Life

This Canadian couple was featured in an anti-LGBTQ campaign. They sued—and won

“We’re real and we’re valid. We deserve the same rights as everyone else.”
Frankie Nelson
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I had always wanted to be a father. But growing up as a gay kid, I never thought that would happen. I had no idea what my life would look like, but I figured I’d have to marry a woman and live my life as a lie. The fact that I’ve been able to have a child of my own with the man I love is a dream come true.

I met my husband, BJ, in Toronto’s Gay Village in 2007. He was sitting next to me at a restaurant and we were wearing the same shoes. I said “Hi” and complimented him on his great taste in footwear. The rest is history.

On one of our first dates, I told BJ that I wanted to be a dad. He wasn’t even out to his family yet, but he seemed open to the idea right from the beginning. It was not something he had ever considered before. Like me, he didn’t know he could ever be a parent.

We got married in 2010. In the spring of 2014 we were set to have a baby via surrogacy. Our surrogate, Kathy, had a photographer friend—Lindsay Foster—who offered to do our birth photos for free, as she had never done a same-sex couple before. This seemed like a great way to document the day.

The day of the birth itself was very relaxed. We were at the hospital with our surrogate and our midwife. BJ and I had made a deal earlier: I’d hold the baby, and he’d cut the umbilical cord. And when Milo came out, there was just so much joy in that room. I never thought that I would ever hold my own baby in my arms—it was a dream come true. You can see all those feelings on my face. (BJ says I’ve never been very good at hiding my emotions.) I love this photo because it captures a moment of pure love and joy—a moment I’d been waiting for my entire life.

Lindsay sent us the photo the day after Milo was born. She loved it, and asked if she could post it on her Facebook page. We loved it too, and gave her our permission, not thinking that much more about it because, you know, we had a newborn to take care of.

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A few days later, a friend reached out to tell us we were going viral, which wasn’t a term I’d even heard in 2014. The photo had 50,000 likes on Facebook, and the media had started picking it up. It was everywhere! The photo shows two men meeting their baby for the first time, but I think it resonated with a lot of parents regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. That moment is just so overwhelming. But Milo was also born during WorldPride in Toronto, so the timing was right. It felt like the whole world was celebrating his birth.

News stations started calling us. Here we were, a few weeks into parenthood just trying to take care of our son and keep him alive, fielding phone calls and doing interviews. But it was important to us to tell our story, because we believed in visibility for LGBTQ+ families. And we were given this platform—by fluke—so we wanted to make sure that kids like us, who maybe one day wanted what we now had, could see that it was a real, tangible possibility.

The first person to use our photo without permission was a politician in Ireland. It was early in 2016. She was running in that country’s general election, and she was against surrogacy for gay couples. Someone online tipped us off, and so we ran a little Twitter campaign. She quickly took it down and made her account private. She didn’t end up winning her seat anyways.

Later in 2016, BJ’s cousin in Italy told us we were on the news there. A fringe, at the time, hard-right party called Fratelli d’Italia was using our photo in their campaign against legislation giving same sex couples legal recognition and limited adoption rights.

At this point our photo was famous. We had given permission for our images to be used in a Dove Baby campaign, the Paul Rudd film Ideal Home and a TED talk about love and acceptance. But never would we have allowed our image to be used in a campaign to promote hate. I was confused, because when we look at that photo all we see is love, and I can’t understand how anyone could see it differently.

We felt helpless. The only thing we thought we could do was try to reclaim our story, so we wrote a children’s book called Milo’s Adventures. It’s about how families come together in all kinds of ways. I’m so proud of that book, which can be found in local libraries in Toronto, our website and on Amazon.

But we didn’t think we could do anything else about the misuse of our photo, so we just tried to move on.

Then lawyers in Italy started contacting us. They were taking it very seriously. The Fratelli d’Italia was campaigning on anti-LGBTQ+ issues, and this was a case that could get some traction, particularly as it involved the use of a minor’s image.

We ended up working with an Italian firm that specializes in LGBTQ+ issues called Gaylex. They offered to take our case pro bono because they wanted to stop the spread of hate against LGBTQ+ families in Italy.

We filed our suit in the summer of 2016. And then learned how slow the Italian court system can be. We waited and waited and waited. There were hearings, but the courts kept putting them off and adjourning the case. COVID hit, and we waited some more. Of course during all this waiting, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Fratelli d’Italia was elected the prime minister of Italy which complicated things even more. Finally, the last hearing was in October 2022, and we waited for the judge’s decision.

Then, the day after my birthday this past June—Pride month again—seven years after our case began, we heard that we won. The judge didn’t buy the defence claim that the posters didn’t belong to the Fratelli d’Italia. After all, their logo was all over them. We couldn’t believe it.
We were overjoyed, especially after waiting so long. It was a small win for us, but a huge victory for the LGBTQ+ community in Italy and abroad. To us, this photo represents everything that we stand for: family, acceptance and unconditional love.

The Fratelli d’Italia would have to pay for the “offensive use of our image.” We’ve been awarded €10,000 each, which we’ve put away for Milo’s future. He knows that we work hard at being positive role models in the LGBTQ+ community and to our students, and he knows that this—the photo and this case—is a part of that work. He is very proud of his family too. Wherever we go, he’ll always grab us both and make the three of us hold hands. I feel like it’s his way of showing how proud he is of our family. He wants to make sure everyone knows we’re together.

The photo has given us some wonderful opportunities in our community. I have been working on the board of the non-profit Men Having Babies for the past five years, travelling the world, helping men have babies via surrogacy. We have also started our own website, familyisaboutlove.com, where we blog about our journey through life with our son Milo.

Surrogacy has been illegal in Italy since 2004, and IVF is only available to straight couples. This summer, the Italian parliament approved a bill that makes travelling abroad for surrogacy a criminal offense. This law unfairly targets gay couples, because it is easier for straight couples to hide a pregnancy via surrogacy. The Fratelli d’Italia won a snap election in 2022, which is something we never could have imagined back in 2016 when we first heard of them. They were a fringe right-wing party. Now they were leading the country.

About eight months ago, the government demanded that cities like Milan—which had been quietly registering both same-sex parents on a child’s birth certificate independently to bypass anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions in the national law—only register the birth parent going forward. The city of Padua removed the names of non-biological gay mothers from their children’s birth certificates.

READ: More Canadian parents are choosing to have only one child. I’m one of them.

Non-registered parents are banned from participating in everyday tasks, like picking children up from school without the written permission of the biological parent, and denied the right to participate in healthcare and other decisions. The children can be denied inheritance rights and child support, and even become legal orphans—if the registered parent dies—and be put up for adoption by the government.

And while we never could have imagined the resurgence of neo-fascism in Italy, we also didn’t think we’d be witnessing a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment here at home. Fifty years ago, all this hate was directed against gay people, and now trans people are the target. It’s the same rhetoric on repeat, and it’s scary.

BJ and I are both teachers in Toronto. Our school board released this statement last June “To our 2SLGBTQ+ students, staff and families we say this: we support you, we stand with you and we will continue to work as hard as we can to make TDSB schools and workplaces safe, welcoming and affirming places where you feel seen and heard every day.” We are happy to be so supported in our workplace. It is an incredibly difficult and dangerous time to be an LGBTQ+ family. That’s why it’s important to us to be visible and vocal and show that families like ours exist. We’re real and we’re valid. We deserve the same rights as everyone else.

—As told to Caitlin Walsh Miller