A Very Brief History of LGBTQ Parenting

Guest Post: Dana Rudolph

For LGBTQ History Month, let’s take a quick tour of LGBTQ parenting history in the U.S. to remind us that our “modern families” really have older roots.

Custody and Adoption

We first hear of out LGBTQ parents around the time of World War II, mostly in the context of cases that denied them child custody after divorce from different-sex, cisgender spouses. Starting in the 1970s, however, a few state courts upheld custody rights for transgender, gay, and lesbian parents, though some still required that they not live with a partner or engage in “homosexual activities.”

In the 1960s and 70s, as the nascent LGBTQ rights movement buoyed the community, out LGBTQ people also began starting families. Bill Jones, a gay man, in 1968 became the first single father to adopt a child in California and one of the first nationally—although, as he told NPR in 2015, he was obliquely advised by a social worker not to mention that he was gay. A decade later, New York became the first state not to reject adoption applicants solely because of “homosexuality.” A gay couple in California in 1979 became the first in the country to jointly adopt a child.

It wasn’t until 1997, however, that New Jersey became the first state to allow same-sex couples to adopt jointly statewide, and not until 2010 did the last state, Florida, overturn a ban on adoption by gay men and lesbians. Several other states continued to ban unmarried couples, though, effectively stopping same-sex couples from adopting until marriage equality became federal law in 2015.

In the 1970s, too, female couples and single women increasingly began to start their families together through pregnancy. In 1982, the Sperm Bank of California opened as the first fertility clinic in the country to serve this market (although many queer people had been doing home inseminations for years before).

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In 1999, Matt Rice became possibly the first transgender man to give birth in the U.S., although it is hard to tell how the few people in the 19th century who gave birth but lived as men would have identified. (They are our queer parental forebears, regardless.) The same year, a British gay couple had children through surrogacy in California, where a court for the first time allowed two gay dads to be on their children’s birth certificate.

In 1985, some same-sex couples first obtained what became known as “second-parent adoptions” to secure a child’s legal connection to a nonbiological parent. A decade later, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was the first state high court to say a nonbiological mother may seek visitation after separation.

Strength in Community

LGBTQ parents have long come together to support each other, as well as to contribute to the broader LGBTQ rights movement. In 1956, the pioneering San Francisco lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis held the first known discussion groups on lesbian motherhood. The first lesbian mothers’ activist group, the Lesbian Mothers Union, formed in the same area 15 years later.

In 1974, several lesbian mothers and friends in Seattle formed the Lesbian Mothers National Defense Fund to help those in custody disputes. Similar groups for lesbian mothers and gay fathers formed in other cities. In 1977, lawyers Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg in San Francisco began the Lesbian Rights Project, which helped both lesbian moms and gay dads. It evolved into the National Center for Lesbian Rights, still helping LGBTQ parents and others across the spectrum today.

Also launched in the same era (1979) was the Gay Fathers Coalition, which ultimately became Family Equality Council, the national organization for LGBTQ parents. Out of this, too, came a program by and for children of LGBTQ parents, which in 1999 spun off to become COLAGE.

By March 1990, lesbian and gay parents had become visible enough for Newsweek to coin a term, reporting that “a new generation of gay parents has produced the first-ever ‘gayby boom.’”

Seeing Ourselves, Teaching Others

Depictions of LGBTQ parents in media also go back over 40 years. ABC’s That Certain Summer (1972), about a gay dad who comes out to his teen son, was the first television movie to depict a queer parent. Jane Severance’s 1979 When Megan Went Away was the first picture book in the U.S. to show a same-sex relationship, but it was Lesléa Newman’s 1989 Heather Has Two Mommies that took off in popular culture (garnering praise from LGBTQ families and opprobrium from conservatives), perhaps because Heather shows a happy, intact two-mom family. Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate (1990) was the first children’s book with a gay dad. The first with a clearly transgender character, Marcus Ewert’s 10,000 Dresses, didn’t come until 2008.

Marriage Rites and Parental Rights

In recent decades, marriage equality opponents argued that children needed both a mother and a father. Marriage equality, they claimed, would also require that “homosexuality” be taught in schools. That fear played a large part in the passage of Proposition 8, California’s 2008 marriage equality ban. LGBTQ advocates flipped this around, however, through visibility, legitimate social science research, and court briefs that quoted young people raised by same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court then cited children’s well-being as a key argument in favor of marriage equality in its 2013 and 2015 rulings. It took another Supreme Court case, however (Pavan v. Smith), to affirm in June 2017 that marriage equality means both parents in a married, same-sex couple have the right to be on their children’s birth certificates and be legally recognized as parents.

Marriage equality also allowed same-sex couples to adopt in several states that had not previously allowed unmarried couples to do so—although several states have now implemented “religious freedom” laws that allow child care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others in adoption and foster care.

Looking Back to Look Ahead

There is much more to be written about the history of LGBTQ parents, both as a movement and in terms of our contributions as individuals. (See this post for a few resources.) This goes doubly for transgender parents, about whom much less has been written, and bisexual parents, many of whom were likely misidentified as gay or lesbian earlier if they were in same-sex relationships, or overlooked if they were not. We also need more studies that look at queer parenting history through the lens of particular racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Delving further back, too, and around the world, we find many parents under the queer umbrella—from the poet Sappho in 600 BCE to writers Oscar Wilde and Vita Sackville-West, comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, poet Lord Byron, and jazz musician Billy Tipton. Did their queerness inform their relationships with their children? Did being a parent impact how they expressed their queer identities? And how can we write books about them for our children that celebrate both? I hope you’ll ponder these questions as we reflect on our past this month—and as we look to the future.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.

This article was reposted with permission, and originally appeared on Mombian.