Most people heading in for a late-night Whopper at the local Kankakee, Illinois, Burger King would have been shocked to know that a lesbian was meeting her sperm donor inside the restaurant, but there I was outside the men’s restroom, waiting for a paper cup full of semen. I would do anything for a baby of my own ― even pick up free sperm at a fast-food chain.
I’d wanted a baby since I was a little girl carrying a baby doll everywhere, sure that everyone believed she was real and knowing that someday she would be. Until one day I found myself 34 years old, single, lesbian and feeling desperate.
After a series of crazy ideas to get pregnant ― including a sexy dress, a six-pack of beer and an old co-worker who left town the day before I got to him; a gay friend who then tested positive for HIV; and a wild women’s weekend with drums and goddess chants that was followed by two missed periods but no pregnancy ― a cup full of live sperm in my hands seemed like a godsend.
The path to parenthood is tricky for LGBTQ folks. It’s not just a decision ― I want to be a parent ― as it is for many non-queer people. From the beginning there are ethical, financial and legal decisions to be made, not the least of which is, Will I try to have a birth child, and if so, how? If getting pregnant is a viable plan, doing so with a donor friend can lead to battles over parenting rights. Frozen sperm is expensive and brings loads of decisions, beginning with whether to use a known donor (so the child might contact the donor when they turn 18) or an anonymous donor (no identifying information, ever), as well as choices concerning the donor’s race/ethnicity, health history, IQ score, even whether they had acne as a teenager. Other options for LGBTQ folks, including surrogacy, in vitro fertilization and adoption, are also expensive and fraught with their own ethical considerations.
I decided to go the frozen sperm route. I had moved from Virginia, where the options for a queer, single woman without a ton of cash to obtain frozen sperm were few, to Chicago, where I had access to the Chicago Women’s Health Center’s insemination program for single and lesbian/bisexual women.
“The path to parenthood is tricky for LGBTQ folks. It’s not just a decision ― I want to be a parent ― as it is for many non-queer people. ... There are ethical, financial and legal decisions to be made, not the least of which is, Will I try to have a birth child, and if so, how?”
I knew from the beginning that I wanted a known donor, leaving the door open for my child to choose to make contact later. Each month, I’d call the clinic to request they order my frozen sperm the day before I expected to ovulate. The next day, I’d drive across the city to the clinic to collect the precious fluid in its metal shipping container that was half my height, filled with dry ice and looked like something out of “The Jetsons.”
At home, I’d open the metal tube ― vapors pouring over the lip and rising around my hands ― and slowly lift out one of the two tiny vials of sperm. I’d inseminate myself using a needleless syringe, just as the clinic showed me to do, two days in a row, and then return the giant capsule. I repeated this process unsuccessfully for several months.
Do you know how expensive frozen sperm is? My friends threw me a big sperm party ― not a party where people brought sperm, which might have been a great idea, but a fundraiser to buy the stuff. Still, I quickly ran out of savings.
My specific pregnancy dilemma was a combination of a limited income and not being straight ― and thus not able to obtain sperm by the traditional no-money-down method. And yet, ironically, sperm is not a scarce commodity. It’s everywhere ― I just couldn’t get my hands (or other parts) on any of it. What I needed was some free sperm that brought with it no drama, no commitment and, definitely, no sex.
One Saturday in the midst of this process, I went to an intuitive healing workshop with my closest friend and confidant, RoiAnn. We wrote down goals and meditated, focusing on creating a life we believed in. I was on that journey but I was stuck. The leader insisted, “There is no stuck. We can move through anything.”
How about money for sperm? I thought, but she didn’t address that.
Late in the morning, we formed pairs, looking deep into each other’s eyes while mirroring movements. My partner was a complete stranger, yet I felt this profound connection to him. He sat next to me at lunch, the energy radiating between us. As the group chatted, I told my story, coming to my current state: not pregnant and out of sperm money. This lovely man, Drake, asked why I didn’t just find a donor. I turned to him, got all shaky and dumped my entire glass of lemonade in his lap. Grabbing napkins and leaning toward him to clean it up, I stopped just short of rubbing his crotch. We all laughed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this man’s private parts covered in my lemonade!
“Sperm is not a scarce commodity. It’s everywhere ― I just couldn’t get my hands (or other parts) on any of it. What I needed was some free sperm that brought with it no drama, no commitment and, definitely, no sex.”
The next day, as if spurred by karma, though perhaps just kindness, Drake called me and offered to be my donor. We talked through the complications, and he signed a contract stating that he would relinquish his parental rights should I conceive. Drake and his wife had not wanted children, but he felt a loss at not passing on his genes to another generation. He was tall and brilliant and approached our arrangement in a straightforward and gentle way. He was perfect.
The only problem was that he lived in Normal, Illinois, and I lived in Chicago. That’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive if there’s no traffic (and there’s always traffic).
The first time I inseminated myself using Drake’s sperm was on a weekend. Drake and his wife invited me to their home for dinner, wine and good conversation. I brought a date ― not a typical way for lesbians to spend their time when casually dating, but she was game. After dinner, we got down to business. Shortly after retiring to a room on the lower level, Drake returned with a coffee cup full of his fresh semen. Using my handy little syringe to squirt the valuable fluid right up to my cervix, I inseminated in a room full of windows looking out into the woods. During the night, deer came to eat corn left outside in the moonlight. It was magical.
But I didn’t get pregnant.
And, unfortunately, we just couldn’t do it that way every month. When you’re ovulating, you’re ovulating, and you have to have sperm that very day and the next. It’s one thing when you’re in love and sperm delivery is fun ― and convenient ― for everyone. But when you have to drive two-and-a-half hours each way to get the sperm, and you figure out you’re ovulating that morning by taking your temperature and peeing on a stick, it’s not a simple process.
The next time I ovulated was on a Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, I had to be at work before 7 a.m. to set up a training for 50 people. My little Honda Civic hatchback was jampacked with training manuals, name tags, and an easel with paper. The back was full but there were still two seats up front, and RoiAnn offered to drive with me.
I called Drake as soon as I knew I was ovulating. He said, “Forget the trip to downstate. Just meet me at the Burger King in Kankakee. You know, that exit, Kankakee, or maybe it’s Dwight, near the men’s prison, the only gas station and food for miles?” This plan cut my trip in half!
We pulled up to find Drake already at the filling station getting gas. He was cordial but direct.
“Hey, good to see you,” he said. “I’m in a bit of a hurry. I’m going to run to the restroom with this paper cup. Meet me there.”
“It’s one thing when you’re in love and sperm delivery is fun ― and convenient ― for everyone. But when you have to drive two-and-a-half hours each way to get the sperm, and you figure out you’re ovulating that morning by taking your temperature and peeing on a stick, it’s not a simple process.”
As he went in, he handed me a jar of honey from a beehive he and his wife looked after. Inside the Burger King, I tried to look casual as I waited just outside the men’s room. Coolly, without the least bit of awkwardness, Drake walked out of the men’s room, handed me a Burger King cup full of his semen, smiled, and headed out of the restaurant. Looking around, I took the cup into the women’s room and used my little syringe to inseminate in one of the stalls.
Now, I couldn’t let all that valuable stuff leak out of me, especially after a wonderful man drove all that way to dispense it for me in a Burger King restroom (and I didn’t even buy him dinner!). Fertility books recommend that after a woman is inseminated, she lie back with her hips up on a pillow, allowing gravity to assist. Unfortunately, I had no comfy pillows available and the back seat was full of training supplies. With RoiAnn as the driver, I adjusted the passenger seat back as far as it would go, pushing against those supplies. I climbed in backward, with my head hanging over the seat where the legs usually go and my feet sticking up in the air, and waited for nature to do its thing.
When we got back to Chicago, we stopped at a little spot on the Chicago River. I’d read in an old witch’s almanac that if you put honey from the man you wish to become pregnant with on a pumpkin and throw it into the river, that will seal the deal. The moon reflected on the water as I threw the sticky pumpkin while speaking words of my intent.
Telling you I got pregnant that night would be the Hollywood ending to this story, but I didn’t. Nor did I on the next trip to Burger King or the few we took after that.
Instead, I headed into the complicated world of infertility testing and insurance fine print. My insurance plan specifically stated that in order for this costly testing to be covered, I had to have sexual intercourse in a heterosexual relationship for at least a year. Tricky.
After covering some tests out of pocket, I ended up in the office of a new gynecologist who did not know whom I was ― or was not ― having sex with. My test results? Blocked tubes. My only path to pregnancy was an emotionally and physically challenging, as well as expensive, in vitro fertilization (IVF) process. I was exhausted.
The path to parenthood as a queer person can be a marathon ― it takes stamina and determination. Just the mention of wanting children seems to confuse friends, family and medical professionals who are used to parents being non-queer. It’s much better than it was when I began my process, but LGBTQ people must still push to be seen as potential parents. Each road ― whether it’s insemination, IVF, surrogacy or adoption ― is an uphill battle.
Add infertility, and the climb gets steeper. Medical and insurance policies, as well as adoption programs and legal procedures, are designed for the heterosexual user. Some policies leave queer folks out because our desire to be parents never occurred to the writers. Others are intentionally discriminatory.
For me, however, not being a mother was not an option.
I reasoned that while IVF might or might not have eventually resulted in my birthing a baby, adoption would definitely make me a mom. The hurdles for LGBTQ and single people to adopt are also huge ― but not insurmountable. I began an intensive search for a program that would bring me my child, saving every penny while I did my research.
In time, my casual relationship became committed and my partner committed not only to me but also to the process of adoption. Three years later, a beautiful infant boy became ours. His feisty little toddler sister came home two-and-a-half years after that. I became a mom in a two-mom family. And my friend RoiAnn, who’d seen me through it all, became Auntie Roi.
Joy Wright is a Best of the Net-nominated writer, storyteller and social justice activist. You can find her telling stories around Chicago or cheering on her kids not-so-cleverly disguised as a soccer mom.