Sperm donor sued lesbian couple for custody after he ‘changed his mind’ about being a dad
An upcoming docuseries recounts the landmark legal battle between a lesbian couple and a gay sperm donor who sued them for paternity rights to their child.
Premiering on 26 September, HBO’s Nuclear Family explores the extraordinary story of a first-generation lesbian family’s fight to stay together against all odds.
It’s directed and produced by the couple’s daughter, the award-winning filmmaker Ry Russo-Young, who interviews her mothers Sandy Russo and Robin Young about the lawsuit that sent shockwaves through their family.
Russo and Young made the decision to start a family in the 1980s, a time when same-sex marriage wasn’t yet legal and fertility clinics didn’t serve lesbian couples.
“Being gay meant that you were not going to have children. It was like you were giving up that right to have a family,” Young explains in the trailer for the upcoming series.
The couple were eventually able to conceive their two daughters, Ry and her sister Cade, with the help of two sperm donors they knew through mutual friends.
They specifically sought out gay men who lived on the other side of the country to be their respective donors because they wanted to raise the children independently – but unfortunately it wouldn’t be that simple.
Ry’s donor, a San Francisco lawyer named Tom Steel, initially agreed he wouldn’t have any parental rights or obligations. But when the children began asking about their fathers Russo and Young began to arrange occasional visits.
“The problem started because Tom, the donor, didn’t think: ‘I am going to fall in love with this child,'” the trailer says.
Steel’s relationship with the family became frayed and increasingly fraught over time as he sought more involvement in Ry’s life. This escalated in 1991 when the mothers refused to let him take nine-year-old Ry to California, alone, to meet his parents.
At this point Steel dropped a bombshell on them – he was suing for paternity rights.
“He changed his mind,” Russo said.
Suddenly, the family that was born out of queer counter-culture was confronted by the mainstream court system, which historically honoured “biology” and frequently resulted in lesbians losing custody of their children.
For the Russo-Young family, the court case threatened the family’s very existence.
Told through a combination of interviews, news coverage and home videos, Nuclear Family dives into an important moment in LGBT+ history that would change the way gay families were perceived forever.
The three-part documentary series debuts on HBO on 26 September. Watch the trailer below.