A Look Back: Family Building in the 1980s

“Everything We Did Felt Revolutionary & Different”

By Michele Zavos

It was 1981 and my then partner, Libby Leader, and I, had just turned 30. Somehow our biological clocks took over and we began talking about having a child together. Before then both of us had thought we wouldn’t have kids because we were worried about what it would mean as lesbians to raise children. Would it be fair to them? How hard would it be for them? Did we have the right to raise children? This was 1981 after all. We didn’t know anyone who had had children as lesbians. Sure, we knew women who had children in straight relationships and later came out, but no one who decided, as a lesbian, to have a child.

And, this being 1981, everything we did or thought was political. We had groups for everything – Jewish lesbian groups, communist groups, socialist groups. So, one day I looked at Libby and said, “Let’s start a group!” We knew we had lots of questions about having kids, political questions, how to questions, were we ready questions, did we really want to do this questions.

So, we put the word out, and pretty soon we had 50 women in the basement of our Brookland home talking about having kids. Over the next few months that group distilled down to about 20 women. We met every other Tuesday for over 10 years, I think. We talked about everything – whether it was appropriate to have a “known” donor, was that mimicking the straight world, shouldn’t we all adopt, where should we adopt from, what was the meaning of gender, how should we dress our kids, what toys should we give them, was there a fertility center that would give sperm to a single woman, much less a lesbian, if we used a known donor, what about AIDS, what should our kids call us, what last names should we use, was any of this important? You can talk about a lot of things every other Tuesday for over 10 years.

Eventually the women who stayed in the group all had children. Of course those who decided not to have children dropped out. Our kids came to us in many ways – unknown donors, known donors, domestic adoption, adoptions from Latin American countries.

We even had the first “Family Week’ in Provincetown. Our whole group and our kids went to Provincetown for a week. Parts of the trip were wonderful, and parts were a disaster. Everyone had strong opinions about parenting by that time, and few of us were shy about expressing them. We were like this big extended family, warts and all.

One of the most important things about our group was the support our kids found in each other.  And for the adults, as well.

There weren’t LGBT caucuses or GSAs in schools, schools didn’t reach out to our community. The Director at one school where a number of our children applied told us that the school had “lots of children with problems” when she explained that the school could deal better with lesbian parents. Interestingly, none of our children were accepted into that school, which now has a strong gay families contingent.

Everything we did felt revolutionary and different. Meeting with teachers every year to explain our families, telling our kids that we were their real parents when they were teased at school, discussing all of this with our group. While we were raising our kids, we were raising ourselves as lesbian parents.

Later, the Whitman-Walker Clinic Lesbian Services Program started Maybe Baby groups (thanks to trailblazers like Ellen Kahn who also got Rainbow Families DC to branch out on their own) . Gay men started having children together. Fertility centers welcomed lesbian parents. Couples could jointly adopt. Laws changed. And now my daughter is an adult. When she was about 17, she told me that she had something important to tell me. She said she was straight, and it wasn’t my fault. Attitudes have changed too.

Pictured:   Author Michele Zavos with her daughter Addie.

Note:  Michele Zavos received Rainbow Families first “Hero of the Year” Award for her contributions spanning 40 years to our community, and to Rainbow Families

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