Walking into Richard Bargetto’s two bedroom San Francisco Victorian home, cost you quickly realize the uniqueness of his family. Richard welcomes us warmly at the door carrying his two year old daughter whom he is giving instruction to in his native Italian. With them live his Brazilian partner Romualdo and the family’s Thai nanny, Tuely, who together add an additional two languages in the home.
Isabella’s life represents the miracle of modern technology. She is raised by two gay dads and born via surrogacy, an egg donor, and washed sperm. And Isabella knows colors and numbers in four languages. Beat that Modern Family.
Richard never imagined that he would be able to father a child. He came out to his mother at age 30. “She received two pieces of dramatic news at once: one that I was gay and two that I had AIDS. I only had 120 T cells when I found out I was positive. The doctor said that I would lose about 50 T-cells per year. I calculated that I had just over two years to live.”
Fearing this short life span, Richard says “I learned to live with a daily presence instead of having a lot of future planning.” As a young lawyer, he altered his plans for a legal career to have a less stressful job and worked for his family’s wine business. After the 2 year deadline was broken, he shifted his career to working in HIV services “to give back to the community I was inserted into.” Richard is a now a Program Coordinator for UCSF’s Positive Health Program.
Richard always enjoyed being a mentor and parental figure, starting as a volunteer for Big Brothers/ Big Sisters at age 19. He tried to adopt a child with his former partner and then as a single man six years ago. He explains, “I was matched with a child and that fell through. That was a painful process. All of the stops and starts were too precarious.”
Then Richard learned about a new procedure that was pioneered in northern Italy for HIV positive men to have children by “sperm washing.” “There were only a handful of states in the US where it was legal,” he explains, “I proceeded with surrogacy and had to go out of state to fulfill my dream.”
“The easy part is finding an egg donor, because that is all online now,” Richard says. “The most complicated part is trying to find the gestational carrier (surrogate). It was not easy. I went through two agencies. I had to find someone educated and not fearful about HIV. I found a wonderful woman who had three kids already. When we met, we hit it off immediately. She is a part of Isabella’s life. We just saw her three weeks ago.”
Richard explains to me the pregnancy process. “First the surrogate and the egg donor had to synchronize their cycles. I went in and gave my sample. Then the egg donor comes in, and embryo is created. Three days later the surrogate comes in and the embryo is placed in her.”
Richard says, “as Isabella gets older, we are going to be honest. I tell her now that she has an egg donor, a gestational carrier, a nanny, seven aunts and two godmothers. There are a lot of women who have contributed and continue to contribute to her life. I speak to her with honesty and with age-appropriate language. I speak the truth without any heavy tone. We make it very ordinary instead of saying “Isabella, there is something we have to talk about….”
What did his conservative Catholic family think of this? Richards says, “I was single at the time of the pregnancy.. I definitely didn’t get the response that my siblings got when they announced they were pregnant. There was no champagne that was uncorked. One of my sisters even left the table upon hearing my news. However, some parts of my family held a wonderful baby shower. So I definitely had a spectrum of reactions . Now that Isabella is two years old, it is becoming more normalized with those members of the family that had some initial struggles. They hand down clothes and interact with her as if she were any other kid in the family.”
When asked about discrimination trying to have a child as an HIV positive man, Richard stated that he has faced reactions that were “in some ways dramatic in some ways small. Part of my personality type is to live a little in denial and be overly optimistic.”
Now as a gay dad, Richard says he only has had a small handful of negative experiences. He says, “There have been rare moments of bigotry when someone screams ‘where’s the mommy?’ I think in San Francisco people are so well versed in how they ask me ‘How did Isabella come into your life?’ Ninety percent of the time it is done in a really graceful and respectful way.”
He continues, “The one feeling that is new for me is that people assume that I am straight. In her school there are only 3 gay families of 100 families. I have been told by other parents, “don’t forget to tell your wife.” It’s harmless. At the same time, when you have kids, so many more random people simply talk to you. When I am at a stop sign with a baby, everyone talks to you. It makes life a little less lonely. More people smile as you pass on the sidewalk. You are surrounded by more friendliness.”
These days, Richard has been asked by other gay men about becoming a dad. He says, “You absolutely should do it. I also say that you may not want to do it the way I did it. I was lucky that I became partnered while I was pregnant. It has had some obvious benefits. I would recommend co-parenting. Someday, I would like to give Isabella a sibling.” And with a smile, “Perhaps, this next time we may adopt.”
As we put the tape recorder away and finish our interview, we tell Richard how amazed we are by the chapters in his life, the welcoming family feel of his home, and the unique way Isabella develops in a loving household. We thank him for the interview and he tells us, “When I got an AIDS diagnosis, I think my grieving was about not being able to be a parent. I hope that my story encourages other gay men, whether they are positive or negative, single or partnered, to consider parenting. That is one life choice with no regrets.”