6 LGBTQ Moms Who Made History

From Josephine Baker to Del Martin, these trailblazing artists and activists were (or are!) also mothers.

Queer people are no strangers to complicated paths to parenthood, but before recent decades it was even more difficult. Adoption and insemination for queer people was often illegal in the past, or medicine hadn’t advanced enough to make options like in vitro fertilization (IVF) possible. Nevertheless, these six women found ways to become mothers while also making history in their respective fields. We recognize them for their contributions to the world — and for being parents in a culture that didn’t want them to be.

  1. Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

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    Baker (pictured above with one of her adopted children to the left) grew up in extreme poverty in St. Louis and started working at the age of 8, dropping out of school at the age of 12. Destined for the stage, she started performing at 13, becoming a chorus line dancer in New York City and then emigrating at 19 to France where she’d spend most of the rest of her life.

    Baker, who was bisexual, made international headlines as a huge star for her comedic and erotic dancing and was famous for her signature skirt made of bananas. When war fell on Europe, she used her star-power to smuggle secret messages for the Allies in her sheet music across borders, earning her a French military honor.

    She became the first African-American to star in a major motion picture and used her fame to speak out against racial injustice in the U.S. She refused to perform for segregated audiences (convincing some theaters to integrate) and was the only female official speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.

    She adopted twelve children from nine countries and raised them in a chateau in southern France that is now a museum about her.

  2. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

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    The “First Lady of the World” pretty much ended her sexual relationship with her husband FDR when she discovered one of his affairs in 1918. (Apparently it wasn’t a big loss for her since she described sex with him as “an ordeal to be borne.”) She offered him a divorce, but they decided to stay married since divorce was extremely rare and discouraged at the time. Each went on to form romantic partnerships with other women at the same time. They had six children together, born between 1906 and 1916.

    After the emotional split from her husband, Eleanor befriended many queer women who became her chosen family and encouraged her political activism. Her relationship with Lorena “Hick” Hickok began while Hick was the AP journalist covering the future First Lady on the 1932 presidential campaign trail. They wrote daily letters describing their love and desire for each other, although Hick burned the less “discreet” ones after Eleanor’s death in 1962. The thousands of surviving letters signed with phrases like “I love you with all my heart,” gifts of lingerie and a dried rose from a place they’d been together, and other evidence make the sapphic nature of their relationship clear.

  3. Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

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    Smith, the bi “Empress of the Blues” (not to be confused with the also bi “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey), was once the highest paid Black performer in the U.S. She was married to a man, Jack Gee, but both of them regularly cheated while she was on the road. They separated after six years of marriage, but not before they had adopted a 6-year-old boy, Jack Gee, Jr., together.

    Jack Jr.’s birth mother was the niece of one of the chorus girls in Smith’s show, and Smith always doted on the boy and told his mother if she couldn’t care for him that she’d adopt him. The birth mom eventually took Smith up on this offer, but the adoption was never made legal. Bessie’s sister ended up doing most of the childcare since Smith was so often out on tour.

    Unfortunately, the boy continued to be bounced from home to home — including his biological father’s abusive one — after his adoptive parents separated and kidnapped him back and forth from each other’s houses. This story of motherhood is far from a happy one and is rarely mentioned when discussing Smith’s incredible musical achievements.

  4. Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

    An intersectional feminist, Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She married a gay man named Edwin Rollins from 1962 to 1970, and they had two biological children together during that time, Elizabeth and Jonathan.

    Lorde met her long-time partner, Frances Clayton, in 1972, and her children lived with her and Clayton on Staten Island until 1987. A prolific writer and poet, Lorde’s widely acclaimed books and poems lived on after she passed away from breast cancer in 1992. In her words, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

  5. Del Martin (1921-2008)

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    Del Martin (pictured above with wife Phyllis Lyon to her right) married James Martin at the age of 19 and dropped out of college to give birth to and raise their daughter, Kendra Mon, two years later. When Del left James after four years of marriage, she got custody of their daughter, but when James remarried, she relinquished Kendra to him because they both thought a “traditional” family environment was best for a child. Martin was just coming to terms with her lesbianism, seeking information that simply didn’t exist in the 1940s.

    Del met Phyllis Lyon (1924-2020) in 1950, and the rest is truly history. Together, they were a power couple who blazed the trail for lesbian rights, cofounding the Daughters of Bilitis, the first U.S. lesbian organization, in 1955; cocreating The Ladder, the first American lesbian publication, in 1956; and coauthoring Lesbian/Woman , a groundbreaking book about the lesbian experience, in 1972.

    Del also cofounded the Lesbian Mothers Union in 1971 and worked with lesbian mothers to get custody of their children after their homosexuality was used against them in court. She and Lyon also pushed gay organizations to include women, and women’s organizations to include gay women, during their 58 years as life partners.

    Kendra, age 66 at the time, was sitting in the front row when Del and Lyon were finally able to wed in 2008, two months before Del’s death.

  6. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940-present)

    Stonewall veteran Miss Major (pictured above with her partner Beck to her left) has been advocating for trans rights since the 1960s. She became a parent to her biological son, Christopher, in 1978, when he was born to Miss Major’s girlfriend. When the couple split, Miss Major retained custody. She later adopted three other sons around Christopher’s age. The boys were runaways she met at a park and eventually took in.

    Miss Major, 79, is now the matriarch of a large chosen family in San Francisco. In a 2015 interview, she said, “Because our blood families are so hostile and cruel to us, we create our own family. We’re not related by blood, but we’re related by ties of love. It gets us through.”

    She expanded her family this year when her partner Beck gave birth to a baby on January 9, 2021. The couple is “just beaming over” Asiah (rhymes with “messiah”) Wittenstein Major.

All mothers change the world by the effect they have on their children, but these mothers 一 activists, performers, writers 一 also blazed a trail for LGBTQ visibility, and for queer parents to come.

Sarah Prager is the author of three books on LGBTQ+ history and her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, and many other outlets.
@Sarah_Prager