How Queer Is Your Family?
Two lesbians walked into a bar. They ordered drinks and gazed at the bartender intently, with a “let’s make babies” kind of look, a look my brother rarely got from women at a gay bar, but especially not from a lesbian couple. Something queer was going on.
These women had sought my brother out. After spending far too much money on failed attempts from a sperm bank, they decided to find their own donor. They saw my brother Danny’s icy blue eyes and fell in love with the idea of their child inheriting his good looks. Like many queer couples seeking children, they had carefully planned this process. They, like most queerly-created families (queer literally means “odd from a conventional viewpoint,” which is how I will use this term), were forced to find answers to tricky questions and to find the language to describe their relationships within our heterosexually-privileged language system.
This couple had done a tremendous amount of planning that would continue after the baby was born. They decided what they wanted their family to look like, who would be involved, and how to describe and label their family. After a couple of meetings with my brother over coffee, a visit to the doctor to check out my brother’s overall health status, and four shots of semen, these women were on the pathway to motherhood. As for my brother, he continued just being Danny: interested, but mostly unconcerned.
Unfortunately, our mother didn’t see the situation in the same light. For my brother, it was simple. He made a little money off of something that, let’s face it, he had freely thrown away many times in the past. He did a good deed and helped a couple by pitching his genetics out into the world. He didn’t see it as an issue. However, one morning, our mother huffed irritably to me, “Did you know your brother is having a baby?” I was slightly intrigued. How was my gay brother going to be a parent?
After she explained, I understood—he wasn’t having a baby, but helping someone else do it. Like my brother, I didn’t see any need for further discussion. “But that’s my grandchild. He should have at least talked to me about it,” she grumbled. “It could be the only one I have from him.” Her language confused me. Yes, biologically the baby would be related, but I felt the child was absolutely not her grandchild. For me, it was similar to Danny giving a baby up for adoption. It would not be his.
I was fascinated by the different perceptions about my brother’s donation and the language surrounding it. I searched for answers. How do other people interpret and define donor-created families? Little did I know, these families weren’t so different from my own, and this journey would challenge the way I viewed and defined relationships in my own life.
I read a book by Andrew Solomon called Far from the Tree in which the author describes his rather unique situation. He became a sperm donor to a lesbian couple, and the couple was so pleased with their new baby, and with Solomon and his partner, that one of the women agreed to have a baby for the men using his partner’s sperm. Solomon described the journey to define his eventually quite extended family—four children in three states by three primary parents—a definition that intimidated him initially. So much trust had to be placed with multiple people in order to make their family work. He constantly searched for language to define what these children were to one another, what they were to him and his partner, and who the mothers were to them. What would they call these people? Aunts? Cousins? Siblings? They had to create language where there was none.
It forced me to look at my own family: my mom, my brother Danny, my sister Jessica, and Franko, my mom’s ten-year boyfriend. My family seems much simpler than Solomon’s, at least at first glance. A closer look will show its complexity. See, Jessica is technically my half-sister through my mother’s second marriage. She has a half-sister, who used to be my step-sister, at least until the divorce. Then, in Wisconsin, there’s my bio-father (who most of the time I just call Dean), and his wife, my step-brother and step-sister. Oh, and my step-siblings have a half-sister, whom I’ve only met once, but she still fits in here somewhere. Suddenly Solomon’s family doesn’t seem so radical—at least they’ve carefully thought out and defined themselves, whereas my family just sort of exists without clearly delineated names.
Though it takes some brainpower to connect all of the members of my family, my situation is common enough that people are comfortable with not understanding the complexity of these relationships, so they accept it. Unfortunately, for queer families, people aren’t so accepting. They want to know the details; they keep digging, judging, and typically misunderstanding.
Susan Goldberg writes about this dilemma in her award-winning work And Baby Makes More. She explains how difficult it is to articulate her family dynamic in casual encounters with people. When people ask if her donor is the dad to their child, she and her partner don’t know what to say; he’s not the dad, but he’s more than a donor. Strangers typically continue to pigeonhole him as the father and often question which mom is the biological one, which makes the other mother feel invisible. Although these mothers realize that often people are just curious, it’s not any less painful. There is no language to support their relationship, and people aren’t content with not understanding. Upon examining what Rob is to them, they decided he’s just “a Rob,” a person they’ve chosen to be part of their family.
I found this story touched on an important member of my own family, my mother’s boyfriend Franko. At times in my rebellious teenage years, I didn’t equate Franko to a father figure, but he was still a member of my family: essentially “a Rob.” People around us believed they understood due to his relationship with my mother. Unfortunately, for queer families, people search for unrealistic nuclear family slots to place relationships into. Once a person crosses into unromantic territory, as donors often do, people become uncomfortable. They attempt to place people into their definition of what a family should be instead of accepting what the family is. This isn’t only true for donor-created families. It’s also true for queer families like mine.
Through my research, I’ve realized the distinct power structure in our language that supports the nuclear family (you know, the nuclear family that rarely, if ever, exists). There are many donor-created families similar to Andrew Solomon’s, yet there is no adequate language to describe them. For example, how does a child address a two-mom family? Does the child call them Mom and Mom? Mom and Momma? Mom and Dad? Each family member has to make a conscious choice as to what to call one another. They have to carefully think about and articulate what their relationship is with this child.
I see this as quite a paradox: good in the sense that evaluating language and defining relationships can clarify and strengthen relationships, but bad in the sense that the power structure undeniably limits and devalues these families as they consistently battle language to merely exist. They’re further devalued when nosy people continually dig for answers that these families don’t have the language to support. Can the child be happy with two moms? With a mom and two dads? Why is the donor involved with the family? Why is the donor not involved? These questions don’t have simple answers, but any family, answers or not, will be happy if they want to be. The children in queer families will be loved just as much as in “normal” families. After all, these couples deliberately have children. The kids, like most children, will be asked questions about why their families are different than others, just as I did about my own family, but they’ll come to realize that the questions don’t matter as much as the love they feel from the people in their lives. It’s okay to be curious about unique families—after all, I was myself—but understand that perhaps you might not understand, and let it go. The labels connecting our web of relationships don’t matter nearly as much as the love felt by our families.
I’ve learned there is a distinct difference between being curious and being nosy. Curiosity is natural and innocent. It pushed me to explore the topic of queer family labels, hoping to catch a glimpse of others’ lives in ways I never imagined. Curiosity means having an open mind and realizing you might not be able to place yourself in another person’s shoes. Being nosy is forcing shoes to fit on them—trying to find the size that fits, when perhaps there isn’t one. The labels we use to discuss family tell us a lot less about who we are to one another than we let ourselves believe. They create slots of “what-we-should-be” rather than “what-we-are.”
Many donor families start out believing the donor won’t be involved, as I once did. Then, as the recipient family evaluates their family’s wants and needs and defines and shapes their relationships, they may find they actually want the donor in their lives. They may realize that just because our society and our language don’t support anything beyond the two-parent family, it doesn’t mean relationships like this cannot exist. The truth is, they exist anyway, whether we acknowledge them or not.
After much exploring, I finally unpacked what Franko is to me: not quite a “father,” but more than “my mother’s boyfriend.” He’s a person I hold close to my heart for many reasons beyond the tie of his relationship to my mother, and I don’t need a specific word to define him. He’s just “a Franko.” Through this journey, I’ve learned that biology plays only a small role, but choice is everything. I’ve also learned that we might not understand the complexity behind these choices, as language might fail to describe them, and that’s perfectly okay. The key to a family is being conscious of choice, open to change, and accepting of the unidentified elements that make the possibilities endless.
So there you have it. Two lesbians walk into a bar. They decide they want a baby and drastically redefine my outlook on family. Their family is theirs. They make the choice as to who is who and what is what. For now, my brother is a distant donor. Perhaps that may change, perhaps not, but my idea of what makes up a family will never be the same. My brother will begin his own family one day and get to call the shots, and I will too, completely conscious of who is involved and how much they mean to me, knowing that perhaps the language I use will never accurately represent how I feel and connect to my loved ones. We could all learn from being a little more, you know, queer, conscious, and accepting.
Jaclyn Nelson is the editor of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Undergraduate Research Journal. After receiving her BA in English, she is pursuing her passions as a travel-bug, part-time journalistic contributor, and full-time unfailing optimist. Her personal interests include generating clichés, pretending to be a good dancer, and snuggling with her dog Eva.