The World’s First LGBT Parent: Why Our History Matters

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As this year’s LGBT History Month gets into full swing, I find myself wondering, “Who was the world’s first known LGBT parent?” To the best of my knowledge, she was the Greek poet Sappho, whose island home of Lesbos gave us the term “lesbian.” Sappho seems to have had a daughter named “Cleis”—meaning we can trace LGBT parents back to about 600 BCE.

That’s worth repeating: 600 BCE!

I know—it’s anachronistic to apply modern identity terms to historical figures. And the existence of her daughter is only attested through a few fragments, making it far from certain. Still, Sappho is such an important icon of LGBT history that I think we can at the very least view her as the symbolic first LGBT parent.

Knowing our roots as LGBT parents is important for ourselves, our children, and the continuing fight for equality. The right-wing often tries to make LGBT parents seem like a new and untested phenomenon, but there are surprising glimpses of us throughout history. Oscar Wilde, for example, was a father of two boys, and apparently a loving one. His son Vyvyan, in his book Son of Oscar Wilde, wrote, “he was a hero to us both. . . . a real companion to us. . . . He would go down on all fours on the nursery floor, being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse, caring nothing for his usually immaculate appearance.” Alas, after Oscar Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” (having same-sex relations) the boys’ mother Constance took them to Switzerland and they did not see him again.

In the modern era, out LGBT parents go back well over half a century, as Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ new book, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and their Children in the United States since the Second World War makes clear.

And the term “gayby boom” is already over two decades old, dating to at least March 1990, when Newsweek reported, “a new generation of gay parents has produced the first-ever ‘gayby boom.’” That means that many of the children from that boom are themselves now adults—while many of the first generation of out parents are becoming grandparents.

Think of it this way: Heather with the two mommies was in preschool in Lesléa Newman’s 1989 book about her. If she were real, she’d now be in her late 20s.

Those who continue to insist that LGBT parents are no good for children have failed to realize that if that were true, there would be many more millions of maladjusted adults running around than there really are.

Learning our history as LGBT parents is also important for ourselves personally. It can help us feel less alone, less like we’re treading on unbroken ground. Having confidence that others have been here before can translate into confidence in our parenting skills, which in turn can positively impact our children.

Knowing the struggles—and triumphs—of LGBT parents in the past can also give us hope and strength in overcoming the challenges—legal, political, social, and emotional—that we still face.

And seeing how the early organizations for LGBT parents helped shape the overall LGBT rights movement of today (a story told in Rivers’ book and in the 2006 documentary Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement) can inspire us to keep contributing to that broader effort, even as we balance the demands of work and family.

Without a sense of history to root ourselves, we and our children will continue to feel as if we are always creating out of nothing, writing our own definitions, and being the first to face each challenge. Sure, no two families are exactly alike, and each must have room to create and define for itself—but it can be helpful to do so with the examples of those who have gone before, even as we add our own unique spin.

Good resources in addition to those already mentioned include Carlos Ball’s book The Right to Be Parents, a fascinating overview of the legal history of LGBT parents across the spectrum since the 1960s, and Choosing Children, Academy Award-winning director Debra Chasnoff’s 1984 film that documented six of the first generation of intentional lesbian families. It will be released on DVD later this year along with a new “making of” bonus feature.

As worthwhile as are the above books and films, however, we need still more histories of LGBT parents and our children to ground us in our past and give us confidence for the future. We need works that look in-depth at various understudied segments of our community, such as transgender parents and parents of particular racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. We need historical biographies of the early out LGBT parents who fought for custody of their children or for adoption rights.

We also need more memoirs, not only by recent parents (who give us the majority of LGBT parenting memoirs), but also by parents who raised their children in the pre-gayby boom days—and by their grown children themselves (such as Alysia Abbott’s recent Fairyland, about growing up with a gay dad in San Francisco at the time of Harvey Milk).

Finally, we need to reclaim and remember those from further back in history, like Wilde, whose status as LGBT parents tends to be overlooked. Their experience may have been far different than ours, but we are part of the same continuum.