50 | Donor Conceived Queerspawn

Meet the Guests:

Jamie Larson is a designer, educator, and activist who resides in Brooklyn NY. She was conceived via anonymous fresh sperm donation in 1987 in Chicago IL. As a 2nd Generation queer woman with a plethora of lesbian parents, Jamie is a steadfast advocate for the ethical inclusion and representation of our queerspawn identities and queer heritage. She is the co-founder and co-director of the Queerspawn Resource Project (queerspawnresource.org) which focuses on developing and compiling resources that reflect the complex, authentic, and intersectional experiences of people with one or more LGBTQ+ parents/guardians and advancing advocacy work that furthers the inclusion of queerspawn and their perspectives.

Lilly T-B is a sophomore in high school as well as a climate justice and reproductive rights activist living in New Hampshire. She was conceived through anonymous sperm donation, and lives with her multiple mothers. Lilly has been inspired by the pride of her mothers and family, and works continuously with various campaigns throughout the country to elect the right candidates into office, and to push the envelope for issues that matter to her. She was raised with two half siblings, each with their own anonymous donor. While her the identities of her siblings’ donors remain mysteries, Lilly has been able to locate and communicate with her donor via forums and genetic testing. Still in her youth, she has only recently begun to take pride in her identity as second generation queerspawn.

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Episode Transcript

Emily: When my mom decided to become pregnant, there were a few sperm banks and doctors that would work with lesbians and single women. She chose a local clinic that used fresh sperm from local donors, so not frozen or stored. And the more I learn about the clinic and the whole process, the more I’m just shocked by how unregulated it was at the time. For queerspawn like me and today’s guests, that means that the whole options of known versus unknown versus identity release donors, and our ability to contact those donors and donor siblings, have really undergone big changes over the years. Some websites were created almost 20 years ago to help people with shared DNA, make contact with one another when possible. There was a whole lot of intention in these sort of registries and websites at the time and the way I contacted my donor. There was also a lot of intention involved, but today we’re coming across people who share DNA through test companies – sometimes accidentally. To share our own experiences and to dig into the realities and ethics of it all are to fellow donor conceived queerspawn, Jamie and Lilly! I’m going to get us started with my first question for every episode, who is in your family and how was it formed?

Jamie: My family is made up of myself, my biological mother, Vicky, my younger brother, Joey, who joined our family through adoption. And I also have foster sisters that lived with me while I was a child and I maintain a relationship with as an adult, even though we only spent a few years living together. I also have several mothers and maternal figures in my life other than my biological mom, some who are with me still and some who have passed away and they’ve played varying degrees in my life. One who is kind of important for the story today is the woman my mother was with when I was born and her name is Nancy.

Emily: Thank you. And Lilly, who is in your family and how was it formed?

Lilly: I was born via anonymous sperm donation in 2003 I have an older brother and a younger sister and essentially four mothers, so two that were there when I was born and then they split. And now one has a wife. So Catherine has a wife, Beth, and Janine has a girlfriend.

Emily: And what are the different terms that you like to use when describing or explaining your family in terms of donor and donor siblings? What terms do you use and why do those particular terms feel right for you?

Lilly: I call my biological siblings in my family, my sister and my brother. But my half siblings around the world, I consider my half-siblings, even though we technically all have different fathers, even within my family. So my “brother” is really only half my brother and my sister’s only half. My direct siblings in my household are my brother and sister and my unknown half siblings from the same sperm donor are my half-siblings.

Emily: Thanks. And what about you Jamie? What sort of language do you like to use when describing like donor relations?

Jamie: Well, the siblings that I grew up with are just my siblings. Even the foster siblings, that’s my sister. I would refer to people that are born through the same donor as my half-siblings and I tend to use the word donor or donor dad or dad when referring to this person who helped create me. Occasionally I use biological father. I don’t have any strong feelings for or against any of these terms right now.

Emily: I myself use ‘donor’ when I talk about my sperm donor, who I have been able to contact and have a relationship with now after turning 18 and my donor siblings. Some of those terms of like who I just refer to as ‘sister’ versus donor sibling has definitely changed over time as our relationships have changed and that’s been really interesting. But I think my term for my donor has stayed pretty consistent. So we’re all donor conceived. What’s that like? What are some of your feelings about being donor conceived? How do you feel today and have those feelings change over the years?

Lilly: In a word, I would say it’s totally whack. I think over the years I’ve felt a lot of different emotions towards my family. So when I was younger, obviously naive, don’t really understand what it’s like. I also grew up in Ithaca, New York, which is very queer, very open. And then when I was six we moved to conservative New Hampshire where everyone lives in a nuclear family. And so to be different, I realized my family is not the normal and I started to kind of repress that. And even my friends, I wouldn’t tell about my family. So there was a lot of internal homophobia going on. But recently as I came out and realized that I was second generation queerspawn, I begun to take a large amount of pride in my family and in their queerness. So that’s definitely changed over time. But it’s always been a huge part of my identity, whether I liked it or not.

Emily: But what do you mean when you say being donor conceived is whack?

Jamie: I’d say it’s a wrench thrown into your life that you don’t have a choice over and you can determine how you react to this wrench. But there’s no way to pretend that this is not a part of your life because your parents are inherently a part of your identity and you can want to hide that and repress that. But it’s really hard to do that and also be genuine and vulnerable and real.

Emily: And how about you Jamie? What do you feel now today about being donor conceived? How’s that changed? Has that changed over time?

Jamie: In the past few years I’ve really felt like being donor conceived has played a bigger, more prevalent role in my identity than it did in previous years. But it’s always been something that I was very interested in and kind of nostalgic about. I was a super sentimental kid and I definitely remember wishing I could find my dad when I would throw a coin in the fountain. But as I got older I definitely was searching for my donor and thinking about him. And I definitely went through a period where I was pretty mad about it. Not in an overtly aggressive mad way, but in a feeling that it was unfair.

Emily: The like having a donor period or having an anonymous donor?

Jamie: Having an anonymous donor. But I also found some sort of power, I think, in being able to articulate that and use that to talk about how my agency was taken away at conception and speaking about it from that place. And being able to educate about it definitely changed my relationship to it. And now I feel, I feel pretty solid about it. I feel like it’s a big part of my identity. I agree with Lily about that. It’s a very big part of my identity that often gets downplayed. So I’m all for bringing it out and highlighting it and talking about it because I think it’s something that needs to be taught.

Emily: And Lily, would you mind sharing a little bit more about your own journey of the, the type of donor that you have? Have you thought about contacting your donor? I would love to know a little bit more about your own experience.

Lilly: Yeah, of course. So I do have an anonymous sperm donor and over the years, how I think about it and his existence has definitely developed and changed. But as of recently I did find out his identity via chat forums and then that was also compounded by 23andme genetic testing, which linked me to him. But I don’t know that I would ever want to meet him in person because, as much as it sounds childish, I’m living with this ideal of – I know his career, I know he’s a professional, I know he’s intelligent. And I’m happy right now as of this moment, living with the idea that he can be whatever I want. If I want him to be this perfect human with zero flaws, that is what he is to me. As of right now, I’m not sure if I’m ready or want to see his human flaws, if that would make me appreciate him more. But I do have some family members that are kind of pushing for me to try and meet him and say, Oh, maybe he’ll die and I will never have met my father. But I don’t think that I would feel empty without having a father figure in my life, because I do have other father figures, but not my actual father.

Emily: Yeah. I just relate to both of you so much. Jamie – of being a deep feeling, a creative kid. I did the same thing where I pretended my donor was writing me notes and trying to reach me just because I was creative and it got some drama in my life. It was exciting to think about. And Lilly – similarly confronting this, Hey, maybe it’s this famous person and then can actually confronting that and being like, Oh, it’s a real human. This is a real human who has human flaws and may have different desires to get to know me than I have to know them. That was really scary. What about donor’s siblings? I honestly did not think about donor siblings as a possibility of what contacting my donor could yield or that they could be out there. I don’t know why. I just never thought about it that much and as I was someone who was raised an only-child, it still just didn’t cross my mind. Do you have different feelings about then knowing donors siblings, looking for them, contacting them? And have any of those feelings changed over time?

Lilly: I do know some of my donor-siblings through Facebook. I’ve never met any of them. My little sister in fact has met two of her half-siblings, but I’ve never felt much of a desire to meet them because I feel that if I were to meet them, it wouldn’t be as much of a sibling relationship, as it would just be a friendship. And is it worth all the effort to go out there and meet these people just because they’re half of my DNA, but we have no other connection? I’m just not sure what kind of role they would end up playing in my life if I were to meet these half-siblings.

Emily: Yeah, that’s totally valid. What about you Jamie?

Jamie: I actually feel pretty differently than that. I feel that meeting more people is just an opportunity to make more points of connection in the universe, so to speak. And I think that part of that comes from the fact that my mother was not raised by her own father and she found her father and her half siblings when I was baby. So I got to see her connect with her half siblings and this great connection that they made and it always made me really interested to think about what my siblings could be. I did find someone who I believe to be a sibling, about 10 years ago, through donor sibling registry and we did some sort of testing DNA testing at the time, but because I’m a woman and he’s a man, we needed both of our mothers to test in order to rule out the DNA properly. And his mother’s test never went through, though he claims and she claims that it was sent. So we never got a hundred percent conclusive proof. But everything we were told said that yeah, we were siblings and we went under this assumption for about eight years and we met once and we’re Facebook friends and we would email back and forth and we had you know, a nice acquaintance relationship. And when 23andme and Ancestry came out, we discovered that we’re not actually half siblings. But in an interesting twist, both of us believe we found our donors in the same month. Different men. And we believe that we found them. He has attempted contact with his donor and I have not, mostly out of my own fear and concern about what that relationship will be or not be. But as it turns out, I have not found any donor-siblings.

Emily: Lilly, not asking you to speak for any of your siblings at all, your brother and sister, but you’ve mentioned that your sister has met and has a different relationship with a couple of her donor siblings. So I’m interested in your experience – you may not have curiosities or may not want to contact your donor, but do they feel differently and how do those conversations then go at home if you’re all sort of talking about that or thinking about that together?

Lilly: It’s interesting, we’re all kind of reaching an age where it’s definitely more part of the conversation, where the sibling rivalries becoming a really close friendship and we can have these deep conversations about the struggles that we’ve faced all being donor children. So until recently I didn’t even realize, my older brother had gone through a lot of the same struggles with identity and not telling people about our parents and kind of having to hide that major part of us. And I’m also learning from my sister going to meet her half-siblings that she does have an urge to understand where she’s coming from and these connections between her and her half siblings and how she became the person she is. And I think it’s just a different drive for each and every one of us. I’ve kind of been up and down whether I want to meet my donors and my siblings, my brother has never really had a huge urge that I know of to meet his biological relatives versus my little sister seems to have a really large urge to do that. So it’s just so different for each and every one of us. So it’s interesting to see the contrast.

Emily: Yeah. So I’m, I am interested, I went through a formal process of like requesting information for my donor from the clinic and had steps that I could take. And so, it was something that I was able to think about and plan for a number of years and emotionally prepare myself for. When we think about anonymous donors or unknown donors now, you both have the experiences of that no longer necessarily can remain unknown or anonymous anymore. I would love your thoughts on what these DNA testing sites and the new technology that’s out there in these websites. What does that mean for people growing up now? Can anybody truly be an anonymous donor anymore? And is that a good thing?

Lilly: I would say that there was a period of my life where I really hated the fact that I was donor conceived and I was doing all this research, looking into am I like, messed up because I had donor parents or gay moms or whatever. And I started looking at these people who really heavily believe that sperm donation should never be anonymous and that’s something that I stand by today. I’m sure that that opinion will shift a little bit with time, but as of right now I think that you should as a human, have the right to know your roots and know why you are the way you are, what health problems you might have, and just even have the name and a face to put together as opposed to a blank in your life, which is a huge part of your life.

Jamie: So I liked what Emily had to say about that. She had the opportunity to plan for this, to build to this, and you knew that there was an end game. When you turned 18 you had this option. This could be a possibility. I feel like I grew up very differently because I was under the belief that there was no possibility and I had to accept that in order to get through it. And then DNA testing came along and I didn’t really believe that it would make a difference. And I delayed doing it for quite a while because I didn’t want this last possibility to not work out. And so when I did do the testing and decided to go whole hog into it. And I put this weird deadline on myself that I had to contact him before I turned 31 and I did not. I wrote most of my letter on February 5th, the day before my birthday, and then I just couldn’t send it. But DNA testing changed everything for many people. They’re working with second and third cousins and working backwards. And I think that is this level of dedication and perseverance that many of us have had because we continue to think about this for years. I joined every registry I could find as soon as I had a computer that worked to go on the internet and thankfully my mom was very supportive in all of that. I think that there is no future for anonymous donation with the technology that is now in our hands.

Emily: Yeah, it feels like a lot is just changing just from legal protections. I understand the logic for a long time of having anonymous donors was in large part because of that muddy uncertainty around parentage rights and custody rights and as more and more people were using surrogates, egg donors, sperm donors, you know all of that was happening. There was this belief that we have to protect ourselves and so the best way to do that or the quickest way to do that is to say no contact ever period, sign this contract.

Jamie: I think all of that is absolutely true. I think that anonymous donation played a very key part of family building in the eighties and nineties because there were such visible examples of the courts siding against LGBT parents. I have a really close relationship with my mom and I understand why she did it. It was the only option that was feasible at the time. She wishes that she didn’t have to do it. She thinks that she should have made a different choice, but I know it’s the only choice that she had. All I’m saying is that with so many things that have changed like you were pointing out, there is no need for it anymore. That is not to say that people can’t have ID release donors or open donors. I’m specifically talking about 100% anonymous donation with no option to contact in the future.

Emily: Lilly, have you talked with your parents about why they chose or was that the only choice available for them for an anonymous donor? How are those conversations gone, cause I know sometimes those can be kind of tricky to navigate with parents.

Lilly: Unfortunately I really haven’t. I’m not sure the exact motivation for having an anonymous donor. I assume it was probably a convenience or to ensure that it’s the easiest route with legalities and such. I’m not sure how much they considered the long term effects of the anonymity or if it’s even a thought now because there haven’t been enough conversations, unfortunately. I’m sure that’ll change throughout life, but it’s still a very fresh thing to be taking control of my identity as opposed to having everything being done for me. Everything else has been chosen, from the anonymous donor to getting to know my father. It wasn’t me who reached out to my father. It was my mother who was on all these registries. It wasn’t within my grasp. It wasn’t something that I was allowed to try and meet and talk to people. So it’s very fresh and new to be able to take charge of that. And so I’m hoping that there was good motivation, but who knows. I’m going to love my parents no matter what, but maybe there wasn’t enough thought beforehand.

Jamie: I like, and I want to build off of what Lilly was just saying about all of your decisions up to a certain point being made by someone else and I think that that is a huge thing that parents need to think about. They’re not making just a decision about their own parenting future. They’re making decisions about their child’s agency within their own lives in the future.

Emily: I believe that the overwhelming majority of people, when deciding to become parents, from the beginning want the best for their kids. You know, as someone who has a sperm donor and was able to contact him, I’m grateful that I had, as Jamie as you’re saying, that agency and that it was something I was able to decide on and control. I think as much as parents, prospective parents are able to allow that agency and future decision making to be in the hands of their potential offspring, I think that’s fantastic when that option is available and I think that that should be pursued as much as possible. I think it does get really interesting when we think about donor siblings and the more much looser regulations around contacting them prior to turning 18, than say if you had an open identity donor. And similarly if you have a known donor, there’s different ages and different points in one’s life in which your parents kind of make the decision of, where are we going for a play date? You know, what family member we’re going to visit, how often uncle so-and-so’s allowed to visit, things like that. And at what point that decision making should then be into the hands of the queerspawn youth to be determining levels of relationships, types of relationships with donors and especially donor siblings. I think it all gets really complicated and every family is different and every queerspawn is different. But as much as able to be in the informed consensual decision making of the correspond individual, the better.

Jamie: I think that perspective parents need to question themselves a bit about what their motivation is regarding why they’re choosing the type of donor that they’re choosing. And I think if people really interrogate their own motives, we’re going to move away from anonymous donation because I don’t think that any parent wants to take away their kid’s future choice

Emily: As queerspawn, I feel like one of the gifts my parents gave me by being out and choosing to form the family the way that they did is that I have a pretty expansive sense of what is family and who can be family and the role that biology, in my experience, does not play in that, just because of how I was raised. And I think that was a step for them because they were both raised by married heterosexual parents in a nuclear family. That was not their experience. And so creating family in a new expansive way and allowing family to be defined expansively was new. I’m the first generation in my family experiencing that. How do you think being donor conceived has colored your own understanding of family?

Lilly: I think that when you are trying to aim towards this nuclear family as a model of what is good and what is to be aimed for, it’s such a high standard and it really closes you off to the beauty of the people around you that aren’t biologically related to you and I’ve noticed as a correlation that as I began to accept my family for the chaos that it is, that’s when I began to become a good friend and make my friends into family.

Jamie: I don’t necessarily see my donor as part of my family because I’ve never met him. Whether we choose to have that person in our life is different from whether it matters that we know who they are or matters, that we have the choice to find out who they are.

Emily: Any advice for queerspawn listening who are somewhere on their own journeys? Any advice for navigating that journey for themselves?

Lilly: I’d say that it’s really easy to get caught up in the distant what if I find this person, what if I form a connection, this family? with this person that’s so distant and so mysterious to me. And I think it’s easy to get caught up in that and forget about the family that’s supporting you in this moment because they are so much more important than this person who may never be a part of your life is. And as much as much as it will be awesome, potentially, to have a good response from this person and maybe introduce them to your life, the people that are already in your life are the ones who you should be lifting up cause they are lifting you up and that’s the family. Whether it’s biological or whether it’s by association, that’s the family that matters in this moment.

Jamie: My advice would be both for queerspawn and their parents that have used donor conception. I think that it’s really important to start talking about these things. I think transparency is the most beautiful thing that you can bring to your family. We need to be talking about these things as a family and we need to be talking about these things with our parents because oftentimes we try to protect our parents’ feelings because it’s something that we’ve been kind of conditioned to do in order to protect the queer family and it’s absolutely okay for us to be searching if we want to search and not searching if we don’t want to search. And our parents should be our biggest advocates in that they should be advocating for their kids to have agency and teaching their kids to use their agency. Having these discussions from as early in age as possible just brings this into the queerspawn’s story and narrative about themselves and helps them understand their own identities and the things that they’re feeling. And we would love to have somebody to talk to about it who is nonjudgmental, non-shaming and who lets us explore feelings that we’re having.