Monday, November 9, 2009

Remembering Rosalie Davies

This post comes too late to be considered an obituary. Rosalie Davies died in July. I only just came across this news, however, and so I offer my personal remembrance of her and the impact she had on me and others.

In 2000, I wrote a chapter on lesbian and gay parents in the courts for the book, Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy and Civil Rights, edited by John D'Emilio, William Turner, and Urvashi Vaid. I began the chapter as follows:

In 1972, I met an openly lesbian mother for the first time. She was in the feminist consciousness-raising group that evolved out of a women-in-literature course I took my senior year of college. Like most women in her situation, she was embroiled in a battle with her former husband over the custody of her children, a battle she subsequently lost. Thus began my...interest in the legal problems facing gay and lesbian parents.

Rosalie Davies was that mother.

Not only was Rosalie the first openly lesbian mother I knew, she was practically the first open lesbian I knew. She was partners with the college professor who had taught that literature course, and when some of the students reconvened after the winter break as a consciousness-raising group Rosalie was among the new participants. In that mixture of gay and straight budding feminists, I had the opportunity to examine my own sexuality with blinders removed. About a year later, in my first year of law school, I came out.

The obituaries about Rosalie credit her with founding Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers. She did this in 1974, before going to law school herself. Her efforts deserve some context. At the time there was almost no awareness of the existence of lesbian mothers. There was a fledgling gay rights movement, but its legal focus was primarily in issues affecting gay men, such as decriminalization of sodomy and security clearances for government workers. There was also a feminist movement, but its legal focus was equality for women in the workplace and under the Constitution.

The groundbreaking book by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Lesbian/Woman, came out in 1972 and included a chapter on lesbian mothers. There was exactly one article on the subject in each of the New York Times, Newsweek, and Ms. in 1973. That's it. Rosalie founded CALM in 1974, and a group in Seattle formed the Lesbian Mothers National Defense Fund (LMNDF) that same year. (For a recent movie about LMNDF, see here). The annual National Conference on Women and the Law first addressed a lesbian issue in 1974, and that was, indeed, the custody rights of lesbian mothers. In 1975, the ACLU published a layperson's guide, The Rights of Gay People, which included a handful of pages on lesbian and gay parents. The first national gay and lesbian legal organization, Lambda Legal, was formed in 1973 but did not participate in a lesbian mother custody case until 1977. 1977 was also the year Donna Hitchens began the Lesbian Rights Project in San Francisco, the precursor to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the first legal group to make lesbian mothers their primary focus.

So it's not exactly that Rosalie Davies was ahead of her time. She was in many ways a product of her time. The successes of the feminist and civil rights movements led early gay and lesbian activists to believe in the likelihood of our success as a movement for rights and liberation. That was before the backlash of Anita Bryant and stopping the Equal Rights Amendment and rolling back availability of abortion; those setbacks came a few years later.

Rosalie took her personal injustice and heartbreak and made it political. She formed an organization to help others like her, and she took a public stand for the rights of mothers to come out as lesbian and still keep custody of their children. She changed many lives, including mine.


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Anonymous said...

I was a long time friend of Rosalie. I spent the last month of her life visiting her every day and arranged her funeral. She helped me get custody of my son.We both adopted baby girls of Color. I just spoke to Rosalie's birth son Adrian today. I miss her so much. For years I was the Chair of CALM, Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers. I am Ahavia Lavana,

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