WNBA superstar Diana Taurasi returned home from the Tokyo Olympics this summer with her fifth gold medal, but she told a local journalist that nothing in 2021 would surpass the upcoming birth of her second child to wife and former teammate Penny Taylor. Their family, two moms and two children, enjoys social acceptance and legal protection entirely unavailable in 1979 to Robin Young and Sandy Russo, who goes by Russo, the family at the heart of the HBO docu-series, Nuclear Family, which aired this fall.
Robin and Russo’s path to parenthood was not paved by Olympic stars nor facilitated by a world of information on the internet. They had little in the way of role models, but they did have a pamphlet, self-published by lesbians in San Francisco and sold in women’s bookstores, demonstrating the process of self-insemination using donor semen. All they needed were two men, willing to donate sperm without assuming any rights or responsibilities of parenthood. Today they could find an anonymous donor through a sperm bank; or a doctor willing to perform the insemination using known donor sperm; or they could undergo removal of one mom’s egg followed by in vitro fertilization using donor semen and implantation and gestation in the other mom; or they could adopt. There are role models everywhere.
Most importantly for understanding the family drama that unfolded in Nuclear Family, in the early 1980’s Russo and Robin had no way to protect the integrity of the family they had formed. Today, in some states, the joint endeavor of donor insemination would automatically make both women legal moms and would automatically eliminate the parental rights and responsibilities of a sperm donor. In every state, the non-biological mom could adopt the child, creating full legal parentage and formalizing the donor’s agreement to forego parental status. The birth certificate of a child born to a married lesbian couple today bears the names of both spouses as parents, although experts recommend the extra step of adoption to confer universal acceptance of the non-bio mom’s right.
But in 1981, when Ry Russo-Young was born, there had never been a second parent adoption by a same-sex partner; the first one in New York came over a decade later, in 1992, and the practice was not approved by the highest court in New York until 1995. Same-sex marriage would not come to New York until 2011. Robin and Russo asked two gay men they met through friends in San Francisco to donate sperm so each could bear a child. Both men agreed that the two women would be the parents, but they were willing to meet the children in the future if they moms wanted. Today that arrangement could be confirmed in court, but at the time it was an arrangement based on trust. Nuclear Family tells the story of how the trust disappeared when one donor, Tom Steel, filed an action for paternity when Ry was 9 years old.
The path to the litigation began when Ry was three and the moms travelled with both children to San Francisco to meet the donors. Ry’s sister Cade had a different donor, and no significant relationship developed between him and the family. But Ry’s donor, Tom, became a family friend. There were visits and family vacations, all involving both moms and both girls. Ry knew Tom was her biological father, but she also knew that Cade was her sister and Robin and Russo her parents.
Then when Ry was 9, Tom asked Robin and Russo to send her alone to California to attend a gathering of his biological family. The moms refused. Had Russo’s legal status as Ry’s mom been secure, as it could be today, that would have been the end of it. He might have asked the following year, and they might have said yes. But the law at the time did not recognize Russo as a parent, and Tom’s paternity action made clear that he did not either. He filed against Robin only, excluded Russo from the court proceedings, and claimed he was Ry’s father and had the full rights of parenthood, even though she had never spent a single night with him without her moms. Although among friends and colleagues Tom claimed that Ry’s expansive family included both Russo and himself, that was not what he said in court.
The story of the subsequent four years of litigation has been told before in magazines and even a documentary. But that child, Ry Russo-Young, grew up to be a filmmaker, and, at 40, she made Nuclear Family to explore for herself those defining years of her childhood. It’s a riveting human interest story, but it is also a story about the law at a time before today’s Olympians were born.