Paul Van Reyk: The Everlasting Open Family
Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA Storytelling night I run at the Giant Dwarf in Redfern with support from the City of Sydney. This week – activist and donor Dad Paul Van Reyk.
I wanted to do a couple of things before I started – let me acknowledge the specialness of this event. I’m kind of old, yeah I know. I’ve been an activist for a long time and I might get very teary in a moment, and I couldn’t imagine an event like this happening when I started as a gay activist ok? The fact that we’ve had four months of queer stories being told is extraordinary. Those of you in the audience who have lived through our times can, I hope, register the fabulousness of this event. For those of you who can’t – grab this experience because it is extraordinary. Outside of homosexual conferences this would never have happened in my time. Big ups to everyone who is involved in this.
I was asked to give a title to this – and I’ve called it the “Everlasting Open Family”. For those of us who are as old as I, Frank Moorehouse (an Australian Writer) once wrote a very strange book called “The Everlasting Secret Family” which is about a paedophile ring. Go Frank. But I wanted to call this the Everlasting Open Family to kind of counteract that, but also to give you a sense of what the story is about. So here we go!
My eldest daughter, Mary, married five years ago. Not gay married, married married. My eldest son Rajendra got married last month. Also married married.
To misquote dear old Lady Bracknell: ‘For a gay dad to have one child marry may be regarded as a misfortune; to have two children marry looks like carelessness.’
How did a pro-feminist, long-term gay activist father let this happen?
I never expected to or wanted to be a dad. I grew up in a very Catholic family, but I can’t recall the subject of having to obey the Biblical imperative to ‘Go forth and multiply’ ever coming up. Actually, there were no discussions about sex at all. I had girlfriends during high school but they were good Catholic girls, so sloppy tongue kissing and the occasional grope of a fully clothed tit in the back of my dads car was as far as we ever got.
I spent the first years of uni stoned or tripping and sex was the last thing on my mind. Lots of other weird things were on my mind. All through my mid-twenties I kept desperately falling in love with men and getting the odd fondle when they came home drunk and I was crashing on the bean bag in the lounge room of their share house, though happily it never ended with a Muriels’ Wedding moment. I hadn’t got around to being honest with myself about being gay yet, and I am still not sure what on earth I thought I was actually doing with these guys. And I was still a virgin.
Then Diane, a good friend from my uni days, returned from Europe and within the course of a week I was no longer a virgin and had begun what became a six month live in heterosexual relationship. When it ended we stayed friends and she asked me to promise that if she ever wanted to have child I would be the father. I did, yeah I know, I’m that kind of guy and a couple of years later she rang to take me up on the offer.
The timing of Diane’s request had the potential to be very awkward. In the intervening years, I had come out, been through two partners, was on to the third, and the house I shared with two gay men was a de facto office for the Gay Solidarity Group. The real left of the gay movement at that stage. Kids and families were not part of our lives or the lives of most of the gay men and lesbians with whom I socialised or campaigned. There were a couple of activists I knew who had been married and had kids before coming out. But the kids lived with their mothers, and while the dads would visit them, the kids were not part of their fathers’ gay lives. As good Marxist feminist gay men we were staunchly anti patriarchy and so anti marriage.
Diane knew all this, so I was a bit phased by her call. She assured me that we wouldn’t have to fuck – the kid would be turkey basted. She didn’t want any financial support for the child. She did want the child to know I was the father and for me to have a part in the child’s life as it grew, but she wasn’t interested in forming a family with me. I said yes because I’m that kind of guy. Diane kept track of her menstrual cycle and when she was ovulating I would get a call. She’d come over to my place and hang around in the kitchen while my partner Robert and I had non-penetrative sex in the bedroom and I would dutifully collect my sperm in one of those urine sample jars from the chemist. Diane would take it into another bedroom and inject it into her vagina. She used the turkey baster a couple of times but switched to a plastic syringe. When she figured the sperm were happily on their journey and not likely to turn around and dribble out again, we’d all have a cup of tea and cakes and Diane would head off till the next time.
Things were going as normally as they could, under the circumstances, and then came the second fateful phone call. Louise, a lesbian I knew through Robert, asked if I would be one of a quartet of donors for her and her partner Margaret. At that time, lesbians wanting to have a child had two choices: either pretend to be a straight woman with a husband who was infertile if they wanted to access costly IVF from an anonymous sperm donor bank, or they had to find a man who would be a donor on their terms. In their case, they would raise the child themselves and expected no financial help from the successful donor. But they did want the child to know the donor and have contact with him when the child wanted it. I said yes as a consciously political act. That’s kind of what we gay boys did back then.
Diane became pregnant and we settled down into watching and waiting mode. I’d get calls telling me how things were going, and occasionally get a grainy black and white ultrasound which just looked like a shot of a radar screen tracking some weather event. Meanwhile, Louise had been having trouble with the reliability of her donors. When she heard that Diane was pregnant, she decided to keep me on as the only donor. She also decided she wanted a child with built in sun protection.
And that’s when things started to get very interesting for all of us. Louise and Margaret asked to meet Diane, and also wanted their child to know that Diane’s child was their child’s sibling, and for them to spend time with each other. We were embarking on an extended family of choice and it was uncharted territory. Our joint commitment was to keep talking and working things out, particularly once the kids were born and started to have wishes of their own about the kinds of relationships they wanted with each other and with us. And to answer the kids questions honestly as appropriate to their age.
Meanwhile things were going quite strange in Diane’s side of the family. Her sister was worried that their elderly mum wouldn’t accept a grandchild born out of wedlock. So, on Valentine’s Day, 6 months into her pregnancy Diane rang me. Now, I don’t know if you know this – but Valentine’s Day is the only day on which a woman can ask a man to marry her. If the man refuses, he has to buy the woman a dozen pairs of white gloves. At least that’s the story Diane told me. We didn’t have Wikipedia back then, so I couldn’t confirm or deny the story. I was a cheapskate and went for marriage. We had two ceremonies, one at the Registry Office with her sister and brother in law, my parents and Robert my partner as the witnesses. Then we had a queer ceremony with Mother Inferior of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as celebrant, the highlight of which was a gay friend of mine in a gorgeous white wedding dress throwing himself at my feet shouting, ‘It should’ve been me’, and he kind of ‘birthed’ a champagne bottle from under his dress.
Three months later, Mary was born. When the very long labour was over, Diane was so exhausted that after a quick cuddle and bonding she handed Mary over to me and went to sleep. So there I was, a gay man, in a birthing room, with a child I had never expected to have, never particularly wanted to have, but was absolutely, I’m going to get teary, entranced by and whom I now wanted very much indeed.
Rajendra, Louise’s son, was born five months after Mary. I saw him the day after he was born (thank god I didn’t have to go through labour twice) and again I was besotted from the first look.
Word now was out that I was a reliable donor and soon I was donating to other lesbians. Usually the sperm was collected from my place in a transaction that lasted about as long as a pizza delivery, but in reverse. If I went to the woman’s place to donate, they would sometimes have gay male porn on the bedside table just in case I was having an off day. I never asked what they did with the porn after I left.
I wasn’t asked to have a role in the life of any of the children who might be born and they were not going to know their siblings. I don’t even know if any or how many were born. Except in one case where the mothers asked me for a picture that the child could have for when she was curious about her donor. When she was born, they sent me a picture of her in return but no contact details as we had agreed. I was fine with all of that. As far as I was concerned the decisions about the child’s life should be made by the women who were going to raise the child.
None of us knew it at the time, but we were having our children in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in Sydney. The guy I lost my gay virginity to died of an AIDS related illness, so did my first partner, so did a few casual fucks, and so did one of Louise’s other donors.
By the time Kerry and Simon, work friends of mine, asked me to be their donor, because Simon was infertile, there was a test for HIV. We’d all been very lucky. I was negative. Alexis was born five years after Raj. Kerry and Simon also wanted Alexis to know I was her donor dad and to have contact with her siblings.
That same year, Louise and Margaret asked me to donate again. By now being a dad was a total buzz, so I said yes. This time round I would go to their house for the drop off. Five-year-old Raj (remember he was the second of the kids) used to wonder why I would come over, play with him for a while, have dinner, and need a nap straight after, and then his mum would have a nap after that. The line was that I was tired from the long drive from Birchgrove to Ermington. Jesse my second son was the result of those naps.
We all settled in to being this ‘modern family’. We’d get together for the kids’ birthdays, for Father’s Day, to go watch the latest Pixar or Miyazaki. The mothers helped the kids negotiate the minefield that is the classroom and playground in a relentlessly heterosexual world. And the kids were growing up more than all right.
Then ten years after Jesse was born I got a call from Bronwyn, a heterosexual friend of mine. She was planning to have a child by donoring with a gay friend of hers and wanted to talk with me about what to discuss with the guy and how to approach the whole process. I had by now a bit of a reputation of being ‘donor central’. We arranged to meet for coffee. When I turned up she told me that the prospective donor had got cold feet and backed out. We talked about how disappointing that was and how much she had already gone through in getting to this stage. You can guess what happens next can’t you? I told her that if she liked I would be her donor. About eighteen months later, Arlo, my youngest son was born. Bronwyn also wanted Arlo to know I was his dad and to know and interact with his siblings. And so our family was again extended.
Apart from my youngest brother, the rest of my birth family still only knew about Mary. Oh boy. There are several coming outs in this story. My parents looked after her from time to time when she was young and she was very much their grandchild. My dad was turning 80. From having some difficult times over the years, we had grown increasingly close and I wanted him to meet his other grandchildren. So, with everyone’s agreement, after a birthday yum cha with my parents, my eldest brother and his wife (born again Christian by the way), my youngest brother and his wife and kids, I told my dad I had a special birthday present for him and put pictures of all the kids on the table one at a time, like a gambler in a Kenny Rogers song. With each picture his smile broadened. I know, I loved him. God I’m getting so teary now. Wow. That year at our annual Boxing Day family get-together, my parents met all their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s parents.
Not long after, I featured in an episode of Australian Story on the ABC called Father’s Day. Mary and Raj and Bromwyn took part. It was a very public coming out for me as a donor dad and for them as gaybies – we didn’t even use the term then. Jesse was in his last years of high school and hadn’t said anything about his conception or about me, which was fine with me. The day before the episode screened, though, he told his closest friends, all of whom were totally supportive of him.
I really wish that all those people in things like the Australian Christian Lobby would actually listen to my kids.
And so began the next phase in the story, this time being told by the kids. Jesse, Raj, Louise and Margaret went on to take part in the first version of Maya Newell’s Gayby Babies. Raj got involved with the promotion and distribution of the feature length version of the film, and went down to Canberra for a panel after a showing of the film to a handful of politicians at Parliament House. Alexis, Kerry, Simon and I were filmed for a Japanese tv documentary on donoring. Alexis and I were on the SBS Insight episode on donor parenting. And last week Jesse appeared on the gaybies episode of You Can’t Ask That. Raj, now a television producer, lamented that we had missed the opportunity for a reality tv show to rival the Kardashian’s.
Well, Raj, there is still time.
‘But, Paul’, you say, ‘what about this marriage business?’ ‘Where did you anti-patriarchy parents all go so terribly wrong?’ I don’t think we did. We brought up our kids to make their own decisions and if getting married is one of them that’s fine with me.
Let me channel my former hippie self and leave you all with words that ring true for me every day and which I recommend to all of you current and future LGBTIQ parents.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.