When it Comes to Queer Fertility, There Are No Perfect Choices

I was 22 years old when I donated my eggs anonymously at a fertility clinic in New York City. I had my first appointments with the clinic staff during the spring semester of my senior year of college. After frantically applying for dozens of jobs to no avail, I wanted some way to ensure I would be able to afford living in the city after graduation. Egg donation became that solution. By the end of August 2012, I was down 28 eggs and up $8,000.

In the 12 years since my egg donation, I have wondered frequently about the person (or people) to whom I donated my eggs and about the potential kids that resulted from it. Jaya Keaney’s book Making Gaybies: Queer Production and Multiracial Feeling provided me with another lens to examine my egg donation experience. Her book explores contemporary queer family making in Australia, focusing on how racialization is intimately and inextricably entwined with reproduction.

Keaney, a Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne, interviewed a number of queer parents (and people hoping to become parents) for her book. While queer people have always found ways to make families, Keaney explores how the “gayby boom” of the 21st century has transformed queer family making. As she writes, “queer family making has become deeply entangled with the multibillion-dollar fertility industry”: Fertility clinics increasingly market their services to LGBTQ people, and growing numbers of LGBTQ couples utilize assisted reproductive technologies to have kids.

Through her interviews, Keaney traces how queer people navigate fraught and complex dynamics in the fertility industry, especially at the intersection of sexuality and race. Her book argues that “reproductive technology and its associated cultural transformations foster a multiracial imaginary of queer kinship.”

What does she mean by this? Queer families disrupt the “presumed heterosexuality of the family,” Keaney explains, making them an important site through which to examine processes of racialization and cultural assumptions about racial inheritance. She writes, “Queer family-origin stories rearrange the gendered and sexual tenets of reproduction, unhooking parenting from binary gender with the aid of reproductive technologies and laborers. In doing so, such origin stories make trouble for race by disrupting one of its foundational axioms: that race is derived from one’s parents.”

When third party reproductive laborers — egg and sperm donors and surrogates — participate in queer family making, they contribute what Keaney calls “racialized substances” (or substances that we perceive to transmit race) to the process, adding multiple layers and lineages to reproductive racialization. Keaney’s individual chapters examine how queer parents approach and understand various stages of this process, beginning with choosing a donor or surrogate that “matches” their racial makeup of the parents (or one who doesn’t), through to their parenting practices. As Keaney narrates, this is an evolving process in which race is produced and reproduced through intimate, everyday decisions, desires, and interactions.

The project is deeply personal for Keaney, as a queer Australian woman of Indian and Celtic descent. “These questions have always really fascinated me as a mixed race woman, a queer woman who has grown up in a mixed race family,” she shared with me when we spoke in April. “Thinking through those slippery, sliding processes of racialization that occur at the side of the family has always obsessed me, just in terms of my personal experience of racialization. People approaching me as an ambiguously racialized body, whatever that means, and then appealing to the family to solve the puzzle.”

Keaney’s feminist approach to interview methods shaped the ethical commitments of her work as well. “Part of my whole ethic in the book in general and as a researcher is to foreground my own experience and investments as a queer person of color and thinking about how some of those are shared with my participants in terms of us having a shared stake in, both more liberatory worlds for queer people and queer families, and doing better in terms of discussions about race and queerness in our communities,” she told me.

The historical, biomedical, and transnational context of Australia is key to Keaney’s book. Australia’s history as a settler colonial state has deeply affected both cultural understandings of race in the country as well as its contemporary fertility industry. She writes, “In Australia, gamete donation and surrogacy are tightly regulated and restricted, reflecting successive attempts to reckon with the reproductive violence endemic to Australian settler colonialism.” Unlike the fertility industry in the U.S., which is remarkably unregulated, strict state regulations in Australia prevent the commercialization of biological material, which means that egg and sperm donors and surrogates are not paid for their reproductive labor. Simultaneously, anonymous gamete donation is prohibited. Fertility clinics have open disclosure policies, meaning donor-conceived children can access information about their donors when they turn 18.

Keaney explains that while these regulations attempt to reckon with histories of colonial reproductive violence, they have resulted in a shortage of donor gametes and surrogates in Australia. This shortage leads “many queer prospective parents either to search for donors or surrogates overseas or to conceive with local donors who have very different backgrounds from their own.”

In this context, Keaney points out how “mixedness is a valued and at times sought-after characteristic” for queer families. Increasing numbers of Australian queer families include multiracial lineages. The value of mixedness is underscored by Australia’s contemporary investment in state-sponsored multiculturalism, which imagines race as a “depoliticized terrain of personal choice.” Discourses of multiculturalism in Australia claim to celebrate diversity, but in effect silence conversations about histories of colonialism and racism.

Making Gaybies investigates how queer families navigate this vexed terrain, in which every choice one makes about creating a family is deeply intertwined with histories of local and global racial violence and biomedical exploitation. Keaney is particularly interested in demonstrating how choice is constrained by these systems and deftly discusses how queer families approach family making and parenting decisions.

While Keaney sometimes critiques the actions of the people she interviewed, she’s careful not to pass judgment on any of her interlocutors. As she told me:

“I think that has been important for me in thinking about the book as part of a feminist method or queer method, not to elevate the position of researcher above the social world that you study, [but] to really emphasize that I am braided into the social world that I study at every level. And so my investments are shared with my participants in some ways. It was important to me to form a method of intimate proximity in thinking about critique to emphasize that I’m affected, I’m emotionally threaded with these decisions rather than to use critique as a way to distance my participants or to render myself beyond rebuke, as if I’m above the really vexed social context, difficult questions, unsolvable questions that they face, and to emphasize instead that all our intimate lives unfold in the grip of racism and queerphobia, mine as well, my critique as well. And so there’s no outside of that. Reckoning with that was really important, to then think about how to proceed to critique at a granular level some of my participants’ decisions.”

Keaney is deeply invested in “intimate analysis of how people’s individual lives really unfold in practice,” as she described it to me. This means eschewing any easy black-and-white binaries and instead paying attention to the lived experience of her interlocutors. As she writes,

“While the impacts of biomedicalization on queer reproduction are expansive, they are not entirely overdetermining. The queer people who feature in this book exercise critical awareness and agency when engaging with the sweep of the fertility industry and prevailing ways of understanding their families and reproductive journeys. A tension runs throughout this book between the technophilic embrace of assisted reproduction because of how it enables queer kinship outside heteropatriarchal forms, and a deep skepticism around the extent to which biomedical institutions can ever fully affirm queer lives.”

In other words, Keaney doesn’t argue that queer reproduction is inherently subversive and radical, nor is it necessarily heteronormative. As she told me, “it’s quite dangerous to mount a critique of child-rearing or conceiving queer families as homonormative in a simplistic way. I think it can be the case that the increasing entanglement of queer communities and IVF industries certainly can produce a kind of normative nuclear family. But to me, child rearing and intergenerational relationships of that form can be transformative as well. They can be about reimagining relationships and doing things quite differently. It was important to me to suspend that binary.”

Keaney ends her book with a powerful manifesto, her answer to questions people often ask her about the “right” choices to make when creating queer families. She writes, “I offer in closing a set of principles for queer family nurture, developed through my encounters with those I interviewed.” Some of these principles include: “Race and Reproduction are Inseparable,” “Reproduction is a Collective Project of Becoming Otherwise,” and “Racism and Queerphobia Constitute Our Kinships.” Rather than focus on how to avoid specific pitfalls in the fertility industry, Keaney encourages readers to think deeply about their own relationships to racial identity and how they navigate intimate encounters across difference.

When I asked her about this ending, she commented,

“I love manifestos! They’ve got such a queer, feminist history…I really decided to end the book that way because I felt like I firstly wanted to offer something in closing that was tangible to the families I’d interviewed, to the communities that they’re a part of, about what to do with all of the challenging questions that the book traverses. But also I wanted to offer something not in the language of clinical guidelines or policy, that is often the place people go to, which is not my forte…I wanted to offer something else and that’s where the manifesto comes from, which is part of what I think is necessary in terms of grappling with anti-racism, which is forms of emotional work, or sensitization to racism, rather than making one-off decisions that render us moral or free from the complexity of it all.”

Staying with this complexity — rather than ignoring it, minimizing it, or writing it off with platitudes about how familial love can overcome difference  — is central to Keaney’s vision. This seems more necessary than ever, in a world where states across the U.S. threaten the healthcare of trans kids, debate the legality of IVF, and restrict abortion access. Addressing the nuances of race, gender, sexuality is key to understanding the contemporary reproductive context in which we bring kids into this world, and to cultivating more just worlds to raise them in.

For my part, Keaney’s book inspired me to reflect on how my own racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds may have impacted my own egg donation experience. I am white, Ashkenazi Jewish, and Brazilian-American. I have long assumed that the people to whom I donated were also Jewish, though I can’t be sure this is true. Perhaps they were Brazilian-American as well. Did any of my identities impact their decision to choose me as a donor? Did the intended parents desire to have a multiracial family via what they perhaps perceived to be my own “mixedness”? Or was my whiteness the most important thing?

While Keaney does not interview egg or sperm donors or surrogates for this particular project (one researcher can only focus on so many actors in any given study), her writing made me think more about the roles reproductive laborers play in the familial racialization process she explores. How do our choices and decisions in fertility clinics and beyond affect the way parents and donor-conceived children understand their families and themselves? Perhaps future studies might explore how reproductive laborers navigate racialized decisions and constraints, in a similar way as Keaney traces for her interlocutors.

As Keaney demonstrates, all reproductive choices we make are vexed. There are no “good” or “right” choices that can undo racism or any other systemic oppression in the fertility industry. What matters, she argues, are the practices of care that animate queer kinship. It is these intimate practices, and our willingness to recognize how our differences shape them, that have the potential to transform our relationships, our families, and the world.

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Lauren Herold

Lauren is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College, where she teaches Women's and Gender Studies and researches LGBTQ television, media history, and media activism. She also loves baking banana chocolate chip muffins, fostering cats, and video chatting with her sisters. Check out her website lcherold.com, her twitter @renherold, or her instagram @queers_on_cable.

Lauren has written 15 articles for us.

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