Until 2015, when same-sex marriage was illegal in the United States, the “ideal” family structure featured a cisgender man and a cisgender woman at its helm. But independent of the law, same-sex family structures still existed, with many of those couples having and raising children.
Even after the legalization of same-sex marriage, there is still a visibility barrier when it comes to children of LGBTQ parents in mainstream media. We do not see them represented in the perfect middle-class family commercials or many sitcoms or movies.
Through a photo book, photographer Gabriela Herman, who is the product of LGBTQ parents, fought to tell the stories of the sometimes-invisible children who are raised in LGBTQ communities. Over the course of seven years, she has photographed more than 75 men and women across the country. Included with Herman’s photos are profound anecdotes of life as the child of atypical parents, ranging from funny to heartbreaking to inspirational.
The Kids: The Children of LGBTQ Parents in the USA is now in bookstores and will launch at a signing event at Aperture Nov. 1. Herman chatted with The Daily Beast about her art process shooting this massive project and her personal experience growing up as a child of an LGBTQ parent.
Can you tell us about your upbringing with an LGBTQ parent?
I was in New England; I was in a private school. It was a very traumatic time in terms of the family breaking up. We had a mom and dad. Me and my siblings, we sort of had the perfect family. In terms of our childhood, it was very idyllic. Then, it came up that my mom was having an affair with this woman. The whole gay aspect was one that I had never heard of. No one else I knew had anything remotely similar. It was something that was hidden. I didn’t let any of my friends know. I just didn’t feel comfortable because it was such an anomaly kind of thing. It was difficult for a bunch of years. I had a rocky relationship with my mom. She ended up moving out and eventually moving in with the woman who she had the affair with. Now, they got married. Eventually, things in our relationship got better. We all have holidays together even till this day.
Would it have been different if she had an affair with a man?
If it were a man, I would have had more strength to talk about it with other people. People have divorced parents. A lot of kids at my school were kids of divorced parents and adopted in a divorce. I feel like I wouldn’t have been as alone as I was.
It seems like your experience is especially unique, but in reality there are families all over the United States who have LQBTQ parents. Yet, we are not discussing these family structures. Do you think your personal experience of feeling alone and not having the peer support you needed was a source of inspiration for this book?
Definitely! Today, things are very different. It’s really interesting, the people that I photograph, I definitely notice a trend or change from it being older people or people my age versus people in their twenties right now with very different stories just because it’s becoming more acceptable and more common, and not as much a shameful thing.
How did you decide to shoot the project?
This whole project, I ended up shooting from two scenarios. One is where you are raised from birth by two gay parents. The other is when you have a mom and a dad family structure and then one parent comes out, which is a different experience because it’s a rupture to deal with. I shot over one hundred and there are seventy-five that made it in the book. There have definitely been projects done before on queer families. There had been nothing done from the voices of kids who have been raised by gay parents, which is why I felt I had to do this.
What is your strategy for shooting? What were some deliberate art decisions that you made?
So for the photos, I knew that I wanted just them in the frame and link their story with that. I knew I wasn’t going to use any lighting equipment. I wanted all natural light, which I prefer visually. Because, I knew it was such an intimate thing, I was going through their homes, I just didn’t wanted to be distracted by setting up strobes ect… I just wanted them to feel as comfortable as possible, which meant no lighting.
In the beginning, I was asking people to think about the moment their parent came out or the moment they had the important conversation with their parent. I would use something from that moment as inspiration for the photo. For example, one of the girls had her dad came out to her over the phone so I had a phone in her shot. Another girl found out on a road trip with her mom, so I shot her in her car. The reference could be something just as simple as a color you remember from that moment. This other girl had her dad came out to her when she was in high School. She had this shirt that she wore that whole year and she brought it to the shoot. I stopped doing it at the end because it got sort of hectic and I was shooting a lot. I prefer to shoot their home environment, but sometimes it’s not possible and we just compromised on a different place.
How did you find your subjects? Did you consider diversity across race and age? How did you tackle inclusivity in your pool?
The first group of people I found through a non-profit organization that has chapters around the country that’s called COLAGE. They are the only national nonprofit that supports kids who have gay parents. After that, I posted to my Facebook and newsletter and it became a word of mouth kind of thing.
As for diversity, in the beginning it was hard to find people who were willing to be photographed and share their story. In the beginning, it was mostly New Yorkers who were raised all over the country who were activist and advocacy minded people affiliated with COLAGE. When the publisher asked me to shoot an additional fifty portraits, I wanted to keep in mind diversity, race, gender, family makeup, and geography. I shot anyone I found, but by the end, I was searching for very specific dynamics. For example, there are very few people who had two gay dads. So, I made a point to find a few more to include. I wanted a certain racial makeup as well. At one point, I had way to many white women from New England. So I had to make changes. A lot of people who didn’t make it into the book had great stories. I wanted to make sure I had as much diversity as possible. If there are five white women with lesbian mothers, I’ll maybe just include two of them.
What do you hope that readers will get from seeing these portraits and reading their stories?
Selfishly, the project has been so therapeutic, just to meet other people. Before I started this project, I didn’t know a single other person, who had gay parents. I was very much alone and never talked about it. So, I hope with the photos, I am able to reach other people who also have gay parents. The first round of the book is primarily to let children of gay parents hear from other people, hear that they’re not alone, and hear that they have they share the same experiences. I wish I had this book when I was younger. For the second audience, I would say it would be potentially for queer people who are thinking about raising kids or having other kids who would be able to read these stories and know what it would be like for their children. There’s obviously some positive and negative stuff. The third audience would be the general public because it’s awareness. It's a chance to hear from voices you haven’t really heard from and learn how different families are.
Is there anything unexpected that we should know about the book?
One thing is that I am in the book as well as my two siblings and my two step siblings. There are actually several pairs of siblings in the book. I’ve included at the bottom of the page who’s the sibling of who. I think it’s interesting because it’s the same story, but from two different perspectives.
Savanna was raised in Fountain Hills, Arizona, by her mom and stepmom.
Niko was raised in Newton, Massachusetts, by his dad and mom who came out when he was 11.
Zach was raised in Waltham, New York, by his adoptive two moms I was born in New Orleans.
Molly was raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, by her mom and dad who transitioned when she was 14.
Malina was raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by her two dads.
Jaz was raised in Webster, New York, by her mom and later her stepmom.
Jaime was raised outside Chicago by her mom and various partners.
Erica was raised in Redding, Connecticut, by her dad and mom who came out when she was 15.
Caroline was raised in Newton, Massachusetts, by two moms.
Adrian was raised in Pembroke Pines, Florida, by his dad and mom who came out when he was in college.
Brian was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by his dad and mom who came out when he was a baby and his stepmom.
Hope was raised in New York City by her two dads.