Three on a Theme: Queer Family-Making

Several 2021 memoirs have given me a deeper understanding of the special challenges involved when queer couples decide they want to have children.

“It’s a fundamentally queer principle to build a family out of the pieces you have”

~Jennifer Berney

“That’s the thing[:] there are no accidental children born to homosexuals – these babies are always planned for, and always wanted.”

~Michael Johnson-Ellis


The Other Mothers by Jennifer Berney

Berney remembers hearing the term “test-tube baby” for the first time in a fifth-grade sex ed class taught by a lesbian teacher at her Quaker school. By that time she already had an inkling of her sexuality, so suspected that she might one day require fertility help herself.

By the time she met her partner, Kellie, she knew she wanted to be a mother; Kellie was unsure. Once they were finally on the same page, it wasn’t an easy road to motherhood. They purchased donated sperm through a fertility clinic and tried IUI, but multiple expensive attempts failed. Signs of endometriosis had doctors ready to perform invasive surgery, but in the meantime the couple had met a friend of a friend (Daniel, whose partner was Rebecca) who was prepared to be their donor. Their at-home inseminations resulted in a pregnancy – after two years of trying to conceive – and, ultimately, in their son. Three years later, they did the whole thing all over again. Rebecca had sons at roughly the same time, too, giving their boys the equivalent of same-age cousins – a lovely, unconventional extended family.

It surprised me that the infertility business seemed entirely set up for heterosexual couples – so much so that a doctor diagnosed the problem, completely seriously, in Berney’s chart as “Male Factor Infertility.” This was in Washington state in c. 2008, before the countrywide legalization of gay marriage, so it’s possible the situation would be different now, or that the couple would have had a different experience had they been based somewhere like San Francisco where there is a wide support network and many gay-friendly resources.

Berney finds the joy and absurdity in their journey as well as the many setbacks. I warmed to the book as it went along: early on, it dragged a bit as she surveyed her younger years and traced the history of IVF and alternatives like international adoption. As the storyline drew closer to the present day, there was more detail and tenderness and I was more engaged. I’d read more from this author. (Published by Sourcebooks. Read via NetGalley)


small: on motherhoods by Claire Lynch

A line from Berney’s memoir makes a good transition into this one: “I felt a sense of dread: if I turned out to be gay I believed my life would become unbearably small.” The word “small” is a sort of totem here, a reminder of the microscopic processes and everyday miracles that go into making babies, as well as of the vulnerability of newborns – and of hope.

Lynch and her partner Beth’s experience in England was reminiscent of Berney’s in many ways, but with a key difference: through IVF, Lynch’s eggs were added to donor sperm to make the embryos implanted in Beth’s uterus. Mummy would have the genetic link, Mama the physical tie of carrying and birthing. It took more than three years of infertility treatment before they conceived their twin girls, born premature; they were followed by another daughter, creating a crazy but delightful female quintet. The account of the time when their daughters were in incubators reminded me of Francesca Segal’s Mother Ship.

There are two intriguing structural choices that make small stand out. The first you’d notice from opening the book at random, or to page 1. It is written in a hybrid form, the phrases and sentences laid out more like poetry. Although there are some traditional expository paragraphs, more often the words are in stanzas or indented. Here’s an example of what this looks like on the page. It also happens to be from one of the most ironically funny parts of the book, when Lynch is grouped in with the dads at an antenatal class:

It’s a fast-flowing, artful style that may remind readers of Bernardine Evaristo’s work (and indeed, Evaristo gives one of the puffs). The second interesting decision was to make the book turn on a revelation: at the exact halfway mark we learn that, initially, the couple intended to have opposite roles: Lynch tried to get pregnant with Beth’s baby, but miscarried. Making this the pivot point of the memoir emphasizes the struggle and grief of this experience, even though we know that it had a happy ending.

With thanks to Brazen Books for the free copy for review.


How We Do Family by Trystan Reese

We mostly have Trystan Reese to thank for the existence of a pregnant man emoji. A community organizer who works on anti-racist and LGBTQ justice campaigns, Reese is a trans man married to a man named Biff. They expanded their family in two unexpected ways: first by adopting Biff’s niece and nephew when his sister’s situation of poverty and drug abuse meant she couldn’t take care of them, and then by getting pregnant in the natural (is that even the appropriate word?) way.

All along, Reese sought to be transparent about the journey, with a crowdfunding project and podcast ahead of the adoption, and media coverage of the pregnancy. This opened the family up to a lot of online hatred. I found myself most interested in the account of the pregnancy itself, and how it might have healed or exacerbated a sense of bodily trauma. Reese was careful to have only in-the-know and affirming people in the delivery room so there would be no surprises for anyone. His doctor was such an ally that he offered to create a more gender-affirming C-section scar (vertical rather than horizontal) if it came to it. How to maintain a sense of male identity while giving birth? Well, Reese told Biff not to look at his crotch during the delivery, and decided not to breastfeed.

I realized when reading this and Detransition, Baby that my view of trans people is mostly post-op because of the only trans person I know personally, but a lot of people choose never to get surgical confirmation of gender (or maybe surgery is more common among trans women?). We’ve got to get past the obsession with genitals. As Reese writes, “we are just loving humans, like every human throughout all of time, who have brought a new life into this world. Nothing more than that, and nothing less. Just humans.”

This is a very fluid, quick read that recreates scenes and conversations with aplomb, and there are self-help sections after most chapters about how to be flexible and have productive dialogue within a family and with strangers. If literary prose and academic-level engagement with the issues are what you’re after, you’d want to head to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts instead, but I also appreciated Reese’s unpretentious firsthand view.

And here’s further evidence of my own bias: the whole time I was reading, I felt sure that Reese must be the figure on the right with reddish hair, since that looked like a person who could once have been a woman. But when I finished reading I looked up photos; there are many online of Reese during pregnancy. And NOPE, he is the bearded, black-haired one! That’ll teach me to make assumptions. (Published by The Experiment. Read via NetGalley)


Plus a bonus essay from the Music.Football.Fatherhood anthology, DAD:

“A Journey to Gay Fatherhood: Surrogacy – The Unimaginable, Manageable” by Michael Johnson-Ellis

The author and his husband Wes had both previously been married to women before they came out. Wes already had a daughter, so they decided Johnson-Ellis would be the genetic father the first time. They then had different egg donors for their two children, but used the same surrogate for both pregnancies. I was astounded at the costs involved: £32,000 just to bring their daughter into being. And it’s striking both how underground the surrogacy process is (in the UK it’s illegal to advertise for a surrogate) and how exclusionary systems are – the couple had to fight to be in the room when their surrogate gave birth, and had to go to court to be named the legal guardians when their daughter was six weeks old. Since then, they’ve given testimony at the Houses of Parliament and become advocates for UK surrogacy.

(I have a high school acquaintance who has gone down this route with his husband – they’re about to meet their daughter and already have a two-year-old son – so I was curious to know more about it, even though their process in the USA might be subtly different.)


On the subject of queer family-making, I have also read: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson () and The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg ().


If you read just one … Claire Lynch’s small was the one I enjoyed most as a literary product, but if you want to learn more about the options and process you might opt for Jennifer Berney’s The Other Mothers; if you’re particularly keen to explore trans issues and LGTBQ activism, head to Trystan Reese’s How We Do Family.


Have you read anything on this topic?

16 responses

  1. I feel a bit guilty that the answer is ‘No, I haven’t’. This is probably because I have not knowingly got anyone in my life, even tangentially, who’s had to address these issues. I may take your advice and try to source Small. Though unsurprisingly, it’s not in our library’s catalogue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s from a tiny new imprint, so I’m not surprised either. While I’ve mostly explored these issues in nonfiction, I’m sure they’ve been addressed in fiction, too. I’d be interested in recommendations in that vein.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll keep my eyes open.


  2. Hi. In the 1st review wouldn’t the boys be half-brothers? Who is your high school acquaintance?

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Technically, yes, though they aren’t being raised as such. She’s told her boys who their “father” is, but the relationship is more like close cousins.

      Do you remember Harold Tagunicar (goes by “Hark”)? His 18th birthday party that I attended was basically his coming-out party. ________________________________


  3. Great post! I like your sentence ‘We’ve got to get past the obsession with genitals’ which would stand in any context but particularly this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Ha ha, yes, it’s a pretty good mantra for how to treat people.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved How We Do Family, found it very moving. The other two look really good, too. I “met” two women having IVF when we were (we were on a discussion group of five close couples, although the three who conceived dropped the two who didn’t when the pregnancies were established) and have real-life friends in different circumstances, so it’s good to know about how such things work without asking someone intrusive questions. We’ve got to get past the obsession with genitals was key to “The Transgender Issue”, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry you found you weren’t supported on your fertility journey, that’s really sad 😦

      Reading is how I learn about the world and other people’s experiences. I hope it makes me more compassionate and less likely to ask rude questions or make ignorant assumptions!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that’s my attitude, too. And yes, indeed, thank you – I expect the ones who succeeded felt guilty or wanted to keep away from our bad luck. I kept in touch with the other woman and she didn’t ghost me when she had her baby, so not all bad!


  5. Fortuitously, one in my “stack for today” is Christopher Diraddo’s The Family Way. Thanks to an event I attended in the summer, which he was participating in (with another author, whose book I was already interested in), wherein he described himself as having gotten older and more family-minded, as a gay man, almost without having noticed the change in his priorities…so he wanted to write a novel that reflected that. So far, nothing has happened, and it’s exactly the kind of everyday, ordinary, nothing-happens-this-is-simply-my-life storytelling that I love, with a lot of cat-love as a bonus. But I suspect things are going to get complicated now that his narrator has agreed to be a donor for a lesbian couple (one of whom he’s known for several years, part of his chosen family).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, that had made it onto my TBR somehow; thanks for reminding me about it!


  6. Sounds like an good set of reads! I was just chatting with some lesbian friends last week about the moral and ethical questions raised by picking a sperm donor from a website – not something I am planning (have decided I definitely don’t want children) but v interesting to hear about!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s quite bizarre with Berney and her partner looking through a catalogue and choosing the tall Ukrainian-Canadian hockey player with blond hair and blue eyes! (They bought 10 vials of his sperm but none of their IUI attempts worked out.) It makes you wonder how much it influences the resulting baby and if upbringing is all important instead.

      These books did really emphasize for me how much people would have to want children to go through all these additional challenges. Fur babies are the best kind 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] partners, especially things like miscarriage, stillbirth and trauma. I’ve already written on Michael Johnson-Ellis’s essay on surrogacy; I also found particularly insightful R.P. Falconer’s piece on trying to be the best father he […]


  8. […] and frankly sexual text for readers drawn to themes of health and queer family-making (see also my Three on a Theme post on that […]


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