgery to remove a large fibroid (the size of the head of a foetus at four months, I’m told) and I’ll probably have a hysterectomy as well. Ah, the joys of growing older. The only aspect of any of this that worries me is not being able to drive or exercise for several weeks, the latter being much more difficult to resist.
Fortunately, it’s not life-threatening. But I have been thinking about the finality of this operation and how I might feel, as a childless woman, having that last possibility removed forever. I assume I will feel sad, a passing of sorts; while my family and friends cuddle their grandchildren my arms are empty. And while I would never consider having a child in my mid-50s, despite older women doing so, the option of having a child will be gone for ever. I say option because I suppose I could, with another woman’s egg, give birth well into my 60s.
I adore children, I love babies; we tried to have them but it didn’t work. I miscarried and my wife became infertile from chemotherapy. Our desire to have children wasn’t helped by people who assumed that because we were gay women, we were therefore different to heterosexual women in terms of wanting children – as if only heterosexual women in loving, committed relationships with men would want children.
As Sue Perkins said recently in the Sunday Times Magazine, “Does not a lesbian have a fallopian tube?” In our case we had four between us. I wasn’t surprised to hear that her consultant found it easier to tell Sue she was infertile when he heard she was gay. I wonder what he would have said to a heterosexual woman – or just a woman. Believe it or not, gay women and heterosexual women are both women.
Now that my wife and I are older, people find it easier to ask whether we ever wanted children, so I tell them our story of cancer and miscarriage and failed IVF, and how when we were younger it was even more complicated than it is now to have a child in a gay relationship. Some people, men and women, had children when they were in heterosexual relationships, and later left partners for a same-sex relationship. Thirty years ago things were very different. It was hard enough coming out, let alone suggesting that we wanted to be parents too.
In 2000, on the day my wife’s cancer diagnosis came through, I was due to start fertility treatment. While the fertility department was superb with us, never once making us feel as if we were different to heterosexual couples, the oncology department was oblivious to our wish to have children.
There was no provision in place to deal with this issue, none of the literature even mentioned infertility as a possible effect of chemotherapy. We were a gay couple. We were not asked, “Do you want children?” My wife was only 36 at the time. When we mentioned children to the oncologist, we were met with a look of surprise. Stella and I always had to volunteer the information, because hardly anyone one asked us.
While heterosexual friends were all openly discussing babies or the next phase in their parenting lives, for many parenthood just didn’t exist as a possibility for us. We knew what they were thinking: but … you need a man … how will you do it? The same way any woman might who wants a child, any woman who does not have a husband/boyfriend. With the help of a hospital, turkey baster, spoon or sex! But gay women are still treated as “other” when it comes to having children, as if we have chosen to give up traditional roles, including the possibility of motherhood. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the gay women I know have, or want to have children, as do many of our gay male friends.
My experience is that, generally, on coming out, we are still compartmentalised … you can’t do this, you can’t want that. People can be tactless, make assumptions, and – because heterosexuality is the norm – they often get it wrong. And it always hurts to be made “other”.
When we first discussed fertility treatment, all those years ago, our then GP asked if we would talk to two junior doctors about being gay. I told the very young medics to ask anything they wanted. When I mentioned children, their jaws dropped. I suggested that they never make assumptions about any patient. That every woman is different, some want kids, some don’t, some want them desperately and can’t have them. Everyone’s circumstances are different. Gay women are no exception. And just as with any other human being, it is useful not to assume, compartmentalise or judge.