No Wombs for Rent: The Dolce & Gabbana Debate We Didn’t Have

Don't dare call these guys "Daddy"

St. Patrick’s Day 2015, when the culture’s attention is typically focused on all things Irish, I received the following message concerning some very famous Italians from the All Out Action Fund, a New York City-based NGO that raises awareness and money for LGBT issues internationally:

Fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana are sparking global outrage. They said gay families aren’t ‘real families’….If All Out members around the globe act together now to back non-traditional families, we can build a huge public outcry. And we’re not alone. Already Elton John, Victoria Beckham and Ricky Martin have expressed outrage about what Dolce & Gabbana said.(Emphasis very much in original.)

We won't be renting any wombs, and seed catalogs are for flowers, thank you very much.
We won’t be renting any wombs, and seed catalogs are for flowers, thank you very much.

I realize that a month ago is antiquity in social media time, so for those who need a refresher of what Domenico Dolce and Stephano Gabbana did to spark said outrage, the design duo had stepped their bespoke loafers in the merda the day before when they stated in an interview in Panorama magazine that “the only family is a traditional one” (as in madre, padre, e bambini). Dolce (the short, bald one) went on to vividly elaborate his objections to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy by categorizing the offspring produced by such means as “children of chemistry, synthetic children. Uteruses for rent, semen chosen from a catalog.”

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Response to the interview was almost instantaneous. The longtime editorial director of the D&G in-house magazine Swide, Guiliano Federico, resigned the same day. Elton John (father of two with his husband David Furnish) then Insta-snitted, “Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions. I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again.” Gabbana responded by calling the pop star a “fascist”; John began to incorporate snarky comments about the pair into his concerts; and the whole thing started to be reminiscent of a particularly catty, vodka-fueled argument during happy hour at Cherry’s on Fire Island.

The hyperbolic text of the All Out email included three mentions of the team’s “prejudice” in addition to three times referring to them as “bigots” or their comments as “bigotry.” Nowhere did it say that the designers are themselves openly gay (or that, in fact, until their recent personal split, they were one of the most high-profile same-sex couples in the world), nor did the email link to the original interview (perhaps because it is in Italian, after all). The email did, however, link to the Guardian article reporting on John’s call for an international boycott of the label’s products.

It also included a link to All Out’s website and online petition, which has surpassed the goal of 60,000 signatures by slightly more than 8,000.

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Mine was not one of them.

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I’m here to neither bury nor praise Dolce and Gabbana. Their remarks were boneheaded at best, cruelly insensitive at worst, and some very scary people who have exerted actual influence over governmental policies, such as those in France’s La Manif Pour Tous movement, seized upon them as ammunition for far more consequential prejudices. But I found myself perturbed by the whole drama-queen display that resulted, not to mention annoyed by the presumption that I was expected to be outraged. There are plenty of things to be outraged about regarding the rag trade (like, uh, garment factories collapsing in Bangladesh). Boycotting overpriced sunglasses I can’t afford in the first place because someone promoted his cloyingly sentimental “Mama Rose Tattoo”-themed fall-winter collection by saying something stupid just doesn’t make my list.

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Of course, once the playground — or, to extend the previous metaphor, dockside patio — was cleared of the brawlers, the onlookers who had gathered online to gawk at it all quickly lost interest and then forgot the whole thing. As Vanessa Friedman, a fashion editor at the New York Times, tweeted two weeks ago:

Unfortunately, I think a necessary conversation was drowned out by all the posturing displays of indignation. As far as I can tell, none of the English-language media outlets reporting on the controversy mentioned what Dolce added after his rent-a-womb comment:

And then go and explain to these children who the mother [is].

And this, I think, is really what got all of these privileged gay men’s D&G panties in a twist.

Let’s not forget which homosexuals have the economic clout to make the design house feel pain by choosing not to purchase their merchandise — the same ones who can actually afford the expensive procedures Dolce was criticizing. According to a recent estimate provided by Boston-based Circle Surrogacy, if I were to hire a surrogate, as well as pay for an egg donor, the base cost would be around $88,400, excluding IVF.

For the price of a baby, I could purchase these three looks (models not included).
For the price of a baby, I could purchase several of these looks (models not included).

However, as a person with HIV living in New York, where paid surrogacy is currently illegal, the cost for me to be a father would be significantly higher. Sperm “washing” to remove the virus from my seminal fluid: an additional $2,500 fee paid to the surrogate, plus travel out of state, plus mandatory IVF (about $24,000). That’s assuming nothing goes wrong. Most surrogacy contracts also include provisions for further compensation in case the woman carrying the fetus experiences any negative consequences to her health. In reality, the cost of having a baby in my case would probably be closer to $125,000 (or around the price of a few outfits from D&G’s new Alta Sartoria line), though if I hired a surrogate from Mexico or Thailand, it could be significantly less.

Whatever options I chose, I’d still be laying out a lot of money, and I think it’s important to at least pause and consider the moral and emotional implications of what is, for all intents and purposes, a purchased family. I’m certainly not suggesting that gay men with means shouldn’t take advantage of these technologies; we should all work toward protecting the rights of every family, regardless of its configuration. But with agencies rumored to be paying more for egg donors with particularly desirable traits, including higher SAT scores and/or certain physical attributes (and presumably passing that overhead on to their clients), I can’t help but wonder how this is any different from the bad old days of patriarchy when women were valued only insofar as they facilitated the generational transfer of wealth and power through the production of healthy, preferably male, offspring.

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I don't want a pony, Daddies. I want my mommy!
I don’t want a pony, Daddies. I want my mommy!

What are these men going to say to their sons and daughters when they naturally start to wonder who and where Mommy is? Surrogacy Cancun, which markets to male same-sex couples, proudly announces on its website that neither the donor nor the surrogate’s name will appear on the child’s birth certificate, in effect legally erasing any female involvement in the production of the child. In my interactions with the men I know who have used a surrogate, I always sense quite strongly that any mention of these women is verboten. (Contrast this with the relationship Dan Savage and his boyfriend have formed with their adopted son’s birth mother.)

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Will the silence around the biological facts of how their children came into the world be enforced within the family unit as well? For a community that knows firsthand the psychological trauma that can accrue from years of living in a closet of denial about who we are, I hope we don’t perpetuate these damaging paradigms by emotionally coercing our children into denying their own complicated identities. Unfortunately, I fear that the hysterical and overcompensating response to a fashion designer’s poor choice of words indicates that we very well might.