Queer family-making is more present in American discourse than ever before, with recent pop-cultural artifacts like The L Word: Generation Q and Kristen Arnett’s novel With Teeth exploring the specifics of what it means to parent children as part of an LGBTQ+ couple. As accepted as LGBTQ+ parents are in many (though not all) parts of the country, it can be hard to believe that same-sex parents in many states still struggle to gain legal custody of their children.
The fraught legal history of LGBTQ+ parenting in the U.S. is the subject of Nuclear Family, a wrenching new HBO documentary series by filmmaker Ry Russo-Young that tells the true story of her sperm donor suing her lesbian mothers for parental standing in 1991. Recently, Vogue spoke to Russo-Young about her mothers’ reaction to the series, the emotional experience of revisiting her family origin story, and how far LGBTQ+ parents have come; read the full interview below.
Vogue: How did you get in the headspace to tell such a personal story?
Ry Russo-Young: I have always wanted to tell the story. I just wanted to tell the version of it that felt the most truthful to me, and that took a really long time to figure out.
Was it challenging in a different way from other films you’ve made?
Yes. I mean, in some ways, filmmaking is filmmaking, and I think I brought in a lot of the tenets of narrative that I had learned, like dramatic arc, payoffs, and narrative construction. At the same time, this series is so personal, and there was a lot of emotional work to be done; I wanted to be careful not to hurt the people that I love, so that was more complicated.
How did you initially approach your moms about telling this story?
Well, I’ve been filming my family for so long, and I’ve been shooting them in fits and spurts for the last 15 to 20 years, sometimes for this project and sometimes for projects. So I don’t think it was a surprise when I told them, two years ago, that I was going to make a documentary out of this project, and that that would be the form that it took.
Making this series must have stirred up a lot of emotions, but was it healing in any way?
Yes, absolutely. It certainly felt like it felt like I could come to a sense of peace in terms of my feelings towards my biological father, and have a sense of closure on something that was really unresolved for most of my life. I think it brought my family closer together as well. My moms and my sister, even though they didn’t want to have to go through the painful experience of having to deal with the lawsuit for the documentary, it ultimately did help us talk things out even further.
I read that you have two children; did telling this story about your upbringing affect the way you parented at all?
That’s interesting. Certainly becoming a parent affected me in terms of feeling like I was equipped to tell the story, and I do think it made me value how precious these moments with your children are. With my children, I just really want to be as present as I possibly can and enjoy them, because I have an 18-month-old and a five-year-old. It’s this funny duality, where in some ways it’s so wonderful and magical, and it’s also just so much hard work. In a way, the movie has helped me be like, “If I’m going to be with my children, I’m going to be all in.”
Do you think you’ll eventually show your children the series?
Well, I showed my five-year-old the clips that he’s in. He was proud. I mean, sometimes we make movies together for fun, and he sees me filming all the time with my cameras. We shot my second son’s birth, which is toward the end of the series, so he’s certainly aware of cameras. He knows the movie is about Nana and Grandma and our family.
I’m sure it will be amazing for your kids to watch the series as adults, too.
Yeah, absolutely. I hope that by that time—and I think this will be true, because it’s already happening— but by the time they’re old enough to see the film, it’s going to feel very dated in terms of what LGBTQ+ families had to go through.
Do you feel mostly hopeful about the future of queer family-making, or do you get stuck on how far we still have to go?
I mean, I think it’s incredible how far we’ve come in my lifetime. My lifetime coincided with the complete revolution of LGBTQ+ family rights. We still have far to go in terms of parents’ rights in many states, but to look at how far we have come is amazing.