Three decades after she found herself in the middle of a landmark legal battle between a lesbian couple and the gay sperm donor who sued them for paternity and visitation rights, filmmaker Ry Russo-Young has excavated her own family history with the help of old photos, home movies and in-depth interviews in the new HBO docuseries “Nuclear Family.”
The three-part documentary, which Russo-Young said “is very much my perspective on this story,” re-examines the case that played a crucial role in validating the legal existence of families with same-sex parents. It’s a story that the 39-year-old director — whose other credits include “The Sun Is Also a Star,” “Nobody Walks” and “Before I Fall” — resisted telling at first in the form of a documentary, because she “didn’t want to make a me-and-my-problems doc.”
It wasn’t until she became a mother herself, and felt that she had the necessary tools and skills “to do this story justice,” that she decided it was the right time to revisit her past.
“Becoming a mother, having my own children, made me realize how important a child is in one’s life and how it completely changes your whole world, because the amount of love and concern that you feel for that child is so massive,” Russo-Young told NBC News in a recent phone interview. “I think I understood the stakes of the story for everyone involved in a much deeper way … Eventually, I felt like I needed to tell it for me, and I had to have faith that it would matter to other people, because we could tap into more universal themes of family.”
The story dates to the late 1970s at a time when sperm banks would not cater to lesbian couples who were looking to start their own families, thereby eliminating the possibility of having an anonymous donor. Instead, Sandy Russo and Robin Young — a lesbian couple living in New York City — were introduced to two gay men living in California who were willing to donate their sperm to help the women start their family.
Young gave birth to Russo-Young in 1981 using sperm donated by one of those men, a prominent civil rights attorney named Tom Steel; Russo had given birth to a daughter named Cade a year earlier using sperm donated by the other man, Jack Cole. Russo and Young said they made their intentions very clear from the outset: Both men would have “no rights, no responsibilities,” as Russo put it in the film, but the women would give the girls a chance to meet their biological fathers at some point.
Steel vacationed occasionally with the family when the girls were growing up. But when those relationships soured, he sued Young in 1991 for visitation rights and to be recognized as Russo-Young’s father, beginning a four-year dispute with a lesbian couple who had no legal protections and, according to Russo-Young, wasn’t recognized as a “legitimate family.”
“I think that biology sort of trumped everything else" at that time, Young said in a recent Television Critics Association panel. “So if a gay man was a donor and in a dispute with a lesbian couple or a single lesbian mother, the law recognized that relationship over any other partnership or nonbiological family member. The whole focus of the law was the nuclear, heterosexual family. That was the norm and that was the desired norm. And anything outside of that could be deemed harmful to the child or not in the child’s best interest.”
Using many of the same arguments that discriminated against the LGBTQ community to which he belonged, including the belief that “it’s always in the child’s best interests to have a father” or the child would be seen as illegitimate, Steel lost the initial judgment but won an appeal to the State Supreme Court before ultimately dropping the case altogether. He died of complications from AIDS in 1998, at the age of 48.
While she had a dreamy and idyllic childhood with dress-up and imaginary games, Russo-Young said that those painful years “obliterated any kind of warmth that I had felt before” toward Steel, leading her to publicly deny her connection to him in the immediate aftermath of the lawsuit. In her early 20s, shortly after Steel died, Russo-Young received a box of home videos that chronicled their short time together. “I watched about a minute of those tapes and then put them away for many, many years and didn’t look at them,” she recalled.
But as she began to tell coming-of-age stories about people from different walks of life, she began to confront certain themes that led her to ponder her own upbringing: “How does the way that I was raised and the narrative that I grew up with inform who I am today and how I see the world?” It wasn’t until she was in her mid-30s and thinking about making a film about the lawsuit that she decided to take those same tapes — including one where Steel tried to explain his side of the story before he died — out of the closet again.
In an attempt to wrap her mind around the entire experience and “to reconnect to the feelings of warmth and love that we felt prior to the lawsuit,” Russo-Young decided to speak with Steel’s friends and the son of his partner in an attempt to better understand his side of the story.
“They all felt like Tom was doing what he had to do. There was no remorse,” Russo-Young revealed. “There was still anger, I would say, on everybody’s part towards the ‘other side.’ And that was something that was really striking to me, was how, to this day, everyone was convinced that they were very right. I really see the humanity on both sides, and that’s really compelling to me.”
Through the process of making this film, Russo-Young said that her perception of Steel had changed — even if her mothers’ minds have not — and she has learned to “embrace the nuance of my own feelings toward the lawsuit, toward my sperm donor, in a way that I can now sort of hold all of the feelings at the same time, as contradictory as they may be.”
“I have a lot of empathy for Tom now,” she said. “And sometimes, when I see him on film or think about him or watch those videos, I have a pang of, ‘Oh, I so wish he was still alive so that I could talk to him now and ask him things about the film and get to know him as a person and have him know me now as an adult.'”
But to maintain a certain level of professional distance, Russo-Young worked collaboratively with two editors, Pisie Hochheim and Ben Gold, to review decades of footage and had to “refer to myself in the third person a lot of the time and talk about Ry as a separate character who had to go on a journey in this movie,” she said.
For Dan Cogan, who served as a producer of “Nuclear Family,” Russo-Young’s strong background in scripted storytelling allowed her to strike a perfect balance between being both the guide and participant. “On the one hand, she was bringing herself and her feelings and her experience, and so the film is incredibly, intimately personal. At the same time, she was able to separate from her emotions and see the narrative as a storyteller,” Cogan said.
“To make something great, to craft a story, you have to both feel those emotions and also be able to step back and see it as a story that you are building,” he added, “and I think Ry’s scripted background helped her understand these real people as characters in a story.”
But in doing so, Russo-Young also had to risk hurting her mothers and her older sister, asking them to relive some of the most anxiety-inducing moments of their lives in excruciating detail. (Russo-Young noted that her mothers tried to protect her and her sister “from as much of the case as they could” when it was happening, but they were still subject to regular appointments with a court-appointed psychiatrist or they risked losing the initial case to Steel.)
In a particularly striking scene in the third episode, Russo-Young sits down with her mothers and tries to reconcile her own memories with what they have always told her — and what they say was ultimately done in her best interest. “Filming that scene was terrifying to me, because I didn’t want to hurt them, and they’d already gone so far with me in terms of participating in the film,” Russo-Young recalled.
She continued: “I told my moms prior to the actual shoot when I was in Los Angeles, preparing my questions: ‘I’m going to ask you some really hard questions. Please know that I love you and that I’m not saying you were bad parents. I don’t want this to be an attack — I don’t want you to feel it that way — but I have to ask these questions for myself. … I know you can do this with me, because I love you and we’re a strong family … and that’s what gives me faith that I can ask you these tough questions.’”
While they might now have different opinions about the lawsuit, Russo-Young and her mothers all agreed that a significant amount of progress has been made to advance LGBTQ rights in the last 40 years, especially with the legalization of same-sex marriage and the normalization and stability of gay families in the United States.
“There’s still some distance to go, but the difference between when we were starting out as a family and now, it feels like eons,” Young said.
Russo-Young said she believes some of that progress was undoubtedly due to her mothers.
“Even the press that we did after the lawsuit was helpful to normalizing gay families, because seeing a lesbian family on the 6 o’clock news was just something that didn’t happen,” she said. “I remember hearing that it was the first in the nation where a lesbian family was recognized as an autonomous family. … It felt like such a win because the court was such a biology-based, patriarchal system at the time, so that decision really did feel like a miracle and was a complete rarity at the time. And that’s when I realized that maybe we were making change in some way.”
In a 1993 report in The New York Times, Peter Bienstock, the lawyer representing Russo and Young, said their court victory “recognizes, for the first time, the rights of children who are born to lesbian mothers.”
And while she acknowledges that the world has changed in her lifetime, with gay families going from “this hidden, renegade, DIY thing that barely existed to mainstream societal acceptance,” Russo-Young hopes that her documentary series “will also help propel us to continue forging rights for LGBTQ families.”
“I think we still have far to go, because I don’t think we realize how there are still not protections for gay families in all states,” she said.
The first episode of “Nuclear Family” is streaming on HBO Max. The second and third episodes will air on HBO on Oct. 3 and 10, before arriving on HBO Max.