Family life takes shape for gay couple after adoption ruling

They hope to finalise adoption of son, get citizenship for him, enrol him in school

From left: Shawn, Noel and James (not their real names) visiting the Botanic Gardens' Swan Lake yesterday. Last Monday, the High Court allowed James to adopt Noel, whom he fathered in the United States through a surrogate mother.
From left: Shawn, Noel and James (not their real names) visiting the Botanic Gardens' Swan Lake yesterday. Last Monday, the High Court allowed James to adopt Noel, whom he fathered in the United States through a surrogate mother.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

A group of children were gathered around Swan Lake in the Botanic Gardens yesterday morning. Watched closely by their parents, they squealed and laughed as they ran along the banks feeding the catfish, swans and occasional turtle. Among them was five-year-old Noel (not his real name).

The boy, who is tall for his age, laughed when a food pellet he threw landed on a swan's back. Unlike the other children there, however, Noel has two fathers.

Last Monday, one of the Singaporean men got the green light from the courts to adopt Noel.

In a decision that it reached "with not insignificant difficulty", the High Court allowed James to adopt Noel, whom he fathered in the United States through a surrogate mother.

The pathologist had brought the Pennsylvania-born boy to Singapore in 2013, but his bid to adopt him was rejected by a district judge last year. He then appealed.

In its judgment grounds, the three-judge court stressed that its decision to reverse the district court's ruling was based on the welfare of the child, and "should not be taken as an endorsement of what the appellant and his partner set out to do".

The Ministry of Social and Family Development has since said that gay parents hoping to adopt their biological children may find it harder to argue in court that they are not "deliberately" going against Singapore's stance against same-sex family units.

For now, though, the two men are looking forward to a merrier Christmas with Noel.

Shawn, 46, whom the boy calls Daddy, works in the marketing industry and will be whipping up dishes such as oxtail stew and nasi ulam for the extended family this festive season.

James, also 46, whom Noel calls Papa, says: "We are so relieved - it's going to be a good holiday."

Their mood is a far cry from this time last year, when they found out on Boxing Day that James' application to adopt Noel had been rejected. They were preparing to go to Bangkok to let Noel visit a local safari, but the news " put a dampener" on the vacation, James recalls.

Much of the first half of this year was spent working with lawyers on the appeal. The July hearing was extended from three hours to 1½ days as the judges grilled their lawyers and the State Counsel on what was in the best interest of the child.

"Whoever was arguing the case at the time looked like they were going to lose," James recalls of the uncertainty that, he adds, led him to suffer bouts of depression.

They say Monday's judgment was unexpected, and the turn of events means they can make firmer plans about their family.

"We put off buying blinds for the home because we weren't sure if we'd still be in Singapore next year," says James.

He had started looking into job options in Australia, should the family have no choice but to uproot.

"Our elderly parents were living in fear that they may lose their children and grandson," he adds.

Noel will enter primary school in 2020 and the ruling means that the fathers can now start securing a spot in a local primary school.

James jokes that he missed the deadline to qualify as an alumnus for his alma mater, which would offer Noel better chances of enrolling in a top primary school.

"I've asked the Ministry of Education if they can make an exception," he says, laughing at his one act of "kiasu"-ism (fear of losing).

More immediately, they tasked their lawyers at Eversheds Harry Elias with finalising the adoption paperwork, in which James will be listed as Noel's legitimate father. This would make it easier for Noel to get Singaporean citizenship.

Even so, they worry that the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority may not grant Noel citizenship despite the adoption.

"The reality is that until Noel is allowed to stay in Singapore on a long-term or permanent basis, we are unable to make any concrete plans for the future," James says.

PLAN TO START A FAMILY

James and Shawn were introduced to each another at a mutual friend's party in 1998, and have been together since. Six years ago, they decided to start a family. They had helped raise Shawn's nephew, now a teenager, and the experience made them realise they wanted a child of their own.

"The desire to have our own children became stronger when we approached mid-life," James says. "It didn't matter if our children weren't biologically ours."

They approached a few local adoption agencies, read up on government policies, and asked friends in the know for advice. They found out that single men were allowed to adopt only boys. But gay men would not be able to adopt at all.

 
 
 
 

"We didn't want to conceal facts about ourselves - our sexual orientation and our relationship - so we decided this avenue was not for us," says James.

They were put in touch with some Singaporean couples who had their children through overseas surrogacy and were raising them in Singapore as citizens or permanent residents. "We felt that was an option - to our knowledge, there are no existing laws prohibiting overseas surrogacy," he says.

The men settled on the US because of its well-established surrogacy laws, and signed up with an agency there in September 2012. Four months later, they flew to Los Angeles to meet the woman who was to be the surrogate mother, a Latina with three children, with whom they remain in touch.

In total, about US$200,000 (S$275,000) was paid out but most of this went to medical fees and insurance. The woman, who holds a full-time job, pocketed about US$25,000 to cover her expenses during the pregnancy and recovery period. In November 2013, the men returned to witness Noel's birth.

Noel has never asked why he does not have a mother, Shawn says.

"Besides, he is surrounded by a strong female presence," he says, counting his and James' mothers, sisters and their domestic helper.

In any case, any maternal instincts the fathers were lacking were made up with the help of YouTube tutorials and several thick parenting tomes.

James says Noel has said he wants a sibling. "Shawn and I experienced the joy of growing up with a sibling, so we would love for Noel to have a younger sibling."

They have several viable embryos left with their agency, and are keeping their options open.

James does not see the family as a poster child for change in relatively conservative Singapore.

"Some friends lauded us for being brave. But we are merely fighting for our family to exist in this country we call home," he says.

To be fair, he adds, the majority of Singaporeans have been overwhelmingly kind - from the two elderly Muslim employees at Tan Tock Seng Hospital who, without the men saying a word, told the couple their son was lucky to have two daddies, to their Christian neighbour who gave them a car seat.

Says Shawn: "If anybody has said anything malicious about our family, it's never been to our face."

Looking back, was it all worth it?

"There have been so many times when my spirit was spent, the wind completely knocked out of my sails," James says.

"But having a child running around the house really rejuvenates me, you know? I wouldn't have it any other way."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 23, 2018, with the headline 'Family life takes shape for gay couple after adoption ruling'. Subscribe