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Against All Odds: The Resilience of LGBTQ+ Mothers and Parents

Lesbian mothers and their children

"Despite all these obstacles, LGBTQ+ mothers and nonbinary parents fight for the dignity and respect that all families deserve." 

To thrive in the face of efforts to prevent your survival is a powerful form of activism. LGBTQ+ mothers and nonbinary parents, especially Black, Indigenous, and POC parents, parents experiencing poverty, and parents living in countries that criminalize LGBTQ+ identities change the world through the seemingly simple act of loving and raising our children.

As LGBTQ+ parents, we have spent our lives surrounded by messages that we cannot or should not have or raise children. All but the wealthiest prospective parents are denied access to most forms of assisted reproduction, and many states and countries still do not recognize nonbiological parents of children conceived through assisted reproduction.

This reality is compounded for communities of color. Black, Indigenous, and POC parents and parents experiencing poverty are also surveilled by the family regulation system, also known as the child welfare system, the threat of family separation looming. Black and Indigenous LGBTQ+ parents belong to communities scarred by intergenerational trauma of forced sterilization and family separation perpetrated by the government for the purpose of destroying cultures and communities. And all parents and caregivers exist in a world that devalues caregiving and denies families even the most basic safety net, especially in the U.S.

Through these obstacles, the extremely human act of having and raising children breaks free. Many LGBTQ+ people find ways to become parents through means such as assisted reproduction and surrogacy, adoption, and kinship care. Three million LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. have children, with same-sex couples of color being more likely to be raising children than white same-sex couples.

Yet once LGBTQ people have children, the law often seeks to deny their family relationships. My career has been dedicated to creating equality under the law for all families. We have made great strides toward recognizing that families formed in many different ways are equally worthy of respect under the law. In the U.S., many states recognize that children can have parents of any gender, parents who are not genetically related to them, and that some children have one parent while others have two or more parents. But even in the U.S., we still have a long way to go.

At this moment, LGBTQ+ families are facing renewed and increasing threats. Under an order from Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas is investigating parents of transgender children and treating gender-affirming care as child abuse. This is a tactic we have seen in cases around the country, but never to this degree broadly sweeping across an entire state. The fear that has been created by anti-transgender groups and activists is tearing families apart. And even when families are not ultimately separated, the surveillance of families with the threat of separation is emotionally and psychologically harmful for children.

LGBTQ+ parents of color, especially Black lesbian and bisexual mothers, have disproportionately experienced the harms of the family regulation system. Black lesbian and bisexual mothers are over four times more likely to have had their children removed than Black heterosexual mothers, who already experience greater rates of family separation compared to white parents.

Indigenous parents in the U.S. are at risk of losing the few protections they still have from separation by the family regulation system. After decades of intentional separation of Native American families by the U.S. government, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to provide protections to Native American children and families. Since then, the ICWA has been weakened, and attacks on the law by attorneys and adoption agencies have continued. This past week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review a set of major decisions upholding the ICWA, threatening many of the remaining protections in the law. The trauma and loss of culture caused by generations of family separation, as well as the continued unnecessary separation of families, affects Native American communities across the country.

Around the world, LGBTQ+ people and families face threats of extreme violence. We have all watched the atrocities caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the global LGBTQ+ community has heard stories of LGBTQ+ activists and their families in Ukraine who face the threat of imprisonment or death if Russia takes control of the country. Local groups are mobilizing aid to help LGBTQ+ people and their families who are attempting to flee and funds for shelter and basic necessities for those whose homes have already been destroyed.

Despite all these obstacles, LGBTQ+ mothers and nonbinary parents fight for the dignity and respect that all families deserve. The LGBTQ+ parents I have represented in my work at the National Center for Lesbian Rights embody strength and resilience even in the face of devastating loss and separation.

In one of my early cases, over 15 years ago, I represented a nonbiological lesbian mother who had been denied contact with her daughter after the court ruled that she wasn't a parent. When I talked to her about the chances of success in an appeal she told me, "Even if I don't win, I want my daughter to know I fought for her. And I don't want anyone else's child to go through this."

Over the years, so many parents I have represented have told me variations of these same messages. Their strength to fight for their children has shaped the law and rights for countless other families.

When systems that are designed to keep us powerless tell us that we do not have the right to form families or even to love one another, creating and fighting for our families can be our greatest weapon against oppression. Through living our lives, we create our own communities and strengthen our cultures. By fighting against the efforts to separate our families we help other families. And by loving our children, we help create a better world for them and all children.

Cathy Sakimura is the deputy director and family law director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

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