Over 220 masked men attended this year’s MHB conference in Taipei, dozens more attended virtually

An Opportunity and a Challenge

Each year, MHB travels to a number of cities across the U.S. and internationally to share a wealth of knowledge with gay men hoping to have a child. 2020 started off strong with January’s MHB West Coast conference in San Francisco. Then the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to plans for Taipei, Chicago, Toronto, Ft. Lauderdale, Brussels, New York, and Tel Aviv.

While MHB was forced to postpone or move other conferences online, the exceptional handling of the pandemic in Taiwan left the organizers hopeful. Proactive leadership, strict adherence to public health rules, effective contract tracing and travel regulations have kept the country almost free of infections. This meant that in Taipei MHB could still hold a public event with hundreds of attendees, albeit with reasonable safety precautions. 

However, as the conference date came close, most of the outside world was still (understandably) considered by the Taiwanese as Red Zones. Indeed, the friendly staff at the W Hotel in Taipei was happy but somewhat surprised to welcome MHB back, as this was only the second such event they hosted since the pandemic began. Adherence to public health standards required not just safety protocols at the hotel, but first and foremost abiding by Taiwan's air-tight travel restrictions. The MHB team was willing to apply for visas, test for COVID-19 repeatedly before traveling and then quarantine in a special "coronavirus hotel" for two weeks. However, it was unrealistic to expect the same from most of the conference's speakers, sponsors and exhibitors who were coming from the USA and Europe. So MHB had to do the next best thing: bring the experts and exhibitors in virtually.

How to Produce a "Reverse-Hybrid" Conference on a Budget?

Dr. John Norian speaking remotely It quickly became evident that existing "hybrid events" solutions were geared at instances where attendees are at home while the speakers are on-site (event hall often a studio). Engaging professionals to create a solution for the reverse scenario MHB faced would have been well outside the reach of a nonprofit organization. But given their experience in holding virtual webinars and conferences, MHB resolved to develop a unique hybrid model. It involved stretching to the limit the features of the ubiquitous Zoom service, deploying specialized cameras and microphones, the use of some pre-recorded clips (also a necessity due to significant time zone differences), and diligent preparation and rehearsals.  

MHB's Lisa Schuster leading a grand rehearsal
with dozens of remote conference speakers
"Fortunately there was very high motivation among our staff, partnering LGBT organizations and the large group of conference sponsors," said Ron Poole-Dayan, MHB's Executive Director. "Once we outlined our vision, everyone was on board and eager to give this a shot. We especially needed the speakers and exhibitors to trust us and cooperate in creating a high-quality experience for the attendees. You can't invite hundreds of people to a large hotel hall to watch a Zoom call. We scheduled prep sessions with each speaker to familiarize them with the technology involved, verified their connection and environment were suitable, suggested equipment upgrades and best practices."  In addition to several prep sessions and logistical briefs, remote speakers were invited to a "grand rehearsal” the day before the conference to give all the providers a preview of the actual setup they’d be presenting in, how attendees would see and interact with them, and how the remote interpretation system would work.

MHB's Jenny Congiardo at the controls
during the hybrid legal panel
Assuring the quality of the remote video connections was just one of many challenges. "The sheer number of speakers, which were spread over multiple time zones, required meticulous planning and real-time coordination by MHB employees in Taipei and the U.S.," explained Jenny Congiardo, MHB's Director of Operations. "This was especially important during the 26 breakout sessions we held simultaneously in four rooms. Specific setup and equipment were required to make sure attendees could communicate with panelists, and creative solutions were deployed in order to facilitate the interaction that typically takes place at our Gay Parenting Resource Fair." 

Just as Comprehensive, Immersive, and Inspiring 

MHB conferences are known to be an immersive experience, a boot-camp of sorts, where intended parents spend a weekend receiving peer guidance and expert advice, and being inspired by hearing from surrogates, fathers, and children born with the help of IVF and surrogacy. They meet reputable surrogacy providers and learn about financial assistance and other resources MHB can offer. Due to severe legal limitations in many countries, including Taiwan and most of Asia, this advice needs to come from people in the U.S. and Canada, where safe and ethical surrogacy parenting solutions for gay men are available. 

Q&A session with Dr. Sandy Chuan of SDFC Judging from feedback from attendee satisfaction surveys and the reactions of the sponsors, the solutions MHB's team developed came very close to replicating the experience of pre-pandemic events. “We are living in truly unprecedented times which challenges our ability to connect with each other," said Dr. Sandy Chuan of Platinum Sponsor San Diego Fertility Center. "The recent MHB conference in Taiwan is a shining example of how with a combination of creativity, perseverance, and technology, we can still connect with intended parents on a human level and continue the important work of family building. Hopefully, the attendees gained valuable knowledge and insight. Most importantly, I hope they felt our warmth radiating through the video screens. I certainly felt their enthusiasm and positive energy despite our distance. Well done MHB team!”

On day one, two American experts joined two Taiwanese panelists via Zoom for the legal panel, followed by multiple remote and local speakers on the budgeting and insurance panel, and then six doctors on the medical panel. "Most of the panels seamlessly incorporated a mix of local and remote speakers, along with slide presentations and some video segments that played on two screens," said Lisa Schuster, GPAP Program Director, who moderated several of the panels. "Meanwhile the speakers and presentations were also streamed to the dozens who tuned in remotely from other countries." 

The Power of Personal Connection

On day two, in addition to the complexity of orchestrating the "speed-dating-style" breakout sessions, MHB solved the challenge of recreating the traditional provider expo by splitting it into two separate components. "We know attendees appreciate the option to roam around and experience the surrounding tactile materials and images, so even though almost all the exhibitors were not present, the MHB team set up an entire exhibit hall with a mix of shipped and locally printed items," said Congiardo. "But then we supplemented this with an opportunity for the attendees to interact with the exhibitors at a dozen video conferencing stations spread across multiple rooms, over two shifts, so we could accommodate all of our sponsors. This was arguably the most technically challenging part of the weekend, but luckily we were able to resolve the few technical glitches fairly quickly."

The ability to once again speak face-to-face with prospective parents was thoroughly appreciated by the exhibitors. "It was comparable to attending one of your conferences in person and it gave us the opportunity to share our expertise of continuing to create families with the help of our generous surrogates," said Joanne Bubrick of Platinum Sponsor The Center for Surrogate Parenting. "We applaud Men Having Babies for successfully organizing the first hybrid conference to help gay men learn how to create their families – even as the world deals with a pandemic." Another exhibitor, Sarah Paige of ART Risk, shared her feeling with the MHB team in real time: "This was absolutely amazing! May have held back tears as I spoke to my first intended parents. I’m insanely proud to be a part of this organization and to be associated with everything that you’re doing to build families around the world."

Advocacy and Community Building 

An integral component of each MHB conference is the partnership with local LGBT parenting associations, and since 2019 also the introduction of a series of Advocacy and Research Forums.  In Taiwan MHB has partnered with the Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy (TLFRA), and the organization assembled an impressive group of researchers and community advocates to present a program on "LGBT Parenting in Taiwan: Facing social stigma and discrimination." The forum discussed the current situation of gay parenting in Taiwan, possible challenges faced by LGBT parents, and corresponding strategies to respond to such challenges. While in May 2019 Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, it can not yet been said that the general public is in fact ready for LBGT individuals and couples to have children. Panelists described the challenges gay families encounter in their daily lives, and how LGBT parents can overcome the stigma and discrimination still associated with being a "gay family" in Taiwanese society.