‘Nuclear Family’ on HBO: Same-sex moms, and the battle to keep their kids

‘Nuclear Family’ on HBO: Same-sex moms, and the battle to keep their kids

What happens when someone goes nuclear on your loving household?

That’s the subject of “Nuclear Family,” a three-part documentary by filmmaker and subject Ry Russo-Young, premiering Sunday on HBO Max. Growing up in the 1980s, Russo-Young had what felt like a conventional New York City childhood: two parents and a sister growing up in a downtown apartment.

The only difference? Russo-Young, now 40, had two moms, Robin Young and Sandy Russo.

At the time, “being gay meant that you were not going to have children,” Young says in the film. “It was like you were giving up that right to have a family.” But Russo “always wanted kids.”

Same-sex marriage was not yet legal and lesbians couldn’t use sperm banks to conceive, so the loving couple took matters into their own hands and researched DIY artificial insemination.

“We wanted gay men as donors,” says Russo. Adds Young, “No rights, no responsibilities.”

They reached out to two different gay men living in California (both were introduced by mutual friends) to donate the sperm needed to conceive Russo-Young and her older sister, Cade, now 41.

One of them, a “tall, dark and handsome” man named Tom Steel, agreed. “As a gay man, Tom was attracted to the idea of helping lesbians have families,” recalls Young.

Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young (top right) turns the cameras on her own story in "Nuclear Family." She's the daughter of two lesbians who battled in court with Ry's gay sperm donor over parental rights in the '90s.
Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young (top right) is the daughter of two lesbians who battled in court with Ry’s gay sperm donor, Tom Steel, over parental rights in the ’90s.
NY Post photo composite

But eventually, Steel — sperm donor to Russo-Young — would come to have a catastrophic effect on the family.

We watch as the moms eventually allow Steel to play a role in Russo-Young’s life, including joining the family on vacations and visiting a few times a year. “In many ways, we were this perfect family,” says Young.

But even as a kid, Russo-Young saw trouble brewing: “What I remember vaguely is that there was some tension between the adults.”

Young reveals, “The problem started because Tom, the donor, didn’t think ‘I am going to fall in love with this child.’” Russo chimes in: “He changed his mind!”

In 1991, when Russo-Young was 9 years old, Steel sued Russo-Young’s moms for paternity and visitation rights. This led to a lawsuit that threatened to tear the family apart — at a time when the courts favored biology and lesbians faced the very real threat of losing custody.

"My childhood was very magical," prior to the trial, said Ry, here with her sister Cade with their moms, Robin Young and Sandy Russo.
“My childhood was very magical,” prior to the trial, said Ry, seen here with her sister Cade with their moms, Robin Young and Sandy Russo.
HBO

“As parents, we were really afraid,” says Russo. “It just felt like he was forgetting our promises to each other and what this was all about.”

Russo-Young’s feelings were hazier — and finding clarity was one of the reasons she sought to make the film, which draws from home videos, as well as interviews with her mothers, sister and people in Steel’s circle.

The case lasted four years, during which time the moms battled for “the family we wanted, we planned, we struggled for,” says Young.

In the end, the Manhattan appellate court voted 3-2 on a landmark decision that granted Steel legal standing as the father of Russo-Young. However, the moms were still able to block their daughter from visiting Steel, and he was so “worn down” by the yearslong fight that he later dropped the case.

In making the film and digging into the many sides of the story, Russo-Young was able to reconcile her feelings for Steel.

Sandy Russo (from left), Ry Russo-Young, Tom Steel, Cade Russo-Young and Robin Young in happier times.
Sandy Russo (from left), Ry Russo-Young, Tom Steel, Cade Russo-Young and Robin Young in happier times.
HBO

“I had been living with such hate for him and felt so betrayed by him for so long,” Russo-Young told The Post. “Making this film helped me accept those feelings as true but also accept the feelings of want I had for him prior to the lawsuit. I reconnected with the idea that I could experience both feelings at the same time.”

Russo-Young’s goal for the film is to draw attention to every gay family, especially since the Equality Act — which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and includes protections for LGBTQ+ people against discrimination — still has not been signed into law and significant threats remain for LGBTQ+ families.

“While the film shows how far we’ve come over the past 30 years, it also shows how crippling discrimination can be,” she said. “It demonstrates how damaging it can be when your family doesn’t have basic protections. The film underscores how important it is for all of us to have basic human rights.”

And, despite the turmoil her sperm donor caused, Russo-Young, now a mother of two young children, ultimately chose to focus on the love she felt for Steel, not the pain.

“He gave me an appreciation for my family,” she said. “The fragility made it that much more precious.”

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