Initiating with the radical transparency that she will thus continue, it is 2011 when Tea’s reproductive odyssey commences. A former sex worker, recovered addict, and recipient of the Lambda Literary Award For Lesbian Fiction, Tea writes candidly about her struggles with mental health, her many heartbreaks, and her joyful promiscuity.
Lauded by queer media such as Autostraddle, them; legacy media such as The New York Times, CBS, and The Washington Post; and cultural influencers, Vogue, The Cut — Tea’s memoir, vivacious and verbose, awoke in readers a contention: What is motherhood? Taking the fertility industrial complex (i.e. the oft-problematic culture and business surrounding pregnancy) and its close ally of precious mommyhood — Tea, a former sex worker, recovered drug addict, and queer woman, is unorthodox.
Perhaps this shared experience of queer outsiderness makes Tea’s prose in Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir Of My (In)Fertility, for queer folk, so reeling. Musing on the unspoken prerequisites and manifestations of bringing the world sentience, she, in many ways, tends to soil I, at least, wished to leave unattended. Procreative potentiality that, since my queer reveal, others too had contentedly disenfranchised.
Preceding her affirmative decision to begin her baby-making journey were multiple. Among them. reflections on her inability to take antidepressants throughout the pregnancy, impulsively jet-set, discouragement from friends and family, and musings on the manifold ways a queer person may become pregnant. Those cost-effective: home insemination, using the sperm of a friend, fucking a stranger from Craigslist or a friend, and those less so — artificial reproductive technology (ART).
It is the former, initially, which Tea settles on. She obtains an informal sperm donor in the form of her ex’s best friend, Quentin. Creatively recognised as the drag queen Miss Super Deluxe Pandemonium, he now, in Tea’s kitchen, ejaculates bimonthly into a warmed pyrex bowl. (During our conversation I enquired if Tea, as she had insisted in the book, continued to utilise this pyrex bowl. “Absolutely.” She insists. “It’s just psychological contamination. You have to resist it.”) The goods ferried to Tea’s room by her lifetime best friend and nascent inseminator, Rhonda. Tea has undergone two such sessions before Orson, her seemingly destined-to-be partner in this journey, enters. Orson also wants children, and being non-binary, leaning spectrally towards the trans-masculine — expresses relief by Tea’s urge to carry this child herself. Tea ruminates, “Orson’s timing was wild. In my social and dating history, I had never dated somebody with a good job or money — and would want to put it towards something like this.”
That which she had planned to undertake alone, to call quits and bust for Paris if unsuccessful by forty-one, becomes a (renewable) three-year membership to the Trying To Conceive (TTC) community. An endurance test of pee sticks, inseminations, extractions, injections, acupuncture, and the occasional German blood tonic. “It’s pretty gnarly.” Tea reveals — “it’s just vegetables, but it tastes disturbingly like blood.”
“I had not been preparing for this my whole life. I am an artist — I am weird. So, there was this fear, am I going to have to become a different person to do this thing?”
In 2012, as Tea researched IVF prices, she expressed a wish for a fertility outlet shop and I, aware of these costs yet disarmed by the cold reality of Orson and Michelle’s medical bill, found myself agreeing. “It was around 14,000. Then there were the meds, which were three rounds, and probably came out around 7,000. And then there were doctor visits and copays — so, let’s say, around 22,000.” This, even considering Tea’s opting for the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) teaching hospital, a slightly more wallet-friendly option than a fertility clinic.
In many places, queer folks have a recognised right to love, yet it is discernible through the many hurdles that this right extends less to procreation. Many argue the definition of infertility is a significant part of the problem, with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s understanding of infertility, the most popular among insurers, being: not being able to get pregnant after one year of unprotected sex. Tea hashes in response to this.
“These systems are all super heterosexist. It is ignorant to presume that trying for two years as a straight couple and trying for two years as a queer couple are the same. For the queer couple, it’s thousands of dollars.”
Her contention finds company in lesbian couple Megan Bacon Evans and Whitney Bacon Evans’s landmark case against the NHS, queer couples have a “de facto” infertility. Referred to as the Illinois Model, made law in Illinois in January 2022, offers a definition inclusive of queer couples. Taking queer couples into account, they describe infertility as, “a person’s inability to reproduce either as a single individual or with a partner without medical intervention; or a licensed physician’s findings based on a patient’s medical, sexual, and reproductive history, age, physical findings, or diagnostic testing.”
Tea, a self-proclaimed punk at heart, expresses that though she had wished to avoid intervention until necessary, “In my case, the intervention was always necessary. But the information was not accessible. With necessary tests, I would not have spent a year trying to figure out that I did not have enough eggs and that those I had, were busted.”
If we do not pay with money, we barter with whatever we have. In Tea’s case, the assumption of time. It is not that Tea did not desire to spend that time with friends, nor is it a denial that it was a beautiful time, but rather an assertion that it was a time of discriminatory conception, that it was a choiceless one. Tea, utilising the resource-sparse San Francisco free clinic, the synapse between queer marriage laws and family laws lacked agency.
Prescriptions remain within our society. That Michelle Tea, through documenting the intimate, so aptly highlights. “I had not been preparing for this my whole life.” Her work calls on that which we have internalised. Navigating a system that, depending on your global postcode, is winnowing levels of traumatic, if not impossible. Those beyond the norm, “[those] … queer or broke, unpartnered or un-insured, [who] don’t look like our culture’s stereotype of the white, trim, middle-class, sexless mother…” are increasingly excluded. Tea’s story is one of success. Yet, it is not exclusively joyful. She underwent months of unsuccessful home-insemination, find it had been a moot possibility all the while, and consequently engage one failed cycle of IVF, one miscarriage, finally — procreation, the end of her marriage, and transition to co-parenting. Might some of this have been easier, or avoided, had a reasonable amount of information been accessible?
Capturing the spirit of queer integration, the reality that it is only perspectively radical, Tea’s IG feed is peppered with images of the joy her life contains, exuding gratitude. We look at her closest friends and family, who — diversely, live authentically and collectively. Madeleine, an avid member of the TTC community, a fountain of fertility awareness. Rhonda, the embodiment of multiplicity skater-queer/landscaper/creative, Orson, on what it meant to be a partner in this journey. Co-parenting is a challenge, occasionally. However, with its presence, she has solo time to wholly nurture her identity beyond being a mom. A self-nurturing which led to Knocking Myself Up, subsequently leaving us, her audience, more informed of the goings-on in our bodies, the endeavours artificial insemination takes and the work remaining to achieve equitable fertility practices.
Nor can we help but allow this work to shape our perspective on motherhood, fertility, queer rights — and the liberation of all. Tea, moving into a space inherently unwelcoming, demonstrated, microcosmically, what a social movement may intend — towards what the fertility movement strives. She does not assimilate but rather — carves a space, informing by example that we too may pattern a more equitable world, that collectively — we’ll do it a hell of a lot faster.
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Tags: FEMINISM infertility knocking myself up literature memoir mental health mental health stigma michelle tea motherhood self-reflection