The season of family dysfunction is just around the bend, and as turkey orders are placed we are reminded that even before Freud invented psychoanalysis, family life has been complicated.
“The typical American family, if it ever lived anywhere but on Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving canvas, has become as multi-layered and full of surprises as a holiday turducken,” wrote Natalie Angier in the New York Times. “Blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women women, Democrats marry Republicans, and good friends join forces, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally.”
Now you can view large photos of families in all their permutations, showing how functional families can be when they are open about their differences. To celebrate the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that persons of the same sex can marry legally across all 50 states, the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School is exhibiting “The Changing American Family,” an exhibition of photographic portraits and videos by Gigi Kaeser and Seth Bernstein.
“One major method to promote understanding and acceptance of people who seem different has been the use of photographs and videos such as those seen in this exhibition,” says Bernstein Gallery curator Kate Somers.
In 1955 photographer Edward Steichen, then director of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography, curated the groundbreaking exhibit “Family of Man,” with 500 images that showed how people all over the world are born, work, laugh, and die in the same way. In his introduction, Carl Sandburg wrote “The first cry of a baby in Chicago, or Zamboango, in Amsterdam or Rangoon, has the same pitch and key, each saying, ‘I am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the Family.’”
A generation later, before there was reality TV, the daily life of the Louds, an upper middle class family in Santa Barbara, California, was broadcast live on PBS, subsequently putting a magnifying glass on the divorce of the parents and the coming out of one of the children. “An American Family” raised the question of whether the camera, intruding on family life, becomes a catalyst.
Flash ahead another 20 years, and Nancy Nicholas Andrews, a journalist seeking to find out more about herself and explore the then-mostly-hidden world of gays and lesbians wrote “Family: A Portrait of Gay & Lesbian America,” accompanied by a photography exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The 75 photos capture a range of people engaged in their everyday lives, from a lesbian couple and their son on their front porch in Colonial Beach, Virginia, to members of a San Francisco Asian and Pacific Islander youth group meeting in a coffee shop.
With Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair this past summer, transgendered people have become mainstream.
Still many LGBT people worry about coming out to their families, both to parents and to children. One of the first images we see on the walls of the Bernstein Gallery is of three pink-skinned women in an embrace under the dappled shade of a cedar shake house. They are clearly related, though it is hard to tell exactly how without reading the text. These women look like your next door neighbors in Princeton, maybe your sisters. Linda, Anna, and Molly Heller, on the surface, comprise a classic American family.
In text written by Peggy Gillespie, co-founder, along with photographer Kaeser, of Family Diversity Projects, an educational non-governmental organization, we learn about the relationship between these three women. (Note: There is a large amount of text in this exhibit, which also comprises the book “Love Makes a Family: Portraits of LGBT Parents and Their Families” by Gillespie and Kaeser; allow sufficient time for reading.)
Linda Heller, a social worker, therapist, and feminist/lesbian activist, says, “For the last eight years, my daughters have been actively working to help other children to be comfortable, and to be proud of who they are instead of keeping secret. Molly and Anna have educated people and opened people’s hearts. I was married for 16 years and, as time went on, realized I was probably bisexual. When I fell in love with a woman, it felt like I was coming home.”
Daughter Molly, 25 during the time of this documentation and a graduate student, recounts how she was 11 when her mother brought home a woman she introduced as a friend. “At 11 p.m., they were still talking in my mom’s room,” says Molly. “I snuck out of my room because I was a nosy little kid and had to know everything that was going on. I thought, ‘Uh oh. She’s staying overnight. Oh my god, my mom’s a lesbian!’”
The next morning, the girlfriend left early, and Molly told her sister Anna, two years older. They batted the idea around until a few days later confronting their mother: “Are you gay?”
Anna had begun to suspect her mother’s sexual identity when she was castigated for using of the expression “That’s so gay.”
“Why? Are you gay?” Anna asked her mother. “She said, ‘No, I’m not, but I have a lot of friends who are.’ It made sense to me not to make fun of people, so I dismissed that idea forever. When Molly told me that Mom was gay, I remember thinking, ‘She told me she wasn’t, so she’s not.’”
Molly and Anna cried when their mother revealed the truth. Couldn’t she just be friends with her girlfriend? “Then we went out for dinner because that is what we always did whenever we were in crisis in our family,” says Anna.
“A few days later, we met Mom’s girlfriend,” continues Molly. “We were in the back seat of the car, and she and Mom were holding hands. We were pointing at them and sticking our fingers down our throats, pretending we were throwing up because we just thought it was so weird and gross. How could they do that? But we had a great time. This woman was the neatest thing.”
Soon “there was a lot of love and laughter and talking and listening.”
Molly and Anna kept their secret from their friends, fearing the reactions they would get, and even forbade their mother from wearing Birkenstocks, imaging they would be perceived as “lesbian shoes.” Even boyfriends were not let in on the truth, for fear that they would think Anna and Molly were also gay. The sisters made up stories about the other woman who lived in the house with them.
After high school Molly and Anna went to the Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International conference, where they met other children of LGBT parents and learned they were not alone — they finally had a chance to share their secret.
It turned out that their high school friends knew the truth all along but were waiting for Anna and Molly to tell them. One high school girlfriend said, “Anna, I would love you even if you were gay.”
“We had little feelers up for people who were open and accepting, so that when we told somebody, it wasn’t so much of a risk,” says Anna. “Children of lesbian and gay parents go through a similar process to what gay and lesbian people go through when they are coming out and testing the waters.”
Today both Molly and Anna are gay rights activists, leading discussion groups for teenagers working out these issues.
“There are people who take the Bible literally and say they love God and all people, and yet they have so much hatred for folks they don’t know anything about,” says Anna. “I don’t have a problem with religious people. But when people tell me that my family is bad and is going to hell because my mother loves a woman, it makes no sense to me. All I can tell them is, ‘Why don’t you meet us first and then make a decision.’”
Among the others profiled here is Crystal Jang, a 50-year-old lesbian who, as a child, felt as if she were the only Asian gay person and came out without any role models. To fulfill a long-denied desire to be a mother, Jang adopted.
As a mother, says Stacey Styles, a violin restorer, you have to come out every September to a new set of classmates and their parents. “There are a whole new series of birthday parties where one of us drops Liza off and the other picks her up and has to explain that we are Liza’s other mother,” says Styles. “And then there are the invitations: ‘Hi, I’m so and so’s parent — would you and your husband like to come to a party?’”
Marcelle Cook-Daniels always felt somewhere in the middle of female and male. “I was a very intense tomboy when I was a child, and my physical presentation has always been more male,” says Cook-Daniels. “As a kid I always thought I was a boy. The problem came in puberty when I started to develop female sexual characteristics. That was very stressful for me, and I started to think about suicide.” Adding to the problem was Cook-Daniels’ parents’ divorce, and a mother in denial of her child being transgender.
Presenting first as female, Cook-Daniels developed a lesbian relationship with another woman. When Cook-Daniels wanted to transition to male, there was disharmony. “I’m a lesbian, and I don’t want to be with a man,” said Cook-Daniels’ partner. Cook-Daniels remained in female persona in order to maintain the relationship, but when Cook-Daniels became pregnant with the child both partners desired (the white male donor bore a physical resemblance to Cook-Daniels’ partner — Cook-Daniels is black, and they wanted a biracial child), they agreed it was time for him to complete the transition to being male.
“What makes us the same as some traditional families is that we have fights over how much candy (our son) can eat and other mundane things,” says Cook-Daniels. “We think about his future and how to do everything we can to help him be happy and healthy. This is what families do. We’re proud about who we are and what we’ve done. Families come in different shapes and sizes: Two mommies, two daddies; one mommy; one daddy. Kai’s family has a mommy and a daddy. His daddy gave birth to him.”
Consuelo Burning Cloud — considered an “Indipino” because her heritage is both Yakima and Filipino — was sent to a white foster home when she was two years old. She considers such assimilation genocide. Her foster parents beat and locked up their children. As a child she wanted to wear pants and kiss girls and soon cut her hair short and came out. A drug addict and alcoholic, she lived on the streets for 29 years, where she gave birth to a son. Now sober for more than a decade, she counsels those who are suffering from addiction.
“When native people noticed that a child was more feminine or male-acting than the norm, they performed a ceremony,” says Burning Cloud. “They would put the child on a mat with a bow and a piece of pottery, and then they would light the mat on fire. If a female child picked up the supposedly masculine bow or a male child picked up the feminine pottery, they would be brought up as a Two-Spirit person.”
Videos of former Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall’s historic ruling in GLAD’s Massachusetts marriage equality lawsuit are also on view. On November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry violated the state constitution, and Massachusetts became the first state in the nation allowing marriage equality.
The Changing American Family, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Through Wednesday, November 25, Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. wws.princeton.edu/bernstein.