Here’s a shocker: it turns out us gay dudes don’t know diddly about the female reproductive system. That will change pretty rapidly, though, if you step foot inside the offices of CT Fertility.
“Gay male couples tend to have no clue about pregnancy when they first walk in,” laughed Medical Director at CT Fertility, Dr. Melvin H. Thornton II. “I’m sometimes accused of giving out too much information, but I’d rather give too much than too little.”
The bulk of his patients are gay, which means Dr. Thornton, who has over 22 years of experience in the fertility world, has become something of a part-time professor in addition to a medical professional as he shepherds gay men and couples through the process of creating embryos.
“These guys just want a family, that’s what they know,” said Linda Vignapiano, Director of Clinical Operations for the East Coast for CT Fertility’s parent company, IntegraMed. “So they have no idea what PGS is, for example, so we try to teach them.”
“Really? That’s crazy,” I laughed along with her.
“That’s Preimplantation Genetic Screening,” Linda clarified a moment later, likely sensing, like most gay men, I had no idea what she was talking about. (Hey, admit it, you didn’t know either.)
Herein lies how CT Fertility is setting itself apart. Particularly for an industry whose entire goal is to help make dreams of parenthood come true, the process can often feel incredibly sterile and impersonal. But at CT Fertility—whether you like it or not—you’re going to be kept in the loop.
Roughly 90% of the patients at CT Fertility are gay men, and this is not by accident. Over 25 years ago, a man by the name of Dr. Michael Doyle founded CT Fertility with the explicit goal of helping LGBTQ people start their families.
“He was really a trailblazer,” Linda said, noting Dr. Doyle worked hard to establish CT Fertility as an early leader in the LGBTQ community.
Two years ago, Dr. Doyle left clinical practice and was replaced by a man who spent 15 years as the Medical Director of the Columbia University IVF program, and nine years as Director of their donor egg program—Dr. Melvin H. Thornton II.
Dr. Melvin H. Thornton II
It’s an intimidating name. But you need just a couple of minutes with Dr. Thornton to understand why Dr. Thornton fits in comfortably at CT Fertility.
“I started my practice initially in Southern California, where everyone talks to everybody,” said Dr. Thornton. When he moved to New York to begin working at Columbia, he realized something about East Coasters: “Nobody talks,” he said.
If you walk into Dr. Thornton’s office, however, not talking is not an option.
“The first thing I like to do in a consultation is ask questions that sometimes surprise them,” said Dr. Thornton. “I ask how they met, or how long they’ve been together. I ask how their engagement was.”
Next, Dr. Thornton does something else you might not expect from a man with a roman numeral after his name: mental visualization exercises. Close your eyes and look into your future 10 years, he’ll say. Imagine yourself in Central Park on a nice summer day.
How many children do you see with you?
“The number is usually controversial,” he says. “One partner says two, the other says three. Then they’ll look at each other, and think: wait, what do you mean? I want them to help them have the family they really want, but they need to get on the same page.”
But he also wants to make sure intended parents never get too bogged down in the details. “This whole process is about family,” he said. “It’s important to never lose sight of that.”
Both Linda and Dr. Thornton, with their combined experience of nearly 50 years in the fertility industry, say working with gay men is a pleasure. Working for straight couples and women can be more difficult, they say, since they are often treating infertility, or attempting to conceive at an advanced age, meaning success is less of a given.
“When gay couples come in, you typically have a donor egg, healthy sperm and a gestational carrier with a proven uterus,” said Dr. Thornton. “You can pretty much be confident they will have the family they’re looking for.”
“I had infertility myself,” said Linda Vignapiano. “I know what it’s like. So working with gay couples—everybody is just happy and excited.”
The success rate for gay men may be much higher, but that doesn’t mean the process is any simpler. In fact, in many ways, it can be much more complicated.
“In the old days, I just had a man and a woman and I knew what I was doing,” Linda said. “Now? I have two men, an egg donor, a surrogate, and a surrogacy agency I interact with. It’s a party!”
What this means for CT Fertility, specifically, is that the clinic has learned to adapt its business practices to anticipate and accommodate the different needs of their LGBTQ intended parents.
For instance, at other fertility clinics with less experience working with gay men, you may end up with one coordinator for the intended parents, another for the surrogate, and yet another for the donor. At CT Fertility, Linda says continuity is key: intended parents, donors and surrogates all have the same coordinator.
“At some of the larger IVF clinics, we’ve been told by patients that it can feel like a conveyor belt—they never get the same person twice,” she explained. At CT Fertility, “you’re not going to get a ‘doc of the day,'” she continued, meaning if you are a patient of Dr. Thornton’s to start with, you will stay that way throughout the entire process, from your initial consult to your surrogate’s transfer. “That feels good to our patients.”
While no official numbers exist, many fertility clinics have reported a rise in the number of gay couples seeking to start their families via surrogacy in recent years, thanks in large part to marriage equality and increased societal acceptance of LGBTQ parents.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen change for gay men in recent years is the simple reality that they can have a child this way,” said Dr. Thornton. “You’d be surprised, I’ve talked to lots of gay men who didn’t know this was available to them.”
But what work still needs to be done in order to make surrogacy more widely available to gay men?
First and foremost: the price tag remains a major sticking point. Though some financial assistance programs like the one offered by Men Having Babies has helped put surrogacy within reach of more gay men and couples, the option will remain inaccessible until it becomes more affordable.
Dr. Thornton says he’s encouraged that a few larger companies, like Deutsche Bank and Google, have begun to provide fertility services for gay couples. “But everyone should have a right to fertility,” he said. “If you’re a gay man who works for a company that has IVF coverage, you should be allowed to create embryos.”
And while attitudes around gay men and surrogacy are improving by the years, some stigmas continue to linger.
“Somebody needs to educate the FDA,” Linda said, explaining that, just like with blood donation, gay men are considered “high risk” sperm donors by the government and are thus automatically barred from being considered a “qualified” tissue donor. In practice, all this means is the surrogate needs to sign a waiver acknowledging the “increased risk.”
“But it just really sticks in my craw,” Linda said. “It’s not even like they are ‘donating’ anything—these are their babies!”
Still, Dr. Thornton says we are lucky to have the option of surrogacy at all in the United States. “In certain countries, you can’t even talk about surrogacy,” he said. “So it’s great to have the reproduction freedom we have, I just wish it was more widely available to everyone.”
With states like New York and New Jersey looking to legalize surrogacy this year, and advocates pushing more businesses to cover fertility treatments for LGBTQ couples, it’s clear the option is likely to soon become available to more gay men.
And when that happens, the staff at CT Fertility will be there, eagerly waiting to educate you.