Changing the family: the untold history of gay parents in the U.S.

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Changing the family: the untold history of gay parents in the U.S.

by Karen Powroznik on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 - 12:55pm

Radical RelationsOn June 26, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to same-sex marriage is protected under the U.S. Constitution. By legalizing gay marriage, this historical decision recognizes that the American family is no longer an exclusively heterosexual institution. For most of U.S. history, however, homosexuality has been seen as incompatible with both marriage and parenthood. In his book, “Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II,” historian Daniel Rivers details the history of gay fathers, lesbian mothers and the children of gay parents in the U.S. since the mid 20th century. By exploring this history, Rivers develops a greater understanding of the diversity of American families and sheds light on the struggles of gay and lesbian parents. Through this in-depth investigation, Rivers also demonstrates how gay parents challenge cultural stereotypes and widely held beliefs about family and the gay community.  

The stigma of homosexuality, fear and secrecy 

Rivers begins his exploration of the history of gay parents and their families in the U.S. shortly after the end of World War II. For most of the 20th century, homosexuality was not only classified as a psychological disorder, but was also illegal. Gay fathers and lesbian mothers had to keep their sexual identities secret out of fear of both legal and cultural repercussions. Homosexuality was highly stigmatized. Exposure often meant loss of employment, alienation from families and friends, violence and hostility from the larger community and even imprisonment. For homosexual parents, exposure meant that they could—and often did—lose custody of their children as well as visitation rights.  

During this period, most gay men and women became parents while in heterosexual marriages. Leaving these marriages often meant losing contact with their children, especially for gay fathers. Lesbian mothers who left heterosexual marriages and were able to keep custody of their children often did so by hiding their sexual identities and moving their families into tight knit underground communities. Secrecy was critical for these families because of custody challenges, and the primary goal of these communities was to protect families from exposure and harassment. 

Gay families gain visibility and challenge stereotypesDaniel rivers

By the 1970s and early 1980s the women’s movement and the gay rights movement had gained momentum, along with numerous other social movements championing equal rights for marginalized and oppressed groups. Gay fathers and lesbian mothers became more politically active during this period, and began organizing to challenge the current system and campaigning for rights and legal protections. While gay parents still lived in constant fear of losing custody of their children, these legal battles catalyzed political action and community organization.  

In order to protect their families, gay parents had to challenge the belief that being raised by gay parents was detrimental to children. At the same time that gay fathers and lesbian mothers fought to have their families acknowledged and accepted by the rest of society, these parents also faced issues of inclusion within the larger gay community. According to Rivers, gay parents sometimes felt alienated within gay communities because their children were evidence of heterosexual relationships, and therefore they were viewed as less authentically queer than childless gays and lesbians. Lesbian mothers sometimes also faced exclusion from the feminist movement because they were viewed as perpetuating the belief that a woman’s primary purpose was to become a mother. Just as homosexuality prevented gay parents and their children from being accepted as legitimate families by mainstream straight culture, being a parent sometimes prevented gay fathers and lesbian mothers from being included in the gay community.  

Despite these divisions, Rivers found that gay parents were frequently seen as “model minorities” for the gay community. This was especially true for gay fathers, who provided a positive cultural image of the larger gay community not only because these men were often from professional backgrounds, but because they were accompanied by their children, which gave the community a more wholesome, family-focused image. 

The gay baby boom and beyond 

By the 1980s and 1990s, networks of donors for insemination, surrogates and other fertility services allowed record numbers of gays and lesbians to become parents. Gays and lesbians also became more vocal in challenging laws that prevented gay parents from adopting children. These changes led to what has been dubbed the “gay baby boom.”

During this period gays and lesbians continued to fight against homophobia and discriminatory laws and policies. By the early 2000s, anti-sodomy laws had been declared unconstitutional and the issue of gay marriage had started appearing on ballots around the country. Although the right to same-sex marriage is still a contentious issue in the United States, the most recent Supreme Court ruling paves the way for children of gays fathers and lesbian mothers to see their parents wed legally in all 50 states. 

While gays and lesbians still face pervasive discrimination, these recent changes bring families with gay parents further into the mainstream, and diversify the cultural understanding of American families. As the definition of “family” becomes more inclusive of gay couples and their children, Rivers challenges us to consider what family configurations may still be excluded.  

Daniel Rivers
Graduate Dissertation Fellow 2005-06, History

A former Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow (2005-06), Daniel Rivers is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at The Ohio State University. He is a historian of LGBT communities in the twentieth century, Native American history, the family and sexuality, and U.S. social protest movements. His first book, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United...

Karen Powroznik
PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology

Karen Powroznik is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.