NEW YORK - The cost remains high, and a good lawyer is essential. Yet despite complications, the idea of becoming a biological dad with help from a surrogate mother is gaining allure among gay men as the status of "married with children" grows ever more possible.
With same-sex marriage now legal in California even to nonresidents, and Massachusetts extending its 4-year-old gay-marriage policy to out-of-staters, in-wedlock parenting is suddenly a realistic option for gays and lesbians nationwide, even if their home state won't recognize the union.
Fertility clinics and surrogacy programs report increased interest from gay men, while couples who already have children are getting married — or considering it — to provide more security for those kids.
"We wanted our daughter to know her parents were married — that was the big thing for us," said Tommy Starling of Pawley's Island, South Carolina, who wed his partner of 12 years, Jeff Littlefield, on July 11 in Hollywood.
Among those at the ceremony was their daughter, Carrigan, who was born in California two years ago.
Starling said he and Littlefield had tried previously to adopt a child in South Carolina, but encountered anti-gay hostility and instead opted to become parents through a surrogacy program run by Los Angeles-based Growing Generations. Since 1996, it has matched hundreds of gay men with surrogate mothers who are paid to carry an implanted embryo produced from a donor egg fertilized with the client's sperm.
"Our journey to parenthood was not easy, cheap or fun," Starling and Littlefield wrote in an account of their family. "The result, however, has been the most amazing experience in the world; being called Daddy and Dad by our loving daughter."
For lesbian couples, biological parenthood is usually a far simpler proposition than for gay men, since there's no need for surrogacy and there are various options for becoming pregnant. A lesbian couple faces neither the cost of surrogacy, which can run as high as $150,000, nor the legal complications which call for a carefully negotiated contract with the surrogate mother.
"All the realms involved with men are much more complex," said Gail Taylor, president and founder of Growing Generations.
But Taylor believes the option of marriage will, over time, lead to more biological gay dads.
"For future generations, knowing they can fall in love, get married, have a child — absolutely, that will become a way of life more than it is," she said.
Starling, 36, and Littlefield, 52, face the likelihood that their marriage will not be recognized anytime soon in South Carolina, one of 26 states with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages.
In contrast, Joe and Brent Taravella, who are raising three children in South Orange, New Jersey, already have a civil union and are optimistic that New Jersey will soon join California and Massachusetts in legalizing same-sex marriages.
"As a couple with kids, you really see the importance of it, trying to get as many protections as you can," Joe Taravella said.
They have a 2-year-old daughter through a surrogacy handled by Growing Generations, and twins born in May 2007 through a surrogacy arranged by a New Jersey lawyer, Melissa Brisman.
"My relatives were screaming with excitement when they found out we were going to be parents," Joe Taravella said. "I think we still have something to prove, to show America we can do a great job with these kids."
Brisman, who specializes in reproductive legal issues, said laws dealing with surrogacy vary widely from state to state, as do the options for same-sex couples who become parents.
"Legally, being able to get married will help in some states but not others," she said. "I would never tell clients to get married. ... But I tell them straight out, 'If you do get married, it's going to be easier.'"
The Taravellas (Brent has taken Joe's last name) both donated sperm — a fairly common practice among gay male couples who say they don't care which partner is the biological dad. Some other couples decide to have two biological babies simultaneously, each providing sperm and using two surrogates.
Among the enterprises offering such services for prospective gay fathers is the Fertility Institutes, which has offices in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Mexico, and plans to open a branch soon in New York City even though New York is among a half-dozen states banning paid surrogacy.
"It's not going to happen in New York as the law stands now," said the Fertility Institutes' director, Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg. "You can't bring the surrogate into the state, but we can make the arrangements, fly the client elsewhere."
Overall, Steinberg says inquiries from gay men to his offices have increased 30 percent in the past six months.
"There are more couples that had been holding off because of the marriage situation who are now starting to show up," he said. "We've definitely seen an upswing."
For now, adoptions, rather than surrogacy, remain the most common way for gay men to become fathers, but Steinberg believes a shift is under way.
"Adoption is not getting any easier — surrogacy is getting easier," he said. "You rarely hear horror stories about surrogacy."
In fact, there are occasional surrogacy cases which become anguishing — including lawsuits by surrogate mothers seeking custody of the child, and wrenching cases in which triplets or quadruplets are conceived, and a debate ensues over whether any of the fetuses should be aborted.
Lawyers say airtight contracts can head off such problems, but legal costs run high. Beyond that, there usually are medical costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, and fees to the egg donor and surrogate that together can exceed $25,000.
Dr. G. David Adamson, director of Fertility Associates of Northern California and president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, says gay couples considering the option of surrogacy should receive thorough medical and psychological counseling, as well as candid legal advice.
"What we've tried to do is have consent forms that make it very clear what the intentions of the people are," he said. "Who's going to be the mom, who's going to be the dad, what might happens if relationship ends, if someone dies."
"If you don't have an exit strategy, the usual result is that you have potentially several years of litigation, which is extremely damaging to the child," Adamson added. "It's incumbent on everyone to be very thoughtful about entering these arrangements."
The challenges of gay fatherhood can seem relatively less daunting in gay-friendly communities such as New York, where Jeffrey Parsons and Chris Hietikko are raising a 2-year-old son, Henry. They've also remained in touch with the surrogate mother, a lesbian who lives with her own family in Oregon.
"As gay men, so much depends on where you live, what your social support system is like," said Parsons, a 41-year-old psychology professor at Hunter College.
"Our child will go to school with other kids with gay parents," he said. "I had a job option upstate, but I knew he'd be only kid like that there."
Parsons, who has been conferring with Hietikko about getting married, says he's a rarity among gay men his age — even as a youth, realizing he was gay, he was convinced he'd become a father.
More typical are men like Jeff Littlefield, who said that in his 20s, "I'd completely given up on the idea of ever having a child."
Littlefield was raised in Utah as a Mormon. In that family-focused culture, he regretted the prospect of not providing his mother with a grandchild.
When he and Starling did have their daughter, they rushed out to introduce the infant to her ailing grandmother — who died just a few days later. The girl's name, Carrigan, is her grandmother's maiden name.
"My mom was able to hold her," Littlefield said. "It was magical."