“Home is where the heart is.” Most people have experienced this familiar adage to some extent, but the phrase holds added significance to Minnesota-born Shawn Boeser, Australian-born Josephine Hutton, and their two young children, Emmeline and Elias. With both women employed as international humanitarians, this family has trekked the globe and experienced the challenges and joys of same-sex parenting in multiple countries. Here’s a look at how this Lavender family keeps their ties strong—even from thousands of miles away.
In 2003, Shawn and Jo found themselves in Basra, Iraq; Shawn was employed through the United Nations, and Jo was working with the International Organization for Migration. Shawn was supposed to be celebrating her birthday, but the late arrival of colleagues left her waiting and listening to a horrible rendition of “Hotel California.” Jo noticed the cranky woman sitting in the hotel, but their first conversation didn’t occur until tragedy struck on August 19, 2003. The UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed by a suicide bomber, and all UN-affiliated people were evacuated to Amman, Jordan. The women met in the hotel where they were housed, and something clicked. In the short time they were both in Jordan, they realized they had a pretty special connection. Jo notes, “I like to say that our love was the one good thing to come out of the war in Iraq, and in an unlikely place to sow the seeds of our union.”
Shortly after meeting, Shawn returned to the United States and Jo stayed in the Middle East. The women kept in contact through the internet and planned to meet up in Amsterdam in November 2003. The week-long visit solidified the couple’s investment in their shared future, and they became a couple. When Shawn was placed in Liberia, she asked Jo to consider joining her. Jo recalls that she initially laughed it off; “it was not like being asked to go to Paris, but her point was that we needed to be living in the same place to see if we had a future together.” Jo switched jobs and joined Shawn in Liberia in 2004. She notes, “It was clear from early on in our relationship that we were amazingly compatible with our values and ethics, our politics and passions, and our views about life.”
As the women planned their future together, they realized that having children while remaining globe-trotters would come with many challenges. Shawn and Jo moved to Seattle to start creating their family, and they joined a “Maybe Baby” support group to get information and support. Initial attempts to impregnate Jo using sperm from a sperm bank were unsuccessful, so the couple moved to Bangkok for Jo’s new job with Oxfam Great Britain. Not wanting to put their dreams of a family on hold, Shawn and Jo attempted to use the resources of multiple fertility clinics to no avail. Shawn says, “They rejected us. They found it unethical to inseminate a ‘single’ woman and did not recognize us a couple. We found this frustrating as one could get gender reassignment surgery there but could not get pregnant. We couldn’t do home insemination using imported sperm as we had no authority to receive it!” Undeterred by the closed doors, they found another way—a private fertility clinic that was willing to ship sperm from an American sperm bank to Thailand and continue the insemination process.
After one miscarriage and five unsuccessful insemination attempts, Jo finally became pregnant in April 2008. Though Shawn’s work took her to Myanmar for most of Jo’s pregnancy, Shawn made it a point to get back for all the milestone doctor’s appointments. Due to laws that would allow Shawn to be listed as a parent on the birth certificate, the couple moved to Australia for the birth of their daughter, Emmeline. Described as being “fashionably late,” Emmeline was born on January 4 in 2009. Shortly after the birth of their first child, Shawn and Jo decided to try again, and Elias was born in 2010 in Melbourne.
As with many GLBT couples, the road to building a family was not quick or easy for Shawn and Jo. Jo notes, “It was quite a process and not for the faint-hearted, but we managed just fine and feel fortunate.” She adds that many of their most difficult moments in the process were pretty unique. “In some ways, the hardest stuff was agreeing on the type of donor we wanted—we workshopped that for a while—and then once we decided to go with a sperm bank, it was quite a process to choose a donor. It was also tricky timing all the inseminations with my travel schedule throughout Asia. Emmeline visited nine countries whilst still in the womb!”
Having two mothers who travel the world truly has its benefits; both Emmeline and Elias have traveled more than most people ever do in their lives! When the family was in Bangkok, Shawn and Jo took their children into the fertility clinic where they were created so the children could meet the people who helped with their creation. They also were able to spend time in Australia as well as the United States, providing them with a truly global life experience. The women also decided that, no matter where their work takes them, they wouldn’t spend more than six weeks apart. With two young kids, it’s tough to be away. Thankfully, modern technology allows the family to keep in touch and share special moments from thousands of miles away.
Traveling as a GLBT family definitely has its downside, especially regarding issues of citizenship and residency. Shawn and Jo can describe the complicated legalities of immigration, gaining visas, and achieving legal recognition in their multiple “homes” around the world. These legal processes are time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes not even successful. The couple also has to consider many factors when choosing potential jobs around the world; most importantly is a thorough evaluation of whether being queer in their new locations will end in violence or even jail-time. Though the repeal of DOMA lifted many restrictions overnight, there is still a lot of progress to be made in the realm of legal protection and equality for GLBT people around the world.
In addition to traveling, the Boeser-Hutton family enjoys the outdoors (in whatever country they happen to be in!), and they love to spend time with their family and friends around the world. Jo and Shawn agree, “We are a global family. We live outside the box. We don’t let too many things get in the way of following our dreams.” At the time of this publication, Jo and the children are preparing to meet Shawn in Manila, where Shawn is continuing her humanitarian work with the United Nations. Wherever their dreams take them, their love for each other will make them feel right at home.