With Eric Stonestreet winning an Emmy Sunday 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 is 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 were defying 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. In addition to three couples, there was one woman co-parenting with a gay man, a single mother, and a group of five women co-parenting together. Attorney Donna Hitchens, one of the founders of the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Center for Lesbian Rights), provided legal commentary.
Chasnoff said that 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?' Over the years, I would get letters of so many people who said 'I never thought I could have kids until I came to see the film. Now we have a four-year-old.'"
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.
Chasnoff herself 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. On September 14, Chasnoff's GroundSpark organization and a number of community partners are holding a 25th anniversary screening and fundraiser in San Francisco. (See groundspark.org/choosing for information on the screening and donating.) Chasnoff also said she would be open to fundraisers elsewhere if approached by groups that wanted to arrange them.
Chasnoff hopes Choosing Children will be of historical interest to LGBT archives, women's studies departments, and college libraries--but also of practical use to lesbian families today. "It's still the same," she said. "Everybody has to go through the conversations: what will the kids call us, what will happen to them at school, what will it be for kids to grow up without a male parent, can gay men and lesbians co-parent, will you be able to adopt jointly?"
She added, "I think having that possibility [of becoming parents] has changed all of our lives. . . . 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."
Photo: Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner, directors of Choosing Children, in the editing room in the early 1980's. Photo credit: GroundSpark.