Several years ago, my then five-year old daughter came home from preschool recounting an interaction she had with her friend that day. He proclaimed that all families have a mom and a dad. She stated that this was not so: “I have a mama and a mommy. I have a donor, not a daddy.” My daughter is open, as we are with her. The two pondered this, and then continued on with their elaborate game of animal families. Best friends in their exploration of the world, they were unwittingly engaged in a conversation that strikes at the core of current discourse on donor insemination in the United States.
This Pride, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots– a movement fought for and led by trans* women of color from the outset. Over the years since that historic event, the LGBTQ community has worked tirelessly to secure rights to our lives and to our families.
Enter donor insemination – that biomedical, “un-natural” phenomenon that can generate slight feelings of discomfort even among the most progressive of procreators.
“Donor inseminated children” constitutes a growing identity for the LGBTQ community. Indeed, an estimated two million children in the US are currently living with LGBTQ parents, many of whom were conceived through donor insemination. Many of these children are now young adults in their early to mid-twenties. LGBTQ families span the cross section of US society. Living in 96% of US counties, children of LGBTQ families are twice as likely to live in poverty as children raised in married heterosexual households. There is more racial/ethnic diversity among LGBTQ families than in the general population.
As my partner and I embarked on our carefully planned road to having children, we grappled with the biological, social and ethical dimensions of donor insemination. Our choice to use an “identity release” donor from a sperm bank was the first of many monumental parenting decisions that have continued to arise over the course of our children’s lives. We made this decision, in part, because we did not want our family to be legally vulnerable to the potential involvement of another person, a biological known donor. While rare, this was not without legal precedent and it was particularly resonant for me at the time as the non-biological, non US citizen parent of our first child to secure a clear legal parental relationship.
At the time, and still in many states, this required that I apply to adopt my child, and we went through second-parent adoption procedures in my daughter’s first year. The systematic, institutional undermining of my role as a parent was heart-breaking as I compiled my adoption portfolio for the social worker’s visit one rainy morning to observe — and, hopefully, deem worthy — my parenting. As is all too familiar for LGBTQ-parented families, I had to request three letters of support from friends who were to attest to my ability to parent my daughter, and to reveal every last detail of my economic viability, religious affiliation, work and social history and more to parent my child that I had planned and wanted deeply with my partner.
When we decided to consider donors at a sperm bank — a particularly strange experience commodifying our parental hopes and dreams into a business interaction — the research told us that our future children, who are nurtured daily with the doting love of two moms and our extensive biological and chosen family networks, would likely not seek out a father or parent figure in their donor. Rather, they could benefit from the option of identifying and, if desired, getting to know the person who contributed half of their genetic material. In the process of selecting our donor, we had entered the complex, angst- and joy-filled, heart-stopping land of parenthood. Even before our two children had entered the world.
Donor siblings have become an important part of queer kinship. Donor siblings is a term to refer to children who typically are raised in different families who share the same sperm donor. In our case, our two children are being raised in the same family (and share the same donor), so they are siblings. More and more, families who use donor sperm are connecting with other families who have used the same donor, often through the website Donor Sibling Registry, one third of whose users are LGBT families (almost one half, or 49%, are single mothers by choice, and 17% are heterosexual couples). As such, donor siblings have become an important part of kinship and a mechanism through which understandings of family and biology become produced for LGBTQ families.
Fairly simple, it would appear, and yet this is only the beginning of a profound family-making experience that centers on specific biological understandings of what makes a family and sibling.
A spate of news articles, media, and – most recently – a photographic essay by Eli Baden-Lasar — Brothers, Sisters, Strangers — in the Pride-day issue of The New York Times Magazine on donor siblings infers that children born of donor insemination are haunted by uncertainty, and even secrecy, due to their conception.
I commend Baden-Lasar’s intimate and powerful essay, depicting his donor siblings, and his journey to each of them. It is a beautiful reflection on a profoundly personal journey that implicates the ethics of the sperm bank industry and of reproductive technologies writ large – and importantly centers the perspective of a donor-conceived young person.
Yet, we must ask on this day and at this still-too-tenuous time in U.S. LGBTQ history - what is the context for this conversation on donor families for LGBTQ families in particular, and what may be the potential impact of this work on long-fought advances for LGBTQ families -- and on whom?
Referring to conception choices made by donor families, many of whom are LGBTQ or single parent families, as a “huge, inadvertent social experiment” may reveal the un-ease that likely everyone would feel at the reality of having 32 (or more) donor siblings, but it also serves as an unstated centering of default hetero-normative understandings of reproduction and family based on a heterosexual (monogamous and married) parental unit.
This is particularly dangerous vision to be reifying at a time when hate crimes against LGBTQ people have risen each year between 2014 - 2017; when anti-LGBTQ adoption policies are being proposed that would allow adoption agencies to reject same sex parents; and when citizenship birth rights for children are being denied to LGBTQ married parents.
Family – who gets to be a family, who gets to raise and live with children – is not merely an intimate personal experience. Or, if it is — this is a privilege afforded to heterosexual families who have never had to consider that they and their children exist in relation to the state, and that marriage has less to do with love than the creation of an economic and legal institution for ‘legitimate’ procreation, with racist histories for deeming children created outside its bounds as illegitimate.
The family comprises an economic and social institution historically and persistently used as political leverage to undermine communities outside of the white, heterosexual (supposedly monogamous) married norm in US society. The growing anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the United States is being played out in the policy domain through the family unit, and affects the most vulnerable families among us the most – immigrant families, families of color, and those living in poverty.
Children born of donor insemination in LGBTQ families face a dual “coming out” - encountering homophobia as well as the taboo of donor insemination - and must often navigate multiple forms of social discrimination. The vast majority of LGBTQ families are, by necessity and by philosophy, open with our children about our families. Our children are planned and deeply wanted, and are cherished through childhoods that bring with them invaluable understandings about who and what constitutes family that are learned from parents as well as the community and society at large. We are creating new forms of kinship, of families bound by what my daughter has called the “glue of love.”
What is difficult to be open about with my children, however, is the haunting that they have and likely will continue to experience by virtue of their family structure: the haunting of homophobia and firmly embedded heterosexism. It is a painful conversation that no child should have to encounter. And, as with all hauntings, it is impossible to deny or wish away but must be unseated at its roots.
Thirty years of rigorous social science research on donor families consistently reveals that LGBTQ-parented children have a sense of transparency about themselves and their families that locates the real “problem” with LGBTQ families in a heterosexist and homophobic society, not in the fact of donor insemination or in the LGBTQ family unit.
We must consider the ethical obligation we have as a society to think more deeply about family as a social institution before potentially further vilifying those of us who exist outside of increasingly elusive hetero-normative family structures.
It is my hope to foster a dialogue about how LGBTQ families can continue to queer biology and to bring forward a vision - both within our own families and for the benefit of all families - of the glue of love my daughter spoke so tenderly of years ago – to resist biological determinism and build connection and kinship in a world struggling to understand what matters most.
One evening, several years ago, my daughter ran to get the door. As always, she was a few steps ahead of me. “Is your dad home?” came the well-meaning voice on our porch. “I don’t have a dad. I have a mama and a mommy,” she responded. Probably not what the young man was expecting at that moment, even in progressive Berkeley, CA. These moments of “coming out” about our family are now daily occurrences for both my children. I popped my head around the door, “Mama here. Can I help you?”