While queer people and queer families have always existed, in the United States, World War II served as catalyst for queer people to live more authentic lives. Because the military provided a means for people to move away from farms and small towns into sex-segregated environments, away from the scrutiny and judgment of their communities, there was a newfound opportunity to explore queer identity. Historian John D’Emilio refers to this period as “a nationwide coming out experience.” Even people who had previously only been in heterosexual relationships found themselves in homoromantic relationships. For some, as this allowed them to be more true to themselves, they opted to remain away from their communities in order to maintain their identities. Others returned home and still kept their newfound identities. And some of those people that had families with children separated from their spouses but still wanted to raise their children. As a result, a more pronounced rhetoric around queer people being anti-family and anti-American was born out of this period and persisted for decades to come which resulted in President Eisenhower passing Executive Order 10450 that criminalized queerness as “sexual perversion” preventing queer people from holding a job with the federal government. Of course, this order influenced the public’s view of queerness and it became even more acceptable to discriminate, withhold resources, and even perpetrate violence against queer people.
Queer people with families, including queer people who did not start their families through heterosexual relationships, were targeted as being unfit for being parents. From the early 1950s through the 1990s, queer parents were in danger of losing custody of their children. Several different groups developed from this period to address this issue, one of which was the Lesbian Rights Project out of the Berkeley Law Foundation. The Lesbian Rights Project focused on issues such as custody, adoption, access to public accommodations, and employment. In 1977, Donna Hitchens along with other members from the Equal Righs Advocates, helped start the project which, when it was able to become independent in 1988, became the organization known as the National Center for Lesbian Rights that continues to fight for queer liberation today.
Another radical organization supporting queer families, Dykes and Tykes was founded in 1976 by Carole Martin, a lesbian mother who had exited a heterosexual relationship several years prior. While co-parenting with her partner, Inez, Martin formed Dykes and Tykes in response to the need for community support for lesbian mothers in New York City who held custody of their children. After seeing how many queer parents needed legal support in fighting for custody rights, Dykes and Tykes pivoted to provide ongoing legal assistance to lesbian mothers facing custody battles. The organization, whose membership included radical feminist and writer Audre Lorde, held an intersectional, anti-racist lens that saw the struggles of race and class as intimately connected, and advocated for universal abortion access, the removal of antigay judges, and the end of discrimination against poor women, women of color, and queer parents in family court and foster & adoption placements, among other policies and practices to foster a more just and equitable world.
The legal advocacy undertaken by queer family organizations in the 1970s set the stage for an organized movement for codified rights for queer and trans people in the United States whose legacy continues today.
Daniel Winunwe Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States Since World War II. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press. 2013