Michael Johnson-Ellis On Coming Out, Surrogacy & Parenting

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Michael Johnson-Ellis is the founder of the My Surrogacy Journey charity. He always wanted to be a dad, but becoming a parent in a same-sex couple isn’t all that straightforward. Luckily, he and his husband found a surrogate who made that possible. Here, Michael tells SLMan about coming out, the parenting rules he lives by, and why he and his husband have decided to help others on their surrogacy journeys…
Photography ISTOCK/MIODRAG IGNJATOVIC

On Growing Up Gay

I came out when I was 22. I knew that I was gay from an early age – I knew I felt different. I struggled with my identity, partly because there weren’t any gay role models when I was growing up. Thirty years ago, no one in the media was gay, and there wasn’t anyone in my family who I could talk to about it. The 80s and 90s were quite an isolating time for the queer youth – you stayed in the closet because you were scared. The only gay people on TV were ridiculed, and campness was seen as something to laugh at. I tried my hardest to be straight. I thought having different girlfriends would make me more accepted and, to be honest, I didn’t want to be gay. I hated myself for feeling like that.

Because of Section 28, which prevented the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, my school couldn’t help me because they weren’t allowed to talk about LGBTQ+ issues. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and I definitely didn’t want to speak to my parents because I felt ashamed. So, I went through all of my youth wanting to be straight, having sex with girls and thinking I was a player. Then I got married to a woman when I was 20. I knew I wanted kids, and thought getting married would make the ‘gay’ go away. We were together for about three and a half years, and were married for 11 months, but it didn’t ever feel right.

My sexuality was always like a devil on my shoulder that made me despise who I was. At the time, I certainly didn’t know any gay men that were having kids. Back then, we couldn’t adopt or go through surrogacy. My marriage collapsed because my ex-wife didn’t think it was working, and wanted to go back to her old life in Wales, so that was my get out. Six months later, I came out to her, which didn’t go down well, but that honest conversation made her understand why our marriage wasn’t working. She’s an amazing woman and we’re still in contact, but the marriage wasn’t fair on her, and I definitely shouldn’t have married her.

TO COME TO COME

On Coming Out

My coming out story isn’t fun. It was actually forced. I was outed. I’d been out with a guy one evening who knew I was gay, and he decided to tell my dad. I remember rushing home to explain everything to him – my dad is quite traditional, so I was nervous about his reaction. Unfortunately, this guy shared all my sordid details, which was really unpleasant. Luckily, my dad was incredibly supportive and threw his arms around me – if anything, he was angry that I felt like I couldn’t tell him in the first place. My mum was upset that she wasn’t the first to know. She’d been asking me about my sexuality since I was about 11, and I’d be so cross with her for asking. The fact I was never honest with her was disappointing.

I’m grateful my family were supportive when I came out, but I don’t think my parents would have picked that life for me. Were they a little bit disappointed? I’m sure they were. Mainly because they wanted grandchildren, and they were worried about the life I was going to have. Times were very different back then. The media was not kind to the LGBTQ+ community 20 years ago – HIV and Aids was still very much ‘a gay man’s disease’. After I came out, I wanted to make sure I lived my life and didn’t become another suicide statistic. The numbers of suicide within our community is shockingly high, particularly for young gay married men who are afraid to come out.

On Marrying My Husband

Wes and I met at Birmingham Pride in 2012. I’d been single for about six months, and I certainly didn’t go there to find a partner. I wanted to have fun and party with my friends. I went over to him at a bar, and ended up bumping into him later in the day, so I took his number. We moved quickly and got engaged in the Maldives four months later. When gay marriage was legalised in 2014, we got married in Walcott Hall in Shropshire. We’d spoken about wanting kids quite early into our relationship. Wes already had a daughter from a previous relationship, but we knew we wanted more children.

On My Surrogacy Journey

Surrogacy was always our preferred route to grow our family. We knew we didn’t want to adopt, and it’s okay to say that. Not enough people admit that. We spent about three years researching surrogacy to make sure it was right for us, and we looked at different options internationally, before deciding to do it here. In the UK you can approach an organisation to help you, or you can do it independently, which isn’t as supported, and you can make lots of mistakes. However, that’s what we had to do because the waiting lists were so long.

Surrogacy in the UK is significantly cheaper than doing it in the US, for example. Our first surrogacy in total cost about £36k. If you were to do that same journey in the US, it would come close to $150k. Over here, the arrangement between parents and surrogates is altruistic, meaning you can’t profit from it, whereas elsewhere it’s usually a commercial arrangement. For a surrogacy in the UK, you need to be prepared to pay for IVF to create embryos, plus expenses for your surrogate. It usually costs £30-40k, though there are cheaper ways to do it, like traditional surrogacy which uses eggs from the surrogate and artificial insemination takes place at home.

We found an amazing surrogate called Caroline who carried both of our children. She was a gestational surrogate which means the surrogate doesn’t use her own egg. The clinic found us an egg donor. We were always going to use my sperm during the first pregnancy because Wes already had a daughter. Luckily, our surrogate Caroline became pregnant with our daughter, Talulah, during the first embryo transfer process. We had a straightforward pregnancy, however it was clear from the start that two men having a child with the NHS was going to be difficult. It was clear that lots of NHS policies were out of date, mostly tailored to heterosexual couples, as was the law and most guidance for prospective parents.

On Helping To Make A Change

After the birth of our son Duke via surrogacy, Wes and I decided to set up TwoDads UK to campaign for reform and policy change, to support more gay men on their journey to parenthood. We documented our journey and created a platform to share practical information and advice. Since launching five years ago, we’ve supported over 325 men become parents through surrogacy. Around 95% are gay, but we have worked with single heterosexual men who wanted to become parents, too. We started off with just an Instagram and Facebook page, and we now work in the surrogacy sector full time, and have fertility clinic partnerships with some of the leading clinics. It’s been a complete career change for both of us.

We launched My Surrogacy Journey last year – a non-profit organisation to support everyone in the UK and America. It’s been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but definitely the most rewarding. Support includes counselling, fertility advice, and a complete support package. We also created The Modern Family Show in 2019, designed for LGBTQ+ people who were unsure about their parenthood journeys and the options available to them. The original show was pushed back due to the pandemic, but we hosted the first show in London last September. We’re hosting two this year – in London in September and in San Francisco in October. There’s a real lack of support and information for LGBTQ+ people, so we want to help as many people as possible. It’s also open to heterosexual people who want more information about surrogacy – everyone’s welcome.

On Being Gay Today

Being a gay man today means a lot more freedom. It means that I want to be a role model to other gay men who either feel like they can’t come out or maybe want a family and don’t know what that looks like. I want to be able to show queer youth that you can have everything your heterosexual mates have – be happily married, happily single, a single dad, or in a relationship with children. For me, it’s about not being owned by a particular label. My sexuality is not what defines my masculinity. Twenty years after coming out, I’m so glad my sexuality doesn’t define who I am today. Of course, it will always follow me, and I still, in some respects, have to ‘come out’ regularly – at least once a month when someone asks me where my child’s mother is.

I feel empowered when I see children who are 12 or 13 coming out. How amazing is it that kids now can live their authentic self at school? It’s a completely different world now. That said, prejudice still exists. When I came out, I also lost a few friends, and there have been ignorant and hurtful comments over the years. Today, social media can be really toxic, I’ve faced a fair amount of abuse on there, especially on Twitter. Some people are very vocal about gay men having kids – people disagree and make that known to me. I don’t know who those people are, as they’re mostly faceless profiles.

TO COME TO COME

On Parenting

I’ve learnt a lot about parenting from Wes and had to do it quickly when I became a stepdad. When it comes to parenting our three children, we’re different in our approach but we make a good team. One of the biggest pieces of advice he gave me was to pick your battles. Yes, wet towels on the bathroom floor are annoying, but is it worth having it out in the morning before the school run? Probably not. Because of the nature of our family, we’re a very tolerant family – our children were taught from day one that kindness is key. I’m really proud of our kids, particularly the way in which they speak about others. Our daughter Talulah speaks inclusively with her words, and never assumes her classmates all have mums and dads.

I really believe in paternal instinct – which is just as valid as maternal instinct. I could feel all the signs when the children needed me. Luckily, I found my rhythm quite quickly. We don’t have ‘mum jobs’ or ‘dad jobs’; we parent equally and take things in turns. Becoming a parent is the best thing that has ever happened to me. The amount of love I felt for my children when they were born really knocked me for six. That said, it has been incredibly challenging at times.

If you’re exploring surrogacy, my advice is that it’s a marathon not a sprint. There will be times when it feels out of reach and unobtainable, but don’t lose hope. There’s always a way, and there’s always support and advice out there.

For more information, visit MySurrogacyJourney.com and TheModernFamilyShow.co.uk, and listen to the My Surrogacy Journey Podcast here.

Follow @Official_MichaelJohnsonEllis

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