For the second in my series for LGBTQ History Month, here’s a New York Times piece from 1973 that marvels at the confluence of lesbians and motherhood.
In “Lesbians Who Try to be Good Mothers,” published in January 1973, reporter Judy Klemesrud speaks with members of a lesbian mothers’ group in New York City, noting also that “One third of the members of the New Jersey Daughters of BIlitis (a lesbian organization) are mothers,” and that a West Coast group called the Lesbian Mothers Union publishes a newspaper called “The Mother Lode.”
There are signs of the times, to be sure. Klemesrud notes that one of the women “was mannish in appearance”—an expression no legitimate journalist would use today. One also senses Klemesrud struggling with whether a nonbiological mother could actually be a parent—calling her a “nonparent,” but also noting a parallel between same- and different-sex parent couples:
Perhaps the touchiest problem concerns the relationship between a lesbian’s child (or children) and her lover. What the nonparent should be called arises early … and then a decision must be made on how the child’s discipline should be handled, and by whom.
As a result, children often play the two women partners against each other, just as they do their mothers and fathers in a heterosexual coupling. The nonparent, as a result, often feels left out of the family unit, since she is neither father nor mother.
Klemesrud quotes a psychiatrist who gives the usual spiel for the time about “homosexuals” being “sick” and their kids more likely to become homosexual themselves. It was only later that same year that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Still, there are signs of hope. Klemesrud also quotes another psychotherapist who thought lesbians “do as good a job as any parents can.” She notes that in one of the few (at the time) custody cases involving a lesbian mom, the mother won custody. (She does not note if, as happened often in such early cases, the mother had to promise not to live with a partner.) Note, too, that lesbian moms in such cases may have benefited in an odd way from the stereotyped gender roles of the time—one of the interviewees opines that “most men aren’t interested in having custody of their children.” One of the women interviewed, too, got pregnant through a known donor in order to raise a child with her partner—a method that would become increasingly popular over the next decades.
One senses also how parents became a key force behind the growing push for marriage equality and other domestic rights (as detailed further in Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ book, Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and their Children in the United States Since the Second World War (my review here). Klemesrud writes:
Several of the women said they were distressed because their families weren’t eligible for things that heterosexual couples take for granted, such as a legal marriage, joint income tax returns, family membership at the local “Y,” family rates on airplanes, family hospitalization plans, certain insurance policies, charge accounts, inheritance rights, and the adoption of children.
Go read the rest to marvel in the energy and resilience of this early generation of out lesbian moms.