(I posted a version of this a few years ago, but I think it bears repeating as part of LGBT History Month. Enjoy this look back at how lesbian moms have been a central part of the LGBT rights movement since the beginning—while simultaneously waging some intensely personal battles to maintain contact with their children.)
Lesbian moms have been a vital part of the LGBT rights movement since there was an LGBT rights movement. The documentary Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement gives us a look at several early custody cases involving lesbian moms—and shows how the activism they spawned has had a direct impact on LGBT people and organizations today.
When a custody case with a lesbian mom makes headlines now, it is most often a battle between two women over children they have raised together. Forty years ago, however, almost all custody cases involving a lesbian occurred because she was trying to obtain custody or visitation from her former husband.
Mom’s Apple Pie, released in 2006 and now out on home video, is a deft blending of personal and political. Filmmakers Jody Laine, Shan Ottey and Shad Reinstein begin with interviews of several mothers and their now-adult children who were involved in these early custody cases. Many of us have heard the outlines of such stories, even if we have no names to put with them: children being denied access to one of their parents; judges ruling that an abusive husband should have custody rather than a lesbian mom.
The tales are heart wrenching. The film does more than just tug at our emotions, however, focusing instead on the innovation that came out of adversity. In the days before LGBT organizations with multi-million dollar budgets or nationally recognized attorneys taking on LGBT rights cases, almost no lawyers were willing to defend a lesbian mom. Those that were had few resources. The mothers themselves therefore banded together to share knowledge and protect their families.
In 1974, several lesbian mothers and friends in Seattle founded the Lesbian Mothers’ National Defense Fund (LMNDF) with $2 and the slogan, “Raising our children is a right, not a heterosexual privilege.” The women of LMNDF helped lesbian mothers find and pay for appropriate lawyers and organize their cases. Although some LMNDF members had law degrees, they saw themselves as organizers more than lawyers. Their activism was intensely personal and often grew out of experience with their own custody and visitation battles.
The organization’s newsletter, “Mom’s Apple Pie,” offered advice and information, asked for donations, and celebrated their few triumphs. As word of the organization spread, women began to contact them from around the country. LMNDF members drew on their personal networks to find nearby contacts for them, no mean feat in the days before Facebook and Twitter. LMNDF eventually encouraged women to start local defense funds and created guidelines to assist.
Around the country, too, lesbian lawyers were beginning to take custody cases and to organize. In 1977, lawyers Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg in San Francisco formed the Lesbian Rights Project (LRP), which in 1989 evolved into the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).
The film shows us the challenges of these early groups, from confronting homophobia to the mundane difficulties of distributing materials and fundraising. One major source of funds came from women’s music concerts and other events that the organizations helped produce. (At one, we learn, author Rita Mae Brown even auctioned off her underwear for the cause.) The film underscores the connection between activism and music with a soundtrack of songs by women’s music icons Margie Adam, Alix Dobkin, Mary Watkins, and Cris Williamson.
The interviewees also discuss their organizations’ roles within the broader lesbian and feminist movements of the time. They helped women become independent at a time when California was the only state to offer “no-fault” divorces and most women did not have their own bank accounts or credit history. The groundwork they laid for women’s freedom had an impact on rights for lesbian moms by choice, single moms, and women as a whole.
When LMNDF began, only one custody case in the country had ever been won by an out lesbian. Within 10 years, aided by the resources from LMNDF, LRP, and similar organizations, 50 percent of cases between lesbian mothers and their ex-husbands ended with custody or visitation for the mothers.
Although laws and attitudes have changed in some ways since the 1970s, certain things have stayed the same. Current NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell says in the film that even today, “hardly a week goes by” that NCLR is not getting calls from women in custody disputes with ex-husbands. Anyone unfamiliar with NCLR’s work today need only look at its Web site, however, to see that its work has expanded to almost every area of LGBT rights—and the successes are more frequent.
For those too young to remember the 1970s as the period that nurtured the early LGBT rights movement, Mom’s Apple Pie is a fascinating and worthwhile history lesson. For those who recall the era, it will bring back memories both cherished and painful, but ones worth passing on to the next generation.
Pam Keeley, an early LMNDF member, reflects in the film, “Here we were, just this little clot of young women, trying to change the world. And we were changing the world.”
Mom’s Apple Pie shows us how they did it.
The DVD belongs in the collections of all LGBT parents, grassroots activists, and teachers of the civil rights movement. It is available at frameline.org for both institutional and (much cheaper) home viewing, or for even cheaper online streaming at Vimeo.