One of the most critical issues for prospective sperm donors to consider is whether being a donor is what you want, or whether you would really prefer to become a parent yourself.
The differences between donors and parents
Gay, bisexual and heterosexual men have been helping lesbian couples and single women create families for decades in Australia and elsewhere. The role of donor can be very rewarding – many men say it is one of the best things they have ever done in their lives.
Donor’s roles and relationships with the families they help to create vary enormously, from virtual anonymity (although Victorian law emphasises children’s right to identifying information about their donor) to exchanges of emails or Skype chats (for donors who live in another state or country), occasional visits, to being a regular part of family life – sharing time with the family, perhaps holidaying together, and sometimes becoming regular babysitters and spending time alone with kids. For many men, it is not only about helping someone else in an extraordinary way, but also having the joy of children in their own lives, without the hard work!
Sometimes the relationship between a known donor and family is more akin to co-parenting, or grows into this over time (see Information for prospective gay male parents for more on co-parenting). But legally – and in everyday life – the role of donor is very different from that of a parent. Donors do not live with children, or provide for them, or make decisions about children’s lives such as where they live, how they are raised, where they go to school and so on. Depending on the relationship with the family, a donor’s input on issues like these might be welcome, but ultimately – and legally – these are parental responsibilities. Both federal and Victorian law now recognise lesbian couples as their children’s legal parents, and clearly state that a donor is not a parent, as we explain below.
What are your options?
Sometimes men become donors when what they really want is to be a parent or father themselves. You can potentially be very involved in a child’s life as a donor, but it is a different role. Some donors call themselves fathers, and are called ‘Dad’ or equivalent by the children for whom they donated. But however much contact they have with a child, both federal and Victorian law is clear that they do not have parental responsibility, and are not the legal father or parent.
Some gay couples and single men might feel that being a donor is the closest they can come to being a father. Many gay men feel, when they come out, that they must quash any desire to be a parent. Historically – and even today – some men have denied their sexuality and married women (although many come out later in life), largely because they felt this was the only way they could become fathers.
Many LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex) people have internalised homophobic messages that they cannot, or should not, have children because of their sexuality or gender identity. It can be hard to challenge those feelings within yourself. But remember, there are more and more gay and same-sex couple dads in Australia and around the world, and both social attitudes and relevant laws are changing.
Try not to let fear – for example of what other people might think – dictate this critical life decision.
In particular, try to challenge the idea (even within yourself) that ‘all children need a mother and a father’. Three decades of rigorous Australian and international research show that children of same-sex parents are not disadvantaged, and are in some ways – such as in their capacity for empathy – better off!
Even if a good friend asks you if you would be willing to donate to them, it is critical that you think carefully about what this would mean for you, and whether it is what you really want for yourself, whether you are in a couple or single. If what you truly want is to be a parent/father, explore ways that you can make this happen. The options currently available for gay men to become parents are not easy, but the number of gay dads is increasing, and there are support and discussion groups available. If you compromise on this issue, but do not ‘make peace’ with your decision, the evidence is that it can too often result in heartache for everyone concerned: you, the mother/s, and most importantly the child/ren. See Information for prospective gay male parents for further information, including about altruistic surrogacy in Victoria, overseas commercial surrogacy, co-parenting with single women and lesbians couples, and foster and permanent care.
It might be that the woman or couple who asked you if you would be willing to donate is open to co-parenting with you, if this feels like something you might want. Co-parenting means sharing all the aspects of bringing up children, from day to day life to the big decisions. It is important to realize, however, that co-parenting is a social term, not a legal one. The law does not recognise more than two legal parents, and since the recent reforms, a child’s legal parents can only be the birth mother and her partner if she has one, although other co-parents can have their role legally recognised by court order. Co-parenting is a less common choice for both gay men and lesbians, and while there are many successful co-parent families, it can be challenging to negotiate. See Information for prospective gay male parents for more about co-parenting and other Options for becoming a parent.
Thinking it through
There are many men whose first preference is the role of donor. And there are many others who feel some desire to become parents, but decide to become known donors instead, and make their peace with that decision. If you feel that this might apply to you, take whatever time you need to be very sure. Think about what you might feel once conception has been successful, when a baby comes along, or as a child grows. Talk to your partner (if you have one), to other men who are donors, and to parents (same-sex parents and others). Talk to your own family of origin, if this feels appropriate. Explore these issues many times, over a considerable period of time, with the couple or woman you are considering donating to. We outline some of the issues your discussions might include (in relation to your possible role as a known donor) in much more detail, under Talking and making agreements.
The emotional challenges you face now, deciding whether to be a donor and what this might look like, are very different from the emotional reality of there being a child in the world you helped create. Try to imagine what it will be like. Will you be happy and comfortable with the role you have committed to, and with the agreements you have made with the couple or woman you donated to? Will you feel any sense of loss at not being a parent yourself? Of course, people’s emotions often change over time, but it is very important that you do not go ahead until all such issues are resolved.
Whether you decide to be a known donor, or to pursue becoming a parent yourself (or both!), remember that both roles are absolutely legitimate. The most important thing is that you base your choices on your own values and desires. Gay, bisexual and straight men have been involved in both making their own families, and in helping lesbian couples and single women make families in a rich variety of ways for many years, and will continue to do so. Laws and social attitudes have improved a lot, and this is increasing as our numbers and diversity grow.
Once you have clarified that you are indeed interested in being a donor, the next task is to work out what that might look like, and to begin discussions with the woman or couple who has asked you.