“The Fosters,” ABC Family’s drama about two moms raising their five children, ended its very successful first season this week. But “The Fosters” — and many real-life two-mom families — owe a debt of gratitude to a film that premiered 30 years ago and is now newly remastered and available on DVD: “Choosing Children,” the first documentary to look at lesbians who became parents after coming out.
The film, by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff and her then-partner Kim Klausner, offers a snapshot of lesbian life in the early 1980s, complete with ’80s hairstyles and a background song, “Having Another Baby,” commissioned from the era’s iconic feminist singer/songwriter Holly Near. More importantly, though, it captures a crucial turning point in LGBT family history.
The six lesbian families profiled in the film had their children through known donors, unknown donors and adoption. There are three couples, a single mother, one woman co-parenting with a gay man and a group of five women co-parenting together. The women are white, black and Hispanic, and include two interracial couples. Attorney Donna Hitchens, one of the founders of the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Center for Lesbian Rights), provides legal commentary.
In a new interview with the filmmakers on the DVD, Chasnoff explains that, at the time, if you came out, it was assumed you would not have children. Lesbian mothers were those who had had children in a previous relationship with a man. Still, stories were starting to circulate in the lesbian community about women who were having children together. Chasnoff and Klausner were intrigued.
“It was a film that Kim and I both personally needed to see,” Chasnoff said. “We needed to hear the stories of other lesbians.”
Before the Internet, however, finding such stories was hard. The filmmakers sent announcements by postal mail to lesbian, gay and feminist newspapers, and then drove around the country to meet the dozens of lesbian mothers who replied.
Many of the women who appear in the film discuss issues that, while not gone entirely, were more widespread 30 years ago — the denial of assisted reproduction to lesbians or single women; the lack of legal recognition for non-biological parents; creating then-untested contracts between a known donor and a female couple; a mother being denied entrance to the hospital where her partner has just given birth to their severely premature child. We see them, however, being proudly visible and gradually shifting others’ attitudes — for example, in motivating a birthing class instructor to start saying “partners” and not just “fathers.”
At the same time, many of the topics they and their children grappled with are ones that still concern us today: whether to use a known or unknown donor, the relative importance of male role models, how a nonbiological mother can build a bond with her child and how welcome their children will be in school.
Watching the everyday interactions of these moms and their children, it is easy to forget that these families were pioneers. When the film premiered in Boston in 1984, Chasnoff recalls in the DVD interview, “it was one of those moments where you felt like something major just shifted in the world.” She would see couples in the audience suddenly look at each other and say, “Honey, do you want to have a baby?”
“Something started that night that I think had a very powerful ripple effect,” she added.
They took the film to cities across the country, tapping into a network of lesbian mom support groups and other feminist organizations.
“People were just so hungry for this kind of film,” Klausner said.
To promote the film, they would book themselves on local talk-radio shows, many of which had conservative hosts and audiences opposed to lesbians having children. Nevertheless, Chasnoff said, “the experience of engaging in the mainstream media about our film like that was one of the first times that the topic ever surfaced in the mainstream media.”
The film was officially released in 1985, the same year the first second-parent adoption in the country was granted, allowing nonbiological mothers to become legal parents of their partners’ children — another indication of the pivotal period that their work captures. Chasnoff and Klausner had a first child of their own in 1988, and a second two years later. Hitchens helped them get second-parent adoptions each time.
Although the two later broke up, they remain co-parenting partners.
The DVD bonus feature also brings us up to date on the families in the film. Some of the couples are still together, while others are not. All of their children are grown.
Klausner reflected, “The film was really the crest of the wave of the lesbian-parenting movement. It opened up the option for many, many people, and helped them realize that this was a possibility in their lives.”
That is the greatest gift of the film for us today — to see that other parents and children have been there long before us, facing many of the same issues, and have nevertheless found answers and overcome challenges to raise their children to adulthood. Both as a piece of history and as a still-timely inspiration, “Choosing Children” belongs in every LGBT parent’s collection (and would make a great baby shower gift).
“Choosing Children” was preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a project funded by the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation. It is available through Chasnoff’s film company, Groundspark (www.groundspark.org), and comes with English and Spanish subtitles.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.