Three single gay dads reflect on fatherhood and surrogacy journeys
Fatherhood takes many different forms, from dads who are there from your first steps, to those you meet later in life.
NPR spoke to three men, single gay fathers, who have chosen to become surrogate fathers, after years of coming to terms with their identities, their families, and the advances in technology that have made journeys like this possible.
Cenk Bulbul is from Turkey. He came to the United States in 1994 – the early days of a tool that would help him and countless others understand the emotions they didn’t yet have the words for: the World Wide Web.
“The things I felt as a young man, but I didn’t know what they were because there were no public examples where I lived in Turkey and even at Carnegie Mellon [University]“, Bulbul says of the time he spent exploring the internet while earning his master’s degree in Pennsylvania.
“At that time in 1994, you weren’t seeing a lot of gay people [on] the campus. So I realized I was gay, but I was kind of scared, confused.”
While he was finally able to label his romantic feelings, he still felt lost. So he returned home to Turkey and completed his compulsory military service, before returning to the United States – this time to New York – where he completed a doctoral program.
“Here I am, like, 20 years later.”
Journey to fatherhood
Bulbul had always dreamed of being a father. In his youth, he imagined himself in the year 2000 – 28 years old – married, to a woman, with two young children.
“Then I came out in 2002,” he says. “There were no examples of gay parents or single parents by choice around me, even like adoption circles.
“And then over the decades, more and more, as I got more comfortable with who I am, I started to see examples and, you know, the legislation started to change, and it also started to bring more families from different backgrounds to the surface. And that childhood dream started nagging at me.”
Initially, Bulbul wanted to adopt. But the process for single people, especially relatively older gay men, he said, was difficult.
“If I’m going to be a parent, I should just try to find the shortest route at this point because, you know, it’s not fair for kids to have a geriatric parent. I wanted to be there,” he said. .
In 2017, her first daughter, Emi Jules, was born via surrogate. In 2021, plagued by COVID, Bulbul welcomed her second daughter, Gaia Mine, with the same surrogacy partner.
“Her first name, Gaia, means, Mother Earth. And to me, that was very fitting for a kid who’s just going to grow up on a warming planet, whose future is in jeopardy. So I thought she would be the future president,” he laughs.
At 2 and a half, Archie is a precocious toddler with multicolored bows adorning her hair and a vocabulary that belies her age.
“It’s a specific language,” explains his father, Diarra Lamar. “I speak Archie. Do you speak dad,” he asks, turning to the sunglass-wearing toddler by his side.
Archie replies yes, before asking his dad if he remembers “Wheels on the Bus” and reminding him that she likes vanilla.
Lamar, who now resides in New York, grew up in Mobile, Ala. Black, gay and burly in the South, he was raised by a single mother in a family of single mothers.
“Despite what one might expect, given these characteristics – this geography, these circumstances – who I am as a person has made me seemingly oblivious to these perceived constraints,” he says.
“Yeah, you know, people were saying ridiculous things about me, but I didn’t care,” he says. “And the reason I didn’t care was that my mother loved me and my grandmother loved me.”
It was because of the love he felt for his family, and the strength of the women around him, that he felt it was his duty to bring a child into the world.
“My mother is a phenomenal woman,” he says. “My grandmother was a phenomenal woman. My aunt is a phenomenal woman. My uncle is a brilliantly creative man. My great-grandfather was a giant. The world needs to see the next generation.”
And so in 2016, he started the process of birthing Archie.
Journey to fatherhood
A three-time Harvard-educated medical professional, Lamar speaks with clinical detachment about obtaining viable embryos and finding a surrogate.
“My mom had said in a few conversations we had… ‘Oh, if I’m here then,'” Lamar recalled. “And we had never talked about my kids, but that was in the context of other things. And when she said that, I was like, ‘Oh, okay, I really have to go.’ ”
“It was a very long journey,” to parenthood, he says.
There have been several bumps in the road, including one of her would-be surrogates who had to apologize because her husband suffered a suicide attempt and another was involved in a serious car accident just before the planned date of implementation.
But in January 2020, Archie was born – named after his late great-great-grandfather.
“But we [Lamar, his mother and newborn Archie] got off the train at Penn Station and, you know, went straight home. And my mother hasn’t left since.”
In the first few months of Archie’s life, she lived with her grandmother in an apartment Lamar had bought her, just steps from her own rent-controlled apartment in the West Village.
“I was doing my job during the day, at 5:30 or so, I was going to cook us dinner, I was playing with Archie and, you know, I was doing everything,” he says, “putting her down around ten or so with a [late-night feeding] at midnight. And then I’d come home at midnight, rinse off and rehearse.”
Now the three live in a brightly colored three-bedroom apartment six blocks from the Montessori school Archie attends.
“I believe Archie is special,” Lamar says. “I believe she deserves a disproportionate share of all those things that are good, and a disproportionately small share of all those things that are bad. And I believe it is my honor, my task, my job, my privilege to make sure it happens shamelessly.”
“I know it was meant for me,” he says. “I was made for her.”
“Sometimes the gay community is seen as, oh, he’s the funny guy who’s always about fashion or always about travel,” says Dustin Ling.
“Fathers – gay fathers and mothers – come in many different and varied forms, not just this one-note identity. We can be many things, and you can be those things and also be a parent.”
Raised on the island of Aruba by Asian parents, Ling says there weren’t many examples of gay people around.
“When you’re from an underrepresented minority, you don’t realize what’s possible,” he says.
Journey to fatherhood
Ling’s son was born in May 2021, after a difficult surrogacy search.
“You have to sell yourself, don’t you. And the surrogate, maybe some surrogates want to help straight parents. Some surrogates only want to help couples,” Ling says. “Some surrogates want to help a single mom who wants to have a child because she can’t. And then you’re kind of there as a person of color or as a single dad. So it took some time to even find a substitute.”
The baby, a 13-month-old with rosy cheeks, is named after Ling’s brother, who died by suicide in 2015.
“His first name is Spencer, in honor of my brother,” Ling said. “His middle name is Kai, which really means the ocean, since we’re from the Caribbean.”
As a new parent during COVID, Ling’s experience had its challenges.
“Birth is kind of like such a time when you want to celebrate and you want to have family, friends,” Ling says. “And the first year was like, ‘Actually, no thanks, don’t come right now,’ because we want to protect Spencer from any kind of exposure.”
The couple contracted COVID in April, which made childcare difficult as Ling’s parents often travel from Aruba to help with the baby.
“The parents you take care of too, because they are intimately involved in my son’s life,” he says. “You’re worried about your seniors, seniors in the family, considering they’re over seventy. And you’re worried about Spencer, who, you know, doesn’t have the vaccine.”
But during their time together, exacerbated by pandemic isolation, Ling says he and Spencer have spent time learning from each other.
“He’s got incredible willpower going for him,” Ling says.
It is a determination that the two have in common. Despite the challenges of life as a single gay father in New York, Ling remains optimistic.
He said he still hopes to find romantic love and plans to start a new surrogacy journey in a few months.