How Fertility Treatments Got Me Back in Touch With My Queerness

Feature image by Malte Mueller via Getty Images

In my favorite film of the year, Cmon, Cmon, we see the nine-year-old kid the movie centers around speaking a stream of consciousness into his journalist uncle’s recording gear. He imitates his uncle (played by Joaquin Phoenix) by lowering his voice and asking the question: “Have you ever thought about the future?”

The kid responds: “Yeah. Whatever you plan on happening, never happens. Stuff you would never think of happens. So you just have to, you have to come on, come on, come on, come on, come onnnnnnnnn.”

That sums up what the hellscape of unexplained infertility has been for me. I never thought I would have to hand over a credit card for an Intrauterine Insemination. I didn’t even know what a IUI was. Why would I? You’re told that you grow up and have kids or don’t. There is nothing said about the gray area.

***
Though I identify as queer and have dated both women and men into my early thirties, from the outside, on paper, I experience femme invisibilty. Over the past few years, I’ve settled into my relationship with a man, who I love to death. But being queer makes our relationship queer. My friend told me that my proposal to my husband was very “Bi-Wife-Vibes” which made me LOL. I’m also a stepparent which has surprising qualities in common with queerness. It’s no coincidence that stepmother autocorrects to Step “other.” For this reason, I am good at stepparenting, honoring the gray area that it is, in ways I think some straight people are not.

My life is a million times better than I ever thought it would be, but of course, I’m a writer, I’m a questioner, and the moment you choose one thing, you are not choosing something else.

In the depths of infertility— which almost one in six couples experience— you have constant responsibilities like tracking ovulation, peeing on a stick almost every day, getting vaginal ultrasounds and bloodwork once a week. On my drives to and from the fertility clinic, I began fantasizing in a way I never had before.

I fantasized about high school; zero responsibilities and driving around in cars smoking weed with friends and CDs.

I fantasized about an easier, carefree, alternative life. Infertility had stolen my joy. The deeper into it I got, the more my mind dreamed of another life. A life where I didn’t have this heteronormative desire to create life.

I fantasized about my twenties when fertility and babies were an abstract and unimaginable concept.

And then I fantasized about if I had ended up living life with a queer, gay, or nonbinary person. What if I’d ended up with someone like Finn—a gorgeous butch with swagger—from my book Women? My life could have easily gone that way. Then I wouldn’t have to be in this stupid position. Like Michelle Tea says in her article, Having A Baby Meant Making Friends With Straight People: “Who wanted to be like dumb, boring straight people who lived pre-scripted, unimaginative lives?”

Wait a minute, though.

Why was I equating a queer relationship with being free from the desire to have kids? It dawned on me that even if I was in a partnership with someone who identified as a lesbian or nonbinary, living my best queer life full of queer friends and art and culture, my desire for children would not just disappear.

I’d still be doing infertility treatments. I still wouldn’t have gotten pregnant the “old fashioned” way. I would still want a baby. And be “trying” with that person. The desire would have crept in no matter who I ended up with. So where would that leave me?

Exactly where I am now.

When I realized this, I felt a surge of queerness, something I had not felt in a while.

***
After not getting pregnant for two years of trying with my husband, I accepted that we’d need some help. Though I drew a line at IVF, as it isn’t something I could emotionally and financially handle, IUI (Intrauterine Insemination) was appealing. Less invasive, and $250 with insurance, IUI is basically a fancy version of “the turkey baster method.” Hey, it worked for the couple in Nuclear Family. Michelle Tea tried it (didn’t work for her).

I was bitter about having to do IUI. Why me? Not fair. Unjust. Infertility will do a number on your mind, heart, and spirit. It robs you of your time, your energy, and your personality.

Over the years, I’ve turned to Reddit groups; Reddit is the best thing about the internet. I’ve specifically been reading r/TryingForABaby (83.3k members). Most people who post in the group are straight couples trying to get pregnant. One day as I was scrolling, someone mentioned r/Queerception (7.2k members). I was asking about IUI, and a r/TryingForABaby person directed me over there, because there was an abundance of knowledge around IUI in that space. I won’t say the r/TryingForABaby people kicked me out, exactly, but, you know.

So I left the hetero r/TryingForABaby group where everyone referenced doing the BD (baby dance — puke) with their DH (dear husband — I just gagged). Most of the women in r/TryingForABaby were doing IVF. They often shit on IUI for its low success rates. But for my husband and I, IUI was a fantastic option, especially because success rates were slightly higher for people experiencing unexplained fertility.

For queer people, there’s less of a choice. Queer couples are mandated to do twelve IUIS before they’re allowed to do IVF. So-called “straight” couples can “prove” they’ve tried for one year unsuccessfully through sex (but they could also lie about that if they wanted to, so this doesn’t seem fair, though none of this is fair).

I was sucked in. Here was my other life, gay couples trying to get pregnant with IUI. r/Queerception even said I belonged in their tagline: for queer people trying to start a family. In their list of “rules,” they include my situation: “bi people in opposite-sex relationships.”  The IUI knowledge was abundant, and they weren’t doing baby dances with their dear husbands. They were struggling, like I was, frustrated and heartbroken like I was.

I’m aware of my privilege in being married to a man and presenting as a straight couple. We didn’t have to battle insurance companies or doctors to treat us respectfully. The horror of having to inject myself with a trigger shot of Ovadril was made a little easier by thinking about all of the people in r/Queerception who had to do this too, and as usual, paved the way. IUI has a slightly higher success rate for LGBTQ couples than the general population. When I asked my husband why he thought this was, he said, “Better sperm.”

Jen Winston, author of Greedy: Notes From A Bisexual Who Wants Too Much, has a quote I love: “Maybe confusion is as queer as it gets.”

For me, replace confusion with “infertility.”

Infertility is the most outsider I’ve ever felt, and I’ve got no choice but to embrace it. On the drive to my IUI with my husband, I felt queerer than ever, and I told him so. He understood immediately. These days, I often feel on the outside of my friends now. Left behind. At a standstill. Cast aside. Other. Unconventional. Misunderstood. For me, infertility is as queer as it gets.

So maybe I am a step “other.” Maybe I have “insequeerity” to quote Jen again. Maybe my family doesn’t look the way my friends’ do. Maybe the gray area I didn’t originally seek out, sought me out. And maybe it’s where I can become comfortable.

It’s tempting to look for silver linings in the face of darkness. I think I’ve found mine. Like the kid Jesse said in C’mon C’mon: “Whatever you plan on happening, never happens. Stuff you would never think of happens.” Some people go to a Tegan and Sara concert to remember who they are; some do IUI.


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Chloe Caldwell

CHLOE CALDWELL's new memoir, The Red Zone: A Love Story just released from Soft Skull Press. She is the author of three other books: the essay collections I’ll Tell You in Person and Legs Get Led Astray, and the critically acclaimed novella, WOMEN. Chloe’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Buzzfeed, Longreads, Vice, Nylon, The Rumpus, and more. She lives in Hudson, NY.

Chloe has written 1 article for us.

18 Comments

  1. Best of luck in your IUI journey! Infertility’s a bitch. I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through it.

    I’m curious about the comment that ‘same-sex’ queer couples have to go through IUI 12 times before going for IVF? I have friends who did reciprocal IVF on their first try, without having done IUI at all.

      • We actually were capped at three IUI tries when my wife and I worked to conceive our second pregnancy, which made me nervous because it’s not uncommon to need six tries.

    • When IUI wasn’t working (I also have unexplained infertility) I had coverage for IVF through my wife’s insurance. Because I was under 35 we had to do 12 IUIs to receive IVF insurance benefits, which even the doctor called a waste of time. This was 4 years ago, so hopefully things have changed or are changing.

    • Yeah, for our insurance, the rule was three tries with IUI before you could try IVF, I think. (Also my wife was over 35, so that may be relevant to the number being lower.) But yes, any number higher than zero is some bullshit…

      • In Victoria, Australia where I live the rules were restrictive in the opposite way, because the rules are the same for all: only two tries of IUI before it was assumed to not have a high enough chance of working and you would have to do IVF.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I wanted to share my experience here- I’m also going through the IUI journey. Whats been wild to me has been the continuous suggestion that we use a sperm bank instead of a known donor. Sperm banks however won’t let gay men contribute!!! And they have restrictions for height and education??? Seems bad! I wish it was easier to queer that part as well.

    • Are you in the US? I can’t believe that’s still true, that’s terrible In Victoria, Australia where I live, one of the questions donors fill out is sexual orientation. It’s fascinating how much richer the descriptions are from the queer men, as opposed to the one word answers from most of the straight men.

  3. This is really interesting.

    Your husband’s guess that better sperm contributes to higher IUI success rates probably has merit, but I think the main reason is that cis people in “opposite sex” relationships who start fertility treatments are almost always experiencing fertility issues and that isn’t necessarily true for queer folks. Some of us will struggle to get pregnant, others it may work on the first try. The straight equivalent to the latter wouldn’t have to do IUI in the first place. This is why it’s so important for stats to be captured for our community specifically (as well as for single parents) as the usually quoted stats are primarily for people who really have tried for 12 months before going to a clinic – and not the truest picture of odds for everyone else.

    • I’m not sure if this was your intention, but you have essentially erased/invalidated OPs queer identity.

      You state that cis people in opposite sex relationships are not the same as queer folks, when OP explicitly identifies as queer. Then you go on to use the term “straight equivalent” in reference to OPs situation when not only has she explicitly identified herself as queer, but also her relationship.

      • You’re right and I’m sorry to Chloe for doing so, no it wasn’t my intention at all. I intentionally used quotation marks for “opposite sex relationships” to indicate how imperfect that idea is and should have kept being more mindful about those statements – if I could edit I’d say the fertility issues aren’t necessarily true for queer folks who aren’t in opposite sex relationships… and the opposite-sex relationship equivalent…
        Thanks also Chloe for your comment.

    • I agree with you and have read those stats / that explanation on IUI success rates as well — I only left that dialogue with my husband in because it was bizarre, not because it was true. Really appreciate you reading and your thoughts.

  4. Just wanted to throw out there that as much as r/TryingForABaby can be very cishet and cringe – I have found it to also have a lot of useful info for when you’re first starting out. You have to squint past some of the cringe for sure, but there is also a wealth of knowledge in there that I’ve found really useful through our year+ of trying. I’m not saying there aren’t jerks and that it’s not VERY focused on cishets, but if you’re looking into TTC I would recommend at least giving it a go (specifically the wiki and the daily chats – the standalones tend to be… bad).

    Similarly, r/infertility is wonderful and has been really queer-welcoming.

  5. For those who are interested in pregnancy and surrogate motherhood, there is a good blog. My daughter was born thanks to a surrogate mother we found at the Feskov Human Reproduction Group. We liked our acquaintance with her very much, there is a wide choice of surrogate mothers, all proven and healthy, both physically and mentally. In addition, the price is very good and there are no problems with traveling home and documents. I suggest you also check out their YouTube channel, there are a lot of interesting information.

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