I'll stand with you: Equal access to health care for LGBTQ parents

Last month, the Spanish government announced that restrictions barring lesbians, singles and couples in which one member is transgender from fertility treatments under public health insurance programs have been rescinded. Although for most people even in Spain that news may herald only a minor change, I know from experience that for those it does affect personally, it is life changing and fraught with powerful emotions. 

A Spanish gentleman posted an article about the announcement to an American progressive group I frequent. Instead of the passing support I would expect from progressives, the post was attacked by some members of the progressive group, ostensibly because some people objected to fertility treatments in general. They made no overt mention of the LGBTQ rights aspect of the new law, but simply opposed it because it constituted an expansion of medical fertility treatments, which they see as unethical.

I was confused at first. I can understand that some extreme religious types might object to treatments like IVF as "playing god" or something of the like. But I couldn't fathom what progressives would find wrong with it. 

Creative Commons image by  Niklas Montelius

Creative Commons image by Niklas Montelius

Adoption, apparently.

The naysayers were convinced that those who can't otherwise have children are selfish to pursue IVF. They should adopt "the numerous children waiting in orphanages."

The terms of shame employed against transgender people and lesbians who pursue fertility treatments were "selfish," "unethical" and even "stupid." These "progressives" hadn't voiced a problem with fertility treatments for straight people, married couples or for the wealthy who can afford them without insurance. But they felt some people should "just adopt."

The tirade of shame for people struggling with infertility brought it all back.

I woke up disoriented and pinned on my back in a dark room. Tubes and wires were attached to me from either side. I couldn't sit up or even roll over, so I couldn't see anything except distant lights and the lumps of people lying on beds on either side of me. The sound of a steady electronic beeping was interspersed with shrieking laughter.

Vomit rose in my throat and I fought it back. It would be terrible to throw up while immobilized on my back. Slowly I pieced together what had happened. After my first harrowing IVF treatment was successful, I was pregnant for nine weeks. Then a routine check-up resulted in a frantic dash for the hospital. Something was wrong and I was told that I would have a miscarriage, one that would be dangerous and bloody if I didn't go in for surgery. I had gone, filled with grief and despair. 

And I woke up here in the dark and with no way to escape either the physical pain or the gaping loss.

I had been promised that it would be quick and I could go home with my husband afterward. But instead I was in pinned down, it appeared to be night and my husband was gone.

The pain came to me slowly. Dull pain in my womb and sharp pain in my throat. Finally, the shrieking laughter materialized into a gaggle of night nurses, barely old enough to be out of high school, from what I could tell, let alone nursing school. They told me I was in the ICU. Something had gone wrong.

Well, more wrong than it already had been. So I was stuck there, and no, they wouldn't give me anything for the pain.

I survived that night, the longest and worst hours of my life so far (let it stay that way, please). And it was only the beginning of the years of misery and despair in which I fought the monster of infertility because my body and soul needed a child, needed more than just me and my husband and my distant childhood family as "family." 

All in all, I spent six years in infertility, three of them in various stages of IVF. They were some of the loneliest and most painful years of my life. I was geographically cut off from my family and most of my close friends. When I did visit family and friends and made any mention of the all-consuming medical struggle my husband and I were undergoing, I was often met with silence and quick changes of topic. While I could think of nothing else, most people, unsurprisingly, had a lot of other things on their minds.

Never having thought much about it before it happened to me, I was surprised to learn that the topic of infertility makes most people very uncomfortable. It is a medical issue and the subject of genitalia seems too close for easy conversation. Infertility is a misfortune and it may make those who didn't struggle with it feel inexplicably guilty.

But more than any of that, I discovered, many people who have never been faced with the problem themselves feel that those who can't easily have children should do their part to mitigate the human population surplus by gracefully accepting their fate. Someone has to make the sacrifice after all and it's easier to contemplate if that someone is someone else.

To make it even lonelier, IVF is not as simple and painless as it is often described in the media. It is a long and arduous process involving hormone therapies that cause exhaustion and often debilitating mood swings, self-inflicted injections, followed by surgery, extremely precise schedules and many trips to distant medical clinics.

Even when it is "covered" by insurance in countries with universal health care the co-pays are steep and where it isn't covered by insurance tales of mortgages and eventually lost homes are frighteningly normal. Finally, IVF and other fertility treatments often entail enduring exaggerated symptoms of early pregnancy and then miscarriage... repeatedly. 

And that says nothing about the wrenching emotional and psychological process of desperate hope, almost always followed by at least a few devastating losses. 

In some places there are support groups for those undergoing these difficult experiences, but in our area there wasn't anything like that. That made the discomfort of my friends and family around the topic hard to bear, even though I knew that my focus on IVF verged on obsession. I tried not to go on about it, but I couldn't help thinking about it every waking moment.

Even among those who were also struggling with infertility I found a lot of silence and reticence to share. I knew three other couples dealing with infertility at the same time. But two of them found the topic too painful and private and wouldn't either talk about it themselves or listen to my struggles. The one couple I could talk to lived several hours away and we saw them rarely but gladly. 

Their conversation and mutually supportive hugs were a light in a long and painful darkness. The one topic that these friends wouldn't discuss was the diagnosis of their infertility. It's a sensitive subject for many, so my husband and I didn't press them. But one day over lunch at our house, my friend--who had been my colleague as well for five years--turned to me and revealed the truth. One half of the couple was transgender, making normal procreation impossible. 

My friends struggled under the same conditions of IVF that my husband and I did, the same forced silence, the same pain and fear and loss. And to add to that they faced the warranted anxiety that this hidden fact might bring down harsh judgment on them, even from those people who shared their struggle.

I will admit that I was astounded by the revelation. Transgender identity was another thing I had never spent much time thinking about or had any close experience with. My friends were so utterly normal that they broke all the stereotypes I had acquired from the media with that simple declaration. And once all secrets were on the table, our friendship was closer than ever.

My husband and I eventually lost that struggle to have a biological child, though our friends succeeded. We went on to adopt children from a local orphanage. The people engaged in shaming others for struggling against infertility might well have been gratified by us.

But they clearly don't know the reality of adoption in today's world. "The numerous children" waiting to be adopted in the United States where those voices hailed from are either not legally cleared for adoption or they are overwhelmingly older or carry with them costly medical issues. 

I would love for all children without families to be adopted but only into families prepared for them. Older children in the adoption system invariably have complex psychological and emotional needs. People battling their own medical problems and deep losses of dead babies are not the ideal candidates to provide the unconditional nurturing and rock-solid safe homes that those children need and deserve. Such families are also often not equipped to deal with children with extensive medical needs.

Pursuing fertility treatments instead of adoption is neither selfish nor unethical in any other way. In fact, if you do adopt, as my husband and I did, there will be those who will point accusing fingers at you and scream those same words of shame because you adopted.

Just as my husband and I tried to do the right thing in seeking medical help for our difficulties, we made every effort to navigate the adoption system ethically. We went through official channels and waited patiently to be assigned a child in need. We did not pay massive amounts of money to be able to make the choices ourselves. This is no doubt what the shamers and blamers think they would support. 

In the end, we adopted two children--one with complex disabilities and one who came to us after being drugged and neglected in a poorly run orphanage for ten months, who screamed in terror almost without ceasing for the first year. It has been and continues to be a rugged road to family. And yet, there are those who would shame us still. 

Our children needed homes and families primarily because of structural racism and discrimination in the country where we live. Neither of them were true orphans with dead parents. Almost none in the adoption system are.

They came from families facing a vicious system of employment, educational and housing discrimination, who then could not care for their child because of desperate circumstances. Those families sent their children into the adoption system in the hope that their loss and agony might result in their children having a better future. And so, finally we built our family on the ashes left by structural racism and egregious social injustice. Such is our supposedly morally superior path. 

But the fact was that these children were alone and abused in a terrible situation. Not taking them would not have resulted in the salvation of their birth families or communities. And after picking up the shards of our lives shattered by infertility, we felt we had the strength to do this. 

Those who never faced such choices, such pain or deep despair, will judge. But our friends who went through IVF with us, just invite us to stay and our kids build forts together in the construction materials for their new house.

Oddly enough, another friend, this time a single lesbian woman also went through IVF though not at the same time as us. And of the many friends who have appeared and drifted away, these two families are two that stayed in our circle without judgment and linked to us by bonds of solidarity and hope.

That is why I didn't let the issue lie when the tirade broke out shaming transgender people and lesbians in distant Spain. Some people did ask me why I went to the mat over that obscure issue so fiercely. I am not transgender or lesbian and I adopted children. The comments were theoretically praising me. 

But there is one point of honor and ethics that I hold higher than any other. I will always stand up for those who stood by me in hard times. If there is ever need, LGBTQ people will not stand alone, not in this or in any other defense of equal rights.

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

Stand with those under attack: A simple gift you can give for free

There are a lot of messages out there at this time of year aimed at getting you to give to good causes. And many of those causes really do help people--ensuring that hungry people eat, refugees receive shelter and sick people get care. 

It is very gratifying to have enough to give materially. But maybe you are not one of the people who can. Or if you do give materially, you may want to give in other ways as well.

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Right at the moment, many people are feeling that the future is bleak. There is sorrow at every turn and a looming sense of potential disaster. It is easy to become pessimistic and resort to hunkering down in our own homes, hoping the storm will pass us by.

I've been feeling that way myself and fighting for inspiration in my writing. It's humbling that the answer came to me from my younger brother.  And he probably has no idea he proposed something so actionable. 

Here's how it happened. My brother said he was going to write a letter to the local newspaper. I'd heard him saying how concerned he is about the rise in vocal racism and the apathy of many others to respond. He used to be quite idealistic and recent events had brought him nearly to tears. He's also living out in a rural area that voted nearly 70 percent for Trump, so what options did he have?

I thought I knew what to expect of his letter to a local paper. He's diplomatic, but still I thought he would try to talk some sense into his neighbors one way or another.

He did a bit but he also put something else in his letter: "I invite immigrants into this community. I will protect you physically and emotionally... People of color, people who look different, act different, are different are welcome here in this valley."

I've heard many people say they want to stand by immigrants, people of color or Muslims. And that's nice and all. But mostly we are saying these things in our bubble, whether it's on Facebook or among friends. 

We're not only not persuading anyone not to be racist, we aren't even telling the people in need of support about this. But my brother hit on a good idea, a new spin on writing letters to local newspapers. Don't write to persuade people who probably won't listen to an opposing view. Don't write to officials who aren't going to change their policies.

Instead write your letters to the people who are now living with the greatest uncertainty and fear. Address them directly.

Think of Christian refugees from Syria celebrating their first Christmas in the United States while being harassed for being Arabs. Imagine a Muslim child learning to read English opening up the local paper for homework and finding your letter. Then write with that audience in mind.

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Tell your friends and imagine a flood of such letters. 

I welcome you. I stand by you. I am a friend. I want to have people of color, people speaking different languages, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Pagans. Hindus, people of varied gender identities and people of all shapes, sizes and talents in my community. We would miss out, if you were not here. We would be poorer and our town would lack its interest and sparkle. I want you here and I will say it openly. I won't be silent if there is hate speech or hateful policies. I am sorry for these terrifying times. I, for one, stand with you. 

There are a great many of us who agree with these statements, but we mostly say them to each other. Let's say them to the people who feel excluded and attacked. Let's start a campaign of letters to our communities, rather than to officials. 

Go ahead and make it specific. Write to foreign students or immigrants or women who have undergone an abortion or people with visible and invisible disabilities or the quiet people of non-Christian faiths who repeat "Merry Christmas" cheerily without ever hearing their own holidays mentioned. 

You will touch someone deeply, almost certainly make someone's day or week. And if enough of us do it, you will also open the hearts of others who may need to look beyond their personal experience to believe in good people of every kind. It doesn't matter if you are also personally one of the people affected by the uncertainty. There is still someone out there who will be glad to hear you stand with them.

A holiday letter seems like an overly simple thing to give. But under some circumstances it can be a great gift.

And thank you for reading my writing this year. I wish you comfort, simple joy and shared love in this season.

Confessions of prejudice: Getting educated can be a shock

It's socially dangerous to admit to having once held an unfair prejudice. Nonetheless I'm about to do just that... publicly. And, no, this isn't one of those things where I turn this around to make me look good. I had a bad prejudice. Bad at least among people I respect. 

I want to do this for several reasons:

  • I have a friend who has courage and I want to measure up,
  • It's one of those things, I think we individually owe the universe,
  • It's possible that if I speak up, I may take some of the flack that others might unfairly face,
  • I want people like me to know that prejudice is a something to change, not a reason for shame,
  • And the story itself is prejudice-busting.

I have met with fairly extreme reactions in the past when I have named a certain attitude as "prejudiced." So, let's be clear. I'm talking about these two definitions from dictionary.com:

Prejudice (noun): 1. an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason. 2. any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.

The easy way to keep this in mind is to remember that "prejudice" is "pre-judgement." 

So, here is my story...

Creative Commons image by Zuerichs Strassen of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Zuerichs Strassen of Flickr

I grew up very rural and mostly without a TV. That's not really an excuse because many people who live in cities and watch TV make the same assumptions. I'm just saying. I was a bit provincial. But I was brought up to be pro-civil-rights. My mother was the only white student made an honorary member of her university's Black Students Association back in the 1960's and we had diverse friends. I was taught to be open-minded about other people's appearances and abilities. I was born legally blind after all. 

And yet in my twenties I was a bit uncomfortable around gay and lesbian friends. Not very. Just slightly.

I had nothing against their private life, but the few times the subject of sexuality came up with them there was a combative atmosphere to the conversation and I lacked the sense of shared experience that I have with gay and lesbian friends today. Sex is part of life. It's fine to talk about what you like. It is no big deal that a gay friend and I agree on which men look hot (even if I'm married). But back then it was taboo. And that made it hard for a provincial young woman to get used to.

I got more used to it after I ended up with a no-nonsense lesbian roommate, who was instrumental in matchmaking my marriage. But she was tougher than most and tended to bury her own vulnerabilities in order to help those less educated than herself. 

Where I was truly prejudiced was in another area. I had only ever seen reference to transgender people on TV and almost all of the images were fairly flamboyant--men dressed unrealistically as women, being very loud and talking of nothing else but their desire for a "sex change." I certainly wasn't going to say anything out loud, but I secretly felt sorry for my lesbian and gay friends. It seemed like a shame that these "normal people" were being lumped together in the term LGBT with people who, in my view, seemed to be simply seeking attention and trying to be as racy as possible. 

Some years later, I was struggling with infertility and desperately wishing for friends who could really understand that painful road. I had one set of close friends who were rumored to be headed for IVF as well, but they refused to talk about it. I felt lonely and rejected, even though I knew how painful the subject could be. 

I'd known this couple for five intense years. The husband and I had been working together daily on a project for several years and I thought that if anyone would ever understand our struggle with infertility he would. 

When he finally did open up on the topic, I was in for a surprise. The reason he hadn't wanted to discuss it before was that he was transgender, having gone through the transition as a young adult. Knowing how much prejudice and stereotypes people often harbor about the issue, he kept it quiet. It's obviously a very private thing and in his case the only truly serious ongoing complication was the question of having children. 

I have rarely ever been so wrong about my guesses as to what was going on with a friend's silence. And it was telling to me that I could know a person for five years, work with him daily and never have any inkling of such a thing. I may be as likely to be taken in by prejudice as the next person, but I'm not a complete idiot. I realized immediately that this was definitive proof of the complete normalcy of transgender medical issues. 

In my friend's case it was almost entirely a past event. He isn't an "ordinary guy" because he's too awesome to be ordinary. But he fits no stereotypes and appears very comfortable with his life.

This revelation was one of a string of things that taught me an even deeper lesson than the simple banishment of a particular prejudice. It taught me to look at and recognize my prejudices, to question them and continue to grow in understanding. I am slower to jump to those silent judgments that people make when watching others. 

What's the greatest change of thinking you've undergone? Have you ever had to confront your own prejudice or seen that you were wrong in a judgment about people? I love your comments on these posts. Drop a line below and keep in touch!

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.