The syringe and the jam jar: riffing on gay dad donors

This article first appeared in word is out e-journal, no.3, June 2002.There’s been an outbreak of love of late. And surprise, surprise it’s from gay men wanting to be parents. Not gay men still in the closet who marry and have kids because that’s the heteronormative thing to do and there’s nothing like a kid to prove you’re straight. Nor gay men like me who donated as a political act back in the early 1980s to the first out single and coupled lesbians who went about having kids through private gay men donors. No, this group of men actively want to be parents and even go out looking for lesbians who are willing to enter into a wonderfully diverse and subversive range of co-parenting relationships.
What’s going on? That’s the subject of interviews I’ve been doing lately in Sydney for a book I’m writing. Why write a book? In the past years there has been considerable interest in and reportage of lesbians choosing to have children either as single parents or within lesbian partnerships through donor insemination either through clinics or private donors. To meet their interest there have been a number of books and magazines produced, websites, too. Lost in all of this has been the parallel phenomenon, the donor gay men who are choosing to be fathers, either as anonymous donors (increasingly more rarely so) or in a wide range of co-parenting relationships with the lesbian mothers. There are also gay men who like me offer to be donors to single straight women and to straight couples. When these men – the heck with it, when we are talked about in this material, it’s often from the point of view of what the women need to know when choosing a donor. Some gay men I spoke to for my book have accessed this information looking to find answers to the questions that come up for them. Some of have gone to lesbian mothers’ information nights for want of anywhere else to even hear what the questions may be that they ought to be thinking about (and have been ‘cruised’ by the would-be-mothers there on the look-out for a suitable donor for their bub!). Neither source has been fully satisfying for them, not unexpectedly.
Blows against the empire
‘What are we going to do when Uncle Samuel comes around
Asking for the young one’s name.
Looking for the print of their hand
For the files in their numberless games.’
- Jefferson Starship, ‘Blows against the empire’
More recently, we’ve featured in news stories about the new frontier of family law – the existence or otherwise of donor parents rights and responsibilities and the right of the child to information about and contact with the donor parent. Both the New South Wales and Western Australian governments are reported to be considering legislation setting up a donor register with information the child could access, though the terms for this have not been identified.1 These will be for those men who become donors through established IVF programs. While it may make the rights and responsibilities for these men, the position of those of us who choose to donate privately has yet be canvassed within proposed legal reform. There are concerns from some in the reproduction industry that a register may drive away anonymous donors who do not want to be surprised some years down the track by a knock on the door from a child they have never seen or had contact with previously. What would happen to men donating privately if they had to be registered? I would imagine that both the men and the mothers-to-be would be concerned about this unnecessary legal intrusion.
But can regulation of private donoring be far away? The Western Australian government’s Attorney-General has raised the possibility that men who donate sperm allowing single women to give birth could be liable for child support.2 At present, gay men who are donors have a range of agreements with the mothers on financial support. For some of the mothers, it’s clearly beneficial not to have to acknowledge any financial support from the father. Bettina Arndt, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 May 2002, potentially put the matter before the Commonwealth, raising the spectre of lesbian mothers accessing IVF living off Commonwealth child support payments, which Arndt clearly felt they ought not be entitled to. I know of one case at least where a single heterosexual woman with a child by a gay man is very cautious about just who knows that the donor is known to her because she is currently accessing child support. This income would be threatened if the Commonwealth chose to insist that the father, being known, ought to be responsible for some maintenance, a situation neither she nor the gay man want to occur. There is a risk here that women and men who come together only for the purpose of donor insemination may become compelled into obligations that will complicate what was a straightforward and comfortable arrangement.
Finally, in January 2002, the national press reported that a gay man in Melbourne was taking action through the Family Court to be granted visiting rights to a two-year-old boy who was born from his donation to a lesbian couple. In April, the Family Court ruled in his favour. The judge in question, Justice Guest, commented that laws dealing with children born from artificial insemination failed to recognise the diverse ways people form families these days.3 It may not be in the interests of gay male donors and lesbian mothers for these laws to bring their birthing and parenting relationships within the jurisdiction of the family law court.
Banality, babes, and boyness
‘Having babies is banal.’
- Heather Grace Jones, author of Always a part of me, interviewed on JJJ, 8 May 2002
But there’s a bigger social change here than in the formation of families and there are bigger challenges than the merely legal. What has gone un-commented on so far has been the challenge gay male donors are making to constructions of homosexuality and fatherhood. Before I talk about that, though, meet some of these men.
G and A have been together for half a dozen years. They’ve recently had a child with a lesbian couple who they were introduced to specifically so the four of them could have a child in a strictly 50:50 co-parenting relationship that’s been negotiated through a detailed written agreement. They’re already planning how to fit in tuckshop duty. S 1 is a single gay man who has a baby girl born to lesbian mothers in another city. The challenge for him is forming a non-co-parenting relationship but still getting his emotional needs as a father met, needs he had no idea of till he held his daughter for the first time. G and B are a young gay couple who have had a child with a single lesbian. The relationship between the three parents has deepened well past what they had planned, as has the extent of co-parenting between them. B, the non-donor male, had his misgivings initially, but now almost gets more from the relationship with the child than does G. S 2 was second on the list of a lesbian with whom he had once worked, but hadn’t known it. When the first donor left Australia, S half-jokingly offered himself before he could be asked. Now he’s buying a car so he can travel down to Canberra where the child will be living. M and T share a house with the lesbian couple with which they have a child. It’s an upstairs/downstairs thing. They’ve done it before when the men went over to live next door to the women and child in France. There’s J who thought he could remain anonymous from his daughter even while baby-sitting her but couldn’t keep it up as their relationship deepened and he saw more and more of himself in her. From where I stand, these relationships are anything but banal.
The older men among these donors, ones who came out in the early years after Stonewall, generally had given up on fatherhood when they took on their identity as gay men, as had their families. The men and their families constructed their identity within what was offered to them by both heternormativity and by homonormativity, which here came to one of those contradictory conjunctions. Gay men didn’t fuck women, couldn’t love them, didn’t get into long term relationships with them, and certainly didn’t make daddy and mummy families with them, at least, not by any real choice. Bars, beats, dance parties, ecky Tuesday’s – these were not the places where being a father was possible – daddies, yes, but of a different ilk! So, when in their coming out they looked for images of gay men through which to make themselves into gay men, fathers didn’t figure, or if they did, they were closet homosexuals, the somewhat patronised men-who-have-sex-with-men. I remember the stories of social functions where ostensibly heteronormative families would turn up and where, in a queer take on the Aussie party, the boys would go off with the boys, the girls with the girls, poofs and dykes for the day. I mean, who even remembers much that St Oscar was a married man with two boys whom he adored and from whose presence he was forbidden after his prison term, a circumstance that hurt Oscar more than his estrangement from any of his male friends, and certainly from his wife, Constance.
For some, what was foregone was experienced as loss. They didn’t feel broken, or less masculine, but there was a sense that some thing once possible no longer was. This isn’t easily explainable. They are as likely as not to say that the issue of children in their family going on to have children was part of the family story. Where their brother or sisters had children, there was no sense that the eyes of the family began to turn their way for the next progeny. Most of them played the role of uncle and child-minder to their sibling’s children, but they didn’t experience this as somehow being a substitute for having their own children. They did not live their fatherhood through their nephews and nieces. But something was still lost, at least regretted. When they began to think about being fathers later, it was in some sense liberating, another kind of coming out.
The revenge of the selfish gene
‘There comes a time when a man asks himself “Who will float my corpse down the Ganges?”‘
- Apu Nahasapataleema, The Simpsons
Other men I’ve spoken to never gave up on the possibility that they may have children. Either way, what strikes me here is that these men confound the expectations of those who want to hold that fatherhood is entirely socially constructed. More so, when you find that there isn’t a correlation between what the view of their family of origin was about having children and how the men feel about having children. And even more so when those who enter into the donoring without any sense of investment find themselves becoming increasingly invested in the outcome of the pregnancy to the extent that they say everything changes the first time they hold the child.
What changes is that what was an abstract child has become their child. They don’t feel that they have now satisfied family hopes; there is no sense in which this is a rapprochement in a never quite settled dispute. This is a relationship that is uniquely theirs. They now begin to look for a future with the child; they express hopes for the child; they pine when they are separated from the child; they send photos of the child to friends. Do they care if the child ends up gay or lesbian? Not at all, either pro or con. Often they say they are determined not to reproduce for this child the kinds of childhoods and adolescence they had. They want to be open to whatever their child experiences and becomes and to raise their child to do the same.
For some, the connection to the child begins even earlier. These are the men who accompany the mothers to birthing classes and who will be at the birth, if not in the room, then certainly in the ward or birthing centre. They listen to the heartbeat in the womb. They place their hand on the mother’s stomach to feel the child kicking. They become more physically and emotionally attached to a woman than they have in years. Who would have thought that the frontline of coalitionism would end up with a gay man nervously jerking off in one room, while a lesbian waits patiently for his sperm in another.
Many donors worry at times that the amount of semen in the bottom of the jam jar looks distressingly less than it will take to achieve the pregnancy. (You get nervous laughs when you talk about comparisons to the free flowing ejaculant of porn videos.) All of us can’t believe that straight teenagers go out there and knock each other up on the first date and we fags and dykes spend days of careful charting on the one hand and going days without sex on the other and still it can take months before it ‘takes’. Some even are disappointed when the first donations aren’t successful.
That this bond can be strong is demonstrated by the reaction of one of the men to the failure of the attempt entirely. He and the women have spent more than a year trying. They jointly decided to call it off. He, as much as the women, felt the kind of loss that infertile women report. The feelings were so strong that they held a commemorative dinner to mark the end. When he talks about it now, there is a strong sense of loss again.
It’s enough to have a neo-biodeterminist and selfish gene-ie like me cheering. I haven’t yet seen any studies of hormonal changes that happen in men when they have a child, but I’d bet something does physically change. There are interesting studies that show that a heterosexual male levels of testosterone drop when he enters into a stable relationship with a women. It’s posited that this is because he no longer needs to be pumped up to attract a mate through which to produce progeny. Testosterone levels increase if he separates from the woman partner. It would be fascinating the trace testosterone levels in gay men who enter into parenting relationships with women.
Or are these men just reverting to latent and deeply ingrained socially inscribed patterns of behaviour. That they do not then feel the need to reproduce the rest of the heteronormative pattern argues against this, it seems to me. Yes, a need for contact does come up and can superficially seem no different to separated fathers. But the children of these relationships were not born as part of consolidating or validating the relationship as they inevitable are in heterosexual marriages and partnerships. So, the contact issue has nothing of the emotional baggage of heterosexual positioning of the child as a chip in a game of guilt, blaming and control between its parents.
Boys and the band
In October 2001, two gay men and two lesbians announced the birth of their boy child in the Sydney gay community newspaper, the Sydney Star Observer. The display ad (featuring a cute cartoon of a baby) was placed by the paper next to ads for a funeral home, skin care supplements for men (featuring a cartoon of a naked man with lumberjack boots, peaked leather cap and a small towel placed across his arse) and a photography studio specializing in ‘acting & modeling portfolios and fine art portraits’ (read photos for personals).
The other element missing here is the peer pressure of the father’s male friends to assert his rights within the relationship and so over the child. When asked what the response has been of their gay male friends, the men say that while there is for some of their friends an initial camp response that plays with stereotypically misogynist disgust by men for women’s bodies, the deeper response if one of support and happiness for the donor gay man. But this is different again to the kind of anti woman-partner (anti-woman generally) support that sometimes characterises the support that separated fathers get from their male friends, family and other separated fathers. You won’t see these gay donors joining up to a men’s rights group or taking a shot at the mother of their child outside the family court.
The point in all of this is that the investment of the donor gay man in the child is fundamentally different because the relationships through which the conception, pregnancy and parenting is fundamentally different. They are relationships constructed against those constructed within heteronormativity. This is most clearly evident when these men say that the future of the relationship is in the long term in the hands of the child. They place the child at the centre and are adamant that it is the child’s needs that they will respond to, and that they hope and expect the mother will also respond to. Where they enter into written contracts, this positioning is spelt out in the contract. Where they don’t, they say that there is a verbal agreement with the mothers that both parties will honour this approach. They can say this because there is nothing they have to live up to, or prove, through their relationship to the child as there is in the case of the heterosexual parent, donor or otherwise.
Corny as it is, that’s why I started this article by using the ‘l’ word. What these gay male donors experience is love in the total ga-ga sense that’s beyond the kind of rational analysis we queers are used to bringing to bear on other constructions of a heteronormative world. The question is, how will we protect this new feeling against the legal, health and other discourses ever eager to find new bodies and new selves to inscribe.
1. Geese Jacobsen, ‘Donor dads step out of the shadows’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 2001, p.6.
2. Julie Butler, ‘Sperm donor payout risk’, West Australian, 4 February 2002, p.3.
3. Gabrielle Costs, ‘Gay sperm donor wins right to child access’, Sydney Morning Herald, weekend edn, 6-7 April 2002, p.5.
Copyright (C) 2002 Paul van Reyk

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