Feature Stories

The Known Sperm Donor

I’ve never given much thought to having children, a fact that often surprises the people in my life. “You’d make such a great father!” friends and family will say, or at least the ones who have never seen me hold a newborn like a radioactive sack of potatoes. The truth is, as a single, gay 30-year-old with the parental instincts of a brick wall, I always considered the idea of being a father of any variety — biological or otherwise — on an orbit so far removed from the center of my universe that’s it completely alien to me.

All of that quickly changed a year and a half ago when my good friends Tori and Kelly asked me to be their sperm donor. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was confronting the idea that some little human would be running around the world with my DNA. The thought was both terrifying and intriguing in equal parts, and I spent months vacillating back and forth from a state of pure shock (Really? They picked me?) to narcissism (Wow! They picked me!).

The novelty, however, was quickly replaced by a deep-seated anxiety about what it all meant to be entering a known-donor arrangement with two of my best friends. What would my role be in this child's life? How involved would I be? How would I be known? Would it affect my friendship with Tori and Kelly? The questions were endless, and there were no easy answers.

Mistakenly, I first turned to the Internet for help. Maybe I could find examples of other known-donor arrangements that could serve as a model for my friends and me? But, just as consulting the Internet for advice on a minor health issue never fails to convince me of my imminent death, so too did my online research into sperm donation leave me certain that agreeing to help my friends would end in disaster. Just try searching for “known sperm donor” and see the headlines that pop up: “Why sperm donation is bad for dads and kids!” “Kansas sperm donor ordered to pay child support!” “Miami sperm donor wins custody battle!”

I’ll spoil the surprise: despite all the risks I read about, I ultimately said yes to my friends, and Kelly is now pregnant with a baby girl due this July. So, the deed is done, leaving me all the more eager to find examples of gay men who have served as donors without their entire world falling apart. I knew they must be out there, but they clearly weren't online—apparently the headline, “Known donor situation works out beautifully for all involved” isn’t quite as eye-catching as, “Baby-crazed sperm donor sues lesbians for custody!"

Once I started asking around, though, everyone in my life seemed to know someone in a donor arrangement: my mother’s masseuse, a friend of my old boss’s, so-and-so’s neighbor down the street. Luckily for me, many of these donors, and the women they’ve helped to conceive, were more than happy to provide some insight into what has made their arrangements successful.

So, then, what’s the secret to making a known-donor arrangement work?

***


David, 51

“Well, I’m not a ‘donor’ to my kids, I’m ‘dad,’” said David, when I asked what it’s been like for him as a “known donor.” “But I respect Kelly and Karen as the main caregivers,” he continued, referring to the women to whom he helped conceive. (Observant readers will note that we, too, have a Kelly and David in our trio—I’ve always maintained parents are just asking for their kid to turn out gay by naming him David.)

David met Kelly and Karen while living in the same Boston neighborhood, and the three became friendly with one another over the years. One night, Kelly and Karen took David out to dinner and asked him a life-changing question: would David consider being their donor? While this same request from my friends nearly caused my heart to stop, David's didn’t miss a beat. "I’ve been waiting for this from you guys,” he told his friends. “I kind of always knew this was the road we’d go down.”

So, I was curious to know, at what point in the fourteen years since that original conversation did David realize he’d made a huge mistake? How many lawsuits have there been? How irreparably damaged are his friendships with Kelly and Karen? But try as I might, I found no evidence of drama in David’s arrangement with his neighbors.  "It's been the most amazing experience of my life," he said.  "It couldn't have worked out better."

As David elaborated on the arrangement he has with Kelly and Karen, it became clear why he doesn’t identify himself as a “known donor.” He is a father to his children and acts in the ways traditionally expected of one, attending parent-teacher conferences and family vacations, along with Kelly and Karen. Several years ago, he and his husband, Ben, bought the house next door to Kelly and Karen to allow them an even larger presence in the lives of his children.

“From the beginning, I said I wanted to be more than a special ‘Uncle’ figure,” David told me. “And Karen and Kelly have been exceedingly open to me and my role. It’s not like I need to work to carve out any space.” Though he notes he is not the primary caregiver, he is nonetheless very involved in the lives of his children—Matt, 14; Caroline, 13; and Abby, 11—seeing them on a near daily basis.

But David’s role as a father has played out in less expected ways as well. Caroline, David’s 13-year old, is actually Kelly’s biological niece. Caroline came to live with Kelly and Karen two years ago, and has come to refer to David as “dad” just like his biological offspring. As a result of their donor arrangement, in other words, all of their lives have become inseparably intertwined—and, according to David, for the better.  "We've kind of evolved into this great big family now," David said. "And it's wonderful."

There certainly is something appealing about this it-takes-a-village approach to a known-donor arrangement; but my friends and I, when we originally discussed the idea, never envisioned anywhere near this level of involvement on my part. From Kelly and Karen’s perspective, I also couldn’t help but wonder, wouldn’t it just be simpler to have a less involved donor? Aren’t there too many cooks in the kitchen? Apparently not. “We were willing to take a leap of faith, and I am so glad that we did,” Kelly wrote me via email. “Yes, we have a messy, modern family. There have been bumps in the road, but we have worked through it and have an arrangement that works for us.”

Could something like David’s arrangement with Kelly and Karen work for me and my friends? It’s difficult to imagine. I agreed to become a donor for Tori and Kelly so they could become mothers, not so I could become a father. On a purely selfish note, with work, travel, and friends consuming my days, I also doubt whether I could assume such responsibility with the same level of success as David.

“Be open to more involvement if that is how this arrangement organically evolves,” Kelly offered, as a final piece of advice. “Kids can only benefit from having more caring adults in their lives, provided you and the moms continue to have open and good communication.” Fair enough; my friends and I will keep an open mind. But I also don’t have plans to move next door to them anytime soon.

***

Jeff, 44

On the other end of the donor-daddy spectrum is Jeff—who pointed out that, while he might be a donor to the child he helped conceive, he isn't “daddy.” Jeff, like me, was asked by two good friends to donate. Thanks to his help, they now have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, with another one on the way, due this August. Among the donors I’ve had the opportunity to speak with, Jeff’s circumstances are unique in that he and his friends live in different cities; Jeff lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and they reside in Philadelphia. As a result, Jeff sees his biological offspring about six times a year.

So how has it worked out for Jeff, being involved from a distance? What does this version of a known-donor arrangement look like? “I’m an Uncle to [my friends’ child], just like I am to five other kids,” he said, referring to his biological nieces and nephews. “I might be a ‘special’ Uncle to him, but I don’t offer opinions on how to raise him. I just try to be a good person in his life, be around when I can, and be full of love. But we’re all clear that he’s not my kid.”

My situation is similar to Jeff's in that Tori and Kelly are not looking for a father or co-parent for their children. But unlike Jeff, distance will not be a limiting factor in my involvement. With my friends living a short 20-minute subway ride away from me in New York City, I have the opportunity to be around on a more regular basis. My friends have been nothing but encouraging of my involvement, but in practice, might it be threatening to have someone with a “special” connection to their child hanging around all the time?

"Once you set the stage that you know this isn’t your kid, things are easier from there," Jeff told me, when I raised this concern with him. Originally, Jeff said there were some questions on the part of his friends as to how large of a role he might want to play in their child’s life. “But first impressions are really helpful,” he said. After his friends’ son was born, Jeff flew to Philadelphia to stay with them for a while. Rather than inserting himself into any of the childrearing, he instead helped around the house, cleaning the microwave and buying groceries. This, moreover, is generally the role Jeff has continued to play. “When I’m around, I just try to be helpful,” he said.

Jeff’s main advice to me, then: be clear with my friends that I know my role. “It makes a difference if you’re just trying to be a good friend supporting a family, rather than a ‘special uncle’ demanding to see the kid,” he said. “I made sure to set the tone early on that I know my role in all of this,” he continued, “and I think my friends would like more of me rather than less." And now, rather than harboring any concern over his involvement, “they forward me job applications in Philadelphia,” he said with laugh.

***

Corey, 40

Corey and family

Corey has always wanted children, so when a friend approached him several years ago to ask if he’d be interested in being a donor for a couple looking to start their family, Nicole and Colleen, he was intrigued by the idea. The three had actually never met before, but got to know one another over the course of several months. “We all went out for drinks several times to talk about how it all might play out,” Corey said. “We discussed specifics, and it sounded perfect.”

Of the three donors highlighted in this article, Corey’s involvement falls somewhere in the middle. Corey—who lives a fifteen-minute drive from Nicole and Colleen in New York City—sees his biological daughter, Leila, who is about to turn 3, about once a week. “Unless my mother comes to visit,” he laughs. “Then I see her five days in a row.” Leila refers to Corey as “dad,” but he plays more of what he calls the “fun-uncle” role. “We get to go have adventures and play,” he says of their arrangement. “It’s kind of ideal.” Corey also has a couple of additional adventure buddies on the way; Nicole is pregnant with twins that Corey also helped to conceive, and is due any day.

I could envision maintaining a level of involvement similar to Corey’s— involved, but not too involved—and who doesn’t love a good adventure? But while Corey is comfortable being known as a “father,” my friends and I felt it implied too much of a parental role on my part. Even if I’m around on a fairly regular basis, I won’t be the one shouldering the responsibilities of parenting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

But Corey makes a clear distinction between what it means to be a father and a primary caregiver. “I wouldn’t have done this if I wasn’t going to be known as the father,” he said. “I wanted full disclosure as to who I am to this child.” But Corey also respects his more limited role. “Nicole and Colleen may take my views into consideration, but they will do what they think is best for Leila without hesitating,” Corey said. “And I respect that. At the end of the day, she calls me daddy, but she’s their child.”

Did it bother Nicole and Colleen that Corey got to be a father without assuming the responsibilities of a full-time parent? Far from it, it turns out. “We specifically wanted someone who our future children would know as their dad,” Nicole said, who playfully refers to Corey as their “baby daddy."

Nicole says they also approach their arrangement with a certain ease, which has helped contribute to its success. “We don’t ask a lot of each other, and we trust each other to be open about what we need from each other,” she said. “We’re all just kind of relaxed about it. For people that like things more spelled out, I can see why our kind of relationship might be troubling, but it works for us.”

Though their arrangement has been fairly drama free, Corey admits it was a bit difficult at first integrating Leila into his life. “I work a busy, regular job, and have a busy social schedule,” he said. This is a concern of mine, too. What exactly have I signed up for? How drastically should I expect my life to change?

Corey’s life has certainly changed, he said, but for the better. “I realized if I want to be a part of this child’s life, I’m going to have to be really disciplined about it,” Corey explained. But now, “it’s something that comes naturally,” he continued. “The time I get to spend with her is my best time. It’s something I look forward to. It’s not like, ‘oh I can’t do this or that because of Leila.’ Now, I schedule things around her.”

***

David, Jeff, and Corey's experiences help highlight the wide range of possibilities that exist within the world of known donors. Some donors are "dad" to the children they helped conceived, some are not. Some play an active parenting role, while others are involved at a distance. Most importantly, despite their differences, all the donors I spoke with demonstrate that it's possible to make known-donor arrangements work, without being sued, ruining friendships, or being featured on an episode of Jerry Springer.

While I'm heartened to have found these positive examples, none seem able to serve as a perfect model for my friends and me. These conversations have been extremely useful, and I hope to apply much of what I learned to my own arrangement with Tori and Kelly. But the general outlines surrounding each of these donor arrangements differ in significant ways to my own, which is a bit disappointing. It would be so much easier to pattern our arrangement off of someone else’s successful example. Simply cut and paste. But, as David told me, “There is no cookie cutter model. Our arrangement works well for our family, but it very well might not for you or someone else." Fine, I get it; we’re all unique snowflakes and my friends and I will need to develop an arrangement that works with our own distinctive set of circumstances. No one can do it for us. With Kelly's due date now just over a month away, though, I sought one final piece of advice: how can I best prepare for what I’m about to go through?

The general response can be summed up in a phrase: calm down.

“Just relax!” Corey said. “Don’t put so many expectations on everything. There’s no way you can really prepare for what you’re about to go through."

“Let things develop as they develop," Jeff agreed. "Don’t worry unless there’s something to worry about.”

It's in my nature to worry, but I'm trying my best to heed this advice. And hopefully so, too, will the next poor soul to turn to the Internet for advice after being approached by friends to donate. While they still won't find an instruction manual amid all the doomsday scenarios online, it's my hope that they'll at least stumble across this article and find the stories of these three men, each of whom is making a unique version of a known-donor arrangement work, all at an impressively low-drama frequency. These success stories may not make for the catchiest headlines, but they do show just how good the experience of being a known donor can be.

I’ll also be sure to keep up with my own experiences in future Gays With Kids posts.

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In his 20s, he began his first same-sex relationship with a man, which lasted about five years. But soon the conversation turned towards children. James wanted his own biological children, something that would have been difficult, particularly at the time, to achieve. He and his boyfriends split, and soon after James met the woman who would become his wife. Since he had previously been in a relationship with a man, and his friends and family were aware of his sexuality, there was no hiding his bisexuality from his wife. There was no hiding my bisexuality from her

"We were both in our 30's, and both wanted kids," James said. "Wo were both kind of desperate to find a partner and she expressed that."

He and his wife proceeded to have three daughters together and lived what he called a fairly "conventional" life. "There was so much societal support [for raising a family] within conventional marriage," he said. "This was new to me, since I came out at age 17, and was used to being "different".

Being in a relationship with a woman, James said, alienated him from much of the LGBTQ activism that began to take hold in the 1980s and 1990s. "I felt I could not act as a representative for gay rights while married to a woman and raising kids with her," he said.

When his youngest daughter turned 18, he and his wife split and, and James began, once again, to date other men. Eventually, he met Paul Mutphy, who he has been dating for four years. Since reentering the world dating another man, he's had to confront, at times, people's misconceptions about his bisexuality. "It's not just gay guys looking for more social acceptance," James said, noting that "Bi rights" has not really caught the public's attention in the same way as "gay rights".

Maxwell Hosford, bi trans dad of one, in Yakima Washington


Maxwell Hosford, who lives in Yakima, Washington, came out as bisexual when he was 13-years-old. "I was still questioning myself," he said "and the term bisexual seemed to fit me."

A year later, when he was 14, Maxwell also came out as trans. "I had heard about Chaz Bono on the radio one morning before school and it got me thinking," he said. "I realized that I wasn't the only one who felt that way and that there was a term for how I've felt."

Though people often conflate sexual orientation and gender identity, Maxwell stressed that he sees his identity as trans and bisexual as perfectly natural. "I see them interacting in a way of fluidity," he said. "Not straight but not gay. Just a feeling of love."

Maxwell described his path to parenthood as a bit of an accident. "I was on testosterone for two years but had a four-week break because i was switching doctors," he said. During that break, Maxwell ended up getting pregnant, and wasn't aware of the pregnancy for several months after. "I just thought my body was just being weird from starting T again," he said. Once he took the test and saw the two pink lines, though he knew his life was about to change forever. He went to Planned Parenthood the very next day.

Being pregnant while trans, Maxwell said, was an incredible experience. "I was comfortable enough with my gender identity that I didn't have very much dysphoria," he said, though he noted he did face a lot of misgendering from strangers. "But I understood that because I did have a big ole pregnant belly," he said. He was grateful for his medical team who all referred to him according to the correct pronouns.

Soon after, his son Harrison was born. As soon as he held him in his arms, Maxwell said the entire process was worth it. "All the misgendering, all the questions and people misunderstanding doesn't matter once you have that baby in your arms nothing matters but that little bundle of joy."

Three years ago, Maxwell met his current fiancé, Chase Heiserman, via a gay dating app, and the three now live together as a family. He says he couldn't be happier, but he does face some difficulty as a bi trans man within his broader community. "In some peoples eyes my fiancé and I are a straight couple because I'm trans and he's cisgender," he said. Some of the difficulty has even stemmed from other trans men. "I've had some bad comments from other transmen regarding my pregnancy and how it doesn't make me trans," he said, noting he continues to fight the perception that he is not "trans enough" because he chose to carry his own baby.

Through it all, though, Maxwell says becoming a father has been the biggest blessing in his life. "Being able to carry my baby and bond through those nine months was amazing," he said. "I'm breastfeeding, which is hard as I'm trans, and so I'm self conscious of my large breasts now but it's such a bonding experience that it doesn't matter when I see the look of love and the comfort he gets from it."

For other gay, bi and trans men considering fatherhood, Maxwell has this simple piece of advice: "Go for it."

Michael MacDonald, bi dad of two, in Monterery California 

Michael MacDonald, who is 28-years-old and living in Monterey California, says he came out as bisexual over two years ago. He has two daughters, who are four and two-and-a-half years old, that were born while he was married to his ex-wife. "My children are amazing," he said. "They have been so incredibly strong and brave having mom in one house and dad in another."

Both children were fairly young when Michael and his ex separated, so "they didn't really break a deeply ingrained idea of what a family unit is like. They have always just sort of known that mom and dad don't live together."

Co-parenting isn't always easy, Michael said, noting it's "one of the hardest things in the world." He and his ex overcome any potential difficulty, though, by always putting the children first. "As long as they are happy, healthy and loved, that is all that matters," he said. "I'm so fortunate to have such an incredible/pain in the butt partner to help me raise these amazing little girls."

Though the separation was hard on all of them, Michael said it's also been an amazing experience watching his children's resiliency. "I am so proud of the beautiful little people they are," he said. "Their adaptability, courage and love is something really spectacular."

Since the separation, Michael hasn't been in a serious relationship, but he has dated both men and women, something he says has been "absolutely challenging. Not only does he need to overcome all the typical challenges of a newly divorced parent ("Do they like kids? Would they be a good stepparent?") but also the added stresses of being bisexual. "It can sometimes just be a bit too much for some women to handle," he said.

He has been intentional about making sure his children have known, from a young age, that "daddy likes girls and boys," he said. "They have grown up seeing me interact with people I've dated in a romantic way, like hand holding, abd expressing affection, so I think as they get older it's not something that will ever really seem foreign or different to them to see me with a man or woman," he said.

In his dates with other men, Michael says most guys tend to be surprised to learn that he has biological children. "But once I explain that I am bisexual, it's usually much more easily understood," he said. He is more irritated, though, when people question or outright refuse to recognize his bisexuality. "While I understand and have witnessed many guys who use bisexuality as a "stepping stone" of sorts when coming out," he said, it does not mean that "bisexuality is not real or valid."

As a bisexual dad, he also says he can feel isolated at times within the broader parenting community. "It can be a little intimidating feeling like you don't really belong to one side or another," he said. "There's this huge network of gay parents, and, of course straight parents. Being sort of in the middle can sometimes create a feeling of isolation"

The biggest misconception about bisexual dads who have split with their wives, he said, is that sexual orientation isn't always the reason for the separation. "When my ex wife and I separated, while my bisexuality did play a small part in it, it was not the reason we separated," he said. He added that while life might not be perfect, it's good. "My children are happy, healthy, and loved," he said. "That's really what matters the most."

Fatherhood, the gay way

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