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Even though glbtq people have been parents throughout history, the political movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s and advances in fertility technology in the early 1980s have given rise to a much more visible and self-identified group of gay and lesbian parents over the past thirty years.

Gay men and lesbians become parents primarily in one of two ways. They either have children in heterosexual relationships and subsequently come out or plan to raise children as out gay and lesbian parents.

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For those glbtq people who have not had children from heterosexual relationships, parenting options have increased in the past few decades but remain difficult in the more conservative areas of the United States.

Since the 1980s, lesbians have often turned to alternative insemination and used anonymous sperm donors from sperm banks to get pregnant, allowing them to avoid legal tangles with a known biological father. Gay men have more typically chosen to adopt children or serve as foster parents, although in recent years a small number have turned to surrogacy to have their own biological children.

Another option has been for gay men and lesbians to have biological children together and co-parent, with each biological and non-biological parent playing a role in the child's life to varying degrees.

Legal Issues for Parents Who Come Out

A number of legal issues face glbtq parents. Custody and visitation rights were among the first issues to confront gay and lesbian parents in the early and mid-1970s and continue to be important concerns today.

The earliest divorce case in which the homosexuality of a parent was an explicit issue dates back to 1952, and a handful more were recorded over the next twenty years. But it was not until the gay liberation movement of the 1970s allowed more gltbq people to embrace their sexual orientation that such cases became increasingly common. As gay men and lesbians with children came out and filed for divorce, they began slowly and quietly to challenge the assumption that homosexuality made them unfit parents.

The success of such custody battles often depended, as it still does today, on both the state in which the case was heard and the judge who presided over it. In the United States, individual states are responsible for most aspects of family law, especially standards that cover disputes, divorces, child custody, and visitation rights. Each state legislature is responsible for laws that address these issues, and for the most part state appeals courts determine how families resolve disputes over such matters.

Since the United States Supreme Court and other federal courts have generally not ruled on such issues, each state determines for itself the legitimacy of gay and lesbian parenting. For glbtq parents the result has been mixed, ranging from severely restricted visitation rights to full custody without conditions.

Early Successes and Ongoing Challenges

In spite of the difficulties that gay men and lesbians experienced early on in retaining custody of their children, there were a handful of visible cases in which lesbian mothers succeeded in keeping their children.

In Seattle in 1972, after divorcing their respective husbands, Sandy Schuster and Madeleine Isaacson, two lesbians in a relationship with each other, were allowed to retain custody of the six children between them. Yet the judge also ordered that the two women could not live together. They responded by renting apartments across the hall from each other and maintaining joint households.

Two years later, their ex-husbands sued again for custody, but this time the judge not only awarded custody to the mothers, but also lifted all restrictions. Ultimately, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the mothers, setting an important precedent in that state for the rights of gay and lesbian parents.

Not all states have been so affirming, nor has the passage of time necessarily improved the prospects for gay and lesbian parents in the courts. States such as Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Virginia were among the first states to deny custody to glbtq parents in the 1970s. According to Polikoff, in 1985, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a "gay parent living with a partner was always an unfit parent."

In 1995, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in perhaps the most visible lesbian parenting case of the decade, when it gave custody of Sharon Bottoms' son Tyler to Sharon's mother, Kay Bottoms, and prohibited Sharon from visiting her son with her partner April.

Even in 1998 and 1999, state supreme courts in Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi ruled that custody could be denied or visitation rights restricted based on a parent's homosexuality.

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