The Road to Same-Sex Marriage: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and the American Family

Rainbow flag.

Same-sex marriage has become a national issue as attitudes have shifted rapidly in recent years.

Editor's Note

The flurry of recent court decisions overturning bans on same-sex marriage in American courts has been astonishing even to advocates. But while news photos have shown same-sex couples tying the knot in various states, historian Daniel Rivers argues that the struggle over same-sex marriage has really been a struggle over children, parenting rights, and the definition of family. This month he puts children at the center of the same-sex marriage story.

For more, read these Origins articles on marriage, families, and sexuality: The Real Marriage Revolution, Gay Rights in Russia, Women in Afghanistan, Same-Sex Marriage in Canada, and Sexual Justice and the Supreme Court.

For more on the history of same-sex marriage and families by Daniel Rivers, please read his Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since WWII (University of North Carolina Press, September 2013).

While marriage was the ostensible issue in the Supreme Court ruling U.S. v. Windsor that overturned the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June 2013, in fact, the question of children and their parents was at the very heart of the case.

In amicus curiae briefs submitted for U.S. v. Windsor, children were a central focus in both pro- and anti-DOMA arguments.

The Family Research Council, a conservative organization founded in 1983, argued against lifting the federal ban on same-sex marriage, claiming that, “by definition, same-sex couples are unable to provide the benefits of dual-gender parenting.” The Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, a Nevada group opposed to same-sex marriage, echoed these sentiments.

Briefs filed in support of DOMA’s repeal also centered on children, arguing that the children of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) parents and their families deserved and needed federal recognition.

A coalition of groups that included the Family Equality Council and Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere—organizations that had come out of gay-father activism of the 1980s—wrote a brief in support of repeal. They included quotes from children raised in lesbian and gay households that testified to the pain and suffering they experienced because the federal government had denied their families marriage rights.

The group Scholars for the Constitutional Rights of Children was even more direct, writing: “DOMA’s real function is to draw invidious distinctions between families headed by opposite-sex parents and families headed by same-sex parents, and by implication, between the children in these families.”

Just as with the deliberations over DOMA, the current political debate that is raging in the United States over LGBT marriage rights is a struggle fundamentally about what constitutes a proper family deserving of protection, and in particular, about childrearing. Ideas about what is good and bad for children, along with decades of political organizing for lesbian and gay parental rights, are at the heart of this story.

Children have been and continue to be used as symbols on both sides of the issue. Young children, flanked by their same-sex parents, speak out against being second-class citizens before state legislatures, while political campaigns for Proposition 8 in California, which prohibited same-sex marriage in the state, raised the specter of children being taught homosexuality in schools.

Lesbian and gay childrearing is increasingly visible in American culture, in television shows and films such as Modern Family and The Kids Are All Right. The popular media portray these families as a new phenomenon in American culture, part of a “lesbian and gay baby boom” that began in the mid-1980s.

But in fact, lesbians and gay men have parented children for generations since the Second World War.

Since the 1950s, the experiences and efforts of lesbians and gay men with children have laid the groundwork for what has now become a central focus on domestic and family rights in the modern LGBT freedom struggle. Much of the opposition to these rights in recent decades echoes the rhetoric of custody courts and state authorities that took children away from lesbian and gay parents in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as widespread cultural assumptions about what families should look like dating from the 1950s and 1960s.

The misperception that gay and lesbian parenthood is new is actually connected to the longstanding cultural notion in American society that lesbian and gay identities and parenthood are mutually exclusive. If parenting is not solely heterosexual, goes the current manifestation of this idea, it has at least been so until very recently.

The history is far more complicated, however, and the experiences and struggles of lesbian and gay parents have been slowly challenging and redefining society’s definition of the family for at least six decades.

This history includes the stories of gay and lesbian parents who hid their sexuality in a postwar era of shame and secrecy—one in which the assumption that a true and good family had to be heterosexual was so strong that it was rarely confronted directly. It includes the stories of lesbian and gay parents who lost painful custody battles and engaged in grassroots struggles to keep their children in the era of lesbian and gay liberation—one in which they openly challenged the definition of family as heterosexual. And, most recently, it includes the story of large-scale mobilization for legal recognition of same-sex families and a redefinition of what families and childhood mean.

Families in Hiding and the Seeds of Change

In the 1950s and 1960s, before the emergence of large-scale lesbian and gay liberation movements, lesbian mothers and gay fathers lived underground lives, staying hidden out of the fear that if their sexual orientation was discovered they would lose their parental rights. In this era, when “father knew best” and June Cleaver stayed at home, the dominant image in the United States of a good family was a heterosexual, nuclear, white, and male-dominated one. This domestic ideal was so widespread that the possibility of lesbian and gay parenting was unthinkable to most Americans.

This era was one of secrecy, fear, and hiding for gay and lesbian parents.

In the law, the workplace, popular culture, and families, anti-homosexual bias remained largely unquestioned, and the policing of lesbians and gay men was common. In this hostile environment, many lesbians and gay men became parents within heterosexual marriages. They remained in these relationships while clandestinely pursuing gay and lesbian affairs, or hid their sexuality from their ex-spouses in order to keep their children or visitation rights.

There were still dangers involved in choosing to remain in a heterosexual marriage, however. Police frequently raided gay bars in this era and gay married fathers risked being arrested on charges of lewdness and public indecency if they were caught. As it was common practice for local newspapers to print the names of all individuals caught in raids, a married man’s career and family could be destroyed.

Hank, a married gay father who worked for a major corporation in Seattle in the 1950s that I interviewed, was arrested in a gay bathhouse although he pleaded with the police officers as they put him in the paddy wagon that it would destroy his family and get him fired. Decades later, he remembered that for years he feared that the lewd vagrancy charge would be discovered by his employers and his life would be destroyed.

In 1958, after Rick Stokes, another married gay father, had told his wife about a youthful same-sex love affair, she and her parents incarcerated him in a mental institution where he received electroshock treatments in order to “cure” his sexual attraction to men. In 1955, an article in Mattachine Review reported that gay men incarcerated at California’s Atascadero State Hospital as “sexual psychopaths” felt anxiety about “their role as husbands and fathers.”

Likewise, Vera Martin, an African American lesbian mother who raised her children in the 1950s, was terrified of losing custody of them and losing her job with Los Angeles County. In 1959, Martin and her lover Kay, who was also a lesbian mother, were approached by an acquaintance of her ex-husband’s in a Los Angeles lesbian bar, the If Club. Terrified that her ex-husband would find out about their relationship and take her children, Martin and Kay left the bar immediately; Martin remembered that they didn’t go out in public “for a long time,” and when they finally did, they made sure to do so with gay men so they would appear to outsiders as two heterosexual couples.

Openly lesbian and gay custody cases were uncommon prior to the late 1960s, because the notion that gay men and lesbians could be decent parents was largely unthinkable in mainstream society. Yet courts did sometimes take children away from women and men because of their sexuality.

In 1959, a New Jersey newspaper reported that Elizabeth Hansen had lost custody to her husband because “she associated with female homosexuals and refused to change her ways” and the court used love letters between Elizabeth and another woman as evidence. In another example from 1955, a man told a judge that his wife’s “strange passions” made her an “unfit mother.”

Because it was less unusual for women to raise children alone, or for women to live with other women, than for men to do so, some lesbians managed to raise children in non-traditional relationships under the relatively safe anonymity of urban communities. However, these women still feared discovery of their sexuality by the state and legal system.

In the two decades after World War II, gay men and lesbians were institutionalized, arrested, and depicted as pathological deviants in movies, pulp novels, and popular culture. They became the very definition of unfit parents.

LGBT Rights, Parenting Rights

In spite of the overwhelming cultural condemnation of same-sex sexuality in the postwar era, the precursor of what would later become the more well-known LGBT freedom struggle also began in this period, and with it, the earliest discussions of lesbian and gay parenting. The nation’s first lesbian and gay rights organizations—known as homophile groups—formed at this time, and men and women who were a part of them began talking about the realities and politics of gay and lesbian parenting.

In a discussion about the political direction of the homophile movement in 1964, representatives of eleven male homophile organizations debated the viability of fighting for gay adoptive and marital rights, which they saw as linked.

Some groups felt that to demand these rights would be foolish, because to argue that it was viable for lesbians and gay men to form families and raise children would bring crippling condemnation from mainstream society. Others stated guardedly that these were political issues they could support, though even these groups acknowledged that they were among the riskiest propositions they could make.

In the same period, lesbian mothers and their children began holding discussions at chapter meetings of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian homophile organization headquartered in San Francisco. These discussions were characterized by a mixture of hope for a different kind of future and anxieties about the impact that their sexuality and society’s condemnation of it would have on their children.

For women and men in these early lesbian and gay rights organizations, whether or not their sexual desire and romantic relationships could openly coexist with their desire to parent and their commitment to their children remained an open question. In struggling with these issues, they developed alternative notions of what constituted a family—notions that would be articulated more explicitly in the decades to come.

With the emergence of the more visible LGBT freedom struggle in the late 1960s, many lesbian and gay parents came out of hiding. Others were forced into the light. The subsequent difficulties they faced in the 1970s and 1980s show that the fears of their predecessors were well founded.

From 1967 to the mid-1980s, lesbian mothers and gay fathers fought and mostly lost custody cases across the country. In November 1967, in a custody case before the Superior Court of California that marks the beginning of this era, Ellen Nadler lost custody of her five-year-old daughter because a judge decided that a heterosexual environment was in “the best interests of the child.”

The emergence of these custody cases in the 1970s was directly tied to a new visibility of lesbian and gay communities in the era of lesbian and gay liberation.

Even if lesbian mothers and gay fathers tried to keep their sexual orientation a secret from their ex-spouses, once they became involved in gay and lesbian social and political life the signs of this involvement were much more visible to ex-spouses than they had been in earlier decades. In many cases, these ex-spouses would hire private detectives to gather evidence of involvement in gay and lesbian relationships and political organizing in order to use it in court battles.

These custody cases clearly reflected the anti-gay bias in the mainstream definition of the family. Across the country, in local courts, judges’ rationale for denying custody and even visitation rights to lesbian mothers and gay fathers was remarkably similar.

Decisions against lesbian mothers and gay fathers almost always hinged on one or more of several points:

  •  that lesbians and gay men were likely to sexually molest or have sex in front of their children
  •  a perception of lesbian or gay parents as emotionally immature individuals who cared more about fulfilling their sexual desires than their children’s well-being
  •  fears that children raised by lesbian or gay parents would face ridicule among their peers
  •  concern that the children would develop gender confusion or become homosexual themselves, an outcome the judges saw as negative
  •  the argument that since lesbian mothers and gay fathers were admitted criminals in states that had sodomy laws, they were de facto unfit parents

And in the cases when lesbian and gay parents were allowed to maintain contact with their children, judges often demanded, as a condition of retaining custody or visitation rights, that parents not live with lesbian or gay partners, be in the presence of other lesbians or gay men, or take part in any lesbian or gay political activities while with their children.

In 1972, a judge told Cam Mitchell, a lesbian mother, that she could have custody of her three children only if she agreed not to live with her partner. The judge remarked after he had delivered this decision that he had done so to show that he was not “soft on homosexuals.”

In 1974, another judge told a New Jersey gay father who was active in the gay liberation movement that in order to see his children for three weeks out of the year he would have to refrain from any “homosexual activities” during that time.

Lesbian Mother and Gay Father Groups and the LGBT Domestic and Parental Rights Movement

Lesbian mother and gay father advocacy groups formed nationwide in the 1970s to respond to these custody struggles. Though the organizing of lesbian mothers and gay fathers led to different kinds of activism and political cultures, both shaped the later emergence of the modern LGBT freedom struggle’s focus on domestic and family rights.

Lesbian mother groups emerged out of lesbian feminist communities, beginning with the Lesbian Mothers Union, founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1971. Similar groups formed in Seattle (1974), Philadelphia (1974), and New York (1976).

In addition to these larger groups, smaller ones formed around single custody battles, such as the Jeanne Jullion Legal Defense Committee in San Francisco, the Friends of Mary Jo Risher in Dallas, or the Rachel Yaseen Defense Fund in Denver.

All of these lesbian mother groups raised funds for legal fees, put lesbians fighting for custody in touch with sympathetic expert witnesses, and in rare cases, helped lesbian mothers and their children go underground when it was clear that they were going to be separated.

Lesbian mother groups in this era were also social centers. They organized picnics, founded alternative schools, and held discussion groups on topics of concern to lesbian mothers. Lesbian mother groups spoke openly against the implicit compulsory heterosexuality of the family and were a vital part of lesbian feminist community networks across the United States, adding to the many ways lesbian feminists participated in the broad reproductive rights revolution of this period.

Gay father groups also began in the 1970s in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. The first gay father group in the country was founded in San Francisco in 1975. Like lesbian mother groups, gay father groups were deeply concerned with custody and visitation loss, but most of the fathers did not have custody, and many of them were in danger of losing their parental rights completely. These groups provided support for fathers in a range of situations, from those remaining in heterosexual marriages to those who had lost all contact with their children.

Though the AIDS epidemic had a devastating impact on the membership of many local gay father groups, by the mid-1980s, these groups had also formed a nationwide network. Many of them were part of a larger umbrella group called Gay Parents Coalition International (GPCI), an organization that itself evolved from gay fathers groups in Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

A year after its founding, GPCI also included representatives from groups in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Baltimore. GPCI represented the political coalescence of the gay father movement, offered advice to new gay father groups as they formed, and held annual conferences that brought together gay fathers from all over the country.

While some lesbian mother groups articulated a radical vision of an anti-patriarchal, lesbian feminist family, gay father groups developed in a different direction. Many of these organizations articulated a “politics of respectability,” arguing that gay and lesbian parents and their children could fight homophobia by illustrating that lesbians and gay men could be wholesome individuals who formed legitimate, morally fit families.

Both lesbian mother and gay father groups and their publicizing of gay and lesbian custody struggles inspired other lesbians and gay men in the 1970s to see parenting as an option.

These groups were also involved in the emergence of a new generation of lesbian and gay families created through donor insemination, surrogacy, and adoption.

Lesbian mother groups such as Dykes and Tykes, founded in New York in 1976, were some of the first places where lesbians could share information on self-inseminating at a time when mainstream sperm banks and fertility doctors refused to help lesbians get pregnant. From this time forward, changes in reproductive technologies have made pregnancy all the more possible.

By the late 1980s, men in gay fathers groups were helping circulate information about gay adoption, and by the early 1990s, these groups had a significant number of members who had become fathers through adoption and surrogacy instead of through a previous heterosexual marriage.

The work of both lesbian mother and gay father groups in the 1970s and 1980s had a strong influence in turning the attention of the modern LGBT freedom struggle toward parental/domestic/marital rights.

GPCI, the nationwide organization that emerged from the gay fathers’ movement of the 1980s, would eventually become the Family Equality Council. In 2009, The Council defined itself as “dedicated specifically to advocating at a national level for equality for families headed by queer parents” and in 2013, the group submitted the amicus brief in the Windsor decision that opened this article.

Grassroots lesbian mother organizations were tied to the founding of the Lesbian Rights Project. Renamed the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 1989, the organization would become one of the largest legal advocacy groups in the LGBT movement, with a 2012 budget of $4 million. Founder Donna Hitchens was in contact with lesbian mother activists in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York and focused on the custody struggles of lesbian mothers from the group’s inception in 1977.

A decade later, the group was also at the forefront of using second-parent adoption to circumvent the lack of recognition for lesbian and gay couples who had children through donor insemination and surrogacy, while also fighting for lesbian and gay partner benefits and custodial rights.

In 1989, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Lambda Legal, two large lesbian and gay advocacy organizations, founded projects aimed at fighting for familial rights. Both the Task Force’s Lesbian and Gay Families Project, headed by Ivy Young, and Lambda’s Family Relationships Project worked from a broad definition of family that included, but was not limited to, lesbian and gay parental rights.

In doing so, these organizations were influenced by both the activism of lesbian and gay parents and the trauma of partners of individuals with AIDS whose relationships had no legal standing and were therefore often shut out by their partners’ biological families.

The goals of both groups included domestic partnership recognition at the municipal and state levels, gay and lesbian parental rights, and an end to anti-gay discrimination in employment and housing.

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.

Suggested Reading

Rivers, Daniel Winunwe. Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Richman, Kimberly. Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Ball, Carlos. Same-Sex Marriage and Children: A Tale of History, Social Science, and the Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Polikoff, Nancy D. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

Chauncey, George. Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality. Basic Books: New York, 2005.

Stacey, Judith, “Gay and Lesbian Families: Queer Like Us,” in All our Families: New Policies for a New Century, edited by Mary Ann Mason, Arlene Skolnick, and Stephen D. Sugarman, 117-143. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Wolf, Deborah Goleman. The Lesbian Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Jullion, Jeannie. Long Way Home: The Odyssey of a Lesbian Mother and Her Children. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1985.

Lewin, Ellen. Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.