In last season's Showtime series The L-Word, lesbian partners Bette and Tina (Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman) are trying to have a baby. The women ask a male friend to be their donor, but just as Tina is in the stirrups ready to be inseminated, they are informed that their donor's sperm is too slow. Not to be deterred, the couple asks another male friend, a French artist who is willing to oblige, as long as he can have intercourse with Tina. As he delicately puts it, "The penis and the pussy. They go together, no?" Our lesbian-chic heroines decline and leave in a hurry.

"The main concern for lesbians trying to get pregnant," says Laura Goldberger, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, "is where the sperm is coming from." Goldberger should know, she runs a support group in San Francisco for lesbians trying to get pregnant. Sperm banks, gay male friends, French artists; the sources of genetic material necessary for making a baby are out there, but the process of finding a donor can be wrought with more emotional baggage than a couple can conceive of. Of course this is just the beginning of a strange new world with few lesbian-mom role models and even fewer resources out there to guide new mommies through the inherent difficulties of lesbian motherhood.

Which is not to say that the hurdles are slowing down the lesbian babymaking wave, a phenomenon that even has its own catchy title, "The Gayby Boom." The number of families with two lesbian-identified mothers is hard to determine, but a rough estimate by the Urban Institute based on the 2000 census puts it at around 167,000 couples. This is likely an undercount due to the stigma still surrounding being gay and and it is also likely that a large number of respondents may not have revealed that information. A recent report from Witeck-Combs Communications in Washington looked at multiple surveys and estimated the number of lesbian parented households at more than three million.

In urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, two-mommy families with children in tow are now a normal sight in the kaleidoscope of gay life. Gay Pride festivals across the country are creating family- and children-friendly activities in recognition of the changing demographic. Mainstream media is acknowledging the growing lesbian parenting movement as witnessed by the October 24, 2004 edition of the New York Times Magazine which ran a lengthy article chronicling the life of a trailblazing lesbian-parented family in New York City. Lesbian and gay parents even have a bi-monthly glossy magazine, And Baby, which targets upper-class families and sports mainstream advertisers. (The fate of And Baby is now unclear since their web site recently posted a message to subscribers stating the magazine is undergoing "restructuring.")

HOW MUCH IS THE BABY IN THE WINDOW?

When considering their options for pregnancy, many lesbians might be shocked at the high costs of high tech methods such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. Going to a sperm bank, especially one that caters to a gay and lesbian clientele, is common for lesbian couples but the service doesn't come cheap. Rainbow Flag Health Services in San Francisco is the only sperm bank in North America that actively recruits gay and bisexual sperm donors and their services start at $225. They will ship frozen sperm anywhere in the U.S. for an additional $260. If you recall the multiple trips that Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone had to make to sperm bank in the 2000 movie If These Walls Could Talk 2, then you can see how quickly a sperm tab can add up.

Economically speaking, lesbians are at a disadvantage when compared to their straight counterparts when it comes to paying for fertility treatments that are not covered under insurance. In a 1998 study of gay and lesbian income published by the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, M.V. Lee Badgett, Ph. D. concluded that "female same-sex couples bring home 18-20% less income than a similar married couple's income." When you add other expenses related to fertility treatments, going to a sperm bank can be out of reach for middle and lower class lesbian couples.

Unfortunately, optimum fertility rarely coincides with full earning potential, add multiple fertility treatments and you have lesbian couples taking a guerrilla (read: free sperm) approach to babymaking. "Our friend volunteered because he doesn't want to be a father. He told us, 'You just tell me when, and I will go to the clinic and make my donation.'" Recalled Jenifer, 31, (all names have been changed) who has been with her partner, Liv, 32, for seven years, but they just recently decided they wanted to start a family. "I said, 'A clinic? Are you kidding? There's no money for that!' I told him he'll just go in the other room and do it, we don't need a doctor for something we can easily do ourselves!"

There are other drawbacks to using sperm banks, in addition to the cost, including uncertainty about the sperm donor himself. Though most banks give a thorough dossier for each donor, it is impossible for raw data to give the kind of information that can only come from seeing a person in the flesh. In some cases, banks will show photos of the donor and for many couples this is enough to bridge the gap between a piece of paper listing eye color and family history and the unknown donor. Not all couples are secure, even after they have become pregnant. Mara, 30, and Christie, 33, who are expecting a boy after going through IVF treatments, worry that their baby will be "funny looking," even though they felt confident that the donor they chose was closest in genetic makeup to the mothers.

New FDA guidelines for anonymous sperm donation ban men who have had homosexual sex within the previous five years, ostensibly to curb the transmission of HIV. To many lesbians, the new ban, which went into effect earlier this year, cuts off a major source of donation, at least within a clinical setting. Activists see this policy change as unnecessary, especially as HIV tests have evolved and are able to detect the virus faster and earlier than ever. It does creates a conundrum for lesbian couples who would like the option of selecting a gay man as their sperm donor and want to be inseminated with medical assistance.

Nonetheless, using artificial insemination with anonymous donor sperm is a very popular option for couples who would like full control over their conception. There is no chance that a biological father might suddenly show up but there remains the option for future contact if all parties agree to it.

Beyond the sperm bank option, lesbian couples are choosing male friends that may or may not be gay will volunteer to donate. Some lesbian couples forego the turkey baster all together and have sex with a man (or "party" as Salon columnist Susie Bright termed it) in order to get pregnant. (This method was also attempted in an episode of The L-Word, but after Bette and Tina invited a very attractive and willing male partner into their bed, he had the gall to pull out a condom. Foiled again! )

Using a known donor is more common than many in the lesbian community might be willing to admit. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is more acceptable for a lesbian to say that she had conceived using artificial insemination while in reality a known donor was used. The reasons for this are unclear, though perhaps there is a stigma attached to having any male involvement in the babymaking process at all. Another reason could be by denying contact with male donor it will protect the lesbian couple if the donor seeks parental rights down the road.

Whatever the process of insemination, the legal ramifications are hazy at best. The National Center for Lesbian Rights, a lesbian advocacy organization, strongly suggests that any lesbian couple wanting to get pregnant seek legal advice before proceeding to procreation. Laws vary widely from state to state and are changing rapidly, so it is crucial for a couple to find a lawyer who is up to date on current case law regarding gay and lesbian reproductive issues.

FIRST COMES MARRIAGE THEN COMES BABY...


After dating for a year, Janis, 30, and Maria, 34, were ready to commit to each other and took advantage of the San Francisco decision that allowed gay marriage. "We got married in when it was legal and we wanted to have a baby right away. We got pregnant on the first try through artificial insemination. It was easier than I thought," Maria said recently on a conference call where her newborn baby boy could be heard in the background. "I want to have the next baby, but that will not be any time soon!"

Conservatives may be aghast at the idea of lesbian mothers, but in reality lesbian moms have been around for a long time, though only particularly visible since the early 1970s. What is dramatically different now is that instead of having a child within a heterosexual context, women are getting pregnant and starting families with their lesbian partners. Of course this is an excellent argument for gay marriage; what could be more traditional than two married parents raising their child? But that is a whole other article.

What is clear is that lesbians considering motherhood do so with the type of foresight a broken condom does not allow. Goldberger describes the process of getting pregnant as an "emotional rollercoaster" for her group participants, most of whom are in committed relationships. Many lesbians considering parenthood struggle with questions of legitimacy in society, the individual woman's changing role and identity, and concerns over how to guide their child through life within a loving, albeit alternative family structure.

One example of this careful attention is the incidence of miscarriages which are generally believed to be higher among lesbians. Goldberger believes that by virtue of the observation and purpose lesbians give to getting pregnant, the lesbian population is probably not more likely to miscarry than their straight counterparts. There is a learning curve when dealing with questions about fertility, biology, and other mundane medical information. "It can be emotionally rough," Goldberger points out, and why lesbian couples might seek therapy and support groups with others going through the process of getting pregnant.

WHO'S YOUR DADDY?

"We wanted to find a donor, not a 'father' for our baby," recounts Leann 32, of her quest for a donor with her partner Melissa, 38. "Even though I am the one giving birth, it was important for Melissa to have a role, to be the 'daddy.'" When one partner is giving birth, the other may have difficulty determining what her role is, especially when a know donor is used for conception. It may be confusing at first to determine just what is expected of the individual partners when a child enters the family.

This questioning of roles is well known in the lesbian milieu where male/female and butch/femme dichotomies are common dialogues within the lesbian experience. A certain freedom from societal imposed roles is what differentiates lesbian mothers from their heterosexual female counterparts, Goldberger believes. Straight people have the pitfall of roles placed on them based on gender but when two women are the parents, there can be more flexibility in what would ordinarily be a default division of family duties. For example, if one of the mothers has more earning power, then she might be the one going to back to work even if she is the one who gave birth.

FROM MARGINALIZATION TO ACCEPTANCE

Once a lesbian couple is pregnant and then has a child, the world can seem altogether different. "We were suddenly accepted by most parents with kids the same age. It's a little shocking to be approached by people who want to rub your belly when you're pregnant or coo over your little ones when they used to not talk to you at all." This is the new reality lesbian parents are confronted with says Celia, 40. "Having kids is like having a pet in that way, meaning if you are walking alone people generally won't talk to you. If you are walking your dog however, they will stop you and ask about your pet and what its name is. Same with kids. You are suddenly very approachable if you have kids in tow."

Goldberger also notes that lesbian mothers are routinely asked personal and sometimes invasive questions from complete strangers. More often than not the announcement of a couple's pregnancy is met not with congratulations, but with the question, "Who's the father?" As more and more lesbian couples are parenting openly these types of reactions may lessen.

If religious or other types of roadblocks to acceptance are present before pregnancy, Goldberger says, then the introduction of a child can be a step too far. "I'm lucky that my mom is very open, very liberal and is excited for us to have a baby," says Lupe, 28. "My grandparents are from Mexico and they are having a harder time understanding why my partner and I can't just adopt. They say, 'There are so many children without homes!' But we want our own baby, at least the first one." Pre-pregnancy tumult for couples and their families is common and usually subsides once the child is born, Goldberger reports.

The non-biological partner's family might also have a hard time accepting a child as "one of their own." In another episode of The L-Word, Bette (who is bi-racial) was upset when her African-American father refused to accept the child her partner was carrying as his grandson. Goldberger sees this reaction from the non-biological mother's family fairly frequently. It can be tricky to integrate both sides of the family when the baby is born, especially if the non-biological family doesn't feel a connection with the newborn. Time and patience and a degree of openness seem to soften the hostility, says Lupe. "There is just something about a new baby that makes it hard for people to stay mad," she says with a laugh.

While parents, grandparents, and extended families contend with issues of acceptance, some lesbian families contend with intolerance close to home. "We have one neighbor who won't let her daughter hang out with us or our kids too much," Celia relates, "but she is much more relaxed and open to us than she used to be." Once children start school lesbian mothers may have even more outside intolerance to deal with. One of the future benefits of the gayby boom is that lesbian and gay mothers will be less of an anomaly in the pre-schools and grade schools of the future. Nonetheless, it is important for lesbian parents of school aged children to shop around for the most open-minded school possible, advises Goldberger. Cities like San Francisco and New York have a plethora of options for children of lesbian parents so that they are among like-minded adult teachers and where the fellow students are versed in the diversity of the family structure.

MAINSTREAMING THE LESBIAN MOTHER IMAGE


When the New York Times Magazine published Susan Dominus' over-8,000-word piece on the products of what some call the First Wave of out lesbian parenting, it signaled a cultural shift in acceptance for a hidden segment of the parenting population. The normalcy of the family profiled was stark and in the final analysis it painted a portrait of two people who came together and because they loved each other, they decided to have children. Simple as that. Perhaps the gayby boom is nothing more than a reflection of lesbian desire to choose motherhood and technology's ability to assist. Also, the creative media's willingness to explore the possibility of lesbian motherhood on TV shows like The L-Word give a voice (and legitimacy) to the multitudes of lesbian mothers who are nowhere to be found in mainstream media.

But as radical and different as they may seem to the outside world, lesbian mothers see their experience as not unlike any other parent. "Lesbian moms are moms like any other mom. We are up all night with fussy kids, we live with spit-up spots on our shirts. We lug around diaper bags. We adore our kids, love and encourage them. We read them books and kiss their boo boos," says Celia. "Our kids do everything that other kids do and we face the same joys and challenges as any parent. If you think not having a father will ruin a child, you're wrong. Our kids will turn out just fine."

The second season of The L-Word begins February 20, 2005 on Showtime. (The complete first season is available now on DVD.)

LINKS:

For an in depth discussion of TV's lesbian moms: www.afterellen.com
Other sites of interest:
www.FamiliesLikeMine.com

www.ourfamily.org/links.html
www.nclrights.org

Mothers Issue Features:

{ She's Having a Baby: The Lesbian Gayby Boom }
{ Universal Mother: An Interview With Writer Ariel Gore }
{ All About My Mother: The Greatest Movie Moms }
{ Somebody's Mother: A Photo Essay }
{ Losing the Almighty Mother }
{ A Grandmother's Lament }
{ Are You Going to Eat That? Mother's Cooking }

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