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Donor 336

by Kira Findling

An essay from the Fall 2017 issue.

by Kira Findling | Voices | Fall 2017

Image by Patrice DiChristina

On a summer day in 1992, my moms, Heidi and Rhonda, went on their first date. That afternoon of canoeing—encouraged by mutual friends—led to many more adventures. They soon moved in together and met each other’s families. After a few years and many discussions, they decided to have kids. There were two options open to them: adoption or donor insemination. Heidi had always known that she wanted to be pregnant, so they chose donor insemination. That decision led to the growth of our family in a way my moms never could have predicted.

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Donor insemination—also known as artificial insemination—refers to the insertion of a sperm sample into the uterus by methods other than sexual intercourse. The process is used by couples and individuals of all sexual orientations and backgrounds in situations in which viable sperm isn’t present or available. A sperm donor can be a parent’s friend or sibling, or can be an anonymous individual from a sperm bank. Insemination often takes place in a doctor’s office, though it can also be done at home. Many families get their sperm from the same donor, producing biological half-siblings.

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When my mothers decided to have a child over twenty years ago, donor insemination was just starting to be normalized in the medical field. In his book Radical Relations, Daniel Winuwe Rivers writes that some lesbian couples, as members of grassroots networks of support, began having children through donors in the mid-seventies. Many used friends who were willing to have relationships with the children, but some found men who preferred to donate anonymously.

The eighties saw the beginning of the LGBTQ baby boom, which led to my birth in 1997. Though more lesbians were getting pregnant through insemination, they faced constant discrimination. Rivers writes that sperm banks and doctors often refused to help single women or lesbians, leaving women with few options but to inseminate independently at home using friends’ sperm. By the nineties, lesbians were meeting with less resistance from medical professionals, yet continued to lack full institutional support. The process was expensive, making donor insemination (like adoption) accessible only to those with financial privilege. My parents believe that using donor insemination to conceive me—including sperm, medical appointments, storage, and intake fees—cost them about $2,500. But they believed that the financial strain was worth it in order to have a baby together.

My parents knew a few people who had used donor insemination, including Rhonda’s sister, but it was far from common. They had to navigate the process without much outside help or advice. For example, Heidi needed to track her ovulation to ensure that the insemination was effective, and was largely uninformed about how to do so. Though my moms inseminated both at the sperm bank and at home while trying to conceive me, they went to a local hospital to conceive my sister, Sonia, a few years later. There, they could tell that the technicians hadn’t done inseminations too many times before. Heidi told me, “The fertility thing— gay, straight, whatever—has taken off since then.” My parents were part of a new frontier in assisted reproduction.

Finding a donor from a sperm bank wasn’t their first choice. The initial plan was to have a child that biologically represented both my mothers. Rhonda has two brothers, both of whom donated sperm to my moms at different times. I often wonder who I would be and how our extended family dynamics would change if one of my uncles was also my biological father. But that didn’t happen: Heidi didn’t get pregnant from either of my uncles’ sperm, so she and Rhonda turned to Pacific Reproductive Services, a lesbian-founded sperm bank in San Francisco about an hour south of our home in Sebastopol, California.

Picking a donor is kind of like online dating. In 1996, potential customers could send away for packets of information about various donors across the country. These days, a quick search on Pacific Reproductive Services’ website shows you quite a bit more: For a few bucks, you can be seeing a baby photo or video interview of the donor in a couple of days. But back then, all my moms could go on was a few handwritten sheets of paper.

The pages of my donor’s profile are thin and worn after two decades, but I have all the information memorized. Like me, Donor 336 has brown hair and brown eyes. One of his goals in life is to fall in love. Until I was eighteen, I knew his favorite foods, his medical history, and his hobbies, but I couldn’t picture his face. My sister and I used to wonder if he was famous, and would find ourselves in the faces of male celebrities on magazine covers, wondering if any were Donor 336.

Some people try to pick a donor that shares physical characteristics with the non-biological mother, but my parents didn’t focus on that. They liked lots of things about Donor 336: he played violin and was very musical, he liked to write, and he was half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazi (two different Jewish ethnic groups). The most important factor for them was that he was Jewish, not necessarily in terms of his religion, but rather his ancestral background, because being culturally and ethnically Jewish is an essential part of Rhonda’s identity. His one downfall was his athletic ability, which he called “negligible.” Rhonda is an avid athlete, so that was unfortunate. But what could they do? Heidi remembered, laughing, “He seemed like a good guy… and he was Jewish! So I was like, ‘Sure, what the hell? Okay!’”

Art by Rachel Weinstein

My moms didn’t hesitate in their decision to use a known donor, meaning a donor that agrees to have contact with offspring once they become adults. Pacific Reproductive Services makes its commitment to known donors a cornerstone of its mission, but can’t legally require our donor to meet us. They do, however, promise to release identifying information about the donor to offspring once they reach legal adulthood. Since turning eighteen, I have learned my donor’s name and seen photographs of him. His face is familiar, sharing characteristics with mine. It feels right to be able to picture him, to have a better sense of the way he moves through the world. I learned that he won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, which was a striking discovery, considering that I want to be a journalist. After a quick search online, I was happy about how much he fit my imagined version of him, though it remains to be seen what he’s like in person.

***

A lot of people think of donor insemination as the Wild West of genetics, with a single donor having hundreds of children, all of whom want something from him as soon as they turn eighteen. Hollywood contributes to this myth. Delivery Man (2013) centers around a clueless donor with over 500 needy offspring, and completely ignores the people who raised them. The Kids Are All Right (2010) features a donor who has an affair with a woman who conceived using his sperm, wreaking havoc on her family in the process. My experience doesn’t mirror any of these media representations—being a donor kid has been much more joyful and normal than those movies make it out to be.

There are few common conventions about the language of donor insemination, but as a donor-conceived person, the words I use are incredibly personal and carefully chosen. For example, rather than using the word “offspring” to describe myself, I prefer “donor-conceived person” or, like my sister says, “donor kid.” Additionally, while some people refer to their sperm donors as their “fathers,” not all donors are cisgender men. Anyone who produces sperm can donate it. I feel uncomfortable calling Donor 336 my father, since I have little connection to him beyond genetics and don’t consider him one of my parents. Whenever possible, I call him “the donor,” only using “biological father” when people don’t understand the situation.

My sister and I always knew that we had a donor; my parents never hid our history. Sometimes as a little kid, frustrated at my parents for making me go to bed or refusing my request for a new toy, I’d grumble, “I’m going to live with the donor!” My parents would chuckle as I’d stomp my feet, whining, “He wouldn’t make me go to bed so early!” 

That being said, I have two loving and attentive parents. Though I have a strong desire to meet the donor, I never felt that there was anything missing in my life. As important as the donor has been in creating us, he isn’t a daily concern for the donor siblings. Sonia summed it up well when she said, “It’s just part of my life.”

Each of the donor’s offspring gets one chance to contact him; I haven’t used mine yet, having heard from others that he isn’t interested in a relationship with us right now. Rhonda feels deeply disappointed by this news, and emphasizes how important it is to her that we get a chance to meet him. But right now, for me, it’s enough to see photographs and recognize my face in his. Sonia told me, “I definitely would like to meet him at some point, but I only want to if he wants to too. I don’t want it to be forced.” I agree. I feel lucky to have found a family in my donor siblings, who fill my desire to connect with the donor side of my history.

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No laws or rules exist that restrict contact between donor siblings, but until recently, there were few ways to find each other. My donor sibling story begins with a stroke of luck.

The Bay Area lesbian community is tight-knit. Everyone’s an ex or a friend of a friend. When I was six months old, my parents’ friends ran into a couple at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco who had used a donor to conceive their son. After a discussion about their sperm bank and the donor’s characteristics, my parents’ friends were certain that the couple—two Jewish lawyers from Berkeley—had used the same donor as my moms.

Two weeks later, my moms went to visit my grandparents. They showed me off to a fawning neighbor, an older woman they had known for years. The conversation turned to adoption, a lengthy and stressful process for lesbian parents like Rhonda, who had to adopt me in order to become my legal guardian.

When I was born, Heidi was my sole legal parent. Rhonda applied for an independent adoption in order to become my other guardian. Since my parents couldn’t marry, Rhonda had to undergo the adoption process as if she were adopting as a stranger to Heidi and me. It was crucial to get it done quickly after my birth. Heidi knew that until I was adopted by Rhonda, her parents would get custody of me if something happened to her. “In the eyes of the law, [Rhonda] was not in this picture,” she said. “It felt like us against the world. We needed to get this together and make sure this all worked. You had to be very careful.” Because I had no legal father, Rhonda could become my second parent if she was approved for adoption. A few weeks after my birth, a social worker came to our house to observe Rhonda, who also had to submit four letters of recommendation and significant personal information. She said that the process felt like an expensive “rip-off” with very high stakes, and an invasion into her personal life. Her lesbian friends who were already parents—a chosen family of sorts—were instrumental in helping her through the process and giving her hope that it would work out.

After the entire process, the social worker recommended against the adoption because my parents weren’t a married heterosexual couple. My parents still have a copy of her letter, which states that though Rhonda appeared to be a suitable parent, “the California Department of Social Services does not believe that this adoption is in the best interest of the child and recommends denial of the petition because the prospective adoptive parent and birth mother are not married to each other.” My mothers went to court, where a judge overturned the social worker’s ruling, allowing Rhonda to adopt me. In our liberal pocket of California, this was a common occurrence, but in other parts of the country, judges often held up the denial of parental rights. In my baby book, there’s a picture of us with the judge. My parents, nervous but relieved, clutch me tightly. I’m oblivious, never doubting for a second that these are my moms.

At the time, the Department of Social Services didn’t allow for second-parent adoption, a simpler administrative process in which Rhonda could pay a sum and become my legal guardian. That procedure was not affirmed by the California courts until 2003, long after my sister and I were born. Without their educational and financial privilege, my mothers may not have been able to complete the independent adoption in 1997, or even conceive me through donor insemination in the first place.

One of the most important effects of the legalization of gay marriage in the US has been on LGBTQ families who want to adopt children. Heidi sees marriage as having “legitimized our role as parents with kids,” because it has institutionalized and simplified second-parent adoption. While being married does not mean that someone automatically gets custody of their spouse’s kids, marriage makes it easier to adopt a kid through the second-parent adoption process.

At my grandparents’ house, my moms explained to the neighbor that they were going through the adoption process without legal help. The neighbor exclaimed that her niece and her partner were lawyers in Berkeley and could help with the process. Her curiosity piqued, Rhonda asked whether her nieces had used a sperm donor—they had. Within a few minutes, they were calling the woman’s nieces, almost certain that they were the women from Rainbow Grocery. When they picked up, Rhonda asked, “Does the number 336 mean anything to you?” We had found my first donor sibling, Kobi. After my moms had Sonia in 2000, they sold the extra frozen sperm for cheap to Kobi’s moms so that they could have his sibling, Tris.

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But since these happy accidents don’t happen to everyone, an online community was created to facilitate relationships between donor siblings. Wendy Kramer and her son Ryan founded the Donor-Sibling Registry (DSR) in September 2000 in order to meet others who had been conceived using donor insemination. Starting as a small Yahoo! group, the DSR had its own website by 2003, and has grown to serve over 50,000 individuals today, from donors to parents to offspring. Individuals can post on a message board linked to their donor number, which can be found by other offspring and their families.

When someone told our family about the registry, we made an account right away. It was 2009: I was eleven years old and Sonia was nine. My family gathered around the computer, entered the donor number, and let out a collective shriek. In addition to Kobi and Tris, Sonia and I had a half-brother, Jakob, who lived in Germany. We then connected with Lou, who lived in Rhode Island and was just six months older than me.

Rhonda remembered, “I was at work when Gina [Lou’s mom] sent me a picture of Lou with a horse. And I fell out of my chair. I showed it to a co-worker and she was like, ‘Oh, that’s Kira,’ and I was like, ‘No, that’s her half-sibling!’” In the first email they sent me, Lou told me they loved acting and hated their middle school classmates’ obsession with popularity. I was a nerdy sixth-grader in love with Broadway, so I knew we would hit it off. Since Lou lived across the country, G-Chat became our primary mode of communication. We sent each other chain emails and gossip about our crushes, never going more than a few days without talking. Though we had met through our mothers, our friendship soon became ours alone. Finally there was someone my age I could trust with my full self. When I traveled to Rhode Island for their bat mitzvah in 2010, their classmates called us half-twins, since we looked so similar. It did feel a bit like finding a long-lost twin.

In the following years, we met Marc from New Hampshire and Sam from Marin County, California, bringing the total number of donor siblings to eight. At the time of my conception, Pacific Reproductive Services allowed each donor’s sperm to be used by ten families, each of which can have multiple children (it now allows for fifteen families). So far, we know of six families—including my own—that used Donor 336, leaving open the possibility that there are several more half-siblings to be found.

To describe this part of my family, I choose to use the terms half-siblings and donor siblings interchangeably. My donor siblings share half of my genetics, and though my relationship with them is very different than my relationship with the fully biological sister I grew up with, I like to use a word that represents our genetic connection. There’s a wide range of relationship dynamics between us—some of my donor siblings have never met each other, while others keep in touch regularly. But regardless of our individual relationships, there’s an understanding that we’re family, even if we don’t see each other very often.

Because some of my donor siblings’ families are Jewish, we get to see each other at bar and bat mitzvahs. At Sonia’s bat mitzvah in 2013, six of the eight donor siblings reunited and took a group photo, which has been examined time and time again for evidence of the visual similarities between us. Everyone has a different opinion on who looks alike. Rhonda always comments on our “infamous chins,” as Sonia likes to call them, and our dimples. Some of us look very similar, while others share just a little resemblance. Like Tris said, “It’s always cool and weird to see parts of your face on someone else.”

But we’re alike in more than just our looks. For example, none of us are very athletic except for Sam. Instead, we share a connection to the performing arts and a deep curiosity about the world. I’ve found my donor siblings to be intelligent, thoughtful, and inquisitive without exception.

***

My donor siblings were all raised by queer women and our relationships have been enriched by our similar upbringings. Though I was born at a time when more youth than ever had sperm donors and openly LGBTQ parents, I didn’t know many other kids with similar experiences when I was young. My moms read me Lesleá Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, a children’s book about donor insemination, over and over, but it was the only one on that topic. I felt different from my peers at school, very few of whom had openly LGBTQ parents.

Though we live in a fairly progressive area of Northern California, my family faces discrimination for being different. Heidi is still in the closet at the elementary school where she works and has to choose her words carefully when talking about her family. She told me, “We walk around the world totally conscious of this all the time. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about it.” From their experiences with assisted reproduction to adoption to raising their children, LGBTQ parents are regulated in a way that heterosexual parents aren’t. Since my birth, the idea of homosexuality has become less foreign to people in the United States, but my moms’ lived experiences haven’t changed much. They rarely feel comfortable holding hands as they walk down the street. Many people are hesitant to engage with LGBTQ families and don’t understand how a two-mom family works. Even today, I rarely meet people who can relate to my experience as the child of lesbian parents.

Thankfully, my mothers have found LGBTQ spaces and communities for our family. Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by incredible queer women who weren’t able to express themselves fully growing up, and therefore built a community as adults in which they felt free and understood. LGBTQ people often surround themselves with chosen families in this way. Sometimes in these situations, friends become family when a person is rejected by their relatives based on their gender identity or sexuality. But even when LGBTQ people are accepted by their families, chosen family can offer a community in which they don’t have to hide anything or be less vibrant versions of themselves. Personally, since coming to college, I have found a queer chosen family where I can express my identity fully and without fear.

But my donor siblings are perhaps the most important chosen family in my life. I spent years searching and hoping to find them. Like Lou said, “It felt like nobody understood how it felt to be me and be in my kind of family as completely and precisely as my donor siblings.” While our genetic relationships matter, what has been most poignant is having peers who understand what it’s like to inhabit the world through my identities as a donor kid and the child of lesbian parents. My donor siblings and I don’t have an obligation to each other, but I choose to prioritize them. We choose each other as family by continually making each other important in our lives.

My half-siblings connect me to the donor, making it less urgent for me to meet him. They give me more opportunities to see myself biologically in others, especially since I don’t have any genetic first cousins. As Heidi said, “It’s a way for you guys to make [something] physically real that’s inside of you, that you couldn’t otherwise see.” Knowing my donor siblings doesn’t take away from my connection with my non-biological mother and extended family; it simply gives me more of a community.

In a new young-adult novel about donor siblings, Natasha Friend’s The Other F-Word, the main character imagines her donor siblings beside her when she feels alone at school. They’re a group of people her age who love her and will look out for her. She imagines them “walking down the hall with her—all in a row […] taking up all the space in the world.” Thinking of my donor siblings by my side comforts me too. Knowing that they’re only a call or text away brings me peace.

In using donor insemination to conceive me, my mothers created a family that they never could have imagined. Kobi said that the experience has made him realize that “life isn’t always going to be exactly what you expect it to be. […] I could have a sibling I don’t know in Rhode Island and a brother I don’t know in Germany.” Finding new donor siblings doesn’t seem as outlandish as it once did, yet it will never stop surprising me. It will always feel magical, because these are relationships that, until recently, were impossible. Regardless of whether strangers and the law consider us legitimate, my donor siblings and I know that we are family. We are part of a new generation of people who understand family to be limitless and constantly evolving.