The Historical Reality of Queer Families

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Erin Gallagher-Cohoon

In this morning’s post, I focused on how parliamentarians were invoking a sense of history and nationalism to argue both for and against legalizing same-sex marriage. In this post, I explore the history that is often left unsaid in this debate: the history of queer parenting.

By 2005, when many parliamentarians were arguing that marriage rights should not be extended to same-sex couples because they could not “naturally” procreate and raise children, researchers had been studying children raised in same-sex households for decades. The consensus among social scientists was, and remains, that such children are not negatively affected. Children may, in fact, benefit from being raised in non-heteronormative families, with some studies reporting findings of greater empathy and open-mindedness.[1]

In Canada, openly gay and lesbian parents have defended their right to give birth and to parent children since at least the 1970s, whether those children were the result of heterosexual marriages that subsequently broke up or were conceived within a same-sex relationship. If we move from the symbolic child of the 2005 debates to the lived experiences of actual queer parents and their children, we can reframe the issue by asking more probing questions about how families are formed, what family formations are recognized by society, and how the state’s conception of the family influences the nation at large.

For example, family courts ruled on queer parents’, especially lesbian mothers’, custody rights, judging whether or not their supposedly deviant “lifestyle” would harm the child(ren). As historian Katherine Arnup explained in her 1995 edited collection, Lesbian Parenting: Living with Pride & Prejudice, the earliest Canadian case that dealt specifically with the issue of lesbian custody, Case v. Case, was argued in front of the Saskatchewan Queen’s Bench in 1974. Here, child custody was granted to the father. In this case, Justice MacPherson declared that lesbianism was not in and of itself a reason to deny custody. Rather, the mother’s lesbian “lifestyle” was “irregular.” More damningly, because she was active in the local gay community, the judge feared that her children might “be too much in contact with people of abnormal tastes and proclivities.” A year later, in Alberta, the outcome of the custody case K v. K was different. In this case, the mother gained custody of her child because she was “discreet” and “not a missionary about to convert heterosexuals to her present way of life.”[2] In other words, openly lesbian feminist mothers, or mothers who participated in the local queer community, were separated from their children. The two identities of lesbian and mother were not allowed to coexist. Since discretion was often an important strategy for keeping their children, lesbian-headed households were rendered invisible, which may have de-politicized some parents.

With the rise of groups such as the Lesbian Mothers’ Defence Fund, Gay Fathers of Toronto, Calgary Gay Fathers, and others in the 1980s, however, the right to parent became an issue that also politicized some families. In 1979, for example, a group of nine mothers gathered in Toronto for the first monthly meeting of the Lesbian Mother’s Defence Fund (LMDF). Many of them brought their children, including teenagers who “were glad to find they weren’t the only kids around with gay mothers.”[3] This initial meeting was itself the result of three years of planning and community organizing. The LMDF was one of the most active and successful lesbian parenting activist groups in Canada. They supported lesbian mothers involved in custody battles by fundraising, providing resources (including lists of sympathetic lawyers and the latest social science literature on lesbian-headed families), publishing a newsletter and other informational materials, and by providing community. Women mobilized around the issue of custody rights despite the personal risks.

The Author and Her Dads

Some of the children raised by lesbian mothers and gay fathers were also politicized by the social and political context that tried to render their families invisible. Despite what politicians would say inside Parliament about the impossibility of queer parenting, children like Robbie Barnett-Kemper prove otherwise. Barnett-Kemper was 12 years old when he wrote an affidavit for the Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage. In it he explained that his mothers’ marriage to each other was significant to him: “Now other kids can’t say that I don’t have a real family.”[4] At 12 years old, Barnett-Kemper understood the social importance of marriage, including its gate-keeping function. It provides access to certain legal benefits and to a level of social acceptance. The question of whose relationships are allowed to be formalized in marriage is bound up in whose families are recognized as “real.”

In the parliamentary debates, politicians on both sides of the aisle drew on ideas of history and the Canadian historical tradition to make their case. But in the remarks of most of these politicians, the longer history of queer kinship, relationship-formation, and parenting is ignored. Historical forgetting is often politically motivated. In this case, ignoring the history of queer parenting allowed politicians in 2005 to position themselves as engaging in a historically unprecedented debate. It allowed Conservative politicians to argue that changing the definition of marriage would dismantle the family and that it was against the best interests of innocent children. And it allowed Liberal politicians to represent themselves as the heroes of the story. By divorcing current generations of children being raised by same-sex parents from the generations that preceded them, we divorce them not only from a sense of place in history. We also divorce them from alternative models of non-state-based kinship and strength.

Acknowledging this history would mean that we would have to confront the ways the Canadian State constrained queer families—sometimes to the point of dismantling them. Despite this, and without the approbation of Canadian parliamentarians, queer families continued to reproduce themselves outside, beyond, and in the margins of the nation-state. As an increasingly sanitized image of queer families has more recently been mobilized by governments and businesses to sell the idea of Canadian progressiveness, it is important to remember the history of political and judicial neglect, grassroots activism, and survival. Queer families’ survival was hard won and occurred in spite of state intervention, not because of it.

Erin Gallagher-Cohoon is a PhD student in the Department of History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She researches Canadian histories of queer parenting and is particularly interested in the clash between the politicized symbol of The Child and the experiences of flesh-and-blood children.

[1] For early examples, see Jerry J. Bigner, and R. Brooke Jacobsen, “Parenting Behaviors of Homosexual and Heterosexual Fathers,” Journal of Homosexuality 18 (1989): 173-186; Julie Schwartz Gottman, “Children of Gay and Lesbian Parents,” in Homosexuality and Family Relations, ed. Frederick W. Bozett and Marvin B. Sussman (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1990): 177-196; Lisa Saffron, “Raising Children in an Age of Diversity – Advantages of Having a Lesbian Mother,” Living ‘Difference’: Lesbian Perspectives on Work and Family Life, ed. Gillian A. Dunne (New York: Haworth Press, 1998): 35-47.

[2] Katherine Arnup, “Living in the Margins: Lesbian Families & the Law,” in Lesbian Parenting: Living with Pride & Prejudice (Charlottetown: gynergy books, 1995), 379-380.

[3] Report on the First Monthly Meeting of the Lesbian Mothers’ Defence Fund, 4 February 1979, File 4, Box 1, Fonds 10-031, University of Ottawa Archives.

[4] Quoted in Tonda MacCharles and Tracey Tyler, “High Court in Eye of Marriage Storm,” newspaper clipping, File 8, Box 1, Series 4.1, ArQuives, Toronto.

Suggested Resources:

Carter, Sarah. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008.

Epstein, Rachel, ed. Who’s Your Daddy? And Other Writings on Queer Parenting. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2009.

Graefe, Sara, ed. Swelling with Pride: Queer Conception and Adoption Stories. Halfmoon Bay, BC: Dagger Editions, 2018.

Rivers, Daniel Winunwe. Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and their Children in the United States Since World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Sullivan, Maureen. The Family of Woman: Lesbian Mothers, Their Children, and the Undoing of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

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