When Tim Gullicksen began donating to a sperm bank in 1989, he never expected to meet his biological children. He never imagined renting a 15-passenger van to take them to California’s Bass Lake every summer. Or envisioned the kids hiking, playing pranks, and competing viciously over silly games they invented together. But this July, Tim will—as has now become an annual tradition—rent that van, fill it with food from Costco, and take the kids out to Bass Lake for a week.
The “kids” are 18 to 25 years old now, adults really. Some have been coming to Bass Lake for a decade.
Over the years, they have found Tim in one of two ways: a website called the Donor Sibling Registry, which connects people by donor number, or, more recently, DNA tests from 23andMe or AncestryDNA. These tools have allowed many donor-conceived people to connect with their donors and donor siblings. But Tim, a 52-year-old real-estate agent in San Francisco, is unusually involved, and the sibling group unusually tight-knit. When I asked whether I could interview any of the siblings, he shot off a message in their Instagram group chat. Eleven of them quickly agreed.
“I just feel really lucky. This is a really, really cool situation,” says Emma Walker, who met Tim after taking a DNA test four years ago, when she was 16. She went to her first Bass Lake reunion in 2016. “It was overwhelming in the best of ways,” she says. “We pulled up in a car, and people just ran up to us and were hugging us.”
As Tim remembers it, he decided to donate sperm after reading about lesbians looking for donors in a San Francisco gay-pride magazine. How great, he thought, to help families have kids. As a young gay man in the ’80s, decades before marriage equality, he didn’t think he would otherwise have children. But he soon learned that he could not donate to a sperm bank—for the same reason he could not donate to a blood bank. Because he had sex with men, he was seen as a risk for HIV.
The controversial policy is in place even today, even though banks have long quarantined and tested sperm for HIV. It didn’t sit well with Tim, so he lied. He passed all the health screenings, began donating regularly, and for years never thought about it much. His sperm went all over the country. Unlike other donors, who provide sperm mostly for cash, he did eventually want to meet his donor kids, but he didn’t expect to—at least not until they were 18 and came looking for him on their own.
In the mid-2000s, Tim heard about the Donor Sibling Registry, and for the first time, he realized he might get to know his donor kids as kids. He signed up. He matched with a handful of the moms who had picked him as their sperm donor. Still, he says, “they all seemed really reluctant.” They had their own lives and their own families; they weren’t ready to bring in a stranger. He stopped checking the site regularly because he wasn’t getting frequent messages.
But Si’Mone Braquet and her 9-year-old son, McKay, were different. When Tim didn’t respond immediately to her message on the Donor Sibling Registry, she emailed the site’s founder, who in turn forwarded the message to Tim. He remembers her saying in their first phone call, “Your son wants to meet you.” Those words stuck him. “That’s the first and only time,” he says, “that someone who has gotten their donor sperm from me has referred to the child as mine.”
McKay had started asking about his dad when he was about 5. At school, he would make cards for Father’s Day, only to have no one to give them to—so he started keeping a “daddy box.” Once Si’Mone got in touch with Tim, father and son started talking for an hour every day. Tim came down to visit during his spring break. “I’m super nervous,” he recalls. “I have no idea what to expect.” McKay remembers waiting by the big window at the front of his house, scanning the street for his dad. For two strangers, even for two genetically related strangers, they hit it off. They rode bikes. They went by McKay’s school. And McKay gave Tim the daddy box.
Once the other moms saw photos of Tim with McKay on the Donor Sibling Registry, they got comfortable with the idea of their kids meeting him too. He started going to see other kids—a boy near Los Angeles, a girl near San Francisco, and so on. He also began coming out one by one to their moms. “I was super nervous about it at first because I had lied,” he says, but none of them made a huge deal about it. Once, before Tim went to visit McKay in Texas, Si’Mone’s family did bring up a photo that her family had found, of him with “cross-dressers.” He corrected her. “I was like, ‘Honey, they’re drag queens. They’re different because they have a sense of humor,” he recalls, laughing. It didn’t bother Si’Mone after that, and as the kids themselves have gotten older, they have also realized in their own time that Tim is gay.
Tim started taking the boys and girls on separate group trips—Iceland, Paris, London, New York City—but he quickly became overwhelmed. So he hatched the idea for Bass Lake. Years ago, when Tim was young, his father would take the family camping there. The lake is a reservoir operated by PG&E, and the company’s employee association rents out the old workers’ cabins. In his 30s, Tim decided to revive the Bass Lake tradition for his family and friends, and soon started inviting his donor kids along. He has now met 17 of them. He has matched with several more donor offspring on 23andMe and Ancestry, and even more are likely out there.
McKay, who has known Tim since he was 9, calls him “Dad.” “For me, it was definitely about having a dad,” he says, though he acknowledged that most of the siblings didn’t feel the same way. “A lot of the siblings weren’t as interested in the dad portion as they were in the siblings.”
Amelia Meier, for example, wasn’t particularly curious about her father. But she did desperately want siblings. “I would do sweet but crazy stuff. I would give my mom my spare change—‘I’ll help you adopt a kid.’ I used to write notes to her. I used to write letters to fairies ... I would look at adopting sites and fostering sites,” she says. “I was very motivated.” Amelia’s mother was one of the first who got in touch with Tim on the Donor Sibling Registry, and Amelia began going to Bass Lake with her siblings in 2009. It seemed like her wish came true, I said. “Yeah,” she replied. “Yeah, it did.”
As Tim’s donor kids got older, they have started finding him on their own, rather than through their moms. Sam Leicht learned she was donor-conceived when she was 16, when her parents were in the middle of a custody battle. She found Tim by tracking down his donor number. As they began to talk, he told her about all her half siblings and invited her to Bass Lake.
Sam grew up with a twin sister (also related to Tim), but now she suddenly found herself with eight or nine more half siblings. And naturally, she started looking them all up on Facebook. “I actually made an Excel document of every name and face, just so I could get them straight before I met them all,” she says. They started chatting on Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. She met them all for the first time at Bass Lake in 2015.
Sam wasn’t sure exactly how to describe her relationship with Tim, which isn’t quite that of father and daughter. “He’s kind of my funny gay uncle,” she says. Growing up in the Midwest and going to Catholic school her whole life, Sam hadn’t known a single person who was gay and out. But several of the siblings are also queer, and several had been raised by lesbian moms. Sam came out during her senior year of high school. “I don’t think I would have had as supportive of an environment for getting on that path to self-discovery if I hadn’t known all these lesbian moms or Tim,” she says. She had messaged Tim about coming out to her parents, and the two of them talked about it a lot as they got closer.
Sam is 21 now and in college in Portland, Oregon, which she also credits to Tim’s influence. “I always thought my own life would be on the East Coast or in the Midwest,” she says. But she visited Tim in San Francisco, went to Bass Lake, and fell in love with the landscape. She ended up applying to a few schools on the West Coast, and it all worked out. “I’m outside my house right now, and there’s giant pine trees all around. It’s gorgeous,” she says.
After Emma found her half siblings in 2015 through an AncestryDNA test, she remembers seeing a photo of Sam in which she immediately recognized herself. “She looks so much like me. It was so freaky and cool,” she says. Emma recently graduated from college with a degree in sociology, and she’s gotten interested in studying donor-conceived people. For her, going from a small, quiet family with one sister to a big, loud group of siblings was new and strange and exhilarating.
The one word the siblings kept using to describe themselves is competitive. “Anything that is compete-able is competed,” says Amelia. At Bass Lake, they’ve spent hours competing to balance the longest on a floating log or on an inner tube being pulled on a boat. And for the rest of the year, they have Snapchat. A couple of the brothers have years-long Snapstreaks with each other, and recently they’ve been trading high scores for games inside the app. Tim is in the Instagram group chat, but Snapchat is kids only, they told me. After all, says McKay, “it’s pretty weird when any grown man has Snapchat.”
Tim, for his part, is a consummate planner, and he is already thinking about how the Bass Lake tradition will continue when the siblings have relationships and families of their own. He has created something bigger than he could have known. “Bass Lake was more out of efficiency,” he says. “And I realized a few years into it, their connection with each other is more important, which is an awesome gift.”