BJ Barone and Frank Nelson never expected the birth of their first and only child to be an internationally celebrated event.
But when their son Milo was born on June 27, 2014, that’s exactly what happened.
It was right in the midst of WorldPride, when Toronto was the focal point for the global LGBT community.
And when Milo came into the world, his two fathers were there to embrace him. Lindsay Foster, a photographer and friend of the surrogate who gave birth to him, captured the moment.
The portrait is intimate and intense; two parents meeting their newborn child for the first time.
And after Foster posted the photo on Facebook, it quickly shot around the world. All of a sudden, not only were Barone and Nelson dealing with the stress of a new child, but they were doing TV interviews and media appearances.
“No matter if you’re gay, if you’re straight, if you’re a man, if you’re a woman, for the first time meeting your child, it’s the same reaction,” Barone says. “It’s just all about love and acceptance and I think that’s what struck a chord with everybody.”
But now that same photo which prompted thousands of supportive messages from around the world has been twisted, and is being used to promote homophobic politics in at least two different countries.
The couple first found out about this a few weeks ago when someone from Ireland reached out to Barone on Twitter to tell him that a politician had been using the photo to push her anti-surrogacy agenda.
Mary Fitzgibbon, an independent candidate in Kerry, had posted the photo on social media a number of times throughout the past year.
During Ireland’s recent referendum on marriage equality, Fitzgibbon had posted the image with the caption, “A motherless child is the prize — the buying of children.”
She shared it other times on Facebook and Twitter with similar messages.
“We were both a little shocked,” Barone says. “This is a moment of pure love, we didn’t understand why it’s being used in this context now.”
Baron fought back. He started sending her photos of his happy family and encouraged other gay dads to the same. Fitzgibbon’s account is now protected.
But they soon found out that the warping of that first family photo wasn’t limited to a single candidate in Ireland.
A poster using the photo has also been making the rounds in Italy, which has been going through a bitter debate about LGBT rights.
The poster is branded with the logo of Fratelli d’Italia, an extreme right-wing political party with links to neo-fascism.
“Lui non porta’ mai dire mamma. I diritta da difendere sono quelli del bambino,” it says, which roughly translates to: “He’ll never have the right to be called mom. Children have the right to be defended.”
“It’s just really weird how they twisted it around and now they’re using it negatively,” Barone says. “It was such a positive, happy moment in our life.”
Barone, who is of Italian descent, never expected his family to become a political issue in Italy.
He still has family in the country, and they’ve told him that the photo is widely distributed and has been discussed on TV and radio programs.
Barone, who came out when he was 27, says that being a gay parent is still a constant battle. “And now you have this on top of it, that there’s people out there that don’t believe that we’re a family just because they don’t believe it,” he says.
While it frustrates Barone that he has to see a photo of his family associated with such hatred, it won’t stop him from one day going back to Italy.
“That’s their prerogative, that’s their opinion and they have the right to feel that way,” he says. “But we’re not going to stop living our lives just because of other people."
Besides, his son Milo has already been changing minds in that country for two years.
When Barone first came out to the Italian branch of his family, many of them weren’t supportive.
“My cousins were messaging me saying, that’s wrong what I’m doing, and how can I do this to my parents,” he says.
But once Milo was born, they turned around.
“Now, they can’t wait to meet Milo,” he says.
There are still a few older family members there that aren’t accepting, but Barone believes that they’ll come around as well.
“Once they meet Milo, then they’ll fall in love with him and understand,” he says.