Excerpt: Radical Relations, by Daniel Winunwe Rivers

rivers_radical_PBIn 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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

Although children of urban lesbian households often enjoyed larger support networks that might include other children growing up in lesbian families, they nonetheless faced similar struggles as did those growing up in rural areas. Melanie, a six-year-old growing up in the lesbian feminist community in Boston, described how her friend in public school had reacted negatively to her openness about lesbianism: “She said ‘who do you think you’re going to have a crush with when you grow up,’ I said, ‘some woman,’ and she said, ‘you’re gonna be gay, you’re gonna be gay, and she starts teasing me.” Melanie thought the girls made too much out of what was “no big deal.”[5] Bonnie, who lived with her mother in Baltimore, was upset by local children teasing her by calling her mother a “lezzie.” “Lesbian is O.K.,” she told her mother, “but I don’t like Lezzie.”[6] Like Melanie, she felt that there was nothing wrong with her mother being a lesbian, but the other children’s condemnation still hurt her. After her mother reassured her that she felt no pain as a result of this social prejudice, Bonnie learned to say “so what” when other children in her neighborhood commented on her mother’s lesbianism.

Children of lesbian households often used the decision to open up to peers about their families as a litmus test for who they could really trust. Celeste Cole recalled that by the time she was in fourth grade, “it was a very conscious choice to tell someone” about her mother’s lesbianism, which she thought of as a “big secret.” She remembered that she would use it to see if she could truly trust those who were her best friends. Kay, who grew up in a lesbian feminist household in Ithaca, New York, maintained a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy except with other friends who also had lesbian mothers. Some children, such as Carolyn Selene, learned that they should lie when questioned by their peers about their mothers because they had already lost friends to whom they had told the truth.[7]

In addition to prejudice about their mothers being lesbians, children in lesbian-headed households of the 1970s often had to confront classism from others. Many lesbian feminist mothers lived with their children on a subsistence income, in part because they were often single mothers responsible for all parenting tasks, limiting the available time for securing income for food and housing. In addition, some lesbian mothers came from traditional heterosexual marriages in which their ex-husbands had frowned on them working outside the home. With little experience in the workforce they had to train themselves in employable skills. One lesbian mother from San Jose, California, who had left her abusive ex-husband described working to support her two daughters and “barely making ends meet.”[8]

In addition to the economic and labor-intensive burdens of motherhood, many lesbian feminists who had come from the middle class were “downwardly mobile” as a result of actively repudiating achievement in the capitalist workplace in favor of dedicating themselves to political activism. Though the demands of single parenthood made it difficult for some lesbian mothers to find time for political work, they remained a part of lesbian communities that were strongly anticapitalist and discouraged career-oriented work.

Some lesbian mothers utilized the welfare system to survive. They studied welfare regulations and helped others to do the same in order to negotiate the federal food stamp and Aid to Families with Dependent Children programs.[9] When asked about the impact of her lesbianism on her children, one woman linked her child’s consciousness of being part of the lesbian community to a working-class resistance consciousness: “Being on welfare,” she stated, “lets us both know how ‘society’ (male institutions) feels about us anyway—so—no big deal.”[10] However, for the children of lesbian feminist mothers, this class-consciousness was sometimes gained through pain, living in a society that looked down upon them both for their lesbian feminist culture and for their poverty. Kate Alfaro remembers that in middle school, she was ashamed of her family being on welfare and of her participation in free breakfast and lunch programs. Her mother, Mary White, remembered that as a high school student Alfaro hated having to use food stamps in grocery stores where her middle-class classmates worked.[11]

Like other families within politically radical and counterculture communities during these years, such as the antiwar movement and the black nationalist movement, lesbian feminist families were resistance families. In other words, they consciously stood in defiance of the American state and passed on to their children principles of both resistance to dominant culture and reserve in the face of it. Maxine Wolfe remembers raising her daughters in Brooklyn and telling them to exercise caution about talking to straight people about lesbianism; she impressed on the two girls that letting the larger world in on what were mundane realities in their home could have dire consequences.[12] Because of social and legal disapproval of lesbianism and the publicity surrounding custody cases, lesbian feminist mothers were often afraid of having their children taken away from them. For example, a woman in a lesbian mothers group explained, “its difficult being out to them because then you have to instill in them the cautiousness, that fear. Now they have to think about how their friends are going to react before they let them know.”[13] Kay remembered as a child knowing that she could not talk about her mother being a lesbian because they were on welfare and the police could take her away from her mother if anyone found out. A cartoon published in 1980 in the newsletter of the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance expressed the tension inherent in this dynamic of resistance and reserve for children of lesbian feminist families. It featured a worried-looking young boy looking up at his mother and asking, “but Mom, if there’s nothing wrong with your being a lesbian, why can’t I tell my friends?”[14]

These fears were not without reason. Children who were raised in radical lesbian feminist communities might also be subject, along with their mothers, to hate-crime violence. Nicole Joos wrote at age ten about Izbushka, a house built on lesbian land in upstate New York near Schenectady as a refuge after “two boys, with the help of their mother’s boyfriend, vandalized the lean-to” that had been the main dwelling on their land for seven years.[15] Lesbian feminist mothers, as part of counterculture communities, could also be subject to increased scrutiny from juvenile authorities. In 1977, for example, a group of lesbians and two children who lived in a rural women’s collective picked up two female hitchhikers. The children “were playing dress-up,” and the little boy unselfconsciously donned a woman’s dress. The women, who were “obviously lesbians and not the children’s biological mothers,” also mentioned marijuana. The hitchhikers reported the women to the juvenile authorities, who removed the children and placed them in foster homes. Although these children were eventually released back to the women when the biological mother returned from traveling out of state, the episode illustrates the dangers that mothers raising their children in lesbian feminist communities had to negotiate.[16]


From Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II by Daniel Winunwe Rivers. Copyright © 2013 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Daniel Winunwe Rivers is assistant professor of history at The Ohio State University. His book Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II is now available in paperback.

  1. [1]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.
  2. [2]Lesbian Connection, March 1977, 11.
  3. [3]“A Lesbian Tells Her Daughters to Forget Labels,” Poughkeepsie Journal, March 27, 1983, 28.
  4. [4]Kate Alfaro, interview with author, Ithaca, NY, July 29, 2005.
  5. [5]Melanie was interviewed by Joan Biren in 1978. “Lynne and Susie Tape 1,” Spoken Word Audio Files, Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, NY.
  6. [6]“Interview with a Lesbian Mother,” Desperate Living, Spring 1975, 6.
  7. [7]Celeste Cole, interview with author, Seattle, WA, March 18, 2005; Kay, interview with author, New York, NY, April 19, 2005; Carolyn Selene, interview with author, Lynnwood, WA, March 13, 2005.
  8. [8]Letter, Lesbian Connection, May 1978, 22.
  9. [9]Paz, The La Luz Journal.
  10. [10]Bryant, “Lesbian Mothers,” 137.
  11. [11]Kate Alfaro, interview with author, Ithaca, NY, July 29, 2005; Mary White, interview with author, Ithaca, NY, April 24, 2005.
  12. [12]Maxine Wolfe, interview with author, Brooklyn, NY, July 29, 2002; Judie Ghidinelli remembers her and her partner, Kate, telling their son Guthrie the same thing—not to mention lesbianism outside the household. Judie Ghidinelli, interview with author, Oakland, CA, April 15, 2003.
  13. [13]The Boston Women’s Health Collective, Ourselves and Our Children: A Book by and for Parents (New York: Random House, 1978), 175. This quote appeared in a section on lesbian and gay parents. The book credits Wendy C. Sanford with writing the section and gives special thanks to the Lesbians with Children Group at the Cambridge Women’s Center, which is probably the group mentioned.
  14. [14]Kay, interview with author, New York, NY, April 19, 2005; Ann, “Being a Dyke Means . . .,” Atalanta: The Newsletter of the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance, March 1980, 5.
  15. [15]Nicole Joos, “Building Izbushka,” Womannews, May 1981, 6.
  16. [16]Mom’s Apple Pie, November 1977, 1.