Anthony Brown and his husband Gary Spino’s neighbor in their West Village apartment building in New York City wore all black, only went out at night and had a frequent cough.
She was, “the type of woman you’d see coming down the street and you might cross the street,” Brown says. Now and then the couple would see her coming home at night from grocery shopping and would help carry her groceries upstairs. One day after falling in her apartment the woman, named Janet, called the couple to help. The result was a seven-year friendship and the gift of Brown and Spino’s son, Nicholas.
Brown and Spino came to learn she suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, had lived all over the world and that she was also wealthy from family money. When she died, they discovered she had been so touched by their kindness that she left them half her estate. Because of her, the couple were able to afford surrogacy with Spino as their son’s biological father in what Brown calls, “a New York fairytale.”
“It was a gift from God, truly. Or at least a gift from Janet,” Brown says. “We still have her picture and a heart-shaped urn that has some of her ashes. We sprinkled her ashes all over the world. We took her ashes to all the places where she had lived and tried to do her justice.”
As they embarked on their surrogacy journey, the couple went to a Men Having Babies meeting at the Gay and Lesbian Center and began gathering information. Brown, an attorney, would eventually go on to become chairman on the board for the organization.
While working with Men Having Babies, the group became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and started a grant. The grant used money from events the organization produced to help with its gay parenting assistance program.
The program now offers qualifying individuals and couples discounted services, donated free services and cash grants. So far the organization is in its fourth class of recipients and 13 babies have been born to parents who have utilized the gay parenting assistance program.
“It’s one of the greatest things in the world to be able to talk to the recipients and see myself in them and to know I would never have been able to have afforded the surrogacy route had it not been for the grace of a kind woman who lived in my building. So it’s a full circle moment for me personally,” Brown says.
Brown is also no stranger to the other side of surrogacy. Before having their son, Brown worked for a marriage equality organization in the early ‘00s. Brown and Spino met a lesbian couple through the organization who wanted to have a family with a known donor. Brown and Spino agreed to help and the partner Brown was working with became pregnant first. Through her, Brown has an 11-year-old biological daughter. The experience led Brown and Spino not only on their own journey to welcome their son into their family, but for Brown to embark on a passion project to help other gay couples expand their families.
In 2012 Brown went deeper on his mission to help others and started TimeforFamilies.com, a website filled with information for LGBT families to learn how to start families.
Brown covers topics such as surrogacy, estate planning, co-parenting and specific topics like having a known donor versus an anonymous donor. While Brown notes the majority of website visitors are from the New York area, people from Africa, Asia and Europe have also accessed the site. Gay families can also send in their personal stories and photos to be featured on the website.
Brown hopes that with access to more information, people can become educated on the topic, especially on common misconceptions about surrogacy which Brown says are compensation and how aware surrogate mothers are about what they’re doing. He says the misconceptions vary across the world.
“In America most states authorize and regulate compensated surrogacy, where the surrogate mother is paid for the risks she takes with becoming pregnant and the inconvenience that she has,” Brown says. “In Europe, they label that as baby selling.That one misconception really bothers me because nobody accuses their heterosexual family member who is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at an IVF clinic to help them get pregnant. They’re spending that money also, but nobody accuses them of buying a child.”
When it comes to the idea that surrogate mothers are being taken advantage of, Brown says the average woman who embarks on the journey of surrogacy is more likely than not to have a college degree, to be married with children of her own and to have an income level above the poverty level. He says they also usually have a personal story and deep connection behind why they want to help.
“They really are women who are doing this because they want to help somebody else have a family. These woman really are incredible people,” Brown says.