MIT Panel Discussion

Plural Perspectives on Lesbian Artificial Insemination

March 14, 2003

I am very honored to be here with Amy Agigian and my long-time idol, Mary Bonauto. And I am even more delighted that people here at MIT organized an event to explore this particular subject. I have been living closely with lesbian artificial insemination and the parenting experiences that ensue from those inseminations on both personal and professional levels since 1990. For 7 years I coordinated the AI Program at Fenway Community Health Center which is an LGBT identified community health center just over the bridge from here. While coordinating the AI Program I participated rather directly in between 1 and 12 home-based or in-office inseminations of each of over 400 lesbian singles and couples. Since 1997 I founded and now direct Alternative Family Matters whose mission is 4-fold:

  • To help (LGBT) individuals and couples nationwide to clarify and realize their ambitions to create families with children;
  • To promote a thriving community of LGBT parents and their families by developing new models of family and community life in the Greater Boston area;
  • To advocate for the legal rights and social recognition of LGBT families.
  • To generate cutting edge analysis of and strategies for addressing the issues and concerns of LGBT parents, prospective parents, and their children.Bruno Bett

AI Options

I’ll set the stage of this discussion by very simply clarifying the particular variations of lesbian artificial insemination. Each of these insemination options carries specific issues and circumstances for parents and children which, among the 3 of us, will be, at least in part, addressed today.

  1. anonymous donor from sperm bank
  2. anonymous ID release donor from sperm bank
  3. known donor with varying levels of involvement
  4. IVF and etc. for fertility purposes
  5. IFV for gestational surrogacy

I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk, not about the how-to’s of lesbian artificial insemination, and not about the legal implications, which I will leave to the expert we have here. I want to take this opportunity to talk about the profound social implications of lesbian Artificial Insemination for the millions of children who have emerged from it over the past 20 years, about the very distressing level of community-wide denial of these implications, and about a variety of viable strategies lesbian mothers could employ to address these issues.

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A therapist friend of mine, Stephen Harrington, helped me name a syndrome of sorts that has become increasingly pronounced as the lesbian baby boom has progressed. He described it as “reaction formation” which is defined as a psychological mechanism of defense in which a feeling or idea is countered by an opposite feeling or idea. Forming one’s views in reaction to or to avoid uncomfortable feelings and ideas. While reaction formation generally refers to an individual’s response, I use the term to describe a phenomenon in GLBT families where parents protect themselves from or avoid the threatening reality that their kids' lives may not be "normal." Or that their families may require some special efforts to sustain themselves. The underlying fear is that their kids have particular needs related to their parents being gay. It goes something like this.

Lesbian mothers battle a barrage of disparaging public sentiment and comment about how bad our families are for our children. We hear that non-bio moms are not really moms, that every child should have a mother and a father, and that having a donor rather than a father is a horrible thing to do to a child. Our reaction to these allegations is to dismiss them out of hand by saying that they are completely baseless, that there is no difference between a bio and a non-bio mom, that a child does not have to have a mother and a father, and that our children feel fine about having a donor rather than a dad as long as they have a parent or parents who love and care for them.


Many lesbian mothers need to convince themselves, over and over, that their kids don't have any particular needs as kids of a GLBT family. The kids pick up the need to support the parents' denial and end up in a conflict between their personal experience in the world and the need to support the vision of the "normal" family life their parents insist they are living. Parents tend to exaggerate or overemphasize the aspects of their lives that conform to the vision of normalcy and minimize any questions/fears or indications of their unique situation.

By reacting to these issues in this manner we perpetuate a black and white approach to complicated issues, thereby missing the opportunity to develop exciting strategies for addressing them, and even worst, we ignore the very real and often painful realities of our children’s lives because we don’t want to validate the uniformed, alarmist, and overstated opinions of homophobes.

For example: When a lesbian couple has a child using AI via a sperm bank our families indisputably differ from most straight families because there will be 1. a biological and a non-biological parent, 2. there will be two same-sex parents, 3. there will be no opposite sex parents, 4. and there will be an anonymous donor.

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Bio and Non-bio Moms

This bio-non-bio mom issue is one of the least discussed and most obvious issues involved in lesbian AI. When I sent out a letter inviting non-bio moms to a discussion about being non-bio moms (of children conceived by their partners) one parent wrote to me saying that my use of the terms bio and non-bio moms was divisive and unnecessarily focuses on the biological origins of the child.

In fact, many bio and non-bio moms are virtually indistinguishable to their children and to each other, especially by the time a child goes to school, particularly if they are able to equalize their legal status with second parent adoption. But the legal, non-bio mom who cannot feed, comfort, or put her infant to bed because her baby will only nurse and refuses a bottle, can be understandably distraught. (Interject about calls from non-bio moms who feel terrible and rejected by their children, trouble bonding with their children, etc) There are some very interesting and worthwhile tools and strategies for dealing with these issues, but if we don’t acknowledge that the issues exist, we can’t do much about them. For example:

  • nursing for non-bio moms,
  • importance of introducing bottle,
  • supplemental nursing,

(Possibly mention my experience with nursing)

My other concern about the bio-non-bio mom situation is that quite often, when only one member of a couple, in this case the bio-mom, is able to assuage the discomfort of a baby or toddler, increased stress and resentment accumulates between the couple, even though bio moms often collude in their children’s dependence on them, or a sense of individual ownership on the part or the bio mom. This can become a deleterious and self-perpetuating dynamic in the family in which non-bio moms feel increasingly left out. Sometimes disparate levels and types of parental involvement work fine when couples prefer, acknowledge, and agree to such an arrangement explicitly. But the place where this resentment or lopsidedness often gets played out is when? When the couple breaks up and the bio-mom claims the she has always been the REAL parent. In these cases 2nd parent adoption is crucial because it affords non-bio moms the legal status to prevent them from getting cut completely out of their children’s lives. But 2nd parent adoption does not give them the interpersonal parental status within their family to share equally in parenting when lesbian mothers break up.

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Here again, if we acknowledged this issue, we would have short term discussion and support groups for non-bio moms where we could discuss, compare notes, share strategies, validate our experiences, and identify ways to prevent this issue from undermining the families we have fought so hard to create in the first place.

Having 2 Same-sex Parents and No Opposite-sex Parent

Another Lesbian AI related issue we don’t honor is that some children really miss having a guy in their lives. The son or daughter of lesbian moms who really wants and or would benefit from having a man in his or her life, has a legitimate desire. This is the case for just as many girl children of lesbian mothers, as for boys. This desire or missing piece in a child’s life is rarely a dire crises, but neither is it a non-issue to be ignored or minimized by lesbian moms who, in any other area of their child’s life, would do everything possible to meet their child’s needs and maximize their potential. Aunts and Uncles Program.

1 and 2. Anonymous and Anonymous ID Release Donor

Lesbians have had a tremendous impact on the evolution of the donor insemination industry by demanding that more information be available to recipients and their children about anonymous donors from sperm banks. In the early days of DI users had little to no information about their donor, much less a choice about which donor they would use. Like adoption, DI was a vague and murky secret, maintained to protect the identity of the biological father and assuage infertile fathers-to-be seeking to minimize the significance of their missed biological connection to their children. In her book Helping the Stork, Carol Frost Vercollone says, “ Lesbian were among the first to question DI practices offering little or no donor information and to request that banks set up identity-release options for donors willing to someday be contacted by adult children.”

Today, in addition to the availability of detailed donor profiles containing 3-generation medical histories, essays written by the donors about why they cholse to be donors, messages to their offspring, etc. There are 2 banks that arrange for the donor to be identified to the child when she/he turns 18, some banks offer audio or video tapes of the donor, photographs and essays. The world’s only feminist, not-for-profit sperm bank, The Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley, CA was the first and still one of the few banks with ID release donors.

The main issue with the use of anonymous donors has always been: How will it be for a child never to know her/his biological father? This concern has been repeatedly articulated by adoptees who don’t want their struggles with closed adoption records to become the birthright of children of the lesbian baby boom.

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In actuality, many DI offspring have very little curiosity or concern about a biological father that is a non-entity in their lives. They say that they don’t miss having something they never had in the first place, and that their two moms are all the parents they need. The fact that lesbian moms tell their children frankly, but age-appropriately, about the nature of their conception early on in their lives, eliminates negative feelings born of secrecy or misleading the child. On the other hand, some children are almost obsessed with the daddy question from a very early age are experience a persistent and unabating curiosity about their donor, inherited physical traits, or other characteristics.

The issue for lesbians considering anonymous donor insemination is that one cannot know in advance which way their child will feel. In making the known vs anonymous donor decision, I used to feel that prospective lesbian mothers could only do what they were most comfortable doing and then be prepared to explain to the child why they had them the way they did, and help their child through whatever daddy/donor-related feelings they may or may not have over the years. The more I talk to these children and the more research I read about children conceived through anonymous donor insemination, the more I’ve changed my thinking about this. Bill Cordray, a national and international advocate for children conceived through anonymous DI believes that DI should be approached like open adoptions. Ideally, he says there should be no anonymous donor insemination_ that every DI offspring should have access to extensive information about their donor, and some access to the donor as well. Conceived through anonymous DI himself, Cordray says, “ I don’t believe that people realize the depth of our loss.”

One other thing I want to mention about anonymous donor insemination is that since sperm banks now ship frozen specimens overnight in portable tanks of liquid nitrogen, women everywhere have access to this basic technology, even if they don’t live in proximity to a sperm bank. They must, however, have a medical provider willing to authorize their access to the sperm bank. This patriarchal gate-keeping poses a challenge to lesbians in conservative communities where doctors are unwilling to help lesbians have children. Given that most lesbians can impregnate themselves with frozen sperm via home insemination, and given that no one has caused themselves bodily harm from a home insemination with sperm from a sperm bank, it is odd that doctors have ended up in the position of determining who can and cannot bear children by determining who can have access to sperm.

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3. The Known Donor

Co-parenting continues to be a commitment most lesbians make only with their same-sex spouse. However as we move into the third decade of alternative family planning, more lesbians are having children through AI with gay men employing widely varying levels and kinds of involvement with the children. Generally in these situations the mom(s) is(are) the primary parent(s)with the men having frequent or infrequent visits with the children, but as you can see, an infinite variety of arrangements are possible. In my situation…

Personally and professionally, I welcome some people’s questioning of the security and functionality of the 2-parent nuclear family and our stubborn allegiance to the only-spouses-can-co-parent model. Limiting our vision to a 2-parent nuclear model is not necessarily an optimal arrangement, particularly when both parents work full time, don’t have easy access to close family/friends who can readily take care of the children overnight or on weekends, and are struggling to keep up financially, socially, politically, sexually, or otherwise.

Certainly, most gay and straight parents raise their children this way. But, it takes a tremendous toll on the parents individually and as a couple. Most parents are perpetually exhausted, feel frazzled and torn in a million directions, and have given up most of the involvements and pastimes they enjoyed prior to having kids. Most haven’t had a night, Sunday morning, weekend, much less a few days to themselves since their children were born.

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The Christian Coalition type folks would have us believe that raising children requires total self-sacrifice. I personally don’t believe that we need to buy this line, hook and sinker. If one shares some level of parenting with a trusted, respected person (people) outside the spousal unit, one has built-in time off from parenting. Honestly, how many parents would not relish this opportunity and how many children would not benefit from having an expanded number of consistent, reliable familial grown-ups to love and care for them? I believe LGBT parents and prospective parents have minimized the importance (I would say necessity), legitimacy, and feasibility of parenting with built-in child-free time, or part-time parenting.

Obviously, sharing some level of parenting with a non-spouse is a life-long commitment, which we are unaccustomed to making. It is complicated, requires genuine mutual respect, some level of shared values, and the willingness and ability to process, solve problems creatively, and trust. But it could be considerably less problematic than the necessary follow-through on that life-long co-parenting commitment in a spousal relationship that falls apart. Twenty years into the “lesbian baby boom,” whether we are parents, prospective parents, or related professionals, I believe that we must declare unequivocally that heterosexual parenting and the heterosexual nuclear family model need not be the standard by which lesbian mothers plan and conduct our families.

4. Infertility Treatments

Because a substantial majority of out lesbians postpone childbearing until they are in their late 30’s and early 40’s, diminished fertility can be a major problem requiring medical intervention. While access to reproductive assistance has improved enormously LGBT’s from all over the U.S. and abroad come to a few majorAmerican cities because willing providers are still not available in most places. Only a tiny handful of providers nationwide will inseminate a woman with sperm from a known but unrelated man, and the FDA seems hell-bent on making it even more impossible than it currently is for gay men to get their sperm tested and frozen. Where there are facilities willing to work with us, medical staff members’ disdain for, discomfort, or lack of familiarity with us is often obvious in the care we receive.

A major issue for lesbians engaged in infertility treatments is how far to go with treatment and when to stop.

5. IVF for Gestational Surrogacy

Over the years, I’ve received numerous emails from prospective lesbian looking for a way for each of them to have a biological connection to the child. Contrary to periodic rumors, scientists have not yet found a way to derive a human baby by combining 2 women’s eggs. The closest women can get to this goal is to harvest eggs from one woman, fertilize them in vitro, generally using sperm from an anonymous donor, and attempt to implant them in the other woman’s womb.

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The increasing use of this rather extreme elective technology reflects intense conflict in the lesbian community about the importance of biology. Regarding adoption and the relationships between children and their non-biological parents we say that the biological connection is irrelevant. On the other hand we go to incredible lengths have one. I realize that these are individual choices reflecting the parent’s needs more than the children’s and I appreciate that in many parts of the country, gay people have the right (if they have the means) to chose how they will become parents.

Like most new drugs, the long term side effects of fertility drugs are not definitively known and the short term side effects are tolerable and not experienced by every one who uses them*. I wonder though, if women who undergo these hi-tech procedures are in some level of denial about the health risks involved in taking such heavy-duty drugs in order to have the biological connection. In addition, I question why that biological connection is important enough to justify the risks?

Women who elect to use hi-tech assisted reproduction to attain the biological connection say that it will enable both moms to feel more emotionally connected to the baby, share more mutually in the pregnancy, and be legitimately recognized by unsupportive family members or judges as “the real mom”. (mention article in the paper about the NJ women getting both of their names on the birth certificate) Given the extreme measures required by these contrived connections, it might be cheaper**, healthier, and fare less invasive to engage in some dialogue about other ways in which non-bio moms have come to terms with “the real mom” issue.

*Some side effects include hyperstimulation of the ovaries, hemorrhaging, substantial weight gain, emotional upheaval, increased risk of cervical cancer, and others.

** The average cost of one IVF procedure is $ 14,500 for the 2 procedures, medication, and sperm.

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Queer Community for Kids

Regardless of the specific path to parenting lesbians take our kids are amazingly resilient - they seem to function relatively easily in a heterosexual world particularly if they are white. Simultaneously they have needs related to their parents' gayness. One of these needs is for community with other kids from LGBT families and with queer community as a whole.

Despite the increasing prevalence of LGBT-headed families in the world at large, children in these families are spread among hundreds of schools where they are often isolated from similar families, and where positive recognition of their families is, with few exceptions, non-existent.

Understandable, but not entirely conscious or functional, strategies many LGBT parents employ to avoid bigotry and derision include:

assimilation with mainstream family culture,

devaluation of LGBT culture and community,

indiscriminate acceptance of the heterosexual nuclear family model,

and denial of the very real issues that, for our children, are unique to LGBT-headed families.

This attempt to blend into heterosexual family communities without maintaining ties to LGBT communities leaves children of queer parents isolated from other kids like themselves and denies them of the role models and enjoyment of a unique community that are essential to the development of pride and social skills they need to thrive within the context of their minority status.

The very best parenting is not enough to negate the social implications (for children) of having queer parents. Every teenage child of LGBT parents to whom I have ever spoken, talks painfully of their isolation and secrecy and gratefully of the support and companionship of knowing other kids of gay parents. Even kids who do not experience overt manifestations of anti-gay culture in their schools and communities deserve to have their queer heritage affirmed, not just politely overlooked as a non-issue.

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Children of LGBT parents, and particularly children of color being raised by white (LGBT) parents, need to develop particular skills and strains of self-esteem in order to manage the overt and subtle manifestations of homophobia and racism that confront them every day. Feeling happy and loved within their families does not, in and of itself, enable children in multi-racial and LGBT-headed families to feel open, safe, and confident outside the family environment.

The LGBT Aunts and Uncles Program in Boston and COLAGE chapters around the country create environments and activities in which our kids feel valued for who their parents are, rather than despite the fact that their parents are gay. We have seen the ways in which the self-esteem, personal networks, and skills cultivated by their relationships with their aunt or uncle and other kids in the group enable children to effectively recognize, respond to, or otherwise rise above bigotry in their daily lives.

There exists a certain amount of tension between parents who insist that we are just like everyone else and those who believe that we are very different from straight people and families. Engaging our children in queer community activities, as well as mainstream soccer teams, would honor the indisputable fact that both of these statements are true. We adults may be far along on the journey from self-loathing to self-affirmation, but our kids are just beginning to navigate the minefields of homophobia.

If there is any truth in the ancient wisdom, “It takes a village to raise a child,” then we as a community of families, therapists, lawyers, doctors, social workers, educators, and friends need to develop and provide ongoing support to organizations like COLAGE, Family Pride Coalition, and Alternative Family Matters to actualize that wisdom and provide our children with queer community relationships that empower them and enrich their lives.

The last issue I want to address today involves the development and universal adoption of Community Ethics for LGBT Families. One aspect of this ethic would be the imperative of every LGBT-headed family to engage in an alternative family planning process that includes the facilitated creation of detailed, completely customized, written co-parenting and donor agreements adopted as standard practice in the planning .

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Improved access to parenting options and the increased prevalence of lesbian parents in many states should not obscure the hazards and complexities involved in actually being lesbian parents. Unfortunately, the immediacy of the nuts and bolts of conceiving children has distracted us from equal consideration of the standards and ethics involved in the ways in which we organize our family lives and manage our family affairs. Alternative Family Planning must not only be about alternative ways of getting children, but about alternative ways of relating to those people with whom we conceive or adopt those children, particularly in adversity.

There are a variety of boiler plate co-parenting and donor agreements one can get from LGBT legal advocacy organizations and books. But the ones I think we need start with these models, and go beyond. The kinds of agreements I believe we need are painstakingly explicit written statements of understanding about the legal, logistical, financial, social, emotional, and interpersonal expectations, possible eventualities, and commitments involved in having and raising a child together.

If counselors or therapists and lawyers would actually collaborate on these kinds of documents, we would be much better positioned to use our collective skills to engage our clients in these difficult discussions and create more meaningful and useful documents than any of us can produce when we professionals are stuck in our respective disciplines. If lawyers and social workers were consistent in insisting that their prospective parent clients engaged in this multi-disciplinary process of creating written co-parenting and donor agreements, if they promoted this ethical imperative, the children of lesbian couples would have a solid foundation, despite their parent’s reluctance to engage in this process and deal with these issues. If this kind of collaboration between lawyers and counselors was standard practice in our communities, medical and adoption professionals who help lesbians have children would be able to make referrals to such teams a standard part of their work with lesbian moms-to-be.

With regard to the morass of divorce-related custody struggles, a second aspect of queer family ethic should involve a dispute resolution mechanism that is geared specifically to our unique family arrangements and relationships. The model I’ve begun implementing with my clients is called The Family Council, which is a creative problem-solving body of friends, family members, and/or professionals who help prevent and resolve family disputes between same-sex couples and between lesbians and gay men who have children together.

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In closing, whether we like it or not, LGBT’s are the essential creators of alternative family models. As such, we owe it to our children and our communities to evolve a radically different community ethic and culture for our families, of which our children can be truly proud.Bruno Boxspringbett Test


AI Options

a. anonymous donor from sperm bank

b. anonymous ID release donor from sperm bank

c. known donor with varying levels of involvement

d. IVF and etc. for fertility purposes

e. IFV for gestational surrogacy

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Differences between heterosexual families

and families in which lesbian couples conceive children through AI with an anonymous donor

1. There will be a biological and a non-biological parent

2. There will be two same-sex parents

3. There will be no opposite sex parents

4. There will be an anonymous donor

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End Notes

1. bio vs non-bio moms

2. known vs anonymous donor

3. shortcommings of nuclear family arrangements

4. importance of queer community for kids

5. the goal of adopting community ethics, agreements, and alternative dispute prevention and resolution models even if they are not experiencing outward harassment, they are always in the position of having to explain their families to other children and adults. Obviously, this is not a crises or a defect in our families.

But, if we treat these unique aspects of our families as a non-issue,

if we don’t talk openly with our children, with their friends, teachers, friend’s parents etc.,

not making speeches or big pronouncements,

but just casually and explicitly in succinct and age appropriate ways,

in the presence of our children,

acknowledge why and how our families came to be the way they are.

If we don’t deliberately involve our children in discussion and activity groups for kids with lesbian mothers,

Then, we deprive them of the words and the essential modeling of a graceful attitude and response to being recognized as different

that they are going to need for the rest of their lives.

Caviat about how this has to start early because once they turn 10+ years old, they have to be able to manage these things are their own because they won’t want their parents talking with their friends about this or anything else, for that matter.

It is important for prospective parents to know that 2 years is not an unreasonable time frame for conceiving a child, even if one did have to wait 40 years to start the process.

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Probate courts

cut us off from people who could provide worthwhile perspectives and creative solutions,

force us to air our “dirty laundry” in the mainstream public, who will not hesitate to use it against us in a larger context,

issue orders but do not address the attitudes and behaviors that promote a climate of acrimony that undermines the effective implementation of post-divorce child rearing arrangements, and

do not recognize, much less appreciate, the complexities of alternative family relationships, nor do they seek alternative solutions to the disputes that arise in the context of those relationships.

I believe that lesbian parenting should be about improving on the heterosexual status quo of parenting by coercion, insularity, and the probate court insanity straight people have perfected and have succeeded in making us believe is the only way.

In preparing such agreements:

We pick apart assumptions that might otherwise go unspoken because of people’s unconscious fear of jeopardizing the mutual pursuit of parenthood.

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We talk affirmatively and without judgment about the legal, emotional, logistical, social and interpersonal differences between biological and non-biological lesbian mothers (through AI), rather than ignoring or minimizing their existence and significance because they make us uncomfortable or feel like defects in our families.

We talk about changes of heart, mind and circumstance that we must acknowledge are the normal evolutionary possibilities of human relationships.

We talk about behavior and what specific attitudes and actions constitute cooperative and uncooperative ways of relating to one’s co-parent when they are no longer romantic partners. And about the natural inclination toward defensive, obstructionist, disrespectful actions and sentiments and how harmful these are to children who are caught in the middle of family disputes, and to the community in which these disputes play out.

We acknowledge the necessity for each parent to explicitly accept the challenges with which these unavoidable components of co-parenthood imbue the co-parenting relationship.

And, most importantly, we talk about the compassionate but firm support and guidance divorcing couples need from their community, in order to bring their best selves to the conflict without the understandable but counter-productive behavior opposing parties often bring to a family dispute.

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Lesbian Health Conference – Parenting Plenary

Washington, D.C. – 9/26-9/28-02

I am very honored to be here. I direct Alternative Family Matters whose mission is 3-fold:

  • To help (LGBT) individuals and couples nationwide to clarify and realize their ambitions to create families with children;
  • To promote a thriving community of LGBT parents and their families by developing new models of family and community life in the Greater Boston area;
  • To advocate for the legal rights and social recognition of LGBT families.

Having done this work full time since 1990, I was asked to talk to you about some of the psychosocial and psychological issues that have evolved over 20 years of lesbian parenting in this country. Well, as you might imagine, there are a lot of these issues and way too many to discuss in this 7-10 minutes. Based on my observances of these issues, I want to talk with you about what I think is the most important psycho-social need within our burgeoning communities of queer parents, which is the development and universal adoption of a queer family ethic. No small task, but absolutely essential, in my humble opinion.

I will review some of these psychosocial issues, which fall into 2 areas: One involves the issues that arise in the process of getting a child via sperm from an anonymous donor at a sperm bank, or using sperm from a man one knows or gets to know, as the case may be. These arrangements include a wide range and varieties of involvement between the man and the women and between the man or men and the child or children.

Also included in the category of issues related to the process of becoming a lesbian parent arise out of experience with assisted reproductive technology (ART), whether that is a response to infertility problems often related to age, or whether it is used to perform IVF involving lesbian partners.

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There are many rarely discussed issues in this pre-parenting category related to the differences between bio and non-biological mothers in a couple, as well as issues that come up when lesbian couples diverge in their respective levels of desire to have children. Then of course there are entirely other issues if one is to be a single lesbian mother. Then we need to overlay the various issues of race, class, age, and multi-racial families.

Overall, none of our options for becoming parents is simple, without risk, or without expense. Prospective parents must recognize this, educate themselves about the risks and issues involved in each option, and determine which set of issues they feel most able to live with and enable their child to live with. (Do this by enrolling in a considering parenting group, talking with other LGBT parents, reading, talking with a counselor or educator who has experience in this specific area, etc.)

But I think that the bigger challenge for wanna-be moms and dads is the lack of control we have over any of these processes. All the planning and middle class privilege in the world will not necessarily make our bodies get pregnant, or carry a baby to term, or speed up the unbelievably cumbersome machinations of the few infertility clinics that are familiar and willing to work with lesbian moms. Any sense of entitlement is misplaced and unhelpful to the process of adopting or conceiving a child. Desire, determination—yes. Entitlement—no.

It is important for prospective parents to know that 2 years is not an unreasonable time frame for conceiving a child, even if one did have to wait 40 years to start the process. The most important psychological tools for prospective parents are patience, the ability to manage the erratic and non-linear process with grace, and mastery of the serenity prayer.

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Because, improved access to parenting options and the increased prevalence of lesbian parents in many states should not obscure the hazards and complexities involved in actually being lesbian parents. Unfortunately, the immediacy of the nuts and bolts of conceiving children has distracted us from equal consideration of the standard and ethics involved in the ways in which we organize our family lives and manage our family affairs in the context of the broader LGBT and mainstream communities.

Twenty years into the “lesbian baby boom,” whether we are parents, prospective parents, or related professionals, I believe that we must declare unequivocally that heterosexual parenting and the heterosexual nuclear family model need not be the standard by which lesbian mothers plan and conduct our families. Specifically, straight people’s process (or lack thereof) for planning their families, privatizing (or hiding) their family problems, and resolving their family disputes, has been disastrous. Disastrous in terms of:

rampant family dysfunction unchecked by privatization that enables parents to behave in ways they might not if they knew that other people were watching, and for which other people would hold them accountable,

and in terms of a misguided reliance on the probate courts.

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Probate courts

cut us off from people who could provide worthwhile perspectives and creative solutions,

force us to air our “dirty laundry” in the mainstream public, who will not hesitate to use it against us in a larger context,

issue orders but do not address the attitudes and behaviors that promote a climate of acrimony that undermines the effective implementation of post-divorce child rearing arrangements, and

do not recognize, much less appreciate, the complexities of alternative family relationships, nor do they seek alternative solutions to the disputes that arise in the context of those relationships.

I believe that lesbian parenting should be about improving on the heterosexual status quo of parenting by coercion, insularity, and the probate court insanity straight people have perfected and have succeeded in making us believe is the only way.

Whether we like it or not, LGBT’s are the essential creators of alternative family models. As such, we owe it to our children and our communities to evolve a radically different community ethic and culture for our families, of which our children can be truly proud. Alternative Family Planning must not only be about alternative ways of getting children, but about alternative ways of relating to those people with whom we conceive or adopt those children, particularly in adversity, and about the integral role of queer community in the lives of our children. With 20+ years of parenting under our collective belts, what would a Queer Family Ethic consist of?

One aspect of this ethic would be the imperative of creating written co-parenting and donor agreements. There are a variety of boiler plate co-parenting and donor agreements one can get from LGBT legal advocacy organizations and books. But the ones I think we need start with these models, and go beyond. The kinds of agreements I believe we need are painstakingly explicit written statements of understanding about the legal, logistical, financial, social, emotional, and interpersonal expectations, possible eventualities, and commitments involved in having and raising a child together.

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In preparing such agreements:

We pick apart assumptions that might otherwise go unspoken because of people’s unconscious fear of jeopardizing the mutual pursuit of parenthood.

We talk affirmatively and without judgment about the legal, emotional, logistical, social and interpersonal differences between biological and non-biological lesbian mothers (through AI), rather than ignoring or minimizing their existence and significance because they make us uncomfortable or feel like defects in our families.

We talk about changes of heart, mind and circumstance that we must acknowledge are the normal evolutionary possibilities of human relationships.

We talk about behavior and what specific attitudes and actions constitute cooperative and uncooperative ways of relating to one’s co-parent when they are no longer romantic partners. And about the natural inclination toward defensive, obstructionist, disrespectful actions and sentiments and how harmful these are to children who are caught in the middle of family disputes, and to the community in which these disputes play out.

We acknowledge the necessity for each parent to explicitly accept the challenges with which these unavoidable components of co-parenthood imbue the co-parenting relationship.

And, most importantly, we talk about the compassionate but firm support and guidance divorcing couples need from their community, in order to bring their best selves to the conflict without the understandable but counter-productive behavior opposing parties often bring to a family dispute.

If counselors or therapists and lawyers would actually collaborate on these kinds of documents, we would be much better positioned to use our collective skills to engage our clients in these difficult discussions and create meaningful and useful documents than any of us are when stuck in our respective disciplines. If lawyers and social workers were consistent in insisting that their prospective parent clients engaged in this multi-disciplinary process of creating written co-parenting and donor agreements, if they promoted this ethical imperative, the children of lesbian couples would have a solid foundation, despite their parent’s reluctance to engage in this process and deal with these issues. If this kind of collaboration between lawyers and counselors was standard practice in our communities, medical and adoption professionals who help lesbians have children would be able to make referrals to such teams a standard part of their work with lesbian moms-to-be.

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With regard to the morass of divorce-related custody struggles, a second aspect of queer family ethic should involve a dispute resolution mechanism that is geared specifically to our unique family arrangements and relationships. The model I’ve begun implementing with my clients is called The Family Council, which is a creative problem-solving body of friends, family members, and/or professionals who help prevent and resolve family disputes between same-sex couples and between lesbians and gay men who have children together. Family Council members are chosen by individuals who decide to conceive or adopt a child together, to help those individuals in times of upheaval to uphold the integrity of their mutual understanding for having and/or raising a child.

Inspired by the model of the Tribal Council, the supportive involvement of a Family Council provides a structure in which a family can dispense with shame and defensiveness and power plays, and avail themselves of the creative and collective problem-solving capabilities of their selected body of close friends, colleagues, and/or professionals. When a family is in trouble and cannot work it through amongst themselves or in therapy, The Family Council:

meets with each party to hear the details of each party’s perspective and experience of the problem, as well as each party’s suggested solution to the problem,

reviews the document, Protecting Families: Standards for Child Custody in Same-sex Relationships,

caucuses amongst themselves to articulate their perceptions of the evolution and current state of the family’s dilemma, and

develops collective recommendations for resolving the conflict.

Their recommendations should include a description of:

concrete actions or arrangements,

the logistics involved in those actions or arrangements, and

the specific behaviors, attitudes, and sentiments required and forbidden in order to effectuate the recommendations and protect the child from the harm caused by her/his relatives’ acrimony.

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Ideally, family members create their Family Council when they are in the process of planning how their family will look and function. If lesbian parents are to improve on the insidious status quo of a strictly legal approach to family dispute resolution, we must deal with the fact that “privacy” is very often a sick cover for bad behavior and, like domestic violence, deserves the wisdom and discrete attention not of a judge, who has no sensibilities about our families, but of the core community members chosen by the couple when they arranged their families at the outset. A Family Council challenges the nuclear insularity and isolation common to many American families by creating an extended network of individuals who agree to look out for the internal welfare of that family and could replace litigation as the primary mechanism for resolving disputes in alternative families.

And the last items of this ethic, which I barely have time to mention, is the importance for our children of queer community. Despite the increasing prevalence of LGBT-headed families in the world at large, children in these families are spread among hundreds of schools where they are often isolated from similar families, and where positive recognition of their families is, with few exceptions, non-existent.

The very best parenting is not enough to negate the social implications (for children) of having queer parents. Every teenage child of LGBT parents to whom I have ever spoken, talks painfully of their isolation and secrecy and gratefully of the support and companionship of knowing other kids of gay parents. Even kids who do not experience overt manifestations of anti-gay culture in their schools and communities deserve to have their queer heritage affirmed, not just politely overlooked as a non-issue.

Children of LGBT parents, and particularly children of color being raised by white (LGBT) parents, need to develop particular skills and strains of self-esteem in order to manage the overt and subtle manifestations of homophobia and racism that confront them every day. Feeling happy and loved within their families does not, in and of itself, enable children in multi-racial and LGBT-headed families to feel open, safe, and confident outside the family environment.

The LGBT Aunts and Uncles Program in Boston and COLAGE chapters around the country create environments and activities in which our kids feel valued for who their parents are, rather than despite the fact that their parents are gay. We have seen the ways in which the self-esteem, personal networks, and skills cultivated by their relationships with their aunt or uncle and other kids in the group enable children to effectively recognize, respond to, or otherwise rise above bigotry in their daily lives.

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There exists a certain amount of tension between parents who insist that we are just like everyone else and those who believe that we are very different from straight people and families. Engaging our children in queer community activities, as well as mainstream soccer teams, would honor the indisputable fact that both of these statements are true. We adults may be far along on the journey from self-loathing to self-affirmation, but our kids are just beginning to navigate the minefields of homophobia.

If there is any truth in the ancient wisdom, “It takes a village to raise a child,” then we as a community of families, therapists, lawyers, doctors, social workers, educators, and friends need to develop and provide ongoing support to organizations like COLAGE, Family Pride Coalition, and Alternative Family Matters to actualize that wisdom and provide our children with queer community relationships that empower them and enrich their lives.

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In the Family Conference

Pre-Conference Institute on Queer Parenthood

June 1, 2001

From 1990 to 1996 I coordinated the Alternative Insemination Program at FCHC, an LGBT identified community health center in Boston, MA. During that time, I worked with over 500 women, 95% of whom were lesbian couples who wanted to have children by artificial insemination. My job there was largely administrative. I enrolled women in the program, taught them how and when to inseminate, ordered and received their sperm from the sperm banks every month, made sure there was enough dry ice and liquid nitrogen in which to store and transport the sperm, and was there to dispense it to them when they came to pick it up. I agonized with them over each of the hundreds of unsuccessful attempts and tore my hair out with them over the crazy-making quest of perfectly timing the next insemination.

It was never in my job description to talk to them about what it really meant to be co-parents with each other forever, about how they knew that they were the right people for each other to do this with, or about how they might arrange their co-parenting lives if they broke up when their child was 14 months, 2 years, or 6 years old. I’m not sure I even knew how to talk with women about these issues 10 years ago. And there was no question in my mind that they were not interested in taking even a tiny peak at these issues.

But, with every one of those 500+ couples, I wondered about these issues. In the process of recovering from the devastating break-up of a 7-year relationship that I adored and that nearly included parent hood, I personally could not fathom that level of confidence in a relationship of the magnitude of co-parenting. I felt alone and somewhat ashamed of my skepticism about the nuclear family model I was facilitating every day in my work.

Two months after giving birth to my daughter whom I conceived and planned to raise with a gay male couple. We ran into a crises when, according to our plan, she was to begin spending half of her nights at their house. I, however, was not ready to spend nights away from her.

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But then, a simple and amazing thing happened. A day or two before the guys and I were to get together to hash it out, my baby group had planned our monthly meeting. This group of 9 lesbians who were all pregnant and due to have our babies right around the same time had been getting together monthly throughout our pregnancies just to schmooze, and we continued to meet for 3 years after our children were born.

I told my group about our problem. Even though they, like everyone else I knew, were skeptical about our arrangement, they were very caring and understanding. They asked questions, talked about it, and did some brainstorming about possible options. Within about 15 minutes, Julie Ogeltree, bless her heart suggested, “ Well, what if you stay at the guy’s house on the nights the baby is with them. That way you can nurse and only pump once during the night, they get to have her sleep at their house, and you don’t have to spend nights apart from her until you are ready.”

Well, that was it. That was the answer. No muss, no fuss, no lawyers or therapists. We took Julie’s suggestion and life was good.

In the years since then, I have witnessed the deeply disturbing procession of break-ups between at least 100 of the couples whose successful inseminations I assisted. I’ve seen a biological mother railroaded by her more dominant girlfriend into a second parent adoption she didn’t really want. I’ve seen non-bio moms who have second parent adoptions wind up with visitation that is excruciatingly next to nothing. I’ve seen a non-bio mom abandon her former partner and their 3 children to pursue the youthful affair she never had, protracted custody disputes in the courts, and behavior between divorced moms in shared custody arrangements that is the equivalent of raising children on a toxic waste dump. I could go on and on as could most of you.

The remarkable thing to me, that all of these situations have in common, is the deafening silence around them. It seems that the only people with whom disputing co-parents talk about their situation in any constructive way, if they talk to anyone, are their attorneys. Some of my best friends and most esteemed colleagues are lawyers (Kate Kendall).

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But with all due respect, the scope and expertise of lawyers and the legal system is limited. There is much more to the strife and dysfunction of divorcing families than the strictly legal conflicts. The strife and dysfunction that stems from

a lack of clarity at the outset of the co-parenting relationship,

from emotions run amok,

from freaked out co-parents’ reactions to each other’s reactions to the previous reactions,

This morass of divorce related custody struggles requires a mechanism that recognizes the complexities of alternative family relationships and seeks to develop alternative solutions to disputes that arise in the context of these unique relationships. Something like a more developed version of my baby group.

 

A Family Council is a creative problem-solving body of friends, family members, and/or professionals who help prevent and resolve family disputes between same-sex couples and between lesbians and gay men who have children together. Family Council members are chosen by individuals who decide to conceive or adopt a child together, to help those individuals in times of upheaval to uphold the integrity of their mutual understanding for having and/or raising the child.

 

Inspired by the model of the Tribal Council, the supportive involvement of a Family Council provides a structure in which a family can dispense with shame and defensiveness and avail themselves of the creative and collective problem-solving capabilities of their selected body of close friends, colleagues, and/or professionals. The Family Council challenges the nuclear insularity and isolation common to many American families by creating an extended network of individuals who agree to look out for the internal welfare of that family.

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I want to talk now about how prospective co-parents, donors, etc. set up a Family Council and how it works. I want to conclude with some discussion about privacy because privacy is a notion that is zealously protected in our culture and the Family Council directly challenges that notion.

Ideally, family members create their Family Council when they are in the process of planning how their family will look and function. This plan should be written down in the form of an Agreement.

There are a variety of boiler plate co-parenting and donor agreements one can get from LGBT legal advocacy organizations and books. The ones I put together start with these models but, go beyond. My agreements are painstakingly explicit written statements of understanding about the legal, logistical, financial, social, emotional and interpersonal expectations, possible eventualities, and commitments involved in having and raising a child together.

In preparing such agreements

We pick apart assumptions that might otherwise go unspoken because of people’s unconscious fear of jeopardizing the mutual pursuit of parenthood.

We talk affirmatively and without judgment about the legal, emotional, logistical, social, and interpersonal differences between biological and non-biological lesbian mothers (through AI), rather than ignoring or minimizing their existence and significance because they make us uncomfortable or feel like defects in our families.

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We talk about changes of heart, mind and circumstance that we must acknowledge, are the normal evolutionary possibilities of human relationships.

We talk about behavior and what specific attitudes and actions constitute cooperative and uncooperative ways of relating to one’s co-parent when they are no longer romantic partners. About the natural inclination toward defensive, obstructionist, disrespectful actions and sentiments and how harmful these are to children who are caught in the middle of family disputes, and to the community in which these disputes play out.

We acknowledge the necessity for each parent to explicitly accept the challenges with which these unavoidable components of co-parenthood imbue the co-parenting relationship.

; And, most importantly, we talk about the compassionate but firm support and guidance divorcing couples need in order to bring their best selves to the conflict without the understandable but counter-productive behavior opposing parties often bring to a family dispute.

As counselors and therapists we are well positioned to use our skills to engage our clients in these difficult discussions, despite their reluctance to do so.

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How does one set up a Family Council?

When family members have generated their agreement. Each party to the agreement chooses one or two people to serve on the Family Council based on their ability to understand, appreciate, and support the Family and their agreement as the blueprint for a thoroughly-considered, worthwhile and viable model for raising a child.

While each family member chooses members for the Family Council, Family Counselors should know that they are not intended to represent any particular family member. Family Council members represent the family as a whole, the child in particular, and the intentions for the child’s care and custody as described in the agreement. Given this responsibility, all parties must agree to and feel (relatively) comfortable with each Family Council member.

What must a Family Council member agree to do?

Family Council members must::

deeply understand the Agreement and the intentions it represents;

be enthusiastic about the child rearing model it describes;

appreciate the complexity of alternative family relationships;

be interested and able to engage in creative problem solving;

enjoy thinking outside the box;

refrain from “siding” with the family member to whom s/he is most closely related,

honestly and compassionately confront that family member if s/he thinks that person is being unreasonable;

collaborate in good faith with the other Family Council members to hear all sides of the dispute, craft a thoughtful resolution, and advise the parties in the implementation of the recommended solution.

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Under what circumstances is the Family Council convened?

Family members convene the Family Council when the parties to the Agreement have a problem that significantly impacts any of their respective relationships with the child, which they have been unable to resolve amongst themselves or in therapy or mediation.

How does The Family Council Operate?

Members of the Family Council should respond to the party’s request to convene, as they would come together for any serious family crises. They should arrange with the parties to come together for several days so they can:

meet with each party to hear the details of each party’s perspective and experience of the problem, as well as each party’s suggested solution to the problem,

review the document, Protecting Families: Standards for Child Custody in Same-sex Relationships,

caucus amongst themselves to articulate their perceptions of the evolution and current state of the family’s dilemma;

develop collective recommendations for resolving the conflict.

Their recommendations should include a description of:

concrete actions or arrangements;

the logistics involved in those actions or arrangements,

the specific behaviors, attitudes, and sentiments required and forbidden in order to effectuate the recommendations and protect the child from the harm caused by her/his relatives’ acrimony.

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Bringing Family Council Members together could be costly and should be born by the parties. However, the cost should be a fraction of the cost of litigation and should be recognized as such.

Why is a Family Council preferable to conventional courts of law?

Litigation and the caustic behavior and sentiment it engenders leaves children in an horrific position.

Reliance on litigation as a default mechanism for resolving dispute cuts us off from people who could provide worthwhile perspectives and creative solutions.

Litigation forces us to air our “dirty laundry” in the mainstream public that will not hesitate to use it against us in a larger context.

Probate courts can issue orders but do not address the attitudes and behaviors that promote a climate of acrimony that undermines the effective implementation of post-divorce child rearing arrangements.

Probate courts do not recognize, much less appreciate, the complexities of alternative family relationships, nor do they seek alternative solutions to the disputes that arise in the context of those relationships.

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Why are people skeptical of the concept or proposed use of a Family Council?

Despite the financial expense, protracted procedures, and unreliable attitudes toward LGBT families, many in our community hold fast to the belief that existing mainstream courts will dispense justice to our families. People are often inclined to have more faith in an existing model, no matter how flawed, rather that a new, more appropriate model.

LGBT family members who might benefit from homophobic laws and institutions will often resort to them in order to get what they want. These people would not be inclined toward an LGBT-specific model that does not ascribe to homophobic laws and sentiments.

The shame surrounding family problems causes some people to fear humiliation if anyone in their community is privy to their personal problems.

Modern American culture is attached to a privatized, nuclear family arrangement. We often feel like we are the only ones we can trust to deal with family problems and view outside assistance as interference.

Many people do not have people they could ask to be on their Family Council. But what does it mean to be a couple having children without having any cadre of individuals whose integrity you can trust? I believe that the absence of family guardians is a problem for our kids and a recipe for family disaster.

Involving people outside the nuclear family in dispute prevention and resolution builds in a certain level of accountability. LGBT people have not been permitted to engage in binding relationships and may be unaccustomed to having to answer to people outside the immediate family.

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Conclusion

I believe that the only function served by the privatization of families is that it enables people to behave in ways they might not if they knew that other people were watching, and for which other people would hold them accountable. It might also be the case that privatization (which might also be described as isolation), actually causes the desperate behavior so prevalent in custody disputes.

If there is any truth the ancient wisdom, “It takes a village to raise a child”, then we as a community of families, therapists, lawyers, educators, and friends need to develop mechanisms and institutions to actualize that wisdom.

Alternative Family Planning must not only be about alternative ways of getting children, but about alternative ways of relating to those people with whom we conceive or adopt those children, particularly in adversity

Whether we like it or not, LGBT’s are the essential creators of alternative family models. As such, we owe it to our children and our communities to evolve a radically different community ethic and culture for our families. Family Councils could replace litigation as the primary mechanism for resolving disputes in alternative families. Given the universality of family problems, it behooves us all to dispense with the pursuit of the picture-perfect family (not really attainable for queer families, anyway) and focus on managing our family problems in ways we and our children can be proud of.

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