With Eric Stonestreet winning an Emmy this year for his portrayal of a gay dad in ABC’s “Modern Family,” and the summer movie about two lesbian moms, “The Kids Are All Right,” garnering early Oscar buzz, it’s easy to forget what things were like just 25 years ago. Then, people both inside and outside the LGBT community assumed that “you gave up the ability to have children” if you came out, said Academy Award-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff. In her 1985 documentary, “Choosing Children,” however, she profiled six pioneering lesbian families who defied this assumption.
The film, made with her then-partner Kim Klausner, helped inspire many lesbians to become parents. Now, years after the film’s negative was lost, “Choosing Children” is being restored, and Chasnoff hopes it will inspire the next generation of LGBT parents — as well as teach people about a key part of LGBT history.
Neither Chasnoff nor Klausner had ever made a film when they began “Choosing Children,” but both were intrigued by stories they had heard of lesbians becoming parents after coming out (in contrast to those who had children from previous heterosexual relationships). “It was a big topic of conversation in our social circle,” Chasnoff explained in an interview. They didn’t know any such parents personally, but decided to find some, “and ask them all the questions that all of us were talking about.” After placing classified ads in feminist and women’s newspapers, they drove around the country to meet the women who responded.
The families they chose showcase the diversity of our community from many angles. The children were created through known donors, unknown donors and adoption. They ranged in age from infant to early teens. One mother was still pregnant when filming began. The women are white, black and Hispanic, and include two interracial couples.
Chasnoff said the one thing all the women had in common, however, was their courage. “They were the first in every single community to take their kids to school or go into a doctor’s office and say ‘I want to inseminate.’ They were all so brave, to face great societal opposition with very little resources.”
When the documentary was first shown at film festivals, Chasnoff recalled, “People would come to the screenings and you could see these little light bulbs going on over their heads, saying, ‘Oh my God, I could have a child if I wanted to?’ People would turn to each other and say, ‘Honey, what do you think?’”
The screenings also generated coverage in mainstream newspapers, “the first media coverage in those areas ever that suggested that gay people could have kids,” Chasnoff said.
She admitted, “I was like everybody else. I assumed that being gay meant that I was not going to have children. I think the experience of making the film was enormously life-changing for me, because I did end up having children.” She and Klausner had two children together.
Much has changed too since the mid-’80s, in terms of both media coverage and legal rights, especially protections for non-biological parents. For Chasnoff, though, the biggest change is that most gay and lesbian people would now say “yes” if asked whether they could become parents. “To me, that’s a radical change, because when we made the film, the answer was unequivocally no,” she said.
The film became inaccessible for many years, however, when the lab that had housed the negative went out of business and the negative vanished. Last year, the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation selected “Choosing Children” for restoration and created a new 35mm print from a copy at the Library of Congress.
Now, Chasnoff and Klausner hope to raise $25,000 in order to digitize the film for DVD and include updates and commentaries. Chasnoff’s GroundSpark organization and several community partners held a 25th anniversary screening and fundraiser on Sept. 14 in San Francisco. Donations can also be made at groundspark.org/choosing.
Chasnoff hopes “Choosing Children” will be of historical interest — but also of practical use to lesbian families today.
“I think having that possibility [of becoming parents] has changed all of our lives,” she said. “It used to be when you came out, that topic was off the table. You didn’t have to grapple with your partner about whether you were going to have kids or not. It was just not part of your relationship — and now, I think everybody has to have that conversation.”
Dana Rudolph is founder and publisher of Mombian, www.mombian.com, a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.