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Jun 8, 2018
15 Min read time
Seventies activists wanted to emancipate kids and destroy the nuclear family—so how did we end up with gay marriage instead?
In 1972 members of Boston’s Gay Men’s Liberation, one of the most significant Gay Liberation groups formed after the 1969 Stonewall riots, drove to Miami to hand out a ten-point list of demands at the Democratic National Convention. Emerging from a crucible of new queer political consciousness, feminism, and rage, the manifesto (reproduced at the bottom of this article) articulated a utopian political vision that was broad—today, we might say intersectional—extending far beyond what we would now conceptualize as LGBT politics. Its first demand, for example, was for “an end to any discrimination based on biology. Neither skin color, age nor gender should be recorded by any government agency. Biology should never be the basis for any special legal handicap or privilege.”
Gay Liberation repudiated child paternalism, the idea that children need the protection of adults and, in exchange, are eligible for fewer basic rights.
If many of Gay Men’s Liberation’s demands remain controversial forty-five years later, most are also still legible in today’s political discourse: the group sought to end U.S. imperialism, prevent discrimination based on sexual identity, and abolish the police. These all remain live demands of many radicals on the left. Demand six, however, is likely to strike even many of today’s activists as irresponsible, bizarre, and dangerous:
Rearing children should be the common responsibility of the whole community. Any legal rights parents have over ‘their’ children should be dissolved and each child should be free to choose its own destiny. Free twenty-four hour child care centers should be established where faggots and lesbians can share the responsibility of child rearing.
Collective child rearing? Legally emancipated children? Queers helping to raise other people’s children and, by extension, serving as role models and moral exemplars? Isn’t this exactly what conservatives fear when they warn of the red flag of liberal “social engineering,” a queer version of Soviet indoctrination daycares?
Or is it a utopia that would finally liberate women from the burdens of reproduction, while also creating a social structure in which children could safely function as independent beings who are not frightened or shamed out of exploring their sexuality?
• • •
Radical feminists argued that men had invented the idea of childhood innocence to bolster the oppression of women, which was also the function of the nuclear family.
Since at least the eighteenth century, there has been robust debate about the nature of childhood. While questions of whether or not children are innately good, suitable for the open labor market, or in need of standardized education have elicited polarized opinions over the centuries, most reformers have assumed, to varying degrees, a starting point of child paternalism, the idea that children need the protection of adults and, in exchange, are eligible for fewer basic rights.
The children’s liberation movement of the late 1960s was a dramatic break from all of this, no matter how progressive many prior reforms may have been, because it repudiated child paternalism. Set against the backdrop of a cultural moment when adults—from hippies and radical feminists to civil rights to early gay rights—were seeking greater personal freedoms, it was perhaps only a matter of time before young people identified themselves as—or were identified as—an oppressed minority deserving of legal equality and, in effect, manumission.
Even recalling what we know about the radical nature of the 1960s, it can be difficult to appreciate that child liberation was not a fringe idea. Paul Goodman’s bestselling 1960 Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System proposed that children were among the first casualties of capitalism run amok, while A. S. Neill’s progressive education treatise of the same year, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, proposed not only that children could function as democratic actors and make sensible social and sexual choices, but that his school had already been facilitating this for years, to no ill effect. When it appeared in English in 1962, medievalist Phillippe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life caused a similar sensation, tracing a detailed history of childhood in the West to demonstrate that our modern notion of “childhood”—of a child who must be sheltered from the world—was a social construct of only recent vintage, as was the nuclear family. For much of history, Ariès showed, all except the youngest children had functioned in the world much as adults do.
Summerhill sold over two million copies between 1960 and 1970, and Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd sold over one hundred thousand copies in the first few years of publication. The political language of liberation quickly replaced theory and conjecture. During the 1970s, at least fifteen mass-market books promoted ideas of children’s rights and children’s liberation, including David Gottleib’s Children’s Liberation (1973) and Beatrice and Ronald Gross’s The Children’s Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People (1977).
These ideas took an even more radical turn when they were combined with the newly emerging discourse of Women’s Liberation. Shulamith Firestone, for example, in her groundbreaking The Dialectic of Sex (1970) argued that physical reproduction itself was at the core of women’s oppression and called for new technologies to replace childbirth. In addition, she contended that children were an oppressed class who suffered under the regime of the patriarchal family. In her chapter “Down with Childhood,” Firestone argues that the very creation of the category “childhood” and the idea of “childhood innocence” were adult male constructions invented to bolster the oppression of women, which was also the function of the nuclear family. Kate Millett went further in her 1984 essay “Beyond Politics: Children and Sexuality,” contending that the oppression of children is explicitly rooted in denying them sexual knowledge: “Sex itself is presented as a crime to children. It is how adults control children, how they forbid them sexuality. This has been going on for ages and is infinitely important to adults.”
Gay activists risked being labeled as pedophiles simply for admitting that there were gay kids.
Gay Liberationists were inspired by Women’s Liberation and many wished in their activism to engage the topics of childhood and pedagogy. However, they faced the risk of being labeled pedophiles simply for expressing theoretical interest in children; gay men at the time were still, after all, assumed by most of Middle America to be perverts. Some gay writers took a stand by simply admitting what most gay people knew and most heterosexuals desperately tried to deny: there were gay kids. Confronting the myth that adult women and men “chose” homosexuality, or had been seduced into it by degenerate adults, gay liberationists told their own stories of being gay children, and theorized—along the lines of Kate Millett—that sexual repressions and lack of sexual knowledge were far more dangerous than same-sex activity for youth. In his foundational “The Gay Manifesto,” published a month before the Stonewall riots, Carl Wittman wrote:
A note on the exploitation of children: kids can take care of themselves, and are sexual beings way earlier than we’d like to admit. Those of us who began cruising in early adolescence know this, and we were doing the cruising, not being debauched by dirty old men. . . . And as for child molesting, the overwhelming amount is done by straight guys to little girls: it is not particularly a gay problem, and is caused by the frustrations resulting from anti-sex puritanism.
Simply speaking of the existence of gay children struck at the heart of much homophobia. Testaments from gay adults that they had had queer sexual desires as kids was a new development in the public conversation about homosexuality and a bold political strategy. Indeed, the naming of the existence of gay teens and children—in the context of an emerging children’s liberation movement—had an immediate effect on political organizing. Soon after the Stonewall riots, as Gay Liberation groups spread across the country, queer youth began to organize. In The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: “An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail” (2008), Stephan L. Cohen documents at least thirty U.S.-based groups formed, and run, by LGBT youth during the decade.
More radical theorists felt that once one accepted the idea that the bourgeois family suppresses children’s sexuality, the logical next step was to demand both an end to the nuclear family and the involvement of gay men and lesbians in the raising of children. Although its ideological purity may have made it somewhat extreme, the basic idea of a political movement inserting itself into the raising of children was not a stretch at the time. Other political movements were already dealing with issues of how they conceptualized children and their political place in the world. The Black Panthers, for example, began their own schools and after-school programs, and, with their free breakfast program, injected themselves into existing public school systems. Mainstream and radical feminists started feminist daycare centers. They also published non-sexist children’s books. The most famous included Marlo Thomas’s 1972 illustrated book and record Free to Be . . . You and Me, which touted gender equality; and Charlotte Zolotow’s 1972 picture book, William’s Doll, in which a boy wants a present of a doll to play with, much to his father’s gender-normative chagrin.
Queer adults had been raising other people’s turned-out queer children for years. But they did not want their families to be seen as second-rate any longer.
To insist that lesbians and gay men should be able to help raise children was a radical vision of how the traditional family might change, but its aim was not only to shape children but also to shape adults: many activists felt that only when they were able to participate in the raising of society’s next generation would they fully enjoy the rights of citizenship.
But it also would be to formally acknowledge that queer adults had been raising other people’s turned-out and runaway queer children for years, particular in gay ghettos such as New York’s West Village and San Francisco’s Castro. Queer kids who were homeless, either by choice or circumstance, tended to flock to these neighborhoods, where they would often find themselves taken in by a sympathetic adult. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, for example, started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970 to set up shelters in Manhattan for homeless trans youth. In the gay slang of the 1950s and ’60s, an older gay man would be called “mother” if he took on the task of guiding or advising newly-out young gay men.
This dovetailed with an idea prevalent in the early 1970s of “gay family”: extended, often intergenerational groups of friends who supported one another as a biological family might. Making family in community was vital—literally lifesaving—to the daily lives of many LGBT people at the time. The vibrancy of this idea of chosen family was evident at the end of the decade when Sister Sledge’s hit “We Are Family” became an instant favorite in gay bars and often was played as the final song at LGBT community dances and Gay Pride marches. Gay family became even more urgent during the AIDS epidemic, as many biological families abandoned their sick sons and traditional care communities crumbled.
In other words, gay people had been creating and nurturing families for years—families that offered many advantages—notably physical and emotional safety—over nuclear families. But they did not want their families to be seen as second-rate any longer, and they wanted to free everyone from what they saw as a tyrannical imposition of patriarchal, bourgeois values.
• • •
The radical aim of upending the nuclear family was replaced by a gay rights agenda that gave renewed life to the nuclear family by reinvesting in its symbolic and practical necessity.
Gay Men’s Liberation’s demands never came to fruition, and the authors of the ten-point demands often had only nascent ideas of what practically it would look like to implement their prescriptions. Similarly, some male members of New York’s Gay Liberation Front left the organization, which they felt was insufficiently feminist, and formed the Revolutionary Effeminists. Historian Martin Duberman, in his 2018 analysis of the LGBT Rights movement Did The Gay Movement Fail?, writes that the Effeminists “argued that gay men should virtually place themselves in the service of women, taking on their traditional household tasks, including the raising of children, to order to foster women’s rise to power.” However, it seems that the Effeminists also did not get much past theory, and the group never expanded from its founding members and soon died out.
That said, the actual practice of queer child rearing was happening in less radical ways on the local level. Besides the example of de facto gay adoption noted above, in 1975 some gay and straight men in Boston—not connected to Gay Men’s Liberation, but perhaps inspired by its demands—formed the Men’s Child Care Collective. Although the group was consciously created as a straight/gay alliance, the few published accounts of the group always identify it as “the gay men’s child care collective”—a slip of the tongue that perhaps speaks truth to the fact that the group was overwhelmingly composed of gay men. The organization met at the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation at 22 Bromfield Street in downtown Boston, where the publications Gay Community News and Fag Rag (an offshoot of Gay Men’s Liberation) had their offices. Most meetings were consciousness-raising sessions about how gay and straight men might be friends, work together, and—as a progressive men’s movement that enacted feminist ideas—help women by sharing the work of caring for children.
One concrete project they conducted was having a daycare group for women attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Cambridge. They also volunteered daycare services at LGBT and progressive political conferences. A focus of the group was offering childcare to women who were, in various ways, marginalized or at risk. Their feminist analysis, reflecting some of the Gay Men’s Liberation demands, reflected concerns over class, economics, and race. Like many political groups, the Men’s Child Care Collective lasted a few years until, as members moved out of Boston or became more involved in other projects, the group folded.
Similar groups formed in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and New York. The aims of these groups were threefold. As feminists, the members had a commitment to easing some of women’s burden for caring for children. They were also consciously rebelling against restrictive gender roles that excluded men from being seen as caring and nurturing to children. Perhaps most important, they were determined to confront—through word and deed—the deeply rooted myth that gay men were child molesters.
Replacing the traditional heterosexual family with its same-sex analogue will not eliminate the profoundly damaging structural problems of the institution.
Nonetheless, while these groups, Boston’s Men’s Child Care Collective included, were radical in their conception, they were also curiously traditional, as they tended to place gay men in the role of temporary caretakers for children of heterosexual relationships. While there were lesbians with children in the early 1970s, most of them were women who had left marriages. The idea of the lesbians or gay men together having children who were, in some meaningful sense, their “own” did not fully emerge for at least another decade—and when it did, it often took a shape that mirrored rather than challenged the heterosexual, nuclear family. With this came the near-fetishistic prioritizing, in gay rights activism, of gay marriage over all other causes. The radical Gay Liberation aim of upending the nuclear family was replaced by a gay rights agenda that gave renewed life to the nuclear family by reinvesting in its symbolic and practical necessity.
By 1977 the country saw the rise of a national conservative movement that would put Ronald Reagan in the White House. It also heralded the emergence of the highly organized Moral Majority movement that injected a discourse of right-wing evangelical Protestantism into politics. Consequently, Anita Bryant’s attack on a LGBT antidiscrimination bill that would have protected homosexual teachers in Miami-Dade County, Florida, was explicitly articulated in terms of protecting children. Leading a national “Save Our Children” crusade, Bryant drew on the longstanding tropes of molestation, abuse, and indoctrination that had plagued homosexuals throughout modern U.S. history.
Rather than confront these lies with facts or, better yet, the testimony of queer young people, the gay rights movement backed away from any connections to children and teens. Gay community centers were hesitant to sponsor gay youth groups. There was a chilling effect on discussions of gay men or lesbians legally adopting children. Any discussions of introducing LGBT materials into the classroom were put on hold. Over the next decades political discussions moved from collective care of children, and extended gay families, to the privatized same-sex nuclear family of marriage equality. In the larger political context, discussions of children’s liberation also vanished, replaced by talk of protecting children from sex, from “dangerous” music and video cultures, and lurking predators.
The fight for marriage equality has been crucial to the success of gay rights in recent decades. It, however, is a decidedly mixed victory for those of us who recall the visionary political exuberance, and potential of radical change, of earlier days. Replacing the traditional heterosexual family with its same-sex analogue will not necessarily eliminate any of the profoundly damaging structural problems of the institution. The strategies, and theoretical approaches, of Gay Liberation concerning children were complex and politically complicated. They ranged from the practical to the impossible. They were driven by earnest care for children as well as a desire to radically break from the gridlock of oppressive family structures. At heart, all of these diverse moves—from identifying the existence of gay kids, to caring for children, to destroying the legal framework that allowed parents to “own” children—were not only attempts by Gay Liberationists to remake the world, but to heal decades of wounds inflicted by society and in particular by queer people’s biological families.
In many ways this healing has, over half a century, been slowing occurring. Amazing numbers of young people are coming out earlier and earlier. Discussions of queer youth sexuality—and gender roles—are increasingly sophisticated and vibrant. In ways that Gay Liberation began to imagine in 1972, the kids are all right; they are taking care of themselves.
Boston Gay Liberation Front’s Ten-Point Demands
Presented to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami
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