Families Like Ours: A Reading List for the Children of Queer Parents

Some of us got to stay with our moms or dads. Others did not.

By Melissa Hart

In the 1980s, kids and their queer parents in the U.S. marched together in pride parades in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. I, on the other hand, hid in my bedroom in my abusive father’s house and longed for my mother. She had lost custody of me and my siblings after she left Dad and came out as a lesbian, and a homophobic judge declared her unfit to parent.

Related Reading: Read Melissa Hart’s essay, “The Game Was Rigged All Along,” at DAME.

The first nine years of my life, Mom cooked, cleaned, and hosted Tupperware parties and children’s birthday parties — all the duties expected of a suburban housewife. My brother was born with Down syndrome, and she devoted herself to his well-being, enrolling him in physical therapy when he was still an infant and then in a therapeutic preschool. She led my Brownie troop. She drove the gymnastics carpool and baked cupcakes for school fundraisers. She took Spanish classes with me at the local library.

And then, she was gone. 

She’d fallen in love with my brother’s school bus driver, who saw her black eye one morning and invited us all to move in with her. Mom accepted, but my father showed up two weeks later with a police escort and a court order to reclaim us. It’s impossible to estimate how many parents found themselves torn from their kids after coming out in that tumultuous era. The DSM had, in 1973, removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, only to recategorize it under “Sexual Orientation Disturbance.” Some newly out parents retreated back into the closet, terrified to lose what limited child visitation they’d been granted. Others, like those featured in the 2014 documentary Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement, banded together to fight the system. 

My mom fell into the former category. The judge allowed her to see us every other weekend; she’d pick us up on our father’s porch in her VW bus at 5 p.m. on Friday, and we’d spend a glorious 48 hours together before she dropped us off again on Sunday at 5 p.m. sharp, lest Dad get upset and call his lawyer.

COLAGE originally stood for Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere; today, it goes by its abbreviation.

Growing up, I felt alone. I believed my siblings and I were the only kids in the world with a queer parent, a beloved mother unjustly persecuted for daring to fall in love with a woman. At 31, I finally discovered the demographic that called themselves “queerspawn” — activist peers who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s and started the support group COLAGE while joining their parents in public protests against homophobia. Some of them were writing memoirs or compiling essay anthologies to reflect their childhood experiences. Meema Spadola made a documentary. Alison Bechdel wrote a graphic memoir. All of them inspired me to begin sharing my story. 

As the U.S. has seen victories for queer folks and families over the years, our family’s saga began to feel anachronistic. The next generation of queerspawn, and their parents, have been able to enjoy, even thrive, in a more tolerant time than my mother’s generation. But then Donald Trump became president. The same year, the Proud Boys surfaced with their far-right, extremist agenda, and what happened in 1979 to my mother and her children — to us — felt like a cautionary tale worth noting: a reminder of the injustice that had occurred and could occur again if we don’t remain vigilant. 

These days, I worry that if librarians continue to find themselves under attack for shelving books with queer storylines, if teachers lose their jobs for including LGBTQIA+ content in their classrooms, and parents face government inquiry if they seek gender-affirming care for their kids, then families may find themselves right back where we were four decades ago, mired in fear and oppression. Fortunately, the digital age enables queerspawn to easily connect and mobilize. There’s also a wealth of resources available online as well — memoirs, novels, essays, and interviews with older queerspawn. In this spirit, I’ve curated this reading list — for children of queer parents of any age — so that, hopefully, they’ll never have to feel alone.   

There Were No Models’: Growing Up in the 70s with An Out Gay Dad (Hope Reese, The Atlantic, June 2013)

I love Hope Reese’s interview with queerspawn Alysia Abbott about her memoir Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. San Francisco, where she grew up with her single gay dad, was always a special place for my mother and me; we rambled around North Beach and the Castro a couple of times a year. This is a fun read about the city in the ’70s and early ’80s, and I recognize parts of my mother’s journey in Alysia’s story about her father living out and proud among a community of queer friends and activists. Three years after my mom lost custody of me and my siblings, she met the love of her life, who introduced her to a group of buoyant, child-free 20- and 30-something lesbians. They had raucous pool parties and picnics. Sometimes, my mother took my brother, sister, and me to these gatherings, and I remember her friends treating us with kind indifference. I wonder how my mom felt in those moments. Did they see her as a “breeder,” a heterosexual woman tasked by her husband and society to bring children into the world? Was she embarrassed by our presence? 

But the gay parents of my father’s generation came into their parenthood very differently than gay parents today. Then, most children of gay parents were the children of straight unions, where one of the parents was closeted, or came out after the child was born and divorced, or stayed closeted. They were exploring their sexuality in the exciting, heady time before AIDS. Growing up believing all your impulses were sick, could get you arrested, and were sources of shame and secrecy and hiding—now suddenly you could be gay. And most of the people in that time and place did not have children. It was very unusual for a father to be fully responsible for a child like my father was. There were no models. There was very little in terms of how to make this work, or a community to compare notes with.

Did I Make My Mother Gay? (Meredith Fenton, The ArQuives, 2018) 

This piece explores how Meredith Fenton — the former program director at COLAGE — and her mother came out to each other as lesbians. I adore the witty anecdotes about how her mother sent her rainbow-themed care packages at camp and brought her best friend from high school — also a lesbian — to watch Fenton’s Harry Potter-inspired drag musical. And oh, how I relate to so many parts of this essay. When I finally discovered COLAGE and the queerspawn, I worried they’d regard me as a fraud. After all, my mother came out when I was 9, and I didn’t get to live with her again until I was 19. But the COLAGE community welcomed me and helped me find my footing.

When I first started becoming a leader among the queerspawn, as we affectionately called ourselves, I was worried I was kind of a fraud. I mean, my mom had only been out for a matter of years, and most COLAGErs had been dealing with divorces or donor insemination or custody battles or a lack of protections for decades. But what I learned is that every single person who has or had an LGBTQ parent, even though the details of our individual stories may be different, there is something essential we share.

I learned so much from my queerspawn peers—about resiliency and hope that was honed from surviving bullying and surviving HIV and homophobia in custody battles. I learned that there are as many different kinds of families as there are snowflakes, and that each of them is worthy of respect for the ways they take care of each other, overcome intolerance, create new traditions and define what it means to be a family.

What Could Gay Marriage Mean for the Kids? (Gabriela Herman, The New York Times, June 2015)

I sort of hate that I can totally relate to Gabriela Herman’s first sentence: “My mom is gay. But it took me a long time to say those words out loud.”

My mom came out in 1979. My classmates at my suburban schools throughout the ’80s hurled the words “fag” and “lesbo” at each other as insults, and I never, ever told anyone — not even my best friend — that my mother had a girlfriend. Later, in graduate school, I got to study with authors and activists Jacqueline Woodson and Sarah Schulman, who were instrumental in helping me see my story and confront the homophobia that had devastated my mother’s life — and my own — so that I could move on and celebrate our family’s dynamic while writing about the injustice that defined it.

The quotes that accompany some of Herman’s photos in this essay make me smile: They capture newly out parents’ awkward attempts to explain their sexuality to Generation X and millennial kids, raised in decades informed by homophobia and transphobia. Words like “partner” and “roommate” to describe same-sex lovers, or the idea of “coming out” about a parent … this all resonates with my experience in the ’80s and early ’90s.

As we talked, we recalled having to juggle silence and isolation. Needing to defend our families on the playground, at church and during holiday gatherings. Some aspect of each story resonated with my experience and helped chip away at my own sense of solitude.

We — the children of gay and lesbian parents — are not hypotheticals. While my experience was difficult, I am hopeful that won’t be the case for the next generation. This inequality will fade, and my future children will wonder what the fuss was about.

I Wanted to Like that NYT Photo Essay About Growing Up with Gay Parents (Christa Olson, The New York Times, June 2015)

This piece by Christa Olson is such a smart and thoughtful response to Gabriela Herman’s photo essay. Written from the perspective of a scholar in visual rhetoric — a lesbian raising a toddler with her wife — the commentary calls out the photographer’s decision to depict her portrait subjects as solitary, contemplative, even mournful. It’s not the wisest choice, Olson points out, when you’re trying to convince the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Still, two weeks after Herman’s photo essay appeared in print, and three days after Olson’s rebuttal, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. On that first day, June 26, 2015, my mother and I happened to be in San Francisco together, and we went to City Hall to watch the weddings. We stood in the rotunda and hugged each other and wept at the absolute joy on the faces around us. 

Taken one-by-one, the photographs capture strong, thoughtful young adults in moments of solitude. Cumulatively, though, the series takes on an inescapable sense of sorrow and isolation, and not just because of captions that frequently emphasize the subjects’ struggles with their parents’ identities. As a [gay] parent viewing the photo essay, I felt a rush of defensiveness and worry. As a scholar of visual rhetoric, I wanted to understand why. What was it about these photographs that so set me on edge?

After a hard look, it finally came clear to me: This photo essay explores the difficulty of having a gay parent in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s. As a reflection on what gay marriage means for today’s generation of kids, though, it is (I hope) rather out of date.

Surprise, My Gay Dad Is Sexist! (Elizabeth Collins, Narratively, January 2016)

I love this piece by Elizabeth Collins because it captures so many of the gender stereotypes and conflicts that my mother experienced, having grown up in the ’50s. Like Collins’ father, my mom spent her early years in a small town. Her father, a strict World War II veteran and a Mason, insisted she become a Job’s Daughter and attend cotillion. She married, as expected of her, at age 18, and didn’t come out as a lesbian until her early 30s. As a mother, she could be so much fun, but she could also be very prim and proper. A lady didn’t say “fart,” much less commit the act. A lady wore foundation and lipstick in public, even when she and I were heading out for a 50-mile bike ride. After my sister and I grew up and married, Mom cooked four-course meals for our husbands and sat at the dinner table lavishing her attention on the menfolk while we sat silent and ignored. It was both frustrating and hilarious, and Collins captures that dichotomy of emotion skillfully, especially when describing how her father would demand that she make him a cocktail. 

My father tried to do what his family and society expected of him. He played football, got married and had children. And while the irony is not lost on me that he was also putting unrealistic gender expectations on me, I had sympathy for him.

What Happened When My Dad Came Out as Transgender (Catriona Innes, Cosmopolitan, May 2017)

Though I knew no transgender people when I was growing up, I know a friend from high school who transitioned in their 20s, and my teenager has several trans friends at school. In this essay, I appreciate Catriona Innes’ candor when writing about her complicated emotions, particularly when she recalls looking at old family photos before her dad transitioned. This piece is full of insight on what adults who transition later in life may have sacrificed to protect spouses and children — and themselves. Ultimately, it’s a happy piece that can serve as a roadmap for people with a parent who’s transitioned. 

It’s because I want to break the rhetoric that surrounds being transgender. There’s a message out there that this is something that destroys families and I’ve always wanted to send out the positive side of the story. Especially since I’ve found that, unless you let it, there’s no need for a transition to affect a relationship at all – a lesson that most certainly emerged following my mum’s death.

Two Moms, One Heartbeat: Why CSU Rams Trey and Toby McBride Put Family First (Sean Keeler, The Denver Post, November 2019)

This profile of football players Trey and Toby McBride, who grew up with two moms, makes me smile every time I read it. It reminds me of all the wonderful weekends my siblings and I spent with our mom and her girlfriend in their sprawling house and yard in Oxnard, California. Safe inside their home, we could be exactly who we were with abandon. We built treehouses and ziplines and cooked huge meals and danced and belted along with the soundtracks from A Chorus Line and Victor/Victoria. We put on costumes from Mom’s dress-up box and went to IHOP late at night and made all the diners laugh. Always, there were cats and chickens and rabbits, and at least one dog trotting around dressed in toddler-sized clothing. I dressed my rabbit in doll clothes and pushed it down the sidewalk in a baby carriage. For two weekends a month, I was so happy, and so I love how Sean Keeler captures the joyful chaos that informs the McBride household in this piece.

Two moms, 12 adult dogs, a litter of new puppies and a pair of cats. Kate heads up the family business of breeding and raising Golden Retrievers. Jen works for the Morgan County Sheriff’s office.

Over the years, the McBride menagerie included ducks, geese, horses, emus and at least three llamas “to keep the coyotes away,” Kate explains. A loved one bought them twin goats once, and the duo used to have the run of the house.

So, yeah, traditional. If your idea of traditional is streaming on Animal Planet GO.

“That’s my normal,” said Trey, who went into last weekend third on the Rams in receptions (30) and receiving yards (381). “My parents are kind of like, ‘We’re just going to do our thing. We’re not going to worry about what anyone else thinks of us.’ I’m just very grateful that I grew up with them, that they took care of us and they did everything they could for us. It’s just normal for us.”

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Melissa Hart is a journalist, author, and public speaker from Eugene, Oregon. She teaches for the MFA program in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, Smithsonian, Brevity, and numerous other publications. She’s the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Esteem in Tweens and Teens, and of the forthcoming middle-grade novel Daisy Woodworm Changes the World with a queerspawn character and another who has Down syndrome.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Carolyn Wells