Each month, Gwendolyn answers your questions on LGBTQ parenting. Write to her with your question here.
Q: Dear Gwendolyn,
We are in the process of choosing a donor, but we are debating whether an open donor or anonymous donor would be the right choice. After watching Donor Unknown, and exploring a few other resources, we are a bit nervous that if we do choose an anonymous donor, how we will handle any questions about him that will come up. Could you share your thoughts on whether to know – or not to know – and how to handle it if our child does end up wanting to know more about his or her donor?
Moms To Be in Brooklyn
A: Dear Moms To Be,
For most of us in same-sex relationships, our children have no genetic connection to one parent and may have no genetic connection to either (or any) parent. We are defining family by experience, affection, and connection, not genetics and biology. Genetics makes genetic connections and while these can be interesting and important, it does not mean that people with those connections are members of the same family.
The documentary, Donor Unknown, which aired on PBS, raised some interesting issues for queer parents considering donor conception. Donor Unknown chronicles JoEllen Marsh’s search for the donor with whose sperm she was conceived. JoEllen is the daughter of a lesbian couple who had always been open about the facts of her conception. With the help of a website, the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), she found other children conceived by Donor 150 of the California Cryobank – donor siblings or DoSies, as some are calling them. After reading a newspaper article about the children conceived by Donor 150, Jeffrey Harrison recognized himself as Donor 150 and made contact with the children conceived with his donations.
According to the DSR website, “The focus of the DSR is to assist individuals conceived as a result of sperm, egg or embryo donation who are seeking to make mutually desired contact with others with whom they share genetic ties. The DSR fully supports openness, honesty and the acknowledgement of these family connections.” (emphasis mine)
DSR’s premise that genetics equals family and that total strangers have a familial connection to each other seems illogical to me but I understand that adopted and donor-conceived children often feel a very strong desire to know their genetic background and connect with the person who provided the material of their conception and with other children conceived from the same material. Our goal as parents is to provide for our children’s needs and desires, so whatever we may personally feel about genetic connection and family, we must consider donor conception carefully.
While many philosophical and ethical discussions about donor conception are in progress within both LGBTQ and mainstream culture, here I would like to think practically about how to deal with such issues.
- DO examine your feelings about how you plan to build your family.
Your attitude will be the foundation of your child’s experience.
- If you feel that not having both genetic parents in a child’s life is somehow depriving the child of its full identity, do not move forward with donor conception.
- If you feel that having same-sex parents or a single parent deprives a child of an other-sex role model, do not move forward in conception or adoption.
- If you want a child but are struggling with ambivalence on these issues, join groups for queer parents and spend time with the families. I think that you will find that these families are whole and complete and the children are not deprived in any significant way. Over time, such experience may resolve your ambivalence.
- DO consider using a donor from a sperm bank who is willing to be contacted when the child is eighteen. This is a solution that is becoming more and more popular and does seem to address many of the issues. The donor is not involved until the child is an adult, so doesn’t complicate the family structure when the child is young and cannot make any custodial claims. The child always knows, however, that the information will be available to them, so they don’t have to worry about never knowing the donor’s identity. Even if the child never cares about meeting the donor or building a relationship, access to the donor’s medical history may be important. Several countries no longer allow anonymous donations and require donors to agree to be contacted when the child is eighteen.
- DO think carefully about the idea of using a known donor from your social circle rather than a donor from a sperm bank. Some people find the idea of a known donor to be warmer and like the idea of the donor being regarded as a member of the family, like a favorite aunt or uncle. Unfortunately, the legal risks in this situation are huge. While some families work this out in a positive, civilized way, there is no legal protection for you if the donor decides to claim parental rights. Like divorce, no one thinks that will happen to them but, like divorce, it does. Whether a known donor makes the initial agreement in bad faith or changes his/her mind later due to disagreements about child-rearing practices or your decision to move out of the area, family law may very well acknowledge them as a parent. Since, in some states, the non-bio parent has no parental rights at all, the consequences to your family of a donor asserting parental rights can be very grave indeed.
- DO understand that you will not determine your child’s level of interest in their donor. Be equally prepared for them to be dead set on meeting him the moment they turn eighteen or to be totally uninterested. Be equally prepared for your child to consider other children conceived from the same donor to be their half-siblings or to think that is a ridiculous idea. Therapist Arlene Istar Lev notes, “There is a difference between being open to our kids’ needs around adoption/donors, and being so ‘welcoming’ of it, that they feel compelled to call strangers family.”
- DO spend time thinking about how much of the conception story they will share or keep private. My wise friend, Diane, notes that she and her partner were caught off guard in their daughter’s first year by intrusive questions both from acquaintances and strangers. They both felt uncomfortable with the amount of information they had shared because they didn’t anticipate the questions. They came to the conclusion that the details were their child’s to share or not as she got older, so they needed to be careful to safeguard her privacy.
- DO keep a sense of proportion. With great insight, novelist and single parent, Kristen Dinnall Hoyte says, “My kids do actively think about and even miss having a father. They also actively miss having parents who make a lot of money or a family that goes on lots of vacations/has a second home –both those things seem to be the norm among their friends.”
Many children fantasize about being adopted at some point, mainly so they can imagine other parents who are richer, prettier, cooler, and more understanding than the parents they have. I never fantasized I was adopted but I had long, involved daydreams about my long-lost Great-Uncle Oscar, who’d been adopted by an Indian maharajah and was ridiculously wealthy and sent me an elephant with a fabulous howdah, which I would ride to school every day and make all the other children (including my siblings) expire from envy.
- DO realize that fantasizing has its risks. The DSR website cautions: “I think we need to be very careful when our donor children are curious and plan on reaching out to their donors. Children have the tendency to idolize their donors and think of them as perfect people. (See paragraph above.) Donors are just regular people. If you make someone out to be perfect, you are guaranteed to be disappointed. People can get hurt when they have unrealistic expectations – our hopes must be realistic when connecting with donors.”
These wise words apply to parents as well. Think analytically about the distinction between your children’s interest in and fantasies and curiosities about their donor, and your own. In Donor Unknown, one of the mothers says knowing more about the donor could be “killing the dream” of the donor she had imagined. This makes sense given how carefully one chooses a donor. Some parents join the DSR because of their own curiosity, well before their children have expressed any interest in their donor or any other children conceived from their donor.
- DON’T be overwhelmed. One advantage of beginning the great adventure of queer parenting in the second decade of the twenty-first century is that you have many, many other parents’ experiences, successes, and mistakes from which to learn.
Resources you may wish to explore include:
The Donor Sibling Registry: Educating, Connecting and Supporting Donor Families
Webinar: “Talking with Children in LGBTQ Families about their Origins.”
Presenter: Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev, L.C.S.W., C.A.S.A.C., author of The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide. Wednesday, March 7, 6:30 – 8:00 pm. This session will describe how to talk with children about their origins and their inclusion in LGBTQ families as they mature through various stages of childhood. The webinar will feature a 1-hour presentation, plus a half-hour of lively conversation and Q&A. The program is free but registration is required.
To register visit www.prideandjoyfamilies.org.
Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) and Families Resource Brief
This list of resources focuses on psychological and social impacts of ART on children conceived via ART and on their families. The list also provides resources related to ethical and legal issues associated with ART. For the most part, resources on this list are available electronically at no charge.
Donor Conceived Perspectives: Voices from the Offspring
A blog of personal reflections from dozens of adult, donor-conceived people from all over the world, with varying views toward their conceptions.
Write to Gwendolyn with your questions on LGBT parenting at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwendolyn reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.
Gwendolyn Alden Dean is a bisexual advocate/advisor/activist/educator/scholar for and of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer communities and people. While studying LGBT theories and issues at Emory University, she romped and pranced and changed the world with the Lesbian Avengers-Atlanta and Queer Nation, and then served as the Director of the LGBT Resource Center at Cornell University for ten years. Now studying psychology and counseling, the next chapter of her career will focus on counseling LGBT and questioning people and families. Gwendolyn is the extremely blessed parent of a wonderful child, recently graduated from college, and has taught kindergarten through twelfth grade, as well as college-level courses. She has also been privileged to participate in a fabulous online community of Mom-identified queer folks since 1993. All wisdom present in her columns can be attributed to them. All mistakes and exceedingly ridiculous thoughts belong solely to her.