Let’s talk about stigma for a second.
A year ago, we started We are Egg Donors as an advocacy and support network for egg donors. After meeting Claire and Sierra through the magic of video conference calling, we all recognized a need for a neutral safe space where donors can turn to to have real conversations about their experiences. A place where human-focused discourse on the complexities of egg donation can happen.
We wanted real conversations outside of the flashy, hyper-commercial “$$BIG MONEY 4 UR ALTRUISM$$” narrative that lurks in the bowels of the Craigslist “Etc” jobs section.
In my opinion, those kinds of ads are contradictory and it’s condescending. And people tend to see right through it.
So, through our group, we started having authentic conversations about our experiences. And after speaking with hundreds of egg donors around the world, it’s clear that every egg donor’s story is different.
This interview is about stigma, being queer, and navigating a heteronormative medical landscape. While egg donation is presented as a simple clinical procedure, there is a lot of room for reducing stigma and acknowledging a fuller scope of, you know, how people actually feel about it. To some of us, our narratives are more complex than “wham, bam, thank you for your huevos, good job, here’s a check, you’ll be fine, good bye.”
WE ARE EGG DONORS: Describe “Lauren” in a nutshell.
LAUREN: I’m a 24 year old queer lady living in Brooklyn. I work at a non-profit that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) equality, and in my spare time, I also love playing with other people’s dogs, re-reading Harry Potter, and roaming New York City looking for quiet parks and baked goods.
WE ARE EGG DONORS: So tell me why you donated your eggs.
LAUREN: After I graduated from college, the only job I had lined up was a low-paying summer internship. I applied for one job after another with no success. I was feeling panicky, and moving home wasn’t an option. I had a friend who had donated her eggs a few times–I talked with her about her experiences and I decided to start going through the process at the same clinic as her, mostly as a back up plan in case I didn’t find a job. I was matched with a recipient pretty quickly and, as the months went by and I still didn’t have a job, I decided the $8000 was too much money to pass up given all the bills I needed to pay, not to mention living expenses. I was apprehensive about the whole thing, but I don’t regret it going through with it–the money allowed me to sign a lease and keep living in the City until I found my current full time job.
WE ARE EGG DONORS: Were you openly “out” during the egg donation process? There are American agencies who reject candidates based on their sexual orientation or race.
LAUREN: When filling out the intake paperwork, I had to check if I had sex with women, men, or both.
I checked “both,” tentatively — the gender of the person I’m dating or sleeping with doesn’t really matter to me, but I was worried that, like you said, this would somehow lower my chances of getting matched.
When the nurse reviewed my paperwork, she told me that recipients were not allowed to see information about a donor’s sexuality, so I felt really relieved. As far as I know, my sexuality was a non-issue in the process.
WE ARE EGG DONORS: So let’s talk stereotypes. Did you notice any gendered or heteronormative approaches to your care?
LAUREN: The weirdest part for me was when the doctors explained that, in order to prevent pregnancy, donors weren’t supposed to have sex during the months leading up to the retrieval. “What kind of sex?” I wondered. There is an idea that “sex” means “intercourse in which a penis enters a vagina” because we automatically assume everyone is heterosexual and cisgender.
To me, and to many LGBTQ people, sex can mean a lot of different things.
At the time, I was having sex, but not the type of sex that could get me pregnant. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to stop having sex with my partner or if it didn’t really matter. I decided not to ask the doctors about it because I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them about my sex life. I wish the clinic staff had made me feel more welcome to ask these kinds of questions.
WE ARE EGG DONORS: What were some things in the egg donation industry that can be improved?
LAUREN: Many things! With the caveat that I don’t speak for all LGBTQ egg donors and that we all have different experiences donating, I do have suggestions.
First, no agency should reject a candidate based on their sexuality, gender identity, and/or trans status. There is nothing wrong with being LGBTQ–the idea that it makes a donor “undesirable” is homophobic and transphobic.
It’s important to consider that LGBTQ people, especially trans people, are statistically more likely to be unemployed, in poverty, and without health insurance. As we all know, donors receive thousands of dollars–donating is one way LGBTQ people can use the resources they have to access both medical care and critical funds to support themselves. LGBTQ donors deserve the same opportunities to be matched as straight and cisgender donors.
With that said, language on clinic websites, ads, brochures, and paperwork should reflect that not all donors identify as straight and not all donors identify as women.
Trans people who were assigned female at birth, which can include genderqueer people, gender non-conforming people, and trans men, can be egg donors as well. Yet clinics operate under the assumption that only cisgender women donate eggs, which removes trans people from the conversation. Clinics need to remember that not everyone with ovaries identifies as a woman, and they should incorporate operational and communications strategies to make these individuals feel more comfortable donating.
Finally, doctors and nurses need to learn how to treat their queer and trans donors. Historically, medical professionals have contributed to the stigmatization of queer and trans people by neglecting their health concerns and pathologizing their identities. LGBTQ patients frequently have to educate their physicians, who may not know how to talk about or treat their health issues respectfully. Consequently, LGBTQ people are more likely to distrust doctors.
Doctors and nurses at clinics that provide egg donation are no exception. Personally, I felt intimidated by my doctors, who did not understand why I asked so many questions about the testing, the ultrasounds, and the extraction. I was trying to find out more information about what they were doing to my body, but they treated me like I was a nuisance. Doctors need to prioritize consent and transparency when discussing medical procedures with clients, so that egg donors completely understand what’s happening in their bodies.
WE ARE EGG DONORS: How can individuals educate themselves about LGBT health issues?
LAUREN: There is tons of information out there about LGBTQ health issues. Some great starter websites include the Lesbian Health & Research Center, the Center for Excellence for Transgender Health. There are a variety of LGBTQ-specific health centers in the US, includingCallen-Lorde, APICHA, Fenway Health, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Whitman-Walker Health, and the Mazzoni Center. I would encourage staff at clinics, as well as anyone interested in these issues, to attend conferences and/or find online webinars to further their education. Get in touch with your local LGBT center to begin learning about the needs of LGBTQ people in your community.
WE ARE EGG DONORS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
LAUREN: While I don’t plan on donating my eggs again, it was a powerful experience that shaped the way I think about my body.
I strongly believe in advocating for the rights of donors to make the best decisions for themselves, and for the rights of anyone, regardless of their identity, to participate in the process.