Lesbians Gabriela and Ornella have had to fight to be accepted as full-fledged parents, but they are convinced that Switzerland will soon catch up when it comes to rainbow families.
“I always knew that one day I would be a mother. It was my dream and it's my right, even if Swiss law forbids it,” says Gabriela reaching for and squeezing Ornella's hand. “Aaron has two mums and heaps of love. And it is love that makes a family, no matter how it is made up.”
Family. This six-letter word is key for Gabriela and Ornella. So much so that they have inscribed it in large letters on the doorbell of their apartment on the outskirts of Lausanne. It's like a mantra for them. “We are a family like any other. Our days our humdrum: home, work, study, changing nappies, organising child care... We are parents just like any others,” says Gabriela. More extroverted and exuberant, she does the talking, while Ornella holds Aaron tight.
Brazilian in origin, Gabriela arrived in Geneva at age 12. After business studies, she held various jobs in the finance industry, before deciding to follow her great passion and enrol to study law at university from next September. “I've got five years of hard study ahead of me, but it'll be worth it. I want to be able to defend the rights of the most vulnerable.” Ornella, who is a psychologist, grew up in a small village in canton Ticino, a region she labels “not exactly the most open place for homosexuals”. At 19, she moved to Lausanne to study at the university and find freedom.
Like many other couples, the two 30-year-olds met on social media. “I was basically looking for new friends,” says Ornella. “Then we realized that we were working for the same company. We started seeing each other, fell in love, and two years later Aaron was born.”
A baby in the post
Same-sex couples in Switzerland are not allowed access to medically-assisted procreation. To have a child, Gabriela and Ornella resorted to the services of Cryos, a sperm bank based in Denmark. Their donor is anonymous, but almost everything about about his life is on the site. Photos of him as a boy, his psychological profile, a recording of his voice, his interests, education, height, weight and even shoe size. An incredible and even frightening range of choice. But Ornella defends their course of action: “Anyone who falls in love has their own selection criteria. Why should it be different for us? And later down the line this information could be helpful to Aaron, to form a picture of his biological 'dad'.”
The women therefore bought all six test-tubes available from the donor on the Cryos site. “Since it is forbidden to import sperm into Switzerland, we had the parcel delivered to friends of ours in France. It contained everything we needed for home use,” says Gabriela. “We were lucky: I got pregnant at the first try. So Aaron was delivered by FedEx and not the stork!” she says.
Aaron, two and a half, but no papers
For the Swiss authorities, however, Aaron has only one mother, Gabriela. Ornella has no legal rights over the child. What is more, he has officially been assigned a father. During a trip to Brazil when she was 18, Gabriella married a young man she barely knew, in order to defy her own mother. It was an impulsive step that she immediately regretted, but which did not trouble her much afterwards. At least not until she got pregnant. Then, finding this man in a country of over 200 million people took time. The divorce papers and denial of paternity arrived only a few weeks after Aaron was born, prematurely, in April 2015, and the Swiss authorities did not immediately recognise their validity. Aaron was thus born within a marriage and was registered as the son of the now divorced couple.
For the last two and a half years Aaron has had no identity documents, apart from the old-age insurance fund (AVS) and another from the health insurance. Gabriella does not have Swiss nationality, but for her son to be Brazilian the father's signature is necessary, as he has joint parental authority despite living overseas and not wanting to have anything to do with the child. “The past two years have been really tough. We were even afraid to go anywhere near the border, as Aaron has no papers,” says Gabriela, tears welling in her eyes. It was only one month ago, after prolonged legal proceedings, that the court decided to remove the name of the “legal father”.
For a long time, Ornella felt powerless. Although the authorities remained deaf to their appeals, doctors and nurses at the hospital always recognised them as a family. Even when Aaron was having emergency surgery and ended up in intensive care, Ornella was able to stay with him. Their case even gave rise to certain interest. Since Aaron was allergic to powdered milk, and Gabriela was unable to breast-feed, it was Ornella who took over, stimulating milk production with Motilium, a medicine used to treat gastric problems, but which has also been shown to increase prolactin levels. “When the milk started to come in, shouts of joy went up in the hospital. Nobody had really expected it to work.”
'Either marriage or nothing'
From January 1, 2018, when the revised Swiss civil code comes into force, Ornella will officially be able to adopt Aaron. The two women are overjoyed at this development, but believe that Switzerland should do more. Starting with marriage for all: “Registered partnership is a sort of consolation prize and it's not enough for us. It's either marriage or nothing,” Gabriela is categorical, displaying the “wedding ring” on her finger. “Rainbow families are a fact, and Switzerland can no longer close its eyes.”
The couple is convinced that society is ready to accept different forms of family, as it did with single mothers not so long ago. Ornella's parents are an example. “At first they did not consider Aaron as their grandson. In a way, though, I understand, as they had to digest so many things at the same time,” she says. Having grown up in a conservative part of the country, Ornella waited until the very end before coming out. “I was afraid of what others would say. But once you have a son, you can't hide any more. So, one day I went to my mother and told her everything: 'I'm lesbian, I have a partner, and she's pregnant'. It was not exactly what they expected to hear.”
Gabriela and Ornella dream of having a big family and are already planning a second child. This time, Ornella will carry the baby. “We hope she or he will arrive next summer, after my exams,” says Gabriela. Five more test-tubes from the same donor are waiting for them in the freezers of the sperm bank Cryos.
To fulfil their dream, the two women will again circumvent the law: “It's an act of civil disobedience, because no one can take away our right to be mothers.”
In Switzerland, same-sex couples are excluded from all medically-assisted procreation techniques. Access to sperm donation is reserved for married heterosexual couples. However, LGBTIQ people are increasingly turning to fertility clinics in other European countries, such as Spain and Denmark, or sperm banks based abroad. In the case of anonymous donations, no information about the donor's identity is disclosed. Circumventing Swiss legislation and undergoing artificial insemination abroad is not considered a punishable act under Swiss law.
Same-sex couples are also excluded from joint adoption. From January 1, 2018, however, they will be able to adopt their partner's child if they have been living together for three years, even if they have not registered their partnership. The new law fills an important gap in Swiss law, guaranteeing in particular that children born in families with same-sex parents can live with their second parent, even if their biological parent has died. (Source: Swiss Federation of Rainbow Families)