The Parent Trap

How DNA testing complicates the queer family

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In late 2020, a new online magazine started making the rounds among parents in LGBTQ+ parenting groups. Called Severance, it marketed itself as a “magazine and community for people who’ve been separated from biological family,” which, as the editor states, 

may occur due to adoption, abandonment, or an NPE (non-parental event or not parent expected) — a term pertaining to misattributed parentage resulting from situations such as formal or informal adoption, kidnapping, undisclosed step-parent adoption, paternity fraud, donor-assisted conception, nonconsensual sex, and, most commonly, an extramarital affair.

These, of course, are groups with profoundly different histories, demographics, life conditions, and socio-legal concerns. The fact that Severance could try to group “people who have been separated from biological family” all together, as if the experience of being raised apart from a genetic relative trumped all the other circumstances, speaks to the rising power of genetic discourse in our culture and the idea that the “genetic family,” measured by DNA, is the norm against which all forms of family should be judged. 

The very existence of Severance, and its uptake within queer communities, is indicative of broader shifts within the LGBTQ+ community. In decades past, the general sentiment was that queer ideas of family needed to be carefully defended from those who claim family has a fundamentally biological basis. The “genetic family” in particular is at odds with the historical ethos of queer family building: LGBTQ+ families have been historically disenfranchised, policed, and scorned due to the lack of genetic ties between members. If there’s any ideology that is at great friction with the queer critique of the compulsory normative family, it’s bionormativity: the claim that biology prescribes identities, hierarchizes relationships, and holds pre-ordained truths. 

The sequencing of the genome in 2003 produced a number of cultural practices that increasingly collapsed personal identity with one’s DNA

Yet now it is not uncommon for parents who had once declared “he’s not a dad, he’s a donor!” proudly refer to a sperm donor as “father” and “dad.” Nor is it unusual to see posts that admonish families who don’t connect their children to “sisters” and “brothers” on the Facebook page for the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), a database that, since 2000, has advocated for and facilitated connection between donors and offspring. The phrase “love makes a family,” once seen as almost a truism in this sphere, now prompts debate, with some parents arguing it “invalidated [their] children’s love for their absent biological family.” Articles by queer parents about the importance of socializing children with their sperm donors and donor siblings have run in the New York Times and the Washington Post; a children’s book about donor sibling linking, Meeting My Brother, was approvingly reviewed in queer parenting blogs.

This shift can be seen as part of a broader “biogenetic turn” in society that places genetics at the center of multiple identities and truths: selfhood, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, health, and family. It manifests in an array of new social and political practices — everything from the genetic surveillance of migrants and criminalized persons, to DNA-based target marketing algorithms, to the revival of a (newly geneticized) scientific racism, to a pop culture obsession with genetic origins. The “genetic mystery,” for instance, is a growing genre of reality TV, with DNA testing the key plot device in series like Relative Race, The Genetic Detective, Long Lost Family, and the MTV feature Generation Cryo, in which a 17-year old uses the DSR to try to find others conceived with the same donor (and/or sperm). Particularly troubling is the scientific reassertion of “biological” sex and gender, found in the ever elusive (and illusive) search for gay and trans genes. Even the image of the double-helix itself has become a cultural icon of sorts, appearing on shampoo bottles, airline ads, and in tattoos. It appeals to both the idea of humanity’s mysteries and the promise of Western empiricism and techno-scientific supremacy to unravel them. 

This biogenetic turn has, according to psychologists SJ Heine and I DarNimrod, led to more of the public misunderstanding “genes as the essence of personhood,” and, as the rhetoric of Severance indicates, of family. It challenges what has been the dominant ethos of progressive queer and feminist movements, which over decades of activism and scholarship, had sought to decouple biology from identity and family. Where does the idea of genetic family come from — and what happens when it is more broadly affirmed as the original and proper form? What do we gain from turning to a genetic definition of family — and what might we lose? 

To understand the “genetic family,” we must first understand the “genetic self” — the idea that, as science historian Nathan Comfort puts it, “your genes are your essential, true identity,” not just the source of “truth” about yourself but also a predictor of your future. Such ideas about the self as singular, static over time, and unique have been pervasive in the West since pre-Enlightenment religious thinkers conceptualized the “soul,” god-given and separable from one’s inherited qualities. But as religion gave way to Enlightenment thinking, the “real” self took root in the body as something that is heritable, discoverable, and even measurable. Victorian doctors weighed bodies before and after death to quantify the deceased’s dissipating soul.

By the 19th and into the 20th century, the eugenics movement would place constructed ideas of biological race at the seat of identity, and emerging criminology discourses would posit an inherent “criminal nature” that could be inherited. North American chattel slavery and settler colonialism reified race and nationhood as biological conditions that were quantifiable and measurable, foundational to the accumulation of white capital, land, and wealth.  

Following proper neoliberal logic, the more genetic information one has, the greater possibilities for self-discovery

Eventually an alternate paradigm of personal identity would emerge, in part from anti-colonial and anti-racist movements, feminisms, and queer activism. Feminists, queers, and transgender activists and theorists denaturalized sex, gender, and biology itself, while Black radical traditions showed how race itself was a product of racial slavery, not an immutable category borne of anything within the body. This destabilized empiricist assumptions of biology as a stable seat of identity, showing the fragility of entwined categories like “biological sex” and “biological race” — and the ways these categories were historically used to oppress the world’s majorities. 

Yet, the rise of biogeneticism threatens to erode that. Ideas about the instability of biological race and biological sex, central to anti-racist, feminist, and transgender activism, came into tension with the reductive geneticism flourishing in popular culture as the genome was mapped. The sequencing of the genome in 2003 produced a number of cultural practices that increasingly collapsed personal identity with one’s DNA: Forensic genetics replaced fingerprinting as the “gold standard” of criminal identification, folding DNA into the racial surveillance project of the criminal justice system (state genetic databases contain a disproportionate number of samples from African-American subjects). As Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear has traced, Indigenous tribes also came to rely on DNA testing in addition to (in some cases, instead of) genealogical research to adjudicate citizenship claims. Affordable consumer DNA testing offered the public unprecedented ways to “discover themselves” as “unique” individuals, through personalized genetic knowledge. Following proper neoliberal logic, centered around the individual and all things private, the more genetic information one has, the greater possibilities for self-discovery.

It is a short skip from the idea that DNA encodes our “true selves” to the idea that there is such a thing as a “genetic family.” If “who you are” is a product of genetics, and genetics are “passed down” through reproduction, communing with one’s biological relations is not only a matter of connecting with one’s progenitors but of returning one’s self to its defining source. This translates directly into gamete donor discourses. “There’s no one to whom to attribute that dark, curly head and olive skin and those almond-shaped brown eyes,” writes one Severance contributor of the distress of having been born of an unknown donor: 

And why are you so assertive and reckless and obstinate? Certainly not from Mom’s side of the family. The closest comparison I can make is to phantom limb syndrome. You feel this burning pain where one of your legs used to be (though I suppose I was never born with that leg) and the only way to quench the pain is to hold up a mirror to your other leg to trick your mind into believing you have full function of both limbs. […] But when you find your father, it’s like you’re finally fitted with a prosthetic and you’ve been given a chance at approaching a normal life.

This can be seen as an example of what philosopher Kimberley Leighton calls the “authenticity paradigm,” which presupposes a “bionormative understanding of identity as pre-given, natural, biological, or genetic,” and rooted in a true self that can only be known (and therefore liberated and healed) through the search for biogenetic information. An adoptee, Leighton objects to how the authenticity paradigm has flattened popular critiques of adoption, which is more necessary than ever as state and conservative private interests (such as evangelical adoption agencies) continue to systematically separate poor, Black, Indigenous and migrant children from their families and communities across the globe. After all, there are vital distinctions between opposing state-sanctioned removal of children from communities, and the belief that children must be united with their gamete donors as family. But in the logic of Severance, the complex injustices of the child welfare and adoption system are reduced to ahistorical issues of “genetic identity.” 

Ironically, the more central genes become to popular ideas of identity and selfhood, the less central they are to biological science. Epigenetic research is increasingly revealing that the multi-scalar environment surrounding the gene — from the level of the molecules/proteins within the pregnant body, to the other bodies interacting with that body, to the broader environment surrounding that body — all influence which genes come to be expressed, when, and how. Genes continue to interact with the environment throughout one’s life, in powerful and often unpredictable ways that affect how they express themselves in bodies. Deconstruct the gene — as kinship anthropologists and geneticists alike are increasingly doing — and the idea of biological inheritance no longer seems like a simple matter by which one acquires one’s curly hair or obstinance. According to kinship scholar Jenny Gunnarson Payne, epigenetic processes make the gene itself “an extremely dynamic entity, constantly changing its properties in generally adaptive response to its environment.” 

This complexity, which challenges not only the idea of there being two “biological parents” but the distinction between “biology” and “culture” (or “nature” and “nurture”) itself, is obscured in the paradigm of genetic family. As Leighton argues, DNA testing and the subsequent “geneticization of adoption” added support to adoptee activists who have sought to end closed adoptions, in which the child is denied information of, and contact with, their birth family (itself a powerful enforcement of biogenetic norms — what could be more important than the one thing you are not permitted to know?) What had once been opposed using psychoanalytic theories around abandonment was now described as “genetic bewilderment”; closed adoptions were harmful because they denied the child “genetic mirrors.” 

The emphasis on genetic selfhood and family aligns with a deeper conservatism that puts it at odds with existing queer theories of selfhood and family

Policy shifts in local and international family echoed this rhetoric, with multiple U.S. states providing de facto parenting rights to absent genetic fathers, prioritizing (even unknown) genetic relatives in cases where a child was up for adoption, and restricting international adoptions that would dislocate children from cultural ancestry, conceptualized as genetic. 

On the one hand, these changes are broadly positive, reflecting the sympathy many parents feel with their children’s desire to understand their origins and give them autonomy over their family narratives. However, the emphasis on individual genetic selfhood and family, measured via DNA tests, raises more issues than it solves. The shift aligns with a deeper conservatism that puts it at odds with existing queer theories of selfhood and family, not to mention countless communities who define kinship outside the prevailing Eurocentric nuclear model rooted in DNA. As long as the tie between people who share DNA is considered primary, objective and permanent — as long as the “genetic family” is seen as something from which one can be “severed” — non-genetic family, of which there is much in the LGBTQ+ community (not to mention much of the world), will inevitably be understood as secondary, extraneous, and even pathological. 

This tension is evident in the links between the donor-conceived person movement, the more vocal members of which lobby for legally enforced access to donors and genetic “siblings” from a child’s birth, and alt-right “traditional family” lobby groups like the Center for Bioethics and Culture (CBC), which advocates for, among other things, restrictions on abortion and divorce and denying civil rights and transition-related medical services to transgender people. Like many discourses centered on DNA, these internal tensions indicate how genetics often serves a larger agenda, in this case, the social and political supremacy of the white, settler, heterosexual nuclear family. 

As Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle uncovered, the Bradley Foundation, a major funder of the CBC, is also working actively to dismantle the Indian Child Welfare Act, just as it worked to erode protections that prioritized the placement of Black foster children within Black communities until the 1990s. Simultaneously, Bradley is part of a legal strategy to empower evangelical adoption agencies that are subcontracted by the US state, placing children from marginalized groups with families that are screened for moral fitness (the adoption agencies the Bradley Foundation work with claim “religious liberty” in order to discriminate against LGBTQ+ families). For such organizations, donor conception is unjust because it separates children from “biological family,” but when the biological (or non-biological) family in question is an Indigenous or Black or poor one to be fractured and dispersed, the supposed power of DNA is nowhere to be found. 

The central claim of the supposedly apolitical “genetic family” movement is that donor conception that separates children from genetic family members is a rights violation as well as psychologically harmful. The remedy then would be to reform the family by reinstating the absent genetic family members. But this stance is anything but apolitical; it readily aligns with longstanding “traditional family” positions from the patriarchal right. The idea of a “genetic family,” itself rooted in a colonial and heterosexist concept of kinship, is easily assimilated to the edict that children belong with their (cis-gendered, white) married mother and father. 

And yet, the larger discourse of genetic selfhood — filtered through rhetoric of individual empowerment and bolstered by consumer-based commercial DNA testing — is being used to market the “genetic family” to queer families. The presentation of genetic knowledge as liberatory, value-neutral, and “objectively” scientific masks its association with homophobia and heterosexism and offers it an apparently progressive patina. 

Just as white middle-class gays and lesbians began to enter into mainstream U.S. institutions, social conservatism began to simultaneously push non-normative queer subjects — trans people of color, Black and Indigenous queers, migrants, disabled queers, sex workers, and more — further to the social, economic, and political margins. This mainstreaming of a narrow slice of commercialized queer culture — often called homonormativity — has introduced a paradigm few could have imagined, much less desired, generations prior, accepting the recentering of the normative private family as best and most legitimate in exchange for increased social acceptance.

“Blood does not a family make,” the ballroom queen Hector Xtravaganza once said. “Family are those with whom you share your good, bad, and ugly, and still love one another in the end.” As Cath Weston famously wrote in 1991, gays and lesbians create kinship structures that are primarily rooted in loyalty, commitment, and love, drawing from the metaphorical language of blood without correlating directly with biological ties. 

Just as queer people have been making families that push back upon bionormative understandings of kinship (as Daniel Rivers traces in his 2014 history of lesbian and gay parenthood), they have also been making children for decades outside medical contexts, whether through informal sperm donations, surrogacy, self-insemination, or co-parenting networks in their own communities. Often called “intentional” parenthood, queer family practices have been rooted in intent, commitment, and choice, challenging the biogenetic family models normalized under Western capitalism. 

Genetics often serves a larger agenda, in this case, the social and political supremacy of the white, settler, heterosexual nuclear family

But with the increased acceptance of white middle-class LGBTQ+ people in society came their increased access to reproductive technology — itself deeply embedded in the new discourses of biogenetic selfhood and kinship. As legal scholar Michael Boucai explains, reproductive technology was designed to appeal to the infertile heterosexual family and its demand to meet normative standards of biogenetic relatedness. Queer consumers entering this marketplace quickly become subject to the industry’s “deep-seated faith in the priority and superiority of biogenetic forms of relationship and identity… displacing [queer families’] social and functionalist… conception of familial relationships.” 

Thirty-plus years later, biogeneticism permeates every aspect of queer reproductive life, from emerging technologies to fuse the reproductive materials of lesbians (see: “reciprocal IVF,” in which one partner’s egg is fertilized by a third party’s sperm and then transferred to their partner’s uterus, allowing both to “become biological mothers”; or “shared motherhood,” a newer technology that tranfers the fertilized embryo twice so that both partners can claim to have gestated the baby), to the demand for uterus implants for transgender, gender noncomforming and non-binary subjects, to the marketing of donor “sibling” registries and kin networks to queer families, to practices such as sperm bank “race matching.” As the importance of biological relatedness becomes more entrenched among queer families, the utopian expanse of Xtravaganza’s ideal fades.

This is not to say “intentional parenthood” is extinct: Groups lobbying for LGBTQ+ justice continue to propose legislation that would move away from biogenetic definitions of family and toward an intent-based model that would, for example, honor pre-birth parenting agreements in the case of gamete donors or surrogates and eliminate the need for “second-parent adoptions” in the case of non-biological queer parents. 

But it is facing increasing pushback. As long as the idea that biogenetic kinship is the most true, essential, and valid form of family persists, it not only places queer families in legally precarious positions but undermines the larger value of “love makes a family” for all families. In the age of the genetic family, the broader collective vision in which kinship is measured by the quality of relationships, by the labor and love invested in them, is subordinated to the impersonal and hierarchical idea of a “genetic link.” 

Instead of a piece of hereditary information, it has become the key to human relationships and the basis of family cohesion,” Dorothy Nelkin and Susan M. Lindee wrote in their 1995 book, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as Cultural Icon. “Instead of a string of purines and pyrimidines, [the gene] has become the essence of identity and the source of social difference. Instead of an important molecule, it has become the secular equivalent of the human soul.” As “genetic information” is increasingly institutionalized as essential to a healthy identity, the progressive definition of selfhood as fluid, collective, continually constructed (and deconstructed) through radical love, kinship, and care is subsumed by the individual quest to find the essential, fixed, and highly personal self. All of this is highly privatized, taking us further away from collective notions of radical care. Collective traditions and experiments to create non-exclusive and less hierarchal forms of kinship are pathologized, while queer families face challenges both concrete (legal erosion of custody rights) and symbolic (the return of children’s rights discourse to the discussions around non-traditional family building). And the “genetic family” — as much a political and social construct as “genetic sex” or “genetic race” — is naturalized as the necessary source of identity and belonging; an ideal from which so many of us remain severed.  

Alexandra Kimball is a non-fiction writer based in Toronto. Her first book, The Seed: Infertility is a Feminist Issue was published in 2019 by Coach House Books. She is currently working on a book of essays about the ideology of motherhood under consumer capitalism.

Tamara Lea Spira is an Associate Professor of Queer Studies in the Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University. Her work has been published in venues including Radical History ReviewBoundary2Identities, Feminist TheoryFeminist Formations,  The Feminist Wire and more. Her first book, Movements of Feeling, is forthcoming with the University of Washington Press. Her second book on queering family is under contract with the University of California Press.