A new three-part documentary, coming to HBO at the end of September, explores some of the vast difficulties same-sex couples have faced while starting families of their own.
HBO’s Nuclear Family, made by filmmaker Ry Russo-Young, examines the experience of her own lesbian mothers, Robin Young and Sandy Russo, who formed a queer family in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City.
The series follows the story of Ry and her older sister Cade, who were born via sperm donors; two gay men whom the girls knew growing up.
But in 1991, when Ry was 9 years old, her donor, an attorney named Tom Steel, sued her mothers for paternity and visitation rights, kicking off a historic four-year legal battle at a time when same-sex parents were not protected by the law.
In the documentary, Young says Steel fell in love with Ry as a child, and saw her as “intertwined with his sense of who he really was,” so he fought to be legally declared her father.
Since Young carried the pregnancy with Ry, Steel could only have been declared the father by the court if Russo would be defined as not a parent, since she was not biologically related to Ry.
“Families come in all different shapes and sizes, and mine was very clear,” Russo-Young told TIME. “It was very intentional from the beginning. My moms knew what they wanted, and they’ve fought for that their entire lives.”
In their argument for Steel’s right to be Ry’s father, his legal team presented sexist and homophobic pseudo-science about lesbians. Steel also barred Russo from entering the courtroom, which led to her standing on a stool and looking through the window of the door during the court proceedings.
Since Steel died in the late 1990s, Russo-Young’s documentary instead examines his possible motivations for the suit, interviewing his friends, family, and former legal team.
“Tom took on the lawsuit knowing that the law he was going to have to use was an abomination,” said Nanci Clarence, Steel’s law partner, in the second episode. “But I think he felt he had no choice.”
Russo-Young’s past films include mostly narrative stories, like the young adult movies Before I Fall (2017) and The Sun Is Also A Star (2019.) Russo-Young said telling her family’s story in a documentary format allowed her to face some unanswered questions about her own childhood.
“For the beginning, one of [my] goals was to allow myself… to hear the other side of the story,” she told TIME. “I knew that it felt like it was scary to go there. And therefore I knew I wanted to walk through that door, because I felt unresolved somehow, inside, emotionally with this whole morass in my life.”
The film also serves as a reminder of how far LGBTQ+ rights have come; the moms form their family via at-home artificial insemination because same-sex couples couldn’t get served at sperm banks, and they were sued for parental rights a time when same-sex couples had no legal protections and marriage equality was decades away.
“People didn’t know what to do with us, both in the gay and lesbian community, and outside of it,” Young recalls on screen. “They were always trying to make us into anything but a real family.”
The first episode of Russo-Young’s three-part documentary Nuclear Family will air on September 26th on HBO, followed by the second episode on October 3rd, and the final episode on October 10th.
Watch the trailer here: