Commentary

What happened to the first generation of children from out gay & lesbian homes?

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Q.Digital CEO Scott Gatz penned this foreword for Joe Gantz’s new book, The Secret I Can’t Tell: The First Generation of Children from Openly Gay and Lesbian Homes. Gantz located five same-sex-headed households in different parts of the nation, embedded with them for a week, and from 1979–1983 interviewed these lesbian and gay parents and their children about what effects the fear-mongering and anti-gay pressures had on them.  Updated in 2022 with new interviews with the children (now adults in their 50s), the book is a fascinating glimpse into how far the LGBTQ community has come – and how far it still has to go. Q.Digital is the publisher of LGBTQ Nation.

When my son was in kindergarten, the children taught their classmates about their life outside the classroom. The kids learned a bit about each other’s day-to-day lives, what they liked to do for fun, and all about their pets and family members. Toward the end of the year, the class read Todd Parr’s The Family Book, a brightly-hued book that celebrates all different kinds of families through fun illustrations and humor. Taking inspiration from The Family Book, the kindergartners drew their own pages for a book with two captions that included “All families have_____” and “Some families have_____.” The answers reflected their age: “Some families have dogs,” “Some families have cats,” “All families have love,” and “All families have toys.” And most importantly for my family: “Some families have two dads,” and “Some families have two moms.” 

That kindergarten exercise probably could never have been imagined by the families interviewed in A Secret I Can’t Tell. In the 40 years since this book was originally published, we have come a very, very long way. Unlike the era in which marriage was not available to people like my husband and me, today, LGBTQ people in the United States (and in 29 countries) enjoy equal marriage—and, according to a Family Equality Council survey, 63% of millennial LGBTQ people want to start a family, or grow theirs. Marriage isn’t just a ceremony or a piece of paper, either. According to the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are 1,138 statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in determining benefits, rights, and privileges.

The kids Joe Gantz interviewed between 1979–1983 were raised by same-sex couples who did not have the right to exist in the way they do today. These families were not supported by the law or their communities, and the children frequently expressed the view that no one their age would understand their family structure. That came with a grave cost: keeping their home life concealed. 

Unfathomable to those young people is the kind of world my son is now growing up in. It’s a world where he can see many families just like his, and it’s a world in which young people feel much safer coming out and are doing so in record numbers. Each summer, Family Week in Provincetown, Massachusetts, brings together hundreds of LGBTQ-parented families for a week of connection, activities, and fun. It’s truly awe-inspiring to look across a beach of thousands of people, all from LGBTQ families. Today we have organizations supporting us, like those that run Family Week. Family Equality is the organization advocating for and connecting LGBTQ Parents, and COLAGE is dedicated to connecting children of LGBTQ people. These organizations help families find each other—even in isolated places with very few LGBTQ people. I treasure that my son gets to grow up knowing that a community of people supports him and that his family isn’t something he needs to keep secret. 

Chapter 1’s Selena sums it up best in her 2022 update: “I think it is going to be really hard for anyone who is being raised in a gay family now to understand what it was like to be a part of that forty years ago. Because it was a completely different world…[The change has] felt like the speed of light!”

The stories in these chapters contain pain, love, dysfunction, and joy. Any family has a mix of all of these things in different measures. But these families had more than their fair share of pain, dysfunction, and difficulty as they held tightly onto their secret. They feared being ostracized or losing their jobs, but more frighteningly feared their families being split up. Some lesbian and gay parents were stripped of their parental rights because being in a same-sex relationship meant they were violating state sodomy laws or they were viewed as “deviants” by family court judges. With distance, we can see that these fears led to anguish, anger, poor behavior, dysfunction, and a lot of pain. The pressure to keep a secret likely exacerbated normal teenage angst and added stress to already stressful parenting situations. This pain was caused by a society that forced these families to hide in fear. As you read these interviews, I encourage you to remember the prevailing societal force that shaped many of these moments.

By returning to his subjects in 2022, Joe shows their stories in true context. Time heals many wounds, and as we grow older, we remember the good times and gain perspective on the bad times. These families were full of love and wanted to be the best they could be for each other. Some of the kids are now parents, some are married, and some are divorced, creating new chapters in their lives undoubtedly marked—but not always limited by—the secrecy they were forced to maintain growing up. I delight in reading the stories of their own kids knowing LGBTQ kids and families, and how their grandparents were LGBTQ. In just one generation, their families are in a whole new world.

Our society is a much better one today now that families like ours can live freely and openly. The unfair pressure on parents and kids to keep a secret is devastating to witness, and I’m glad that for many families, this is in the past. 

Sadly, we are at risk of returning to some of those days. 

We live in a societal backlash that seeks to force our families back into the closet. Laws in multiple states (most infamously Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill) are shutting down all discussion or mention of LGBTQ people and our families in schools. Todd Parr’s The Family Book has become one of the most banned books in U.S. schools and libraries. Teachers and students are forcing themselves and the story of their families back into the closet, once again making their lives a secret they can’t tell. And several justices on the Supreme Court have signaled their interest in overturning the Obergefell decision that made marriage equality the law of the land. And the Equality Act has yet to pass, meaning there is no federal law protecting equal marriage and the many family rights that come with it. 

I recently met a young transgender girl in Texas, roughly the same age as many of the children in A Secret I Can’t Tell. She kept her gender identity a secret from her classmates until someone found out and told everyone. Her family was forced to pull her out of school and has since moved to another state after Texas enacted a law criminalizing parents who provide gender affirming care to their children. It is unfair and unacceptable to put this burden on our children, and yet here we are again.

It’s been 40 years since Joe Gantz interviewed these families. Even today, the love and laughs and struggles are something we can all relate to. The forced secrecy and pressure these kids and parents felt are foreign to most people today, and that’s a testament to how far we really have come. I hope that we can all read these stories, the 1983 interviews and the 2022 updates, and see a fully rounded picture of how alike we all are and how unique their challenges were. I hope that these stories teach us what once was and could be again if we don’t course correct.

These stories, rich and complex, are not just a view into another era. They are a time capsule. Let’s act to ensure that they do not also contain an urgent warning for our future.

Get the book here: The Secret I Can’t Tell: The First Generation of Children from Openly Gay and Lesbian Homes.

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