Changing the Definition of Family
Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and their Children in the United States Since the Second World War
By Daniel Winunwe Rivers
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013, 312 pp. $32.50, hardcover
Reviewed by Dana Rudolph
Lesbian- and gay-headed families are increasingly common in mainstream television shows, sometimes with titles that make them sound like a newfangled twist on family life: Modern Family and The New Normal. But out gay and lesbian parents and their children have been part of US society since the midtwentieth century, as Daniel Winunwe Rivers shows in Radical Relations, the first book to offer a broad history of these families from their earliest years of visibility.
Rivers, an assistant professor of history at Ohio State University, himself grew up in a lesbian feminist community in the 1970s. The book, based on his 2007 Stanford doctoral dissertation, draws on numerous LGBT historical archives and 130 personal interviews.
The title, Rivers explains, uses “radical” not in the sense that the history of these families has a primarily political character, but rather in the sense of “root.” In other words, the lesbian and gay struggle for parental rights has transformed the basic definition of family in America, and lesbian and gay parents have helped to give the LGBT movement its current focus on domestic rights such as marriage and parenting.
This is not a unique observation—Michael J. Klarman says as much in From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (2012). Rivers focuses on the experiences of families with children, however, revealing both their personal lives and the legal, social, and political changes they precipitated. He offers the perspectives of the children as well as the parents, and he is sensitive to the currents of class, race, and gender that weave through this history. He does not explicitly include bisexual or transgender parents, and he misidentifies at least one bisexual activist (ABilly Jones-Hennin) as a gay father.
Rivers begins his account immediately after World War II, when lesbian and gay parents tended to have their children within heterosexual marriages, then divorced or led double lives. They almost always lost custody if their sexuality became known.
From the 1970s through the 1980s, more parents came out, triggering an increasing number of custody disputes. Courts gradually began to rule that being lesbian or gay was not a reason automatically to deny custody—even though they did not specifically protect the rights of gay and lesbian parents. Rivers views the parents who engaged in these custody battles as “part of a larger resistance movement that challenged heterosexist, racist, and misogynistic attitudes about the proper structure of the American family.” While he is right to view these cases in the context of other social changes, he almost makes it sound as if these parents set out to be part of this resistance. It seems equally if not more likely that their first concern was simply to keep their children.
There was deliberate resistance, however, by groups that arose in the early 1970s to help lesbian mothers in custody battles. These groups evolved out of broader lesbian-feminist communities, but some of the mothers, he says, felt that those communities “were unsympathetic and hostile to lesbian mothers” because motherhood reflected a traditional role for women.
Rivers may overstate the friction here, for lesbian mothers were a part of many lesbian communities, and many community events were expected to provide free childcare. Regardless, by the late 1970s, and encouraged in part by the visibility of the lesbian mothers fighting for their children, “radical lesbian politics often embraced the cause of lesbian mother rights,” writes Rivers. He shows how several of the broader-based lesbian and gay rights groups, such as the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Center for Lesbian Rights) were in contact with the mothers’ groups and drew upon their work as they themselves took up the cause of lesbian and gay parents.
Gay fathers’ groups followed a different path, focusing on support for members negotiating relationships with ex-spouses. At a time when even straight fathers were less likely than mothers to gain custody, many gay fathers had only visitation rights (if that), and wanted to retain contact with their spouses in order to see their children. This made the gay fathers’ groups “less politically radical” than those of lesbian mothers, in the sense that they “did not articulate the sort of broad, anti-capitalist, antiracist, feminist platform” that the mothers groups did, writes Rivers. By the late 1970s, they “were largely white, middle-class, and politically centrist,” and their “economic strength and mainstream political expertise” gave them greater success than lesbian mother groups in using mainstream media forums, such as television talk shows, to gain visibility, Rivers explains.
The AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 1980s, however, hit these groups hard. Gay father organizing was largely brought under the umbrella of the national Gay Fathers Coalition (later Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International, GLPCI), founded in 1979. GLPCI began “making contact with” broader gay rights organizations, says Rivers, although he is vague about what that means.
By the 1990s, the broader LGBT organizations had firmly taken up the cause of parents. Rivers asserts, though, “It would be the gay fathers’ groups of the 1970s and 1980s that would be directly responsible for the focus on gay and lesbian parental rights in the mainstream LGBT civil rights struggle” of the 1990s and 2000s. He never quite shows clear proof of that, however, even though those groups undoubtedly had an influence. Fathers founded two of the mainstream LGBT organizations (the National Gay Task Force—now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—and the National Coalition of Black Gays), making it likely that parental rights would have been in the mix in any case. Rivers seems here to downplay his earlier, more substantiated explanation of the impact of lesbian mothers groups on the broader LGBT organizations. In fact, lesbian mothers were also leaders in early LGBT organizations, including NGLTF.
Not surprisingly, given his upbringing, Rivers also includes a chapter on the culture of lesbian feminist households and communities of the 1970s, which he describes as “resistance communities” that “actively questioned patriarchal and heterosexual values” and raised their children in “woman-centered, avowedly feminist environments.” These communities included both white lesbians and lesbians of color, although racial tensions sometimes motivated lesbians of color to start their own communal living arrangements.
Lesbian feminist families “were a crucial part” of the shift toward acceptance of lesbian parents within the larger lesbian community, he says—although again, he seems to have overstated the opposition to lesbian mothers within all but the most separatist lesbian communities. They provided fertile ground, so to speak, for early discussion of assisted reproduction and the formation of grassroots donor-insemination networks. Rivers never makes clear what the proportion of lesbian mothers was in such households, however, and we should not assume they represented all lesbian parents of the time.
The 1980s saw the beginning of the “gayby boom,” as an increasing number of gay men and lesbians choosing to have children through insemination, adoption, or surrogacy. Rivers gives examples of the various types of court cases this engendered, including donors suing for paternity rights and nonbiological mothers suing female ex-partners for child custody.
In the 1990s services arose to meet the needs of children with lesbian and gay parents, such as special summer camps and lesbian- and gay-inclusive children’s books. Rivers explains the opposition these books faced in conservative circles, but his coverage is less than satisfying in other areas. He claims there was “a flood of books” followed the 1989 publication of Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, but that seems an exaggeration, as the genre is small even today.
Rivers also errs in stating that Alyson Publications published Heather in 1989. Newman in fact self-published it with a friend (and lesbian mom) that year, with Alyson relaunching it in 1990 to kick off its children’s imprint (see http://www.lesleanewman.com/happy_birthday_heather.html, or http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/16/1989/leslea-newman.) He makes no mention, either, of the very first children’s book in the US clearly to depict same-sex parents, Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away, published by the small feminist collective Lollipop Power in 1979. He thus misses an important aspect of the genre’s history—the grassroots efforts needed to bring it to life. (In this vein, we should note the 1978 comic for adults, Mary Wings’s Dyke Shorts, from underground comics publisher the Print Mint, which included a storyline about a lesbian trying to get pregnant via assisted insemination.)
Rivers’ dissertation covered the years 1945 to 2003, and the post-2003 section of his book—an eight-page epilogue—seems like a hastily done addition. He covers the invitation to LGBT families from President Barack Obama to attend the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll, the increasing recognition by courts of parental rights for lesbians and gay men, and how both sides wielded arguments about children in the battle over California’s Proposition 8 ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Rivers neglects to note other states where similar arguments have been used—opponents of Maine’s marriage equality law who sought to repeal it in 2009 claimed it would encourage exploitation of children, for example. He does, however, observe that the rights of children with same-sex parents were used to argue for marriage equality in Iowa and Vermont, and that children of same-sex parents testified on behalf of their families in all of the above states and in Massachusetts.
He overlooks, however, several important events, including the headline custody case between the former partners Janet Jenkins and Lisa Miller, which starting in 2004 pitted the laws of Vermont and Virginia against each other and highlighted the effect of the patchwork of state and federal laws on same-sex relationships and parenting. (The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that Jenkins, the nonbiological mother, should have primary custody, since Miller had repeatedly ignored court orders to share custody. Miller then fled the country with their child and remains in hiding.) He does not touch at all on the growing number of lesbian and gay parents on television (starting with the 1972 television movie That Certain Summer), or the fact that large mainstream publishers are now putting out LGBT-inclusive children’s books—further examples of how the visibility of gay and lesbian parents is changing “core cultural beliefs” about family. Nor does he mention the growing amount of social science research finding that children of lesbian and gay parents are, on the whole, as well-adjusted and happy as any others.
Some omissions are inevitable in any historical survey. More troubling, however, is Rivers’s conflation of marriage and parenting rights. While he is correct that lesbian and gay parents helped push the LGBT movement as a whole toward a greater focus on domestic rights, there is an important difference between marital rights and parental rights. Even married same-sex parents are advised that the nonbiological/nonadoptive parent should do a second-parent adoption (in states where that is legal), in which she adopts the other’s legal child, in order to protect her parental rights if they travel to a state that does not recognize her marriage.
Furthermore, as Carlos Ball explains in his excellent 2012 legal history, The Right to be Parents: LGBT Families and the Transformation of Parenthood, marriage-equality litigation has dealt primarily with wide constitutional issues. LGBT parenting cases, however, have focused on gaining “legal recognition and protection” for a single family or parent-child pair. Parenting cases, Ball explains, have thus largely been handled “by private attorneys rather than by movement lawyers working for organizations such as the ACLU and Lambda Legal.” Questions of marriage are also more likely than ones of parenting to be taken up by state legislatures. As much as lesbian and gay parents may have contributed to broader LGBT organizations’ focus on domestic rights, therefore, they have also advanced the cause in their own way.
Despite these shortcomings, Radical Relations opens up a largely unexplored history and helps put to rest the idea that lesbian- and gay-headed families are a new and untested departure from “traditional” ones. If more about their history (and that of bisexual and transgender ones) has yet to be written, Rivers has nevertheless given us a tantalizing look at what a rich and textured story theirs is.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and associated newspaper column for lesbian moms and other LGBT parents. She is also the online content manager for the National SEED Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women.