Family is an intimate group that theoretically possesses a person’s primary allegiance, or at least commands significant allegiance. In the Gay community, “family” may refer to the household in which one is raised, one’s socially created family (family by choice), a community made up of LGBTQ persons everywhere, or a mythical Gay genealogy traced back through the historical record.
Geneology in Antiquity
A mythic Gay genealogy or family tree serves to foster a sense of heritage for LGBTQ people. Among the most popular historic familial icons are ancient Greeks whose writings include same-sex romantic-erotic relationships. Sappho, a sixth century BCE Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, is one of the earliest sources, and is considered an LGBTQ ancestor. From Sappho’s home of Lesbos comes the term lesbian, which came to its current meaning by the early 1900s. Greek myths mention same-sex love, such as that between Zeus and Ganymede, his young male cupbearer. The term catamite for men who are sexually attracted to men comes from “Ganymede.”
The same quest for ancestry has led Gay scholars to examine the archaeological record of ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Romans for precedents, such as the double burial of two men, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, in Saqqara, Egypt (their shared tomb shows them in stylized portraits of intimacy and affection reserved for husband and wife), and the many monuments the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered to honor the memory of his beloved male companion, Antinous.
These relationships have been mythologized by LGBTQ scholars to suggest the social existence of Gay people throughout history. However, it is not known how ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans would have reacted to current definitions of “Gay” or “same-sex oriented.” Most same-sex relationships in these cultures appear to have been a discreet part of social interactions dependent upon appropriate social status, and varying levels of sexual behavior/gender expression that do not correlate with contemporary definitions of Gay relationships and identities.
One problem with finding correlative examples of same-sex love between women (and anything at all about transpeople) is the dearth of information about women and transpeople in general in the historical record. Most early writings about trans and intersex beings come from myths found in many ancient cultures around the world, such as Tiresias and Hermaphroditus (ancient Greek), Mohini and Shivashakti (Hindu), and Adam Kadmon (Hebrew).
Gay Geneology in Modern History
In terms of contemporary scholarship, the modern Gay community traces itself back to the beginning of the eighteenth century from criminal records found concerning molly houses in England (taverns and homes where men would gather to have sex with men, and occasionally cross-dress for parties and hold mock-birth ceremonies). The lack of almost anything other than criminal records is attributed to social and legal oppression of same-sex romance and gender diversity.
As sexual identities and behaviors were increasingly pathologized during the 1800s, several people of note celebrated same-sex love, and others lived visibly as what could now be called “Gay” despite social and legal repercussions. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two upper-class Irish women who settled together in Llangollen, Wales (also known as “the Ladies of Llangollen”) against the wishes of their families, gained renown for what was considered the eccentricity of their living arrangement and considered spinsters. Writers such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde praised same-sex love, and some women in New England who engaged in Boston marriages (same-sex households for women) are understood to have been lovers as well as housemates.
Families by Choice
During the late 1800s through the mid 1900s, Gay communities emerged in cities across the United States. Young people with same-sex orientation and atypical gender expression/physiology were often mentored by older members of the community. Their social parents taught these new family inductees about the language, traditions, and localities of fairies, queers, gays, dykes, and trannies, all terms used during the mid-1900s when many people led double lives and kept their non-heteronormal identities closeted. Given the significant prejudice of this era, were one’s biologically family to learn of one’s same-sex attraction or gender variance (including atypical physiology that undermined gender norms), one would likely be rejected, abandoned, attacked, murdered, or hospitalized as insane.
This led to a strong social family network for many gender- and orientation-variant people. This family of friends, lovers, and acquaintances provided the emotional and sometimes fiscal support for those who had been abandoned by their families of origin. Throughout the 1900s, many Gay people felt strong affinity for their secret community. The term “family” became synonymous for “gay” and led to the adoption of the song, “We Are Family” (1979, by Sister Sledge), as a Gay anthem. During the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, the role of the Gay family was crucial in assisting activist and public health organizations within the Gay community to support those affected by the disease.
In Ballroom communities, the creation of family-structured houses began in earnest in the mid- to late 1970s. A Ball house usually involves a house mother and father, with the rest of its members in the category of children who may then continue the name as a lineage that can extend over years and branch out into other cities. Drag queens may also have families, often less structured than Ballroom houses. Drag kings opt for troupes instead of lineages, although members of troupes may regard each other as family.
During the 1990s and 2000s, many LGBTQ people were expanding their social family networks beyond their community and integrating more heterosexuals. While prior generations of Gays had established social family networks within the Gay community, the necessity of a Gay-centered life was declining. People continued to develop social families inclusive of LGBTQ members, but were not as constrained to do so. While the Gay-centered social family declined as a means for survival, it persists as a social entity. The periodic reunions of Gay Pride parades help strengthen and maintain ties that link an individual to the LGBTQ family-as-community.
Since the advent of Gay Liberation, more Gay people live outside of the closet and maintain connections to their families of origin. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG) was formed to help LGBTQ people connect with the families that raised them. The organization fosters solidarity between Straight and Gay people, and shows that Straight families do not have to disown their Gay children. P-FLAG was founded by Jeanne Manford after she marched in New York City’s Pride Day Parade with her Gay son Mortie, carrying a sign that said, “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of Our Children” (Mortie had been publicly beaten during a Gay rights protest two months before as police stood by and watched). Bystanders who attended the parade approached Jeanne Manford and asked her to speak to their parents, so she began a support group in 1973 that became P-FLAG.
The advent of advanced communications, particularly the internet, has made the LGBTQ family global, even in places where persecution of homosexuality and gender diversity are severely punished.
Reimagining the Family Household
While there have always been people in long-term monogamous same-sex relationships, LGBTQ households became a political issue during the Gay liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Many Gay people were reducing their involvement in the movement and sought quasi-heteronormal family lives. The Lesbian baby boom of the 1970s and 1980s was particularly regarded as a rejection of the non-sanguine family in favor of something closer to the Straight model. The appearance of Lesbian-identified mothers brought backlash from both sides — proponents of the Gay family saw this as a rejection of their ideals, and supporters of the Straight mainstream family saw this as an affront to appropriate parenting.
As childrearing becomes more common in the LGBTQ community, the idea of parenting takes on different forms. Gay men and Lesbians may co-parent, sharing in the child-rearing responsibilities. Members of the social family are granted family titles as aunts and uncles in establishing relationships with children. Ex-partners may continue to play significant roles in one’s familial life, even after new romantic partners enter the picture.
Parenting and household duties are not defined by traditional gender ideologies. LGBTQ pairings may challenge conventions of masculine-feminine pairings, and may include any combination of gender, orientation, and sexual physiology. Romantic bonds may not be limited to two persons within a familial structure due to relationships involving three partners.
Transpeople have contributed to even more diversity in family definitions. Because of greater acceptance of the Trans community, there are families in which mothers are recognized as their children’s biological fathers, and fathers who give birth to their children, as in the case of Thomas Beatie, a transman who chose to get pregnant after his wife had a hysterectomy. Beatie gave birth to his daughter Tracy in 2008.
Mainstreaming Gay Family Life
With the greater visibility and mainstreaming of LGBTQ identities, the family lives of Gays continue to evolve. Historically, those Gays who were parenting entered these roles via heterosexual relationships. Given the younger ages of coming out, fewer of today’s youth are likely to enter Straight marriages prior to coming out. This may result in fewer LGBTQ people parenting children from former Straight marriages. However, parenting is increasingly accessible via alternative insemination, surrogacy, adoption, and other means for members of the LGBTQ community, resulting in more children being raised in LGBTQ households. An additional aspect of the mainstreaming of Gay families is the changing political landscape of Gay marriage. More places in the world are recognizing same-sex marriages or marriage-like legal contracts.
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Weston, Kath. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University, 1991.