July 26th is Parents’ Day in the U.S. Signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1994, this gender-neutral alternative to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day has not gained the same popularity as its binary counterparts, but many do celebrate it annually on the fourth Sunday in July.
To celebrate, here are eight incredible queer parents who found a way to make historic contributions to the world while parenting.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
Josephine Baker grew up in extreme poverty in St. Louis and started working at the age of eight, 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 at 15 and emigrating at 19 to France, where she’d spend most of the rest of her life. Josephine, who was bi, made international headlines as a huge star for her comedic and erotic dancing, famous for her signature skirt made of bananas. When war fell on Europe, she used her celebrity 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 12 children from nine countries and raised them in a chateau in southern France that is now a museum about her. One of her sons, Jean-Claude Baker, would later go on to found world-renowned Restaurant Chez Josephine in NYC in her honor.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
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 while each carried on romantic partnerships with other women. 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.
Eleanor’s 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, though Hick burned the less “discreet” ones after Eleanor’s death. The thousands of surviving letters (and other mountains of evidence) make the sapphic nature of the relationship clear.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937)
The bi “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith (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 six-year-old boy, Jack Gee, Jr., together.
Jack Jr.’s birth mother was the niece of one of the chorus girls in Bessie’s show and Bessie always doted on the boy and told his mother if she couldn’t care for him that she’d adopt him. The birth mother eventually took Bessie up on this offer but the adoption was never made legal and Bessie’s sister was the one to do most of the childcare since Bessie 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.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Infamous Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde may have been married to a woman, but he is better known for his love of men. His wife Constance and he had two sons together, Cyril and Vyvyan. When his children were ages eight and nine, Oscar was sent to prison for two years for what he called at his trial “the love that dare not speak its name.” The official offense was “gross indecency” (aka homosexuality), and Constance left Oscar over it and took the kids with her. She changed the boys’ last names, moved them to Switzerland, and they never saw their father again. Oscar never recovered from the health effects of the imprisonment and died three years after his release.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Intersectional feminist Audre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Audre married a gay man named Edwin from 1962 to 1970 and they had two children during that time, Elizabeth and Jonathan. Audre met her long-time partner Frances in 1972, and her children lived with her and Frances on Staten Island. A prolific writer and poet, her widely acclaimed books and poems lived on after she passed from breast cancer. 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.”
Billy Tipton (1914-1989)
Billy Tipton was a trans jazz musician who never legally married but had several long-term female partners throughout his life. One of them was Kitty Kelly, Billy’s partner from 1961 to 1981, with whom he adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William. Billy lived as stealth and his partners and children apparently didn’t know he was trans until after his death. The sons remember him as a loving father who took them camping and to the movies. His jazz career was modest, playing small clubs and recording for a small label, and his name became better-known post-mortem after the surprise over his sex assigned at birth made some headlines.
Del Martin (1921-2008)
Del Martin got married to James Martin at the age of nineteen 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 her daughter, but when James remarried she relinquished Kendra to him because they both thought a “traditional” family environment was best for a child. Del was just coming to terms with her lesbianism, seeking information that just didn’t exist in the 1940s.
Del met Phyllis Lyon (1924-2020) in 1950, and the rest is truly history. Phyllis and Del were the power couple who blazed the trail for lesbian rights, co-founding the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 (the first U.S. lesbian organization), co-creating The Ladder in 1956 (the first U.S. lesbian publication), and co-authoring Lesbian/Woman in 1972 (a groundbreaking lesbian book). Del also co-founded 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. Del and Phyllis pushed gay organizations to include women and women’s organizations during their 58 years as life partners. Kendra, age 66 at the time, was sitting in the front row when Del and Phyllis legally married in 2008, two months before Del’s death.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940-present)
Stonewall veteran Miss Major has been working 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 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.”
We’re so grateful for these amazing queer parents who are constantly showing the world that you don’t need to have a “traditional” home environment to create amazing families. Inspired by these icons, we look to the future of LGBTQ+ families, knowing the next generation of queer parents will be just as spectacular — if not even more.