From Domestic/Parental Rights to Marital/Parental Rights

This mainstream political organizing on behalf of lesbian and gay domestic and parental rights was in its early stages when the surprise 1993 decision by the Hawaii state Supreme Court in Baehr v. Lewin stated that a prohibition on same-sex marriage contradicted that state’s constitution.

At that point in U.S. history, only three municipalities and the District of Columbia (after rigorous lobbying by the Task Force’s Ivy Young and members of gay fathers groups in Washington, D.C.) had enacted same-sex domestic partnership laws, which included protections for children and custody rights in the case of separation.

These efforts were quickly superseded by the Hawaii decision, and the possibility of same-sex marriage largely replaced the push for domestic partnership, although states continued to enact domestic partnership legislation as a political alternative to same-sex marriage.

Both lesbian mother and gay father groups of the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the current focus on domestic/parental/marital rights in the modern LGBT freedom struggle and along the way, helped redefine society’s image of a family.

Emerging out of radical, grassroots, lesbian feminist communities, lesbian mother groups often operated on a shoestring budget, developed coalition politics, and nurtured a vision of alternative, communal family arrangements where lesbians and their children could live separately from the patriarchal and racist norms of mainstream society. Nonetheless, their political work directly led to the familial legal activism of large-scale, more mainstream organizations such as the Lesbian Rights Project.

Gay father groups, often less politically radical and with memberships that were largely white and affluent, marshalled significant financial resources and media savvy to develop a politics of “gay family respectability.” These groups self-consciously saw this as an antidote to a conservative, Reagan-era “family values” that had increasingly taken a strong stance against lesbian and gay parental rights.

The current struggle for same-sex marriage has many of its roots in the longer history of lesbian and gay parenting, and one of the core issues in the debate is the very definition of the American family, as represented by opposing ideas about the welfare of children.

The socially and legally sanctioned definition of the family as heterosexual has for at least sixty years excluded individuals like Vera Martin, who in the years before the rise of large-scale lesbian and gay liberation movements lived hidden lives because the belief that same-sex sexuality and family were antithetical was so widespread. In the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian and gay parents organized and fought for their right to parent, bringing these issues to the forefront and eventually helping to pave the way for the current struggle for same-sex marriage.

By paying attention to these historical connections between the family and sexuality in American culture—and to the centrality of children and parental rights in both sides of the marriage debates—we can see that a large part of what is at stake is the recognition of families that have long been invisible in American society.

And with this recognition of different types of families and parent-child situations has come a fundamental redefinition of the family and of child-rearing in America.