With an eclectic body of documentaries on the African-American and Latino communities completed over the past three years, journalist Soledad O’Brien has built “In America” into a respected, influential, and popular CNN franchise.
Focusing her latest effort on two New York City gay men who called on the aid of an egg donor and a surrogate gestational carrier, O’Brien now extends her reach into the LGBT community.
In what O’Brien said is just the first in an ongoing series of documentaries to be produced under the rubric “Gay in America,” “Gary + Tony Have a Baby” — chronicling the efforts undertaken by Gary Spino and Anthony Brown that resulted in the birth late last year of their son Nicholas — premieres on June 24 at 8 p.m., Eastern and Pacific time, and will be rerun on June 26 and 27, also at 8.
In its narrowest terms, the one-hour documentary explores, in detail, what is surely the most complicated, expensive, and infrequent means by which gay men become parents. Brown, a civil rights and family law attorney, and Spino, a dental office receptionist, estimate that their total costs, inclusive of compensation for the donor and surrogate and all medical, legal, and social service expenses, at $160,000. At a June 15 screening of the documentary, hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and CNN, panelists made the point that only about 1,000 gay men, to date, have had children through surrogacy.
But, in just 40 minutes of airtime, O’Brien tells a far broader story, as well — about the families and communities that Brown and Spino came from and the difficulties each faced as gay youth coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s. Raised in a Methodist home near Richmond, Virginia, Brown faced taunting as a student; his school, he said, was full of graffiti reading “TBIG” — for, Tony Brown is gay. The fellow student he suspects was his chief tormentor is today an out gay man living in New York, who appeared in the documentary and acknowledged that Brown was targeted for being “different,” something that “wasn’t encouraged.”
Though Brown’s parents became aware of the hazing their son habitually faced — culminating in a crisis that led to his withdrawal from the school — he didn’t formally come out to them until he met Spino in his late 20s two decades ago, and then only to his mother at first.
Spino also comes from culturally conservative roots — a small town in central Pennsylvania, where his Catholic family’s priest recently okayed having a petition distributed in church calling for a ban on same-sex marriage. When visiting Pennsylvania, Spino still drives his mother to Mass, but doesn’t go in; a letter he and Brown sent to her fellow parishioners was welcomed by some, but angered others.
In a June 15 interview with Gay City News, O’Brien reflected on what she learned about Spino and Brown’s lives as gay men from their experiences as youths.
“I guess what was the eye-opening part of it is that Tony is 40-something years old and he cried every time he talked about it,” she said of Brown’s recollections from his childhood school days. “It was a pain from his childhood and it is a pain that has seared through his head and into his heart, and it literally has made him a different human being. It was interesting, I thought, when Gary’s brother talked about teasing him and said, ‘Oh, I bet he remembers that like it was yesterday.’ Years later, both of them feel very emotional about that teasing. It changed them; it hurt them deeply.”
The couple would in time become gay activists, most visibly in recent years on the marriage equality issue; they married in Canada in 2005 and, prior to that, founded the Wedding Party, which for the past decade has done educational work on civil marriage rights. Five years before they embarked on parenthood through surrogacy, Brown donated his sperm to a New York lesbian couple. In the time since, Spino explains in the documentary, they thought about parenting largely in terms of their relationship to the women’s daughter, Piper.
But Brown and Spino wanted to have their own child. When O’Brien asked the couple, “What about Piper?,” Brown responded, “We’re not her parents. She has two parents.” O’Brien followed up by asking why they didn’t adopt, to which Spino answered, “I know part of that is ego,” and then pointed to the human instinct, present since the beginning of time, for “seeing your own biological offspring.”
Parenting their son through surrogacy — this time, Spino contributed the sperm — allowed CNN to also explore the role Holly, the egg donor from Florida, and Cindy, the surrogate from North Carolina, played in the story. Neither women use their last name in the documentary, though both appear on camera. Holly, whom we first meet as Brown and Spino pick them up at the airport in New York when she arrives with her mother, says she was confused when the agency she was working with asked if she had any concerns about donating eggs to gay men. Still, her decision to withhold her last name was based on the fact that she was working with two fathers, the documentary reveals.
That hesitancy doesn’t keep Holly, however, from allowing cameras into the surgical room where her eggs are harvested.
Some of the most compelling scenes in the documentary concern Cindy and her husband, John, who have children of their own. Cindy and John are not their real names, and we don’t see their children’s faces. But the parents spend considerable time on camera. O’Brien describes them as “a rural couple from the South, all motorcycles and tattoos,” and rightly notes that they are “the oddest of matches” for the New York gay activists. The North Carolina couple, we learn, will plow the money Cindy made carrying Spino and Brown’s baby into opening up their own tattoo parlor.
Cindy tells O’Brien that nobody beyond her parents and some very close friends know that the parents of the baby she is carrying are gay men. The decision for her and John not to use their real names, she explains, is based on avoiding “negative repercussions on people who didn’t agree to do this in the first place.” She adds, “If my grandmother were to know the entire situation, I think she would give up. She would say, ‘You now, I think I’ve outlived my welcome in this world. So, I’ll see ya later.’”
O’Brien acknowledged that the sensitivity about self-disclosure she encountered in making “Gary + Tony Have a Baby” was “unusual” among her documentary sources.
“For other documentaries I’ve done, people agree and people don’t worry about ‘What is this going to mean for my cousin?’ and ‘What is this going to mean for my sister?,’” she said. “So that is definitely different from other stories.”
O’Brien said, however, that in all documentaries it is necessary to win trust among participants upfront. She said she told Holly and Cindy what she has told many others who have appeared in her work — that if they decide to participate only if their faces are obscured in interviews, “You need to understand that it’s going to look on camera as it does when you watch TV, which is that this person has something to hide. You can’t say, ‘I have no problem with this, but blur my face’ — that’s inconsistent.”
Asked whether she would have moved forward with the documentary if she had not won the level of participation she did from the two women involved in the birth, O’Brien said the question was too hypothetical.
“If the donor said no, and the surrogate said yes, then maybe we could do it,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “If the surrogate said no, I don’t know. But if the surrogate said, ‘You could do it if you cover my face,’ maybe you could. I don’t know.”
In an 18-month process in which CNN shot about 70 hours of film, cooperation by Holly and Cindy were just two of the variables.
“Documentaries are like that,” O’Brien said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out and sometimes it’s like — well, that’s a very good two-and-a-half minute piece. And then it doesn’t become a documentary.”
As CNN prepared for the June 24 premiere of “Gary + Tony,” three such two-and-a-half-minute pieces were rolled out, as part of “In America”’s customary teasing of longer-form documentaries. The shorter segments involved LGBT high school students pushing back against harassment, two black lesbians trying to get approval from their Baptist church in Washington to marry there, and transgenders encountering problems with their transitions.
Some critics have already emerged online complaining that these grittier topics, closer to the struggles faced by many LGBT Americans outside the wealthier gay enclaves in cities like New York and San Francisco, would make more suitable topics for diving into a hard-news examination of “Gay in America.”
For now, O’Brien, emphasizing how few of the hundreds of documentary ideas considered each year actually make their way into full-length production, will say only that the network is committed to pursuing an ongoing series.
One point made crystal clear during the June 15 panel was that even within the sub-topic of gay and lesbian parenting, surrogacy is a very rare option. Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, cited statistics that one in three lesbian couples and one in five gay male couples in America are raising children. That amounts to about two million children being raised in roughly one million households. The thousand or so gay men who have made the choice Spino and Brown did are obviously a drop in the bucket.
Glenn Magpantay and Christopher Goeken — pictured on the cover of half of the Gay City News print run this issue — both attorneys in their early 40s, went down a far more common route when they decided to adopt four years ago. Appearing on the June 15 panel with Brown, Spino, Chrisler, and GLAAD’s Jarrett Barrios, Goeken explained that they expected to have to wait at least a year or two, but that the process moved “abnormally fast.” They first applied in May 2006, had identified a birth mother by August, and witnessed the birth of their son, Malcolm, in November.
In a follow-up interview, Goeken explained that the birth mother, who already had children and felt unable to raise another, decided to give the child up for adoption while she was still pregnant. Because the mother earlier had another of her children adopted, Goeken said he and Magpantay were confident that she would remain comfortable with her decision to have them step in as parents.
The couple pictured on the cover of the other half of the Gay City News print run, Debbie Smith, who is in her early 50s, and Kelly Cipriani, in her mid 30s, own a specialty printing shop in Columbus, Ohio, where they are raising their twin sons, Sam and Max, in the gay-friendly Clintonville neighborhood.
The accident of geography in America’s federal system, however, puts Smith and Cipriani, and their children, at a disadvantage compared to the Brown-Spinos and the Magpantay-Goekens. Cipriani is the birth mother of the two seven-year-old boys, and under Ohio law, Smith cannot adopt them. She is a legal stranger to both her partner and their children.
It may be that their story is in more crying need of being told than Anthony Brown and Gary Spino’s. As Chrisler pointed out at the GLAAD-CNN panel, the majority of kids being raised by gay and lesbian parents suffer under the legal hardships that face Max and Sam, but not young Nicholas or Malcolm. That is a fair critique —and CNN’s “Gay in America” series will ultimately be judged on how well it is able to tackle tougher stories that confront more directly the legal inequalities the nation’s LGBT community continues to face.
But to dismiss this first chapter in “Gay as America” as the privileged tale of two affluent, white gay men in New York City is to refuse to reckon with it on its own terms. Brown and Spino were not born with silver spoons in their mouths; they invested the proceeds of an unexpected inheritance from a friend into what mattered most to them — building a family. And, in their activism, they have contributed considerable sweat equity into building greater opportunity for others.
Most of all, though, “Gary + Tony Have a Baby” deserves credit for bringing to the LGBT experience what too often remains absent in mainstream media accounts — truth told with sensitivity and a whole lot of heart.