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What’s It Take for Two Women to Get Pregnant Around Here?
Rachel Levin | Photo: Amy Harrity | May 23, 2016
Competing for scarce sperm. Shelling out for fertility treatments. Dealing with “the questions.” For many lesbian couples, the long and twisted road to a baby is only getting rougher.
Editor's note: This is one of many stories about LGBTQ life in the Bay Area that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the June 2016 Pride Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
Romantic it was not. For starters, it was too dark to see. “Oh shit, I forgot a flashlight,” said Wendy, rummaging through her bag. “Honey, just use your phone,” said Sara, lying spread-eagle on the couch in her office, wearing a button-down blouse and nothing else.
It was noon, a Thursday in February, and a nice man had just masturbated in the bathroom down the hall. A week or two earlier, over tea at a nearby café, the semi-stranger had generously offered to help Sara and Wendy. And, unlike so many men who’d preceded him, there he now stood, true to his word, holding a plastic cup with his sperm in it, ready and willing to impregnate Sara.
Except, oops, they needed scissors. Luckily, Wendy had a Leatherman in her truck. She returned with the blade and sliced off the top of a syringe. At least it was sterile.
The same could not be said of Sara’s office, but it was a few blocks from their donor’s place of work, and—as any 41-year-old woman undergoing fertility treatment knows—timing is everything. According to Sara’s basal body temp and ovulation strips, it was go time. By the light of her iPhone 6, Wendy squirted the man’s semen into Sara’s cervix.
Afterward, everyone but Sara dashed back to work. A therapist in private practice, she lay on her couch for an hour, hips elevated—shopping online for sweaters, waiting “for the little guys to swim up there.” Hoping, but careful not to get her hopes up too high, that this time one of those little guys would make it.
Getting to this point had been quite a journey—a term often used by cancer patients undergoing chemo, but also by lesbian couples looking to conceive. It’s a cliché, but an accurate way to describe the quest that two women undertake when they decide to start a family. There’s no “Oops! I’m pregnant!” when you’re a lesbian. “That would be nice,” Sara says, drolly.
Five years ago, the petite, pretty PhD had been single and living alone in the Bay Area burbs. (Well, with seven rescue cats.) She’d recently come close to buying a house back East to be near her mom, whose help she’d have needed to have a baby on her own. It was something she’d been determined to do until, ironically, her realtor, a lesbian, talked her out of the house (and the solo parenting) and told her to move to San Francisco instead.
So then there she was, in a one-bedroom rental, wrapped in a blanket and weary of dating, online shopping of a different sort—fielding emails from random dudes supposedly seeking progeny and a platonic parenting partner. “I am well-endowed,” boasted one forty-something man on the European site Coparents. “I am extremely good-looking,” offered another. “Let’s do it the natural way,” suggested the last suitor, before Sara shut her laptop. This wasn’t the way she’d wanted to do this.
In the last few years, websites like Coparents, Modamily, and FamilyByDesign have appeared, aimed at connecting aspiring parents of all stripes. The media immediately glommed on to the new trend in family making, with everyone from Good Morning America to CNN touting smiley, straight, single women who’d all found success starting nuclear families with men they’d met online. But, says founder Ivan Fatovic, 20 percent of female Modamily members identify as lesbian, and he expects that number to climb with the legality of same-sex marriage. Now he’s making a more concentrated push into the LGBTQ market, specifically here in San Francisco, where he hopes to host offline mixers that bring together queer people considering kids.
Such startups have clearly filled a need. But dating for sperm left Sara depressed. “It was like being on Match or OkCupid, but worse,” she says. “I mean, how many people do you interact with online that you actually even want to go to dinner with? Imagine trying to find someone to be your kid’s dad and in your life forever?” (She was adamant that the donor not be anonymous, but rather a fatherlike figure to her child.)
She had always wanted to fall in love first, but the clock was ticking. A year passed before she met Wendy at a gay dance party. “I’m pretty sure I told her on our first date I wanted to have a baby,” she says. Five years younger and focused on her career, Wendy was in no rush to start a family. So Sara waited a little longer, until she hit 40 and realized that if she wanted to have a biological child, it was now or never. Wendy agreed. And then they had sex, and nine months later their baby was born! Ha. That would be nice.
From the moment a lesbian couple decides to have biological children, they’re in for a constant stream of deep discussion and decision making, discrimination and dollars—often a lot of dollars—along with the kind of messy, emotional drama that straight folks, barring fertility issues, never have to face.
Queer couples who have biological kids are a minority within a minority. Those who do want kids face legal battles and societal judgment and constant frustration over the fact that—no matter how in love they are—they cannot biologically have a baby together, and have no choice but to rely on a third entity. Considering that same-sex marriage was broadly legalized only last year, it’s no surprise that societal acceptance of queer couples having kids still has a ways to go. Which is why, as one lesbian mother puts it, “It’s important to bring our stories out of the closet.”
Many of the issues faced by lesbian couples looking to conceive are, of course, similar to those faced by all women of bearing age, in the sense that they all need something they don’t have: sperm. However, that’s where the similarities end: The list of topics every lesbian couple analyzes to death goes way beyond those faced by straight women. Who should carry? How will the non-carrying parent feel? Who will be the donor? Will he be known or anonymous? Do we want a donor who does diaper duty or do we want a donor we see once a year (or never)? If anonymous, what kind of qualities do we want in the sperm supplier? If known, how do we ask him? Who will we ask? An acquaintance? A coworker? A second cousin? How will we inseminate? How will we pay for it? Can we pay for it? Wait, how much will this cost again? For biracial couples: What race do we want our baby to be?
Typically, when you read about queer couples having kids, the accounts are very matter-of-fact: “The couple went to a sperm bank.” Or, “A friend agreed to be the donor.” Between the lines, though, there’s always a story—one rarely told. “Everyone talks about fertility issues, and how painful and emotionally draining that can be. For lesbians it’s a whole other kind of roller coaster,” says Sara, echoing essentially every lesbian couple I spoke with for this story (many of whom, like Sara and Wendy, wished to remain anonymous). “No one understands what we go through.”
Elizabeth (not her real name), a mother of two boys, was in her early 30s when she first learned the lesbian version of the birds and the bees. “We had no idea what the steps were,” she says. “Once we decided to have kids, we were like, ‘OK, now what?’” Like many of their sistren, Elizabeth and her partner looked for help. The bible is The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy & Birth (2006), by midwife Stephanie Brill. But reading a book only gets you so far. Apart from several local support groups—like Baby Buds, for lesbian and trans Asian Pacific Islanders, and Our Family Coalition, which occasionally holds parents-to-be gatherings—there are very few solid resources. Says LGBTQ advocate, author, and recent mother Michelle Tea, “As a queer person who wants a baby, you’re pretty much left to figure it all out on your own.”
Which is partly what moved Tea to write a play-by-play blog for three years called Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea—until she finally did. Tea had a story to tell “and no one to tell it to,” she says. “All of my queer, broke artist friends didn’t want to hear it. They were like, ‘Why do you want to ruin your awesome gay life and throw away your freedom and disposable income to have a baby? Parenthood is for straight people.’”
Betsy Kershner, a photographer living in the Sunset whose wife, Toby Branz, has been trying to get pregnant for the last two years, felt similarly alone and went searching for others’ stories. “But when I googled ‘lesbian moms,’ all that basically came up was porn or stock images of super-femme-y women with pregnant bellies,” says Kershner. So two years ago, she started a portrait series called The Pride + Joy Project, intended to reveal real-life two-mom families and show, “Look! Lesbians can have babies, too,” she says. “There’s so little social conversation about how queer women make their families. I wanted to know everything.” And, as she soon discovered, so did everybody else.
In January, she started a Facebook group called Queer Mamas and invited 110 of her friends. By day 10, it had ballooned to 10,000 members, with 24-7 posts from Sweden to San Anselmo. From “What is the best piece of advice for me and my wife hoping to conceive this year?” to “We got ourselves a donor!!” to “My five-month-old cries every time he hears a man speak. Tips?” to “Can anyone recommend a good book about penises?,” the conversations signal an insatiable appetite for more intel. “People are clearly craving this connection,” says Kershner. “They want to talk about it.”
But they don’t always want to talk about it with everyone. More than one Queer Mama has posted questions like “Does it bother you when people ask, ‘How’d you make your baby?,’” generating reams of impassioned replies. Some find the inquiry nosy and/or offensive. “A mom asked me on a playdate and I felt cornered,” commented one woman from San Francisco. “I wanted to reply, ‘How was your child conceived? From fucking from behind or were you on top?’”
Lauren Gersick, a college counselor and mother of a seven-year-old boy in Bernal Heights, thinks it’s weirder not to ask about it. “It’s not like I’d prefer that people ask. But to be honest, I’m often more struck by the silence. There was obviously a man somewhere. I always wonder, ‘Do people wonder?’ Because I would. I do!”
I’ll admit: I’ve been friendly with Lauren and her wife for close to two years now. Our kids are in the same class; we’ve had them over for supper; I mean, we saw Zootopia together—and yet it wasn’t until reporting this story that I’d ever asked about their son’s origin. It wasn’t because I wasn’t curious. Of course I was. I’d just always presumed that if a lesbian couple (or, for that matter, a single mom or a gay dad or a straight married woman struggling with fertility issues) didn’t bring it up first, it was off-limits. But such once-taboo topics are slowly becoming acceptable cocktail party conversation. It’s not uncommon anymore for an acquaintance to confess that she’s freezing her eggs or to gripe woman-to-woman about progesterone injections. And as more same-sex couples marry and have kids, it seems inevitable that how they procreate will no longer be such a fraught topic.
With the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling in June 2015, the rate of same-sex couples marrying has more than doubled, perhaps even tripled, within the year, says Gary Gates, formerly the research director at UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. While it is difficult to track the number of same-sex couples having biological kids, Gates says there is a definite increase in “intentional parenting.” The number of adoptions by same-sex couples doubled between 2000 and 2009. According to 2000 census stats analyzed in Gates’s book, The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, 10 percent of same-sex couples in the San Francisco metro area were “raising” kids. (This includes not just children they conceived but also adopted children.) In 2010, 13 percent of same-sex couples in the San Francisco metro area were raising kids. And according to research covering 2012–14, that percentage soon increased to 14.4.
Given the increasing frequency of LGBTQ people giving birth or raising children, shouldn’t it be OK to talk about the process by which that happens? Clearly, you shouldn’t ask strangers in the Safeway line, as a white mom of an adopted Ethiopian-born daughter told me someone recently did. As in: “Excuse me, how much did your baby cost?” (Yeah.) Family is, of course, deeply personal. But given the proper context—and language—asking a woman how her child came into the world seems fair.
Still, choosing the right language often stymies people, says Gersick. “No one knows how to ask.” And so they don’t. (Attention, unwitting heteros: One of the most offensive questions you can ask a lesbian mother is “Who’s the real mom?” They’re both real moms. The other: “Who’s the father?” There is no father.) Despite the fact that the language surrounding parentage has been “common in our culture for hundreds of years,” says Gersick, “it’s just not language that always works for our family. Intellectually, I get what someone means when they say ‘dad,’ but emotionally, it feels undermining.”
Of course, some lesbians are guilty of taking language to the opposite extreme, too. The desire of many female couples to minimize male involvement in their family making is understandable, but some take it a step further and pretend they bucked biology altogether. “They’re like, ‘What man? We did this on our own,’” says Sara. (Although reproductive science and stem cell research might one day make it so.) For now, every egg needs a sperm. It’s just a matter of how you get it.
Pick your poison: fresh or frozen?
Sperm banks have been popular with lesbians since the 1980s, when, as a 1989 New York Times article put it, there was a national “baby boom of unusual complexity.” Partly in response to the needs of would-be lesbian moms, the Bay Area boasts the largest concentration of sperm banks in the country. San Francisco’s Pacific Reproductive Services (PRS) and the Sperm Bank of California were among the first to specifically serve the lesbian community. At California Cryobank, 60 percent of clients are lesbians, up from 30 percent 10 years ago.
The pros to sperm banks are plentiful. Donors are thoroughly vetted. The sperm is tested for sexually transmitted and common genetic diseases. There are rarely legal or parental-rights issues with sperm banks, as it’s all quite clear-cut: Donors either are WTBK (willing to be known, once the child turns 18) or agree to remain forever anonymous. But, says PRS founder Sherron Mills, “most donors these days are WTBK; no one wants anonymous anymore.”
In love, you compromise: He smokes, but he’s smart; he’s hairy, but he loves House of Cards. In sperm selection, you are able to customize your donor down to an almost ridiculous degree. Bachelor’s or master’s? Engineer or artist? Five nine or six feet or, hmm, maybe six two? Hilariously, at California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, with a popular Palo Alto branch, you can even choose a donor based on his celebrity look-alike, with an infinite scroll of options: Jake Gyllenhaal or James Gandolfini? South Korean idol Lee Joon or a young John Stamos?
Elizabeth and her wife didn’t actually want sperm from so close to Stanford University. “My brother had gone there and told us the entire men’s water polo team donated on a regular basis. ‘Those guys are assholes,’ he said. ‘You don’t want their stuff.’” But of course, one woman’s trash… “I would’ve loved a water polo player’s sperm from Stanford,” Gersick says. “I’d be more worried about some dweeby tech bro.”
The biggest downside to sperm banks, though, is the cost. Browsing might initially be free, but if you want any info beyond the basics (age, height, education, occupation, interests), you’ve got to pony up. Baby pictures of the donor, $15; adult photos, $15; the full 18-page profile, another $10 per potential donor. Some banks offer profiles that include personal essays and audio for $245. There are sign-up fees, liquid-nitrogen-tank fees. One vial of sperm runs between $690 and $890. Physicians recommend two inseminations per cycle, and it typically takes multiple tries, which means that on average a couple can burn anywhere from $2,000 to more than $10,000 on sperm alone.
Then tack on midwife fees, doctor’s visits, and medical inseminations—IUI, ICI, IVF—which, when they are covered by insurance at all, are often covered only after six unsuccessful attempts, whether a woman is gay or straight. “The lack of initial coverage is a huge issue for our patients,” says Marcelle Cedars, director of UCSF’s Center for Reproductive Health.
Lesbians, who can get pregnant only by insemination, are essentially categorized as “infertile” from the get-go. In the best-case scenario, insurance coverage will kick in for lesbians after six unsuccessful insemination attempts, but a majority of insurance plans have no fertility coverage, says Cathy Sakimura, family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). Like Sara and Wendy, most lesbian couples who are self-employed (or low-income or don’t work for companies like Google with generous insurance plans) have to pay out of pocket. There’s really no getting knocked up for free when you’re a lesbian. (Unless you have sex with the donor, which Tea did try, once or twice, to no avail.)
“The current coverage plans are unfair to lesbians,” Sakimura says. “Lesbian and bisexual female couples and many transgender parents cannot conceive without assisted reproduction, yet many insurance companies require them to meet a higher burden before getting coverage than different-sex, non-transgender couples who cannot conceive without assisted reproduction. They may be denied completely or have to pay for 6 to 12 months of assisted reproduction before getting any coverage.” Hetero couples, by contrast, can try to conceive during those 6 to 12 months via intercourse. The NCLR is currently fighting to get full insurance coverage for fertility treatment for same-sex couples, transgender people, and single mothers—for anyone who cannot conceive with a partner without assistance. “We are advocating on an individual basis at this point, and are interested in litigation if a case is presented,” Sakimura says. She and the NCLR are also fighting for the complete recognition of same-sex parents and parents using assisted reproduction in every state, so that families can travel and move freely without fear of losing their parental rights.
Most insurance forms don’t even account for two-woman (or same-sex) couples. “It ends up looking like my wife is a single woman trying to get pregnant, thus invalidating me as her spouse,” says Kershner. “In so many ways—because I’m female, because I cannot create sperm, because they don’t have a box to check for married, same-sex couples—it’s all very maddening.” (Also maddening: Because of fears about HIV transmission, the FDA still prohibits gay men from participating in sperm bank programs at all.)
Sperm supply is also an ongoing issue. California Cryobank has 500-plus donors in its catalog at any given time. PRS has 135. Each donor at PRS is asked to make 65 “deposits.” This sounds like a lot of sperm, but it’s not nearly enough to meet demand. “We always need more donors,” says Mills. Competition for the best sperm is Ivy League tough, the interview process extensive. “Everyone wants the tall, blond, blue-eyed rocket scientist,” Mills says. And there are only so many of them. There’s only so many of anyone.
To guard against one man spawning a small city—the so-called Delivery Man effect, named after the 2013 movie in which Vince Vaughn plays a former sperm donor who discovers he has 533 kids—sperm banks set limits. Back in the ’80s, at PRS, the maximum number of families who could use a given donor was five. “But we kept running out of donors!” says Mills, so they raised it to 20. (Each family can have as many kids as they want from one donor.) In 2013, PRS “thought it was a good idea,” says Mills, to lower the limit to 15.
Although the San Francisco metro area has the highest percentage of adults in the country who identify as LGBT, according to a 2015 Gallup poll (6.2 percent; in San Francisco specifically, it’s about a percent higher), it’s still a relatively small subset of the region. And the number of queer couples who have biological kids is even smaller. One unusual potential consequence of this small number of women “overfishing” a small pool of donors is conceiving a child who turns out to be a “dibling”—a donor-conceived sibling. To avoid this, some lesbians intentionally seek sperm out of state, paying shipping fees for peace of mind. It’s doubtful that two San Francisco high school sweethearts would end up together forever only to find out they’re diblings, but there have still been awkward moments. At Tea’s baby shower, one outspoken mother noticed a toddler with the same superfine, spiky hair as her child’s. “Oh my God, I bet we have the same donor!” she ran around the party shouting. The other mother was mortified. Later, they exchanged donor numbers, and sure enough…
Going the fresh-sperm route, like Sara and Wendy, may be cheaper—and more effective—but it presents its own hassles and heartbreak. “In the beginning you think the world is your oyster,” says Sara.
Before Sara and Wendy even announced they were ready to conceive, they had all sorts of offers from good friends, peripheral friends, guys they’d meet in bars. “It helped that Sara is hot,” says Wendy of her partner, who is slim, with a wide smile and long blond locks. “No one wants an ugly baby. People see her and are like, ‘I’d have a child with her.’”
After a “bajillion conversations,” they decided to go with Wendy’s younger brother. He could be bossy, and they were worried about boundaries, but they loved the idea of both being biologically related to their baby. Plus, ever since he was 16 he’d assured his sister he’d hand over his sperm whenever she said the word.
Wendy was uncomfortable. “I’m not a big favor asker,” she says. “I felt vulnerable asking something so big.” Still, they went ahead with it, and at first Wendy’s brother said yes. But then he talked it over with his girlfriend. A week later, he sent an email saying sorry. He’d changed his mind.
Sobs. Anger. Devastation. Once they recovered from the setback, they moved on to plan B: Sara’s best friend, Brendan (not his real name), whom she’d briefly dated back in high school and with whom she’d later talked about the possibility of having kids. But Wendy, as the non-carrying partner, was afraid she’d end up feeling like a third wheel in her own family. “He’s still kind of in love with her,” says Wendy. “They’re so close, I worried it would feel too much like their kid.” Plus: “He’s thin and wiry. He looks kind of sickly.”
She agreed to let Sara ask him anyway. They wanted a solid option. But as with people’s awkward reactions to death or cancer or divorce, you can never predict how someone will respond when asked to be a sperm donor. When officially faced with the proposition, Brendan “just disappeared,” says Sara, disappointed in her longtime friend. “He never even said no. He just kept me hanging, and sent me a cryptic text weeks later with some metaphor about sea changes and shifting winds. I was like, ‘I don’t have time for metaphors.’”
Time was, indeed, marching on, Sara’s eggs getting older and fewer by the minute. She and Wendy went back to their short list and analyzed every possibility for hours. “When actually confronted, though, we realized guys just get overwhelmed,” says Sara. “Their life flashes before their eyes. They envision this little creature running around the world that they have no control over, and they freak out.”
Sara begged, “Does anybody know anybody?” It turned out her friend’s friend, a gay accountant in his 40s, was interested. The three of them went out for drinks and discussed it. He was in. Wendy and Sara picked up the tab, thanked him profusely, and said they’d be in touch. Then, on the way home, Wendy told Sara, “I’m just not that into him.” Yet another intense conversation ensued. “Wendy thinks if we’re going to hang out with this guy for the rest of our life, he should be cool and fun, a good dancer,” says Sara. “I’m like, ‘Who cares! I just want a good person.’” And this guy was. But he was also moving back East, which didn’t sit well—the point was for the guy to be around. It killed Sara, but they turned him down. “It was so hard,” she says. “You’re so grateful, this person offers to do you this huge favor, to change his whole life for you, and he is excited about it. And you have to call and say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
They were getting desperate. “I was ready to ask the mailman,” says Sara. But then, miraculously, they hit the jackpot. Designer sperm! For free! Sara had once been awarded a prestigious fellowship at a university, and she posted a Hail Mary plea on the fellowship’s alumni Facebook page. To her shock and awe, a fellow scholar—a local, strikingly handsome scientist and PhD candidate who is also an accomplished artist who rescued his dog from the streets of Asia—replied. It was love at first email.
Brunch, also including his husband, was arranged. Sara put on her best. “I wanted to look like a viable woman, worthy of his sperm,” she says. She spent 50 bucks on flowers. Wendy made a comically large fruit salad, which she put in a beautiful wooden bowl and carried uncovered on her lap on the drive to his place. On a sunny, warm day, there they sat, two sets of strangers making small talk over vegetarian bacon and organic eggs until Sara steered the conversation to the matter at hand: his semen. Would he share it? And if so, what would the ensuing relationship look like? Wendy and Sara left knowing they’d found the one. The feeling was mutual. Until it wasn’t.
The honeymoon phase didn’t last long. There were weeks of cold contract negotiations and a couple thousand dollars in (his) lawyer’s fees. Meanwhile, Sara continued her fertility injections and acupuncture appointments. Although a 2013 law (AB 2356) allows lesbians to be inseminated with fresh sperm at a clinic without having to retest the same donor’s sperm for HIV at every insemination (straight couples don’t have to retest the sperm every time, as it is assumed the man is the woman’s monogamous partner), Sara and Wendy preferred “at-home” insemination. “It’s more intimate,” says Sara. And cheaper. At the time, though, that meant finding a doctor willing to be present to vouch that two consenting adults never had sex, meaning the man would not legally be the father. (In January, a new law passed stipulating that sperm donors are not presumptively defined as fathers in cases where children are intentionally conceived through assisted reproduction—and that no medical professional need be present during insemination.) After recurring logistical nightmares involving where and when to meet, finally they were ready to inseminate.
They wanted the first time to be special. On the floor of Sara’s office, Wendy arranged a picnic, lit candles, played Stevie Nicks, and did the insemination herself. Afterward, Mr. Designer Sperm had tears in his eyes. “We’re going to make a beautiful baby,” he said. It didn’t take. And after two more unsuccessful inseminations—and two insemination dates for which Sara painstakingly prepared and Designer Sperm didn’t show—he officially pulled out.
Donors renege. It happens. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a huge time commitment, and donors can’t ejaculate for two to five days beforehand, which is a disincentive for some men. Sara and Wendy didn’t know why, exactly, Designer Sperm had bailed, but they were devastated. It felt like a breakup. Another lesbian couple who went through a similar situation told me that the experience of losing their ideal donor was “like mourning a death.”
Donorless, pumped up on Follistim, and poised to ovulate, Sara was distraught. She didn’t want to miss a cycle. Near tears, she called her doctor and shared her predicament. He listened. And then saved the day: He knew someone.
The next day, Sara and Wendy met this man at a café. He was kind and smart and good-looking. They had no idea if he was a good dancer, but he wanted to help. Eight weeks after the insemination by iPhone light—which resulted in her only positive pregnancy test thus far—Sara went in for her first ultrasound. Nervous and excited, she lay on the table, placed her feet in the stirrups, and waited for the doctor. The mood was tense, if cautiously optimistic. They were a team of three facing a fifty-fifty shot, with Wendy holding Sara’s hand and the doctor holding a condom-covered wand. Everyone quietly hoping for a heartbeat.
Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco