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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

THE ZEIT GIST

Lesbian mothers' twin tasks

Societal attitudes add to parenthood challenge


Motherhood can be daunting under even the best of circumstances, but, as a lesbian, considering starting a family brings with it a whole new set of difficulties.

News photo
Heidi Bean and Robin Tierney, who met in Japan in 1997, will move back here later this month with son, Max. PHOTO COURTESY OF HEIDI BEAN

The Japan Times talks to three women who have sought to overcome the hurdles presented by raising a family in Japan within a gay partnership.

Mia Japanese, 33

The main difficulty faced by Mia is other people's attempts to identify her sexuality. She's been living with her Japanese female partner for 10 years, but has simultaneously had a relationship with a German man for the past six years.

"In the lesbian community, I'm really quickly asked, 'Are you lesbian or not? Are you bisexual or not? Is there jealousy from your partners?' " says Mia.

She met her male partner while he was here on business. Although he was "too heterosexual" to imagine a long-term relationship, she had a strong instinct about having his baby. She began an affair, but was always very open about everything with both partners. About four months later, she became pregnant.

Wary of the financially difficult and sometimes lonely life of single mothers, Mia spent years building her own Web-based company and seeking to create understanding and supportive relationships with both partners and friends.

"Lots of people who don't know me well think I'm an egoist," says Mia. "They say I'm in the best position because I have both a male and female partner, and it's really hard to hear that, because I used a lot of energy to build this relationship."

Two weeks after her son was born, the fragility of the complex situation she was in was brought home to her.

Her male partner, who could not bear seeing the family unit include Mia's female partner, left Japan.

"I was alone with my girlfriend and I realized there's always the risk that she too could suddenly leave me," says Mia.

At this point, many same sex couples would debate marriage. While the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada and the U.S. state of Massachusetts recognize same-sex marriages, and about 20 other countries allow civil unions, Japan has not yet reached that point.

So Mia took matters into her own hands. "I made a private contract with my girlfriend, officially with my lawyer, so that she or I have rights if something happens to one of us, because my parents were against our relationship," she says.

Though Mia's girlfriend isn't legally bound to her son, they would like to add this right to their contract. However, they always try to maintain a clear distinction about who the mother is.

"A mother is a biological role, so it's not real that he has two mothers," says Mia.

"We don't want to make him call me 'mom' and my girlfriend 'mother,' or something like that. So my girlfriend is called by her name, I'm "okachan" and my boyfriend is 'otochan.' "

Although her boyfriend lives in Germany, he visits a few times a year for about a month each time.

Finding a nursery school that would respect Mia's lifestyle was imperative, so while she was pregnant she searched for one that fit her criteria, explained her situation, was accepted and moved to that ward so her son could officially enroll when the time came.

"I had lots of worry about him starting school because I write a blog with my own name and my sexuality. I'm very open; I'm not closeted. Anyone from the kindergarten can look," says Mia.

"My son has really mild gender roles. I have lots of transgender friends and gay and lesbian friends, as well as heterosexuals. We are really mixed and open. I think my son's classmates are learning gender roles from their own parents and are bringing this way of thinking into the kindergarten, and it's new and unknown for my son. He often asks me if he's allowed to cry as a man, so I say, 'you can cry as a boy, it's okay to cry.' "

Tina Australian

In the case of Tina and Bette (names have been changed), things are a little more straightforward.

The pair took the route of finding a sperm donor through an Australian-based Web site and the process went through without a hitch. However, when they started dealing with matters in Japan, things got just a tad sticky.

"Bette told this Japanese doctor she wanted to bring her partner in and when I went, he was visibly shocked and very uncomfortable. So we changed doctors," says Tina.

"We also had to find a midwife who was open enough to accept us, and a hospital where they would accept me as the next of kin to advise or make decisions. The midwives we met were very open and treated us like any other couple."

Soon after their son was born, Tina had a job interview for a Japanese company, which put her in the awkward position of her having to hide one of the most loved and important persons in her life.

"I said I had a son, so instantly they assumed I was married and said, 'Wow, you're looking good for someone who just gave birth.' That was uncomfortable. Do I tell the truth or do I just sort of go along with their assumption?" says Tina. "In that type of situation I tell them I'm not married, but I don't tell them that I'm not married to a woman. I just go along with it, but I don't say anything that's a lie. I don't say 'he, my partner.' I just say 'my partner.' "

Though Tina can't be out at work, the two mothers coo over their five-month-old son very openly in public. "At the end of the day I don't think there's any real difference (between heterosexual and gay parents)," says Tina.

"The difference is going to come when he starts school and realizes he lives with two mothers, whereas other kids have a mother and father living with them. Questions are going to come up and we'll answer them as honestly as we can."

"I think the environment we're in and the people around us are going to determine a lot about how we raise him and what we'll say to him. Bringing him up at school is going to be the hardest."

He could get teased and we're very concerned about that. I think there are ways around that, I just don't know what yet."

Heidi Bean American, 37

Heidi Bean and Robin Tierney, 40, who met in Japan in 1997, live in Ohio, but will move back here later this month for a year.

Residence in Ohio helped smooth their route to parenthood. Bean became artificially inseminated and during her pregnancy Tierney started the adoption process.

"In Iowa, adoption by same-sex parents is not protected, but it's not banned either.

"So same-sex adoption, or what's officially called 'second-parent adoption,' is generally accepted by the local courts. So we are both now his legal mothers," says Bean.

Bean says their past experience here has prepared them for what lies ahead.

"Frankly, the first time I was in Japan I developed a pretty thick skin to being thought of as a 'henna gaijin,' " says Bean, who is not overly concerned about what lies ahead in Japan.

"When it comes to acceptance by society and rights, in Japan (Max) will be too young for (isolation) to be an issue. I think my concerns might be very different if Max was of school age.

"Robin and I also have the advantage of not having to worry about being out in Japan because we don't have professional jobs or family reputation to protect. If one of us were working at a Japanese company, my attitude would likely be very different," says Bean.

"When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I was out at my teaching job but not at the job I had at a Japanese technology company. So I can imagine having a child -- which in a way 'outs' you -- while working in a conservative setting would be stressful. Robin and I are fortunate not to have to worry about that."

However, one worry remains. Though Bean and Tierney are both Max's legal parents, they are not married and fear Japan won't recognize them as a family.

"Robin is coming on a research visa and since Max is legally her child, he can come as her dependent. But I have no legal relationship to Robin. We're trying to make a case to let me into the country as Robin's dependent, but I don't know if immigration will be okay.

"If not, I'll have to come on a tourist visa, which is a bit risky since we plan to be there for a year."

Although same-sex families are not completely accepted socially and legally in America, Bean and Tierney feel lucky to live in as open an environment as they do.

Perhaps over time, they, and others like them, will find the same openness and understanding here.

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