October is LGBTQ+ History Month! To celebrate, we’ve put together some of the top moments in the history of gay fatherhood over the last 50 years. How fluent are you in gay dad history? Or think you know your stuff already?
1950s: “A Progressive Undercurrent” Emerges in the U.S.
The 1950’s was by no means the start of gay parents being able to live out of the closet with their kids. According to Daniel Winunwe Rivers, author of ‘Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II’, lesbian and gay parents in the ’50s “lived secretive lives, often passing as heterosexual in opposite-sex marriages.” Winunwe Rivers said after WWII, gay parents faced legal persecution “for even the slightest visibility, and for gay parents, an arrest for homosexuality could result in legal separation from their children.”
However, Winunwe Rivers says, the 1950s also had “a progressive undercurrent” towards same-sex parents, evidenced by the emergence of some of the first gay rights organizations in the U.S. Several of those organizations put “gay parenting” at the top of their agendas, especially the first American lesbian rights organization The Daughters of Bilitis, which held the first known discussion groups on lesbian motherhood in 1956.
There were also known to be small social groups in the ’50s that did quietly accept gays and their kids into their communities. “Some gay parents also found acceptance during these years in Bohemian and working-class communities,” Winunwe Rivers wrote.
1967: California Court establishes lesbians and gays “could not be declared an ‘unfit’ parent per se, simply as a matter of ‘law’”
It wasn’t until 1967 that gay parents in the U.S. saw the first glimmer of hope for equality under the law. That year, a judge in California declared a new precedent that would, for the first time, allow gays with kids to become a visible part of American family life.
“In 1967… a California court… “established that a lesbian or gay man could not be declared an ‘unfit’ parent per se, simply as a matter of ‘law’,” author Daniel Winunwe Rivers said.
“This precedent was the beginning of a thaw in the legal system that would increasingly grant lesbian and gay parents legal custody of their children,” he added. “Gay parents could come out of the shadows.”
1969: First Single Gay Dad Adopts A Child In California
About a year after a California judge set that new legal precedent for gay parents, Bill Jones in California applied to become the nation’s first single gay man to adopt a child. As Jones told NPR in 2015, he had always wanted to become a dad, but even in San Francisco, the process involved a certain amount of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“A wonderful social worker set me up with an interview,” Jones said. “She looked up at the ceiling and she said, ‘You know, I think homosexuals would make very good parents. But if I was told that, the committee would be obligated not to make the placement. So I hope that if a homosexual ever wants to adopt, they don’t tell me.’ ”
Jones eventually adopted little Aaron, who had been turned down by five other families, and whose mother had been addicted to heroin. Their adoption was finalized on Feb. 13, 1969, so they celebrated each year on Valentine’s Day. Sadly, Aaron die of a heroin overdose at age 30. When asked by a friend if he ever regretted the adoption, Jones said it was a struggle, but he did not regret a thing.
“I still cry over the ending,” Jones told NPR. “But… I would do it again. I loved him so much, and he loved me, too. And so, I was lucky in so many ways.”
1972: “That Certain Summer” Becomes First Major Movie to Feature a Gay Dad
In 1972, “That Certain Summer” aired on ABC, becoming the first television movie to depict a gay dad. For the time, the movie offered a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of gay parenthood and included a star-studded cast, including Hal Holbrook, as the divorced gay father to a teenage son, and his partner, played by Martin Sheen. The movie was considered such a success that it won Scott Jacoby, who played Sheen’s son in the movie, a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his role.
In a 1997 interview, Sheen reflected back on the film, which was one of his first, and one he was repeatedly instructed not to take due to its portrayal of homosexuality:
“It was a huge hit, and it was very subtle. I thought it was wonderful. There was a great deal of freedom in it because it wasn’t about advocating a lifestyle or a sexuality. It was about two people who adored each other, and they weren’t allowed to have a relationship that involved their sexuality. We put a name on it and said that it was about being human, it was about being honest, and that’s the bottom line.”
1974: NJ Judge Becomes First to Provide a Gay Dad Visitation Rights
On July 27, 1974, a New Jersey superior court judge ruled that a father’s sexual orientation is not in itself a reason to deny him child visitation. The decision was the first in the country to acknowledge the constitutional rights of gay fathers. “The parental rights of a homosexual, like those of a heterosexual, are constitutionally protected,” the judge said in his ruling.
The man’s ex-wife also sought to prevent the children from having overnight stays with the father, claiming the “homosexual environment” would not be in the children’s “best interest.” The judge, however, rejected this claim based in part on emerging research from experts that demonstrated a parent’s sexual orientation was not in and of itself detrimental to children. After hearing testimony from three experts in particular, “all agreed that homosexuality was not per se a mental disorder and that a balanced exposure would not be harmful to the children,” the judge wrote.
The father in question was an LGBTQ activist. He was a leader in the former Gay Activists Alliance and worked as a Director of the National Gay Task Force (“For $89.78 a week,” the judge notes.) One of the experts testified that this “obsession” with the burgeoning LGBTQ rights movement was potentially detrimental to the children. As a result, the Judge ordered that the father “not cohabit or sleep with any individual other than a lawful spouse” during visitation with his children, nor could the children ever be in the presence of his lover.
So… baby steps?
1977: Florida Bans Gay Adoptions
In 1977, Florida became the first state to enact a law that specifically prohibited adoptions by homosexuals. That same year, singer and beauty queen Anita Bryant became the public face of the “Save Our Children,” which fought to repeal a nondiscrimination policy in Miami-Dade County through a public referendum. Bryant frequently derides gay men and lesbians as “perverted” and “deviant-minded” in campaign materials and media appearances. Her campaign specifically targeted lesbian and gay teachers and parents, arguing that exposure to LGBTQ people would encourage children to adopt a “homosexual lifestyle.”
Bryant’s campaign helped inspire and set the tone for similar efforts throughout the country to repeal LGBTQ protections and restrict adoption rights. Many historians point to the success of Bryant’s campaign as part of the inspiration for the rise of the Christian right in American politics. Two years after aiding Bryant in her efforts in Miami-Dade, for example, Reverend Jerry Falwell went on to found the Moral Majority in 1979, an organization that played a significant role in fighting proposed nondiscrimination policies, among other rights for LGBTQ people, throughout the 1980s. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bryant and her allies worked to repeal more than a dozen nondiscrimination ordinances in cities such as St. Paul, Minnesota, and Wichita, Kansas, and prevent the passage or consideration of such ordinances in many others.
Florida’s ban on gay adoption would stay in place for 33 years, until 2010 when an appellate court ruled that the state’s law was unconstitutional because it has no rational relationship to the best interests of children.
1979: Launch of Gay Fathers Coalition (Later Renamed Family Equality)
In 1979, a group of gay men who were also fathers formed the Gay Fathers Coalition, which would eventually become the Family Equality. The group was committed to “finding one another and forming a network of support.” In 1986, the group expanded to include lesbian mothers, and the mission of the organization deepened to advance “the cause of the lesbian and gay parenting community.”
1983: First Positive Image of Gay Dads in Mainstream Media
In 2019, the online magazine LGBTQ Nation ran tidbits of history all month long, and one of the more interesting pieces of history they managed to dig up was the above image — which is the first known image featuring a gay dad family to be published in a major media outlet in a positive light.
The photo, entitled “Gay Dads Kissing,” was published in the May 1983 issue of Life Magazine in a story called “The Double Closet.”
The photographer was J. Ross Baughman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who co-wrote the piece with essayist Anne Fadiman. The article was about two gay fathers raising their four children in a combined household.
In his memoir, Angle, J. Ross Baughman recounted how the powerful image of gay dads Robert and Michael—along with child Eryn on piggyback—came to be.
According to the National Museum of American History, in the fall of 1982, Baughman’s eye was caught by a small notice in the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper in New York City, for the monthly meeting of the Gay Fathers’ Forum support group.
“Compelled to understand what necessitated these meetings, he was permitted to attend and meet the group’s members,” NMAH says. “In the 1980s most gay men still did not talk about or admit to being gay. Most gay dads lived as straight men in marriages. Baughman learned of the emotional and psychological pain and coping strategies that sometimes led to substance abuse. Baughman was also aware that a pending federal court case would decide whether gay fathers could have custody rights. Men like Michael and Robert worried whether federal power might take their children from them for having same-sex partners. Baughman pitched Life Magazine a story that would explore this question. Life agreed it could be a compelling article and gave him the go-ahead.”
1990: Children of Gay Parents Form COLAGE
In 1990, a group of youth with LGBT parents formed Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE). What started as a small organization servicing a few dozen members has expanded to one that reaches 5,400 youth every year and four national chapters in New York, Boston, L.A. and the Bay Area. The mission of the organization is to unite “people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer parents into a network of peers and supports them as they nurture and empower each other to be skilled, self-confident, and just leaders in our collective communities.’
1996: Growing Generations Forms to Increase Access to Surrogacy for Gay Men
In 1996, Growing Generations formed with the mission to increase access to surrogacy services for gay men.
“At that time, egg donation was still considered taboo, and so most surrogates used their own eggs,” the organization says on its website. “But because so many of our clients were men, egg donation became a greater and greater need. So, we started an egg donor company.”
The company later began providing services for straight couples as well. “Aren’t we a gay company?” the company ruminates on its history page of this decision. “No, we help fulfill dreams. Dreams don’t have a sexual orientation.”
In 2006, when “sperm washing” began to allow HIV+ men to become biological parents without passing on the virus to their children, Growing Generations became one of the few agencies to embrace the technology. To date, the agency has helped more than 50 babies to be born to HIV+ parents.
1996: First Family Week in Provincetown, MA
In 1996, gay and lesbian parents associated with the Family Equality Council gathered for a week in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for what has become a popular annual tradition for LGBTQ families. The Family Equality Council provides some history of the event on their website: “Tim Fisher and Scott Davenport, a couple living in New Jersey, brought their daughter, Kati, and son, Fritz, to Provincetown for a vacation,” they write. “After a week of meeting other gay and lesbian parents at the beach, they invited about 15 of those families to their rented house for dinner.”
The event has occurred every summer since that time (except for 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic) and eventually became known as “Family Week.” The event has become so large it is thought to be the biggest gathering of LGBTQ parents to take place every year.
1997: NJ Becomes First to Allow Gay Couples to Jointly Adopt
In 1997, New Jersey became the first state to permit joint adoption by gay couples as well as unmarried straight couples. The decision came about thanks to a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of prospective gay and lesbian parents.
Though a gay man or lesbians could adopt in New Jersey prior to this decision, it required another court appearance if their same-sex partner also wanted to adopt the child, a burden not placed on married straight couples.
The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 200 LGBTQ couples, with two gay men, Jon Holden and Michael Galluccio, as the lead plaintiffs who were seeking to jointly adopt their 2-year-old foster son, Adam. The dads were told by the state’s family services agency that they could adopt Adam only individually, not together. A judge overrode that decision and approved the adoption in October.
“New Jersey is the first state in the country to agree to treat gay and unmarried couples the same as married couples,” a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project told CNN after the decision. “This will be the policy of this state, and that makes it a very important legal development,” Adams said.
1999: First Known Trans Dad Gives Birth Via Artificial Insemination
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the Village Voice published a narrative in 1999 about Matt Rice, a transgender man who conceived through artificial insemination and gave birth to a baby boy. Matt’s partner, Patrick Califia, also a trans man, later told the Village Voice about their toddler son who “shrieks with delight at the sight of the tortoiseshell cat.”
Patrick later told the Guardian that their straight neighbors were “pretty sweet” about their family, but there were some members of the trans community who were hostile to the dads. “The only people who have gotten upset are a handful of straight-identified homophobic FTMs [female-to-male transgender people] online who started calling Matt by his girl name, because real men don’t get pregnant,” Patrick told The Guardian in 2008.
2006: White House Easter Egg Roll
In 2004, dozens of LGBTQ parents “invaded” the White House Easter Egg Roll in a show of visibility. The event was inspired by Colleen Gillespie, a professor at New York University, who camped out the year prior with her partner to obtain tickets to that year’s egg roll. She was struck by the easy camaraderie that formed among the other parents in line, which gave her a crazy idea: what if she could get hundreds of LGBTQ families to join her next year? What a perfect opportunity, she figured, for people to get to know gay and lesbian families.
She proposed her idea to Family Equality Council, who in turn put the request out to its members. The following year, dozens of families answered the call. Kyle Turner, who was among the gay parents who camped out for the evening in 2006, told us the following in our feature on the “gay invasion” of the egg roll:
“It was just a really nice opportunity to come together with other parents,” Kyle said, noting he often had more in common with straight people with kids than gays without them. “That’s what was really cool about it.” But in the media, the presence of gay and lesbian parents at one of the country’s longest-running American family traditions would prove more controversial. “They thought we were trying to infiltrate or something,” Kyle said, reflecting back. “Well, if that’s what you think, I guess let’s infiltrate and we’ll show you what we’re all about.”
2009: Modern Family Debuts on ABC
On September 23, 2009, Modern Family debuts on ABC, featuring two prominent characters, Mitch and Cam, as gay dads. These days you can’t flip the channel without stumbling on a show with a gay father figured into the plot. But at the time, just as Will & Grace provided untold numbers of LGBTQ youth with a positive portrayal of gay men on television, Modern Family is widely credited with helping to demystify the idea of gay fatherhood.
2009: President Obama First to Mention LGBTQ Parents
In a proclamation recognizing September 28th of each year as “Family Day,” Barack Obama became the first President in history to specifically mention the rights of same-sex parents during an official speech. An excerpt is below:
“American families from every walk of life have taught us time and again that children raised in loving, caring homes have the ability to reject negative behaviors and reach their highest potential. 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. Today, our children are confronting issues of drug and alcohol use with astonishing regularity. On Family Day, we honor the dedication of parents, commend the achievements of their children, and celebrate the contributions our Nation’s families have made to combat substance abuse among young people.”
2014: Gays With Kids launches website for the gay dad community
GaysWithKids.com started on March 21, 2014, with a blog post by founder Brian Rosenberg. Together with his husband Ferd, Brian has adopted their son and had welcomed twins via surrogacy, and they’d entered a world where parenting products and informational services were all aimed at women having kids.
So GaysWithKids.com was founded, meant as a place for gay dads to connect and share information relative to their lives and experiences. GWK has since evolved to also offer an educational hub for gay, bi and trans men who want to learn more about their options for becoming parents, including webinars and podcast episodes about adoption, foster care, surrogacy, and co-parenting for gay men.
2015: Obergefell v. Hodges Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage Nationwide
On June 26, 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy issues a key vote in the 5-4 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision which strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act and legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide. In his written argument, the fate of the children of LGBTQ people factors heavily into his decision.
“Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers,” Justice Kennedy writes, “children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”
2021: Sec. Pete Buttigieg Is First Gay Cabinet Member To Become A Dad
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made history this year as the first openly gay man to become a father while holding a U.S. cabinet position. Sec. Buttigieg and husband Chasten announced the arrival of their twins in early September, after more than a year of trying to adopt.
“Chasten and I are beyond thankful for all the kind wishes since first sharing the news that we’ve become parents,” he posted to Twitter following their birth. “We are delighted to welcome Penelope Rose and Joseph August Buttigieg to our family.”
Joseph is the name of Pete Buttigieg’s late father, a Notre Dame professor who died shortly after the couple got married in late 2018 and announced Pete’s campaign for president in early 2019.
So now you should be an expert on gay dad history!