I love LGBTQ History Month almost more than I love Pride Month. Going to grad school in history will do that. Keeping in mind the truism “History is written by the victors” and philosopher George Santayana’s observation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I find there’s something about looking at our queer past that feels empowering and vital.
A search for LGBTQ parents in history also leads us to some lessons that can help us better understand the full scope of what it means to be an LGBTQ family today.
The history of clearly out LGBTQ parents goes back to just after World War II, when we find evidence that most lesbian and gay parents had their children within different-sex marriages, leading double lives or divorcing and almost always losing custody. The first collective and public activity on the part of LGBTQ parents are discussion groups on lesbian parenthood arranged in 1956 by the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights organization in the U.S.
The history of bisexual and transgender parents at the time is still foggy. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that some of those labeled gay or lesbian might really have identified as bisexual; some who might now call themselves transgender may have been misidentified as gay or lesbian; and other bisexual and transgender parents have stories yet to be uncovered.
If we leave aside modern definitions, however, our history goes back even further. The Greek poet Sappho, whose island home of Lesbos gave us the term “lesbian,” may have had a daughter named Cleis, which would put the earliest LGBTQ parent at around 600 BCE. Other, better documented queer personalities, like writers Oscar Wilde and Vita Sackville-West, comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and poet Lord Byron were also parents.
All of the above figures had partners of both sexes. This brings us to the important reminder that the history of LGBTQ parents is not solely a history of same-sex parents. It encompasses them, but includes a wide range of people, coupled and single, across the spectrum, who parented both within and outside of same-sex relationships.
If we take a careful look at queer parents today, we find much the same. In fact, the majority of LGBTQ parents are not “same-sex parents.” Dr. Gary Gates of UCLA’s Williams Institute, who has long studied the demographics of the LGBTQ community, noted in a recent paper, “While as many as 2 million to 3.7 million children under age 18 may have an LGBT parent, it’s likely that only about 200,000 are being raised by a same-sex couple. Many are being raised by single LGBT parents, and many are being raised by different-sex couples where one parent is bisexual.” Among bisexual parents, only four percent are living with a same-sex partner (In The Future of Children: Princeton-Brookings, Fall 2015).
Not only that, but Gates adds that most of the children being raised by same-sex couples today “were born to different-sex parents, one of whom is now in the same-sex relationship.” Similarly, Gates says, several studies have shown that transgender people who transition or identify as transgender later in life are more likely to have had children than those who do so at younger ages, which “suggests that many transgender parents likely had their children before they identified as transgender or transitioned.”
The reality of LGBTQ families, past and present, is thus far more varied than the usual media image (both news and fiction), which usually depicts same-sex couples who started or want to start a family together. Because many of those with LGBTQ parents also have a non-LGBTQ parent, we need to acknowledge that the boundary between having an LGBTQ parent or parents and having a straight, cisgender parent or parents is not as clear as we might think. Many grow up with Venn diagrams of queer and non-queer parents, stepparents, birth parents, and/or donors.
This is not to say that the experience of a child growing up with, say, a bisexual parent in a different-sex relationship is the same as that of a child growing up with same-sex parents, or that the experience of having cisgender parents is the same as having a transgender parent or parents. We need to recognize all of the distinct experiences of those with LGBTQ parents in order to gain a more complete picture of what it means to have them.
Author Chimamanda Adichie, in a popular 2009 TED talk, spoke of “the danger of a single story.” She explained, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Once we recognize the full variety of stories within our community, we can better see into our past and understand ourselves today. This LGBTQ History Month, then, take a moment to reflect on the varied stories of our heritage, our present, and what promises to be a bright future.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.