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From Hopeful Parents to LGBTQ+ Advocates | Stef & Denise's Story

One same-sex couple shares how their own family-building journey inspired them to become advocates for change.

June 4th, 2024 | 10 min. read

By Sierra Dehmler

For hopeful parents-to-be in same-sex relationships, finding the right path to parenthood and ways to afford fertility treatment can create an added layer of difficulty. In this story, Stef and Denise share their four-year long journey to success, and what they've learned along the way.

In this article:

Meet Stef & Denise

Born and raised in the Bronx, Stef and her family moved from New York to Connecticut when she was nine years old. They moved back and forth between the two states for the next three years before officially settling in Connecticut.

Denise was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her path crossed with Stef's in 2010 during one of her shifts at the local McDonald's, and the two instantly connected. As Stef and Denise got to know each other, they realized what a great match they were.  

"Going into this relationship, I already had an older son [Jayvin] and he and Denise took to each other very quickly," says Stef. "We were young, so we talked about having a baby together here and there but it wasn't until after we got married in 2014 that we began actively trying to conceive."

From the Bedroom to the Exam Room

Stef and Denise's family-building journey started at home. "We were lucky to have close, trusted male friends willing to donate sperm, but buying insemination kits online, researching (Google was my best friend and my worst enemy), thermometers, and tracking - it took a lot of planning," Stef recalls. 

As they continued trying to conceive on their own via at-home insemination, it became clear to the couple that one of the most important aspects of the process was to be able to track Stef's menstrual cycle, in order to understand when she was ovulating (and would have the best chance at getting pregnant). "But that was pretty difficult to do with my cycle being so irregular," Stef says. 

They decided it was time to seek help from a fertility specialist.

Finding a Supportive Fertility Clinic

"I had actually heard about Illume Fertility on the radio," Stef recalls. She looked the practice up and saw Illume offered a Fertile Yoga class, which intrigued her. "At that time, we didn't yet know what was 'wrong' - we thought it was just taking longer to conceive because we were in a same-sex relationship."

Stef decided to give Fertile Yoga a try, hoping it would give them a boost. "When I went to class, I met one of the most amazing women, people, souls, that I have ever encountered - Lisa Rosenthal," Stef says. "Of course I had my spouse, Denise, and she was my rock, but Lisa was my anchor [throughout this journey]."

Stef continued attending Lisa's Fertile Yoga classes and trying various medications (such as Clomid) with her gynecologist in an attempt to regulate her cycle.

"We'd hoped that the meds would help, but unfortunately all we experienced was an early pregnancy loss and then no luck after that," Stef says. "I did more Fertile Yoga and remained in denial that something might be wrong - I just couldn't understand [why it wasn't working], because I'd already had a child."


Photos: Dessanie as an infant, toddler, and present day

Taking the Next Step: Starting Treatment

After she was able to acknowledge that she might need a little more help to conceive her second baby, Stef decided she was ready to move forward with fertility treatment and officially became a patient at Illume. "What surprised me was how little I actually knew about my own body, my own anatomy," Stef admits.

Navigating insurance and finances prior to starting treatment was a much longer process than the couple anticipated. Stef and Denise did lots of research, even switching health insurance providers to get better coverage, only to be told they would have to jump through a few more hoops in order to even access potential coverage for treatment

Accessing IVF Coverage

Like many LGBTQ+ couples, Stef and Denise's insurance policy required them to try certain (less effective) treatment options before they were allowed to move towards in vitro fertilization (IVF).

"Finally, our IVF cycle began, excitement began to build, and we chose a sperm donor," Stef recalls. "Although we were very lucky in many ways, the first round of treatment was unfortunately unsuccessful."

That was heartbreaking, Stef says, because after everything they'd been through, she thought that it would be fairly easy to conceive with the help of fertility treatment. "For it not to work the first time was a massive heartbreak, and we almost didn't go for the second round." Thankfully, the couple chose to try IVF one more time. "We're so happy we did," they add. 

After four long years of dreaming, their daughter Dessanie finally arrived in January 2021. 

Choosing a Sperm Donor

"The process of selecting our donor was a little daunting," Stef admits. "Finances (again) played a huge role in everything - just getting access to sperm bank databases can be very costly." They forged ahead, researching all of their options and eventually finding a slightly more affordable donor program, thanks to Stef's excellent Googling skills.

In addition to the financial aspect of donor conception, the couple encountered two additional challenges during their search:

#1 Anonymous vs. Open Donation

Like many parents-to-be, Stef and Denise wanted to find a donor who was open to some level of contact in case their child had questions in the future. This eliminated the majority of the [anonymous] donors available to them.

Due to advancements in genetic testing and online genealogy tools (such as 23andMe and, donor-conceived individuals are increasingly able to identify their donors. There are various ethical considerations surrounding donor anonymity, including the rights of donor-conceived children to access medical information about their donor's family tree.

The impact of genetic testing on the sperm donation industry is still emerging, as fewer men are willing to donate anonymously and clinics are grappling with the changing landscape of donor rights and responsibilities. 

#2 Lack of Diversity

"It was really important to me to have a donor that resembled Denise, because I wanted the baby to look like both of ours as much as possible - I was really scared of there not being something to bond them together," Stef says. "Even though Denise and Jayvin have always been close, I was so in my head about it, and it was really important to me."

Finding a sperm donor of Latino/Hispanic descent also proved to be difficult for Stef and Denise, as the donor site the couple decided on had very few options. 

Similarly to families in need of Black donors, the number of available Latino/Hispanic donors is extremely low, drastically narrowing the options for intended parents hoping to have a child with similar heritage.

How They Decided On a Donor

"Denise was pretty much on board with whatever would keep me sane, and we both knew she would love our baby no matter what," Stef says. "I searched long and hard, and finally narrowed it down to three potential sperm donors."

On the site the couple chose, donors were able to record voice notes, which helped add a more personal element to the search. This ended up being a deciding factor for Stef and Denise. "As soon as we heard his [our donor's] voice, that was it," Stef remembers. "I began to cry, he said the most beautiful things."

The Emotional Toll of Infertility

In addition to the challenge of trying to conceive as a same-sex couple, Stef says that navigating infertility and loss made it even more heartbreaking as they watched their family and friends successfully get pregnant and have babies. "You feel torn, because while you are so happy for that person, you are in turn devastated for yourself."

When her best friend got pregnant, Stef attended her virtual gender reveal party, which she admits was a major low point for her. "I wanted a daughter so badly, and when she announced she was having a girl, I don't know if the world stopped or my heart stopped," she says. "I acted so strong in the moment, but when I hung up, I think I was the weakest I had ever been."

Coping with the Heartache

"Not even being close to being pregnant, not even knowing if it would happen for us, felt like a thousand heartbreaks from a first love, like a thousand best friends moving away from you as a kid," she says. "It was just so much pain, followed by a level of guilt you wouldn't believe."

And Stef's experience isn't unique - the level of psychological distress experienced by those navigating infertility is significant. According to research from Dr. Alice Domar and others, infertility can cause mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) at similar rates to those shown by cancer patients


Photos: Stef and Dessanie; Stef, Jayvin, Dessanie & Denise; Denise & Dessanie

Why They Share Their Story

As a family who has not only been open about their donor conception journey, but also advocates for their local and national LGBTQ+ community, Stef says there are a few specific reasons they made the decision to share:

  • Building community: "I feel it's important to share our story because it is so helpful for people to know that they are not alone," Stef says. "There is strength in numbers, and as long as we know we are in this together, we can never give up."
  • Encouraging others: "Don't be so hard on yourself," Stef urges those in similar situations who are struggling to conceive. "Your body can only do what it can do."
  • Fostering acceptance: While it can be easy to slip into regret about decisions, timelines, and other factors on your family-building journey, it isn't helpful, she says. "Please don't let hindsight eat you alive!"

As they navigated their own journey, Stef and Denise found support through organizations like GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), who work to reduce LGBTQ+ discrimination through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education. "Patience (Polly) Crozier [GLAD's Director of Family Advocacy] is amazing," Stef says. 

The family has been featured for their community activism and advocacy work, which includes their contributions in helping to pass the 2021 Connecticut Parentage Act. "Equality is all anyone really wants," she adds. "I want our family to be seen as just that, as a family."

What's next for Stef & Denise?

"Very tall children, that's one thing that's for sure," Stef jokes. "I would say our future holds more growth, advocacy, awareness, and lots and lots of love." As the couple enjoys their busy life as parents to two, they can't help but reflect on their journey with gratitude for those who supported them along the way.

Sierra Dehmler

Sierra Dehmler is Illume Fertility’s Content Marketing Manager - and also a fertility patient herself. Combining empathy gained on her personal journey with her professional experience in marketing and content creation, she aims to empower and support other fertility patients by demystifying the fertility treatment process.

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