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Yes, We’re Giving Sperm Donors Too Much Credit

I worry that there is an overabundance of focus on sperm donation to queer parents, and not enough on the folks raising the children.

flickr / m anima

By Katherine DM Clover

Queer women, and other LGBTQIA folk with uteruses? We’ve been making babies for a long time. But making those babies isn’t always easy, in part because of one tiny cell: the spermatozoa. While many straight people (though certainly not all) have all the basic ingredients to grow a new human right within their relationship, many (though certainly not all) queer people need to look a little farther for all of the components.

For those of us with uteruses looking to carry pregnancies, that often means using a sperm donor.

I’m a queer woman, married to a non-binary person who was assigned female at birth, so when we decided to have a kid together we knew we were going to need sperm. Our child is a toddler now, and when folks ask about our family (and they ask a lot) I’m usually very open and honest about our arrangement. Partly I do this for my kid’s sake — I don’t want him to grow up getting the idea that the way he came to be is a dirty secret — but I also have no problem being the person who educates people about the realities of queer reproduction.

Lately I’ve noticed something, though. People are really interested in our kid’s sperm donor (who just happens to be trans). And people think it was really really nice of them to give us that sperm. Sometimes it almost feels like a jumping off point to a larger conversation, which is all about how giving and amazing the people are who donate sperm to needy ladies like me. To hear people talk about it, sperm donors are brave and inspiring heroes, doing something selfless to aid others on their way protracted path to parenthood.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m really glad we were able to get sperm when we needed it, and I certainly said thank you. But the overemphasis on sperm donors in the world of queer parenting is starting to make me uncomfortable. When there are so many queer folks working so hard to raise kids, why is there so much focus on the people (mostly men) who donated the sperm? Sperm is undeniably an important part of bringing a human child into the world, but so are many other things. I worry that there is an overabundance of focus on sperm donation, and less on the folks raising the children.

Sperm donation, at its core, is a pretty simple concept. Forgive me for getting all sex-ed on you, but to make a fetus (that can grow into a baby) you need a sperm and an egg. If you need more info, I recommend What Makes A Baby, by Cory Silverberg (my kid loves that book). Some people want to have children, but don’t have sperm. In those cases, donated sperm (either from a friend who makes sperm, or purchased from a sperm bank) can be used to fertilize an egg or eggs. Depending on the specific circumstances for all involved, conception might take place in a clinic, at a doctor’s office, or even at home (and no, most of us didn’t have sex with our sperm donors).

A person absolutely doesn’t have to be gay or queer to need or use a sperm donor, but it’s pretty common among queer women. In this essay, that’s mostly what we’re talking about.

For the uninitiated, there are two main types of sperm donors: known donors and unknown donors. Known donors are typically people you know (just like it sounds like), and they agree to do you a solid by giving you some sperm. The other option is the unknown donor, which means that you are purchasing sperm from a sperm bank, and you don’t know the person who donated. It’s generally understood that unknown donors are legally simpler (and therefore safer) and known donors are a murky legal area. Many banks also offer a third option, which is an unknown donor who agrees to have their contact information eventually released to any children they help create. For many parents, this seems like a nice compromise. All of those options are equally valid ways to make a family.

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Oh, and almost all the sperm donors at sperm banks in the United States are straight, cisgender men. Just like gay men don’t get to donate blood in the United States, they aren’t able to anonymously donate sperm. Which means that when we talk about sperm donors in general, and their awesome generosity that leads them to selflessly part with their sperm, we’re mostly talking about straight dudes. And if they donated through a sperm bank, they were financially compensated. Whether or not that compensation was fair for the amount of time and inconvenience demanded is another matter, and in truth, it seems like donating sperm is not all that sweet a deal. However, many kinds of labor pay poorly, yet few low wage jobs comes with the “selfless hero” label.

So why are these heterosexual men who were paid to masturbate without lube the heroes of the queer parenting world? Well, I think the way we talk about men who part with their genetic material reflects a lot about our own culture — and our culture is infused with patriarchy at almost every level.

Our culture sees men who give up their sperm as giving up something fundamental and important, and that something is paternity. On some level, we still see fatherhood as biological, and we still see fathers as patriarchs. We see this ideology manifest in various subtle forms, like the way that “to father” as a verb means to get somebody pregnant, but “to mother” always includes the physical and emotional labor of parenting.

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It’s there in the fact that westerners originally assumed the soul of a new child was literally contained in the father’s semen. And even though we now know that the sperm and egg are equally important, much of our reproductive education still anthropomorphizes sperm cells. Sperm tends to be seen as active, competitive, willful, and goal-oriented…in contrast to eggs, which are usually portrayed as passive receptors. As far as the patriarchy is concerned, men have a biological right to control their children, and to give away a single spermatozoa is to relinquish that right over a potential child.

How brave, how noble.

This hyper-focus on the supposed sacrifice made by sperm donors is insulting to the people doing the actual labor of making, birthing, and raising children. Queer parents themselves face an incredible number of hurdles at almost each step of our parenting journey, and we deserve credit for the enormous amount of work we do.

Planning for and trying to conceive is work. Carrying a pregnancy is work. Giving birth is work. Caring for a newborn is a hell of a lot of work, as is caring for a child of pretty much every age. On top of that, we often deal with social stigma and a host of other issues related to our marginalized identities (which can be amplified if we are multiply marginalized). All of this is labor that deserves recognition, and is not performed by sperm donors.

Sperm tends to be seen as active, competitive, willful, and goal-oriented — in contrast to eggs, which are usually portrayed as passive receptors.

It isn’t that donating sperm isn’t a nice thing to do, it absolutely is. Rather, the issue is that the level of praise and admiration seems a little outsized. The people (predominantly men, though our particular sperm donor happens to be trans) who donate sperm are absolutely giving part of themselves away, and that’s an act of generosity that matters.

But we need to be very clear here: They aren’t sacrificing a limb or a vital organ — they’re donating individual cells, which their bodies readily and easily replenish in case they need more. And yet, our culture insists on elevating this act and the people behind it, while ignoring the labor of queer parents.

Even in the world of queer moms, it seems, we can’t escape the far reaches of patriarchal bullshit.

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