For Sofia Carianna, finding the sperm donor her mother used to get pregnant wasn’t about answering lifelong questions. It wasn’t about trying to solve some mystery of herself. It wasn’t even something she’d entertained for very long.
She had grown up in the Miami area with two moms and two dads, and she and her brother ran back and forth between the house their moms lived in and the one their dads occupied right next door.
“We didn’t have too much curiosity about the sperm donor. We had more parents than we needed,” she said with a laugh.
But after Carianna’s cousin, also conceived using a sperm donor, found a half sibling using 23andMe, Sofia’s curiosity piqued. Sure, it would be nice to learn more about the man who gave her half her DNA, but what really intrigued her was the idea that there might be other kids out there, possibly right around her age, who were total strangers but with one big thing in common.
Five years ago, when Sofia turned 18, she also turned to 23andMe. What she found wasn’t a simple answer that explained the whole of her genetic code. Instead, the world of people she might plausibly call “family” expands a little more with every passing year.
“I found a half sister, and then it snowballed very quickly,” Carianna told LGBTQ Nation. “I found a half brother, and then I found another one. And then they found another one who had already been in contact with five more. I went from, ‘It’s just me and my brother’ to now there are 29 of us and counting. Every year we get together and we have a little sibling reunion weekend.”
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Though the number of half siblings Carianna has found is dramatic, her story is one familiar to many families. Whether the children in those families were conceived via surrogacy, genetic donors, or adoption, plenty of families have had to negotiate the process of helping a child find biological parents and then figure out how to incorporate that knowledge into their own identity.
That journey can be even more fraught for queer parents, who have had to fight for so many familial and parental rights that cishet parents take for granted. We are also entering a period when the number of children raised by queer parents is booming. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that approximately 191,000 children were living with same-sex parents, the highest number ever.
It may not be fair, but it is nonetheless crucial for queer parents to take extra steps to ensure they are legally bound to their children.
Once they reach adulthood, many of those children will inevitably seek out the people they are related to by DNA. So how are queer parents and their kids to handle this in a way that reaffirms their family bonds while still leaving room for kids to explore their own genetic identities? There are no fast and easy answers because family, however defined, is always complicated.
“I was raised with the philosophy that blood doesn’t matter. I’m not related to three out of my four parents at all, so the philosophy was always nurture over nature, 100 percent,” Carianna said. “When I met my half siblings, it’s not that I realized that was wrong because I don’t think it was. There’s just a connection to them that is undeniable. You look across the table, and you see someone you’ve met for the very first time, and they have some mannerism or they say something a certain way, and there’s this flash of recognition. You’re just, like, ‘Oh, this person I’m meeting is my sister.’ ”
How to talk to kids about their biology
Ember Carianna, Sofia’s birth mother, says that when her son (Carianna’s brother) turned 5, he started asking her which of his two dads was his “dad” dad. And by the time he was 8, he wanted to know every detail. She tried to take it in stride.
“When you have children, you start out, like, ‘I want a baby. This is going to be for me. It’s mine.’ And when you have a baby, pretty quickly, you get that, oh no, they’re not yours. You are theirs,” Ember told LGBTQ Nation.
For us, IVF was an exciting beginning, a process that allowed the two of us to really make our baby together.
Kids naturally want to explore their identity separate from their parents. Everybody wants to figure out what’s important to them and them alone. That process starts early, and it starts in the home. And in a queer family, where children might be noticing the different ways in which that family is structured, questions will arise.
“Even if you know better, there’s a norm in the back of your mind that’s imposed on you. There’s a picture-perfect, nontoxic dad; perfect, strong but loving mom out there somewhere that your child might have,” said Dr. Tia Powell, a bioethicist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “But that doesn’t really exist. In the end, the main message you’re giving your child is that you love them, and they’re the best thing that’s happened to you.”
LGBTQ+ advocates and influencers Terrell and Jarius Joseph are dads to two 5-year-olds and a new baby, but they’ve been talking to their son and daughter about the different ways families can be constructed since they were toddlers. Now that their older children are in school, however, they’re starting to more frequently see those other family structures in the real world.
“They’re not necessarily asking questions. When we’re in the car, perhaps we can overhear them playing, and our daughter’s playing the mom, and our son’s playing the dad,” Jarius said. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, talk to us,’ and ask something like, ‘Why are you the mommy?’ Things like that. And we follow that up with the discussion of the different family makeups.”
When a child asks questions about how their family differs from others, it’s important to determine what lies behind those questions, said Dr. Susan Vaughan, a psychiatry professor at Cornell University. Especially when a child is younger, finding out why they’re asking seemingly pointed questions about their parentage can reveal the interesting ways in which their minds process the world around them.
Vaughan is both an expert in the field and someone with lived experience. She and her wife raised two daughters, both of whom were conceived using the same sperm donor. When Vaughan’s older daughter was around 5 years old, she asked if a man who ran a restaurant the family visited often was her father. Vaughan and her wife quickly realized that this question had begun to loom large for their daughter, and they had to clarify that they didn’t actually know the donor’s identity. As their children aged, their questions grew more sophisticated.
“People deserve to know themselves as fully as possible and to be able to put together the pieces they want. Any sense of competition or jealousy I might have has to go on the back burner, the way you put a lot of things on the back burner when you’re a parent,” Vaughan said. “You don’t want to interfere with their curiosity or their finding out whatever it is they think they want to know.”
The Josephs laid the groundwork for talking about these issues by having frequent conversations with their kids about what it means to be a family — and always underlining their love for their children. They never wanted their kids to be blindsided by questions about how they came to be thanks to going out into the world and seeing the way other families are built.
“We don’t ever want them to find out or become curious [about their biological parentage] solely based on their surroundings. I would rather have the conversation here first and get ahead of it, so we’re building that foundation,” Terrell said. “I don’t want to go through life saying, ‘You don’t have a mom. You literally came from nowhere.’ ”
“I think [these conversations] are uncomfortable because we make them uncomfortable,” Jarius added. “When a child falls, if the parent has this, ‘Oh, my God!’ reaction, the child feels that, and then everything becomes magnified. But if you have a calm approach to it and you make it seem like, ‘You just had an accident. It’s OK,’ you can just pick them up and brush them off. If you approach the conversation that way, too, they’re gonna receive it that way. But if you make it a really big deal, then it’ll be a big deal to them.”
While it can be a powerful part of self-discovery, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of finding biological donors before doing so.
All of these conversations become trickier as teenage years approach. Since adolescence is such a fraught time for parent–child relationships — and since when children turn 18, they are typically able to seek information (whether through legal means or a DNA testing service) about the people they share DNA with — a child’s desire to find information about their biology might prompt more fear. Vaughan cautioned against that too.
“It’s really about parents getting to know themselves and getting right in their own minds,” Vaughan said. “It can be easy to personalize it, like they’re hurting you or want a different parent. But it’s probably pretty unlikely.”
Amanda DeDiego, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming and a licensed family counselor, said that questions children have about their biological family members might be best understood as extensions of questions that all of us ask ourselves over and over again at every stage of life. “We’re all on this adventure of figuring out: Where do I fit? How do I take up space or not take up space? Who are the safe people in my life? What things am I able to control? Those feel like the aspects of life that we grapple with in different phases,” DeDiego told LGBTQ Nation. “And we constantly have to reexamine those things. ‘OK, some parts of my life have changed. Now who am I?’ ”
How ‘chosen family’ informs biological family
In some ways, the quest for identity that queer people are so familiar with might be the best lens through which to view the questions children ask about biological parents both before and after finding them.
“What makes you a lesbian? You’re a lesbian because you say you’re a lesbian,” Ember Carianna said. “So what makes somebody family? They’re family because you both feel like you’re family.”
Queer people have been establishing our own definition of “family” for generations. In some ways, that familiarity with breaking apart societal norms can be a huge benefit when entering situations like Carianna’s, where she spends a weekend every summer with over two dozen half siblings, some of whom might be meeting everyone else for the first time.
“My family has never fit into the accepted American capitalist nuclear straight family shape. I’ve never thought, ‘What’s it like to have gay parents?’ This is my family, and this is its shape. It doesn’t really matter whether I think it’s correct or subversive,” Carianna said. “Having this more fluid, less concrete way of looking at family was always helpful for me in meeting my siblings specifically.”
DeDiego suggested parallels between the ways queer people define family and the ways kids who seek out biological relatives in adulthood might define family. Where queer people might reject complicated relationships with their families of origin in favor of a chosen family, something similar happens in the opposite direction for kids raised by loving queer parents who then seek out biological relatives. They already know who makes them feel safe and loved. That knowledge gives them the space to figure out how to build connections based on blood.
“It makes them a part of your story, but it may not make them a part of your family. You get to decide that,” she said.
In some ways, these ideas mirror the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture, the question of whether who we are is innate or taught to us. (Let’s briefly acknowledge that the “debate” is built atop a faulty premise: “Everything interesting is both nature and nurture,” Powell said. “It’s not either/or.”)
But the question of whether one can embrace some truer, more essential self has always been one with an appeal to queer people.
The paradox is that when it comes to queer parenthood, the idea of a “biological identity” — or an identity a child has outside of the home — can feel like rejection in a way that’s somewhat similar to how cishet parents can feel a false rejection from their kids coming out as queer.
Since Terrell and Jarius Joseph’s children are still young, they have several years to prepare for what might happen when their kids want to seek out the surrogates who gave birth to them. Yet they can feel the pressure of that moment in the future.
“There’s this little part in the back of your head where it’s, like, ‘What happens when they do find who their moms are? What does that look like with how our relationship is going to be?’ ” Jarius said. “Hopefully, doing the work of parenting throughout the years creates that bond and that relationship to where [finding their surrogate moms] is just a bonus to you, and hopefully a benefit to them.”
The child has no control over any of this, but the parent can fear that their child might not come back once they find their “real” family,” Powell said.
“People have lots of questions about identity — about their sexual orientation, their gender identity, but also their biological identity. Those are all important questions that smart, thoughtful people want to wrestle with,” Powell said. “It’s not that they didn’t love you or that you don’t love them. It’s more about as a biochemical and human entity in the world, where do you fit? And is there a half sister out there that has exactly the same dimple?”
The impossibility of a single, fixed identity
For all the theories anyone can offer, for all the ways in which someone can give advice on how to deal with these situations, grappling with the relationship triangle of a parent, child, and biological parent is always going to be emotionally messy. That grappling will inevitably involve people who try to do their best and still screw up, as people often do.
When she reached adulthood, Savvy Vaughan-Wasser, Susan Vaughan’s oldest daughter, decided to finally answer the questions she’d had her whole life and try to find the man her mothers had used as a sperm donor. When they first made contact, they would write long, endless emails to each other, in which Savvy tried to find out intricate details of his life, from whether he had pets growing up, to where he had traveled, to whether her incredibly pale skin came from him. Then the time came to meet him in person, and she froze just a bit. There was very little advice she could find on how to proceed. (Some discussion and support groups for adoptees or children of donors exist on sites like Reddit and Facebook, but it’s harder to find the more general etiquette advice Savvy was looking for.)
“There is usually advice for what to wear on a first date, what to wear going out with friends,” Savvy told LGBTQ Nation. “There isn’t anything for what to wear when you’re meeting a sperm donor. It’s not a type of relationship that fits into a box that even has stereotypes about it.”
What’s more, who are Savvy and her sperm donor to each other? They’re kind of colleagues in that she doesn’t text him constantly or send him memes. But they’re also kind of friends in that she tries to make sure he knows all of the important things going on in her life. But what about a familial connection?
“A lot of people ask, ‘Is it a paternal relationship?’ To be honest, I don’t think so,” Savvy said. “I have no point of reference as to what a paternal relationship is. I love my moms, and I think I got the best deal of any family situation, but from what I understand of other people’s relationships with their father, it’s not like that.” She thought for a second. “It’s like having a close family friend. That’s the closest relationship I can compare it to.”
Carianna has similar feelings. She feels a powerful connection with her half siblings, one that sometimes is difficult to put into words. She has half siblings who were raised in wildly different circumstances. Yet any differences they might have are ironed out by the simple fact that something deep down inside of them just vibes. They’re all deeply creative. Lots of them love Bob Dylan. Plenty play instruments. Carianna recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a bachelor of fine arts in dramatic writing, which is what her donor was also interested in. (She’s since found him but had only brief conversations.) But how do you begin to define that relationship?
“I still don’t really know what it is,” Carianna said. “I have a sister who calls us ‘blood friends,’ which I really like. We do feel like family. We are also kind of strangers.”
Emily St. James is a writer and cultural critic whose writing has appeared in Vox, The New York Times, and The A.V. Club. She lives in Los Angeles and is working on a novel.
Kellie Simms is an illustrator and visual artist born in Monterey, California. She was raised by multiple moms and one dad and attended her first Pride when she was only 12. She uses illustration as a tool to strengthen social movements for LGBTQIA+ liberation as well as using it to connect her passions of personal growth, traveling and cooking. She lives in Portland with her wife and rescue dog.