In Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II, Daniel Winunwe Rivers offers a previously untold story of the American family: the first history of lesbian and gay parents and their children in the United States. Beginning in the postwar era, a period marked by both intense repression and dynamic change for lesbians and gay men, Rivers argues that by forging new kinds of family and childrearing relations, gay and lesbian parents have successfully challenged legal and cultural definitions of family as heterosexual. These efforts have paved the way for the contemporary focus on family and domestic rights in lesbian and gay political movements.
In the following excerpt from Radical Relations (pp. 153-157), Rivers shares the stories of children who grew up in lesbian feminist families in the United States during the 1970s, exploring some of the particular challenges faced by those living in rural, conservative areas.
The Experiences of Children in Lesbian Feminist Households: A Generation of Bridge Workers
As the children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers had in previous eras, the children of lesbian feminist families often acted as mediators between their families and a larger society that saw their homes as deviant. Unlike in previous eras, however, the children of lesbian feminist families in the 1970s negotiated the distance between radically open lesbian families and a dominant heterosexual society. Whereas in earlier decades, children of lesbian mothers had moved between their families and mainstream heterosexual society tacitly, the children of lesbian households in the 1970s were much more visible because their families demanded the right to openly exist. These children were bicultural in that they belonged to a vocal oppositional minority culture but also had to operate within the dominant culture that questioned the viability of their families. These children grew up in lesbian households that were more assertive than those of earlier decades, but compared to children of the later lesbian and gay baby boom, they still found their home and family lives to be very separate from mainstream society.
Children who attended public schools in rural, often conservative areas were often on the frontlines of cultural change, negotiating the unmitigated homophobia they encountered at school or elsewhere and the radical lesbian feminist principles they learned at home. Many of them had been uprooted from a more anonymous urban environment into a rural one where all eyes were on their families. For some children, these conflicts proved stressful. Adrian Hood and her mother, Alix Dobkin, moved from New York City to Schoharie, New York, when Adrian was almost five. Alix and her partner, Liza, were out lesbians, and Adrian remembers that older children called her “lezzie” while other children teased her on the school bus, saying that her mother and Liza “looked like boys.” Eventually Adrian returned to Manhattan to live with her father.
Similarly, an eleven-year-old child growing up in the rural area around the Northern California town of Willits in 1977 later described the tenuous acceptance and fear that characterized the school experience of many children living on lesbian land: “When I first moved to the land I was very scared. The next day Sage enrolled me in school. That year was fine. . . . The next year wasn’t as good as the first.” Her explanation of what happened that second year reflects the lack of safety these children often felt in their relationships with their peers: “I had made friends with Chris, who was in the 6th grade. . . . I told her about Sage and the other women I live with and that they were lesbians. She promised that she would not tell a soul. And she didn’t until one day we got into a fight. Then she told her friend and it got around school.” She went on to describe her mother’s efforts to mitigate the stigma the child was suffering at school: “It was very bad until Sage told my teacher, who is a man, that she wanted me to have a woman at school to talk to. Now I see Mrs. Norman, the school nurse. She is a big help to me. Now it is not so bad. Maybe they will get bored and stop.”
What was true for women and children transplanted from urban areas to rural communes was also true for individual lesbian feminist families living in more rural, conservative areas. A self-identified radical feminist lesbian mother, speaking anonymously in 1983, described her daughter’s decisions to be open or not about their home life in the public schools of a “small Southern town” in the 1970s as “extremely tricky.” Children of lesbian households also had to mediate between hostile, and often homophobic, local authorities and their families. Kate Alfaro, who lived with her mother in Searsburg, in rural upstate New York, remembers the police coming to her house after she wrecked her car in 1986. Alfaro told her mother and her mother’s lover to stay in bed because she was terrified of the reaction of the small-town police to her mother’s lesbianism. Alfaro, who felt isolated in the rural community, remembers finding solace in relationships with teenagers from heterosexual counterculture families who did not care that her mother was a lesbian and who also felt like misfits in the rural, conservative setting.
Although children of urban lesbian households often enjoyed larger support networks that might include other children growing up in lesbian families, they nonetheless faced Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Radical Relations, by Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ »
-  Adrian Hood and Alix Dobkin, interview with author, New York, NY, April 12, 2005. See also Majoie Canton and Rogi Rubyfruit, “Alix Dobkin and Liza Cowan on Money, Motherhood, and Mutes,” Lesbian Tide, July/August 1977, 12. ↩
-  Lesbian Connection, March 1977, 11. ↩
-  “A Lesbian Tells Her Daughters to Forget Labels,” Poughkeepsie Journal, March 27, 1983, 28. ↩
-  Kate Alfaro, interview with author, Ithaca, NY, July 29, 2005. ↩