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Milestones in LGBTQ+ parenting history

By
Dana Rudolph, Publisher, Mombian
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Jun 3, 2022
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Over the last several decades, LGBTQ+ parents and families have made significant progress toward legal recognition thanks to the hard work of activists. While discrimination and inequities still exist, this Pride Month, we want to take some time to celebrate some of the highlights in culture, representation, and legislation related to LGBTQ+ parenting in the U.S.

The history of the LGBTQ+ community is nuanced and complicated, and this list isn’t meant to be a comprehensive look at the entire timeline of LGBTQ+ parenting but an overview of some key moments and milestones in the history of LGBTQ+ families.

*This list originally appeared in Mombian and was republished with permission from Dana Rudolph.

[Updated: May 2022]

1950s – ‘60s

1956: The organization Daughters of Bilitis holds the first known discussion groups on lesbian motherhood.

1968: Bill Jones, a gay man, became the first single father to adopt a child in California and among the first nationally.

1970s

1971: Formation of the first lesbian mothers’ activist group, the Lesbian Mothers Union.

1972: That Certain Summer, the first television movie to depict a gay dad, airs on ABC, starring Hal Holbrook as a dad who comes out to his teenage son, and Martin Sheen as his partner. Scott Jacoby, who played the son, won a Best Supporting Actor Emmy.

1973: Sandy and Madeleine’s Family becomes the first U.S. documentary about a lesbian-headed family.

1973: A Colorado court issues the country’s first known opinion involving a transgender parent, upholding his right to retain child custody.

1974: A New Jersey superior court judge rules that a father’s sexual orientation is not in itself a reason to deny him child visitation, the first time a U.S. court has acknowledged the constitutional rights of gay fathers.

1974: Several lesbian mothers and friends in Seattle form the Lesbian Mothers National Defense Fund to help lesbian mothers in custody disputes.

1976: Washington, DC, becomes the first jurisdiction in the country to prohibit judges from making custody decisions based solely on sexual orientation.

1977: Lawyers Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg in San Francisco form the Lesbian Rights Project (LRP), which evolves into the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), still helping LGBTQ+ parents (and others) today.

1978: The Washington Supreme Court issues the country’s first custody ruling in favor of a lesbian couple (Sandy Schuster and Madeleine Isaacson of the 1973 film above).

1978: New York becomes the first state to say it will not reject adoption applicants solely because of “homosexuality.”

1979: A gay couple in California becomes the first in the country known to have jointly adopted a child.

1979: The Gay Fathers Coalition forms — a precursor to Family Equality, the national organization for LGBTQ+ parents and their children.

1979: Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away becomes the first picture book in the U.S. to show a lesbian relationship.

1980s

1982: The Sperm Bank of California begins operations, the first in the country to serve lesbian couples and single-intending parents.

1985: For the first time, a court allows a non-biological mother to adopt the biological child of her female partner. The ruling also allows the biological father to maintain a relationship with the child.

1988: A group of youth with LGBTQ+ parents meets at a conference organized by a precursor to Family Equality and begins the organizing that leads to the formation of Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE) as an independent national organization in 1999.

1989: Author Lesléa Newman self-publishes Heather Has Two Mommies, the first children’s book in the U.S. to show a lesbian couple planning and raising a child together.

1990s

1990: The Newsweek article “The Future of Gay America” includes the first documented use of the term “gayby boom” to describe the rise in same-sex couples having children.

1990: LGBTQ+ publisher Alyson Publications launches the Alyson Wonderland imprint for childrens’ titles. It publishes Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite, the first children’s book published in the U.S. to depict gay male parents, and mass produces Heather Has Two Mommies.

1993: Vermont and Massachusetts began allowing same-sex couples to adopt jointly statewide.

1994: The San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Parents Association produces Both of My Moms’ Names Are Judy: Children of Lesbians and Gays Speak Out, the first educational film for elementary school teachers about LGBTQ+ families.

1995: A state’s highest court (Wisconsin) rules for the first time that a non-biological mother may try and show that it would be in the best interests of her child for her to remain in the child’s life after parental separation.

1997: New Jersey makes it explicit in its adoption policy that same-sex couples may adopt jointly.

2000s

2005: The PBS show Postcards from Buster airs the first depiction of a two-mom family in a television show for young children.

2008: Marcus Ewert publishes 10,000 Dresses, the first children’s book to show a clearly transgender child.

2009: First explicit mention of same-sex parents in a presidential proclamation. In announcing September 28 as Family Day, President Obama says, “Whether children are raised by two parents, a single parent, grandparents, a same-sex couple, or a guardian, families encourage us to do our best and enable us to accomplish great things.”

2010s

2010: The Kids Are All Right, starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, becomes the first major feature film to focus on an LGBTQ+ couple and their children. It wins Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture and Best Actress (Bening) and four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

2010: President Obama revises hospital visitation rules so patients may designate their own visitors, including same-sex partners. He was motivated in part by the story of Janice Langbehn and her three children, who were denied access to her dying partner and the children’s other mother, Lisa Pond, in 2007. In 2011, Langbehn receives the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor.

2010: Florida is the last state to end a law explicitly banning gay men and lesbians from adopting. Several other states continue to forbid unmarried couples from adopting.

2011: The U.S. State Department updates passport applications to say “Mother or Parent 1” and “Father or Parent 2” instead of just “Mother” and “Father.”

2011: U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado becomes the first out LGBTQ+ parent in Congress with the birth of a son to him and partner Marlon Reis.

2012: When President Obama announces his support for marriage equality, he explains that his daughters have friends with same-sex parents, and “I know it wouldn’t dawn on them that their friends’ parents should be treated differently.”

2013: The U.S. Supreme Court rules a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, citing children’s well-being as a key argument.

2015: The U.S. Supreme Court again uses children’s well-being as a key argument in overturning bans on marriage for same-sex couples across the country. Among other changes, this opened up joint and second-parent adoption for same-sex couples in several additional states.

2015: Kate Brown becomes governor of Oregon, the first bisexual (and bisexual parent) governor and the first LGBTQ+ governor.

2017: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Pavan v. Smith that married, same-sex couples have the right to both be on their children’s birth certificates.

2018: Jared Polis is elected governor of Colorado, making him the first out gay (and gay parent) governor.

2018: Angie Craig is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota, making her the first out lesbian parent in Congress.

2021: Dr. Rachel Levine becomes the first openly transgender person (and transgender parent) to be confirmed by the Senate. Her position as assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Service also makes her the country’s highest-ranking transgender official.

2022: U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan was confirmed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, making her the second LGBTQ+ woman and the first queer mom to become a federal appellate judge.

2022: Karine Jean-Pierre, a lesbian mom, is the first out LGBTQ+ person and first person of color to become White House Press Secretary.

(I have compiled these items from a number of sources; special recognition goes to Carlos Ball’s The Right to Be Parents, Jaime Campbell Naidoo’s Rainbow Family Collections, and Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States Since World War II. Any errors remain my own.)

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