2.21 Biology Doesn't Define Our Family

Queer people have had to create and recreate family for a very long time. The meaning has changed and biology doesn’t always play a big role, or a role at all. All the same, the experiences of people whose families are a mixture of biological and non-bio ties are complex. In this episode we explore what it's like to being non-gestational or non-biological parent - what it's like at home (where if often barely registers) versus what it's like to the outside world (far more remarked upon). 

Emily McGranachan grew up with two non-biological parents and one biological parent. She is joined by Susie Luper and Kaden Rushford, two parents whose relationships and ties to their children aren't defined by biology. 

Meet our Guests:

Susie Lupert is the Executive Director of the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey.  She attended the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and New York University where she received a Master’s in Public Policy and Non Profit Administration. Prior to joining ACA, NY and NJ, Susie spent close to a decade at Housing Works, one of the nation’s largest AIDS service providers. She worked to create small for profit businesses which funneled money back to the nonprofit.  Before that, Susie worked at Lambda Legal in the communications department. Susie spends her free time volunteering at the Survival Center in Northampton, MA and playing guitar.  Susie lives in Western Massachusetts with her wife and two children.  

Kaden Rushford is a transperson and lucky father to three incredible humans ages 4, 6, and 6 months. He lives with his kids and wife in Massachusetts.  

Further Reading:

Episode Transcript

Emily M.: Welcome to Outspoken Voices, a podcast by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer parents, people with LGBTQ parents, future parents, and everyone else who is part of our family journeys. I'm your host, Emily McGranachan and I am the Director of Family Engagement with Family Equality Council. Want to know one of my least favorite questions? So who's the real mom? Is your relationship with your bio mom different from your non bio mom? Throughout my life people have really liked these questions and I didn't. Biology just doesn't mean as much to me as it does to other people and for many LGBTQ families, that's really the truth. Queer people have had to create and recreate family for a very long time. The meaning has changed and biology doesn't always play a big role or a role at all on the same. The experiences of people whose families are a mixture of biological and non-bio ties are complex.

Emily M.: So with me today to talk about non-gestational and non-bio parenting is Kaden Rushford and Susie Lupert. Susie is the Executive Director of the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey. Susie lives in western Massachusetts with her wife and two children. Kaden is a trans person and lucky father of three incredible humans ages four, six and six months. He lives with his wife and kids in Massachusetts. So welcome both. To get us started, would you just introduce yourselves and say who is in your family and how was it formed?

Susie L.: My name is Susie and my family consists of myself and my wife Beth and our two boys, a three year old and a nine year old. My partner and I have been together for almost 20 years, so we had a long stretch of time in our, in our lives, forming our own family with friends and other people. And then, um, and then had two children over the course of the last decade.

Kaden R.: My name is Kaden and my family consists of my partner and wife, who really wanted to have a lot of children for her entire life, which was not my experience, but now we are together and we are raising of a four year old, a six year old. The way that they came to be was what we thought was the way queer couples have children. We used an anonymous donor through a Sperm Bank of California. Then our third child, because we were going for three, we decided to break that mold and we use a known donor.

Emily M.: Susie, you mentioned that you and your wife were together for a long time before. So what, what made you decide to become a parent?

Susie L.: It's a hard question to answer because when we decided to have our first child, which was now over a decade ago, we didn't know as many LGBTQ families. I feel like now we know a lot of queer families who are having children. And at that time none of our friends were doing that. I don't remember a lot of it except that we were kind of like turning 30 and thought, well, what if we tried to do this? I never thought I was going to have children growing up. It never occurred to me because I was queer at such a young age but didn't know what that meant. And so I just assumed I would just never have kids. So I think for me it was about, or for us, it was about getting to a point in our lives where we had been together for a long time and it just felt like an adventure that we wanted to try to take.

Kaden R.: I relate a lot to that story. I was definitely aware of being queer as a very young. My earliest memories are, ...oh, that's, that's what I am and that means I won't get married and that means I won't have children, but that's fine. I'll be happy being who I am as an individual in the world. And I anticipated if I would have children it would be because I was with someone who already had a child. I expect my life story that I told myself was I will be an amazing step parent, not a non-gestational sort of parent from the start. But I love my partner tremendously and the vision that she has for the world, I could have had, but it wasn't one that I felt was open to me. So it wasn't like I didn't want kids. It was like I didn't know how to want kids. It's actually, I'm surprised it's a little emotional to think about that, but I definitely related to your, to your concept of like, oh, that's not going to be me.

Emily M.: Even my own mom shares her stories of coming out in the seventies. That was sort of what she had in mind, like by coming out and by being out she was letting go of becoming a parent. Did either of you really, when talking with your partner and really deciding that this was something that you were going to do, did you consider multiple paths to parenthood?

Susie L.: Hmm. I mean I definitely knew I was not, was never going to carry a baby and I had no interest in that and I still don't. So it was a little bit like I was lucky enough that my partner was totally willing and didn't mind at all. We do always look back on it, because we know plenty of people where one person is perfectly willing and then they're not able to. And they're like, well great, we have another uterus so let's try somebody else. And I have to say if it hadn't worked with her, I still would have never gotten pregnant. So then I think that some other routes we would have discussed, but we were lucky enough that she was able to get pregnant fairly quickly.

Kaden R.: I was not going to make use of all of the, uh, biological abilities that I, there was no way. I do know a couple of trans guys who birthed their children and gender queer, gender variant, friends of mine are now pregnant and that is awesome to see. And I again, I don't know if I had been exposed to those things earlier, if that would have changed my life course. But definitely given the experiences that I've had, I was not gonna carry. So we would have explored other, other options and did again with the third kid. We thought about it differently.

Emily M.: So was biological connection then important to you or important to your partners who did carry? Was that something that came up when sort of deciding the route or did that just feel right to people?

Susie L.: Yeah, I mean I have to say for me, because I really never had any interest in carrying, I really didn't feel I had a right to care about the bio part. Even a decade later, I really don't care. It's not something we talk about. It's part of our family story. It's part of our narrative and I think what we've tried to instill in the kids is that we're lucky that we live in this world where we get to choose how we want to create our families. You have this unique experience and it has zero bearing on how much we love each other and how we care for each other. I never wanted it to be an option for myself, so I had to reckon very early with the fact that I wasn't going to be biologically related to these kids and I would love them to death anyway.

Kaden R.: I like didn't even look at the donors that we found online. I mean, actually I should say one difference was that to both my wife and I are both biracial. And so we did talk about finding a Filipino donor, of which there are 12, which I was like, great. Like if we're going to go through it a converging step, let's do that. So we narrowed. So that ethnic connection to my mother's lineage did appeal to me. I don't know that I would have made it a 'must have' on the list. But we did think about race and ethnicity in our selection. And genetically I sometimes feel lucky that they don't carry some of my family, stuff. Like when they are a certain way that is similar to my wife or her family, I love being able to be like that was 100 percent, not me...maybe the Internet.

Kaden R.: So that I guess I don't really care. And as a trans person, I don't know what it's like to be biologically male, but I consider with my hormone balance to be pretty, even if it's synthetic, biologically male. And so I have a very gray relationship with sort of what's biology really and what's genetic really. So maybe that helps.

Susie L.: It's only been recently with our nine year old that he's starting to really understand what that biological connection is or isn't. And really what it means that he has this donor. It's been like the last year I would say. Now we're literally will just be walking to school and out of nowhere he asked me a question about it and that wasn't happening even a year ago. So I think developmentally it's starting to be more in his mind.

Emily M.: I think going to school had something to do with it for me because I started asking, (I have a sperm donor) and I started asking my mom about it at probably six. I think school probably had something to do with that. People asking me, where's your dad? Do you have a dad? I think when people start asking me, I started asking my parents. I think that really is when it kind of happened for my family.

Emily M.: Do you use terms like non-gestational or non-bio to describe yourself? Just that, just that term starts with non, you know, it starts with that negative.

Susie L.: I've never used those terms describe. I would never use those terms to describe my family were to describe my family to somebody. It would never even occur to me. Yeah, I mean it's the same with that kind of term with non-biological, I never faced those terms really until other people have foisted upon me and then I'm like, oh yeah, right. Yeah. I guess that's what I am, but luckily I haven't had many experiences where that's been a part of my life.

Emily M.: I do, I really relate with that. When I talk about my family and talk about like growing up, going into the specifics of who gave birth to me didn't feel relevant because the day to day of who was putting me to bed and who was disciplining me or you know, signing my permission slips was like both of them. Like that's just what my parents did and it's different than from other moments where having terms has felt so important to me. Like the first time I heard the word queerspawn to identify someone who has LGBTQ parents. For me that felt right, that was really empowering. It was a word that made me feel like part of a community versus pigeonholing or adding an additional label that is not relevant in the day to day lives of families.

Susie L.: That's right. And those are how those terms feel to me. Like how is that relevant to anything I did this morning to get my kids to school? The fact that I'm not actually biologically a part of their DNA had no bearing on who woke up my kids, who made them breakfast, how we got them in the car. Finally. None of that has ever been a part of our daily lives I guess.

Kaden R.: I think the language is just very limited. There aren't enough labels to choose from. I would never say that I'm not biologically parenting them or I'm not their bio parent. Are there non just luck. I sort of fit in that well.

Emily M.: When thinking about a donor, you mentioned that for you having some sort of a similar like personal tie or personal relation, you know, connection to that was important. Could you talk some more about that? Or Susie, did you experience anything similar to that? When choosing a or thinking about a donor?

Kaden R.: I honestly think it was about paying some sort of tribute to the ethnic lineage that I have. It was really not necessarily about my current life as it was about what our child would look like if we were able to create them together. There's something about that that helps it fit sort of with the world that we interact with. So if we're out in the world and I'm like, these are my kids, people don't question it. That's a different experience than I had as a biracial person growing up with a white parent because my white parent was not always easily identified as my parents. I had that experience growing up where my mother and I look like we're a family so when we go out, we were perceived to be a family. And I knew what it was like to not have that fully. I carry that burden for sure as a queer person in the eighties and nineties where I got all of that. It might've been subconsciously just wanting to make it a little bit easier to be seen as a unit. We have discussed donors but really more of the biology of like you just need a sperm and an egg in the uterus and that's all you need.

Emily M.: When did you start telling that family story with your kids?

Susie L.: It's similar to what you mentioned before, Emily, about when you were able to start asking those questions when you come home from school for the first time and you realize that some kids have a daddy and some kids don't. And so we had to start forming our own narrative around how we wanted our kids to talk about it and what we felt comfortable with as parents and what we wanted to instill in them to be able to talk fluently about it. But I think for us it did start, at least for our older son, pretty young. And I think similar to what Kaden said about just like, well there's, you know, you want to start talking about just that there's a sperm in a uterus and this is how babies are made and blah, blah blah. And that I don't have sperm. And so we had to find somebody to help us. And there's this person out there and they're called the donor. And I think our oldest really understands that narrative. I've even heard him in the backseat talking to his friends and they ask about his dad and he's like, Dad? I've got two moms and like there's a donor. He's able now to explain it pretty fluently and, at least at this age, without much angst. We'll see if that changes.

Speaker 3: We have talked about it with them...or actually we don't talk about it with them. Fragments of conversations occur where we just state that truth. But the conversations are very choppy and like one line. "...Oh yeah, no, you have a donor. We used a donor, oh, I don't have sperm, you need sperm to make a baby and I don't have that. So we got some. And Cleo's is different, we've got a different one for Cleo." And so we use that language and then it's onto the next thing and then it's like three days later, another thirty second sort of blurb about it. But it has not coalesced into a conversation. Our six year old is a definitely on the trans or gender variant scale. And I'll use 'they' for them in this conversation. So they described themselves as a not-girl, which is different from me even though I'm like, oh, is that like me? And they're like, I'm not like you. And I'm like, okay, that could mean I am not an old person. I'm not an old person who works on a computer all day. It could be a million different things, but they say I'm not like you. And I'm like, okay, so how would you describe how you feel about your gender or whatever? And they'll like, I'm a not-girl. And then we sort of have identified in the world other not-girls.

Kaden R.: What they said to me recently as my wife was pregnant with the third baby, which was fascinating, they were like, so when I grew up, I'm going to find another mom and that mom's going to have my baby. It was a moment when they were like, that's how I'm going to be a parent. I was like, you just go find that person who will do that amazing thing for you. So that's how I see the conversation. It goes in and out of biology and transgender realities and parenting and all of that is all kind of one big soup.

Susie L.: I would definitely say we take our kids lead on the conversations. It ebbs and flows.

Emily M.: I am a very lucky that both of my parents are very supportive of my questions about my donor. They knew I wanted to contact my donor and we talked about that. We were all on board. Other people asked, how is Nancy kind of feel about that? And I'm like, well fine, because Nancy's still my mom. My donor is still my donor. I turned 18 and on my birthday I had printed out my letter to send to the clinic. After I got it notarized, it was sent that day. I was highly motivated and because we were able to talk about it, I never got the perception that that drive of mine was a threat to them or that they perceived that as me needing to find my real self or find out about my true family anything like that because that's not what it was for me.

Susie L.: It doesn't feel threatening to me at all. I would I understand the curiosity of wanting to know where you come from. It would be important to me. So it feels natural. This isn't something I have a hang-up about, plenty of hang-ups in my life, but this this isn't one of them. I could see it very early when I talk to new parents about it. Even when I was talking to this friend recently whose wife is pregnant with their first baby and it's very early on and she's a little bit stressed about like what that relationship is going to be like for herself. I want to just be like, none of that will matter the first time that like you're up at four in the morning and parenting and like, doing it. Those anxieties about whether your baby is going to love you or connect with you because you're not biologically related just disappear. I think it can be an issue when the baby's very, very young, if one person is breastfeeding for a long time. There can b stress around that where you're not able to carry as much bonding time with an infant, but that's a very short period of time and then you have the rest of your life to deal with those kids.

Kaden R.: I was just going to say that somebody is helping that person who's breastfeeding. Right now our six month old and my wife are a unit. We are really a family of four. It's like one and a half plus the rest of us and that is very real. That is my role is to try to help them have a comfortable experience in the middle of the night. If that means I'm doing stuff in the middle of night, fine. But if that means actually all I'm doing is passing the pillow, fine. I sort of follow their follow their lead.

Emily M.: Do you have any final thoughts or anything you'd want to share for other someone who is maybe listening that is starting the journey or deeply in it and seeking community?

Kaden R.: I definitely think finding other people who you can relate and are experiencing something is essential, especially if the way your family is created is not reflected all around you. I think we just did a baby class, but that was it. But I would have liked I - there's a trans guy group that happens to have other parents in it. I started actually calling it the Trans Dad's group even though it's not, it just there are other dads in that group and so it ran its course. But that was awesome just to get pizza and beer with other people who had young kids and had formed families in similar ways. Even though we talked about a whole host of things, just being around them was very nice.

Kaden R.: I could put a plug in for Family Week because that's amazing. [Family Week in Provincetown, MA is the largest annual gathering of LGBTQ families in the world - www.ptownfamilyweek.com]. We've gone for like three years and we're going again this summer. That's a time for the kids to be around predominantly gay people and then children.

Susie L.: Yeah, we went to the first time last year and we'll be back this year. To me, it normalizes the other 51 weeks out of the year, even though we are in a very sort of queer community group. Most of our close friends have children. Most of them are women and our kids are exposed to that, but it's not enough. It's not the same as an immersive sort of week where queer culture is the dominant culture and all of the children there are experiencing similar things with their parents being queer. So I love it. I wish everybody could live in a state that had a Family Week.

Emily M.: I love Family Week! I went for the first time when I was 13 with my moms and it was amazing. Now I get to plan it and so clearly it's very important to me and it was very meaningful for me. It was sort of that queer booster shot that got me through the rest of the year because I got a whole lot of what I needed all at once and it could keep going. Well this has been so fantastic. Thank you both so much for joining me today and having this conversation. It's been great.