Back when photographer Gabriela Herman’s mum came out as gay, Gabriela says she didn’t know how to handle it – she was in high school and didn’t know anyone else with LGBT parents, despite going to a liberal school in a liberal town in New England. “It was still so uncommon then,” she says over the phone from New York, now 38. “I didn't even feel like if I talked to someone about it they would understand. My siblings and I were super close, we usually talked about everything, but we didn’t talk about it either.”
After some therapy sessions, which she found painful and unhelpful, and even a period of cutting off contact from her mum, Gabriela eventually grew to accept her mum’s relationship with another woman, a process aided by embarking on her photo project, titled “The Kids”, in which she travels around America taking portraits of people with gay, bisexual or trans mums and dads.
When she began the project nine years ago, her only lead was a US non-profit her sister had put her in touch with called COLAGE, who helped people dealing with what she’d been through. She went to their meet-up and found for the first time a room full of people who had experiences just like hers. “It became so therapeutic for me, because before that I just didn't share my story or talk out loud. Through hearing other people do it I became a lot more comfortable, and met this whole community that I didn't even know existed.”
Gabriela has now photographed over 100 children of LGBT parents all across the USA, although according to the Williams Institute there are an estimated six million people with LGBT parents living in America. She’s found that no two individuals’ experiences are the same: “For some kids it was never difficult, they were just like ‘these are my parents’ – especially if they were born into a family with LGBT parents,” she explains. For others, there was a lot of shame, embarrassment or hiding of the truth. “Sometimes it was even the parents forcing kids to keep things a secret, to stop other kids teasing them in school.”
One standout story for Gabriela was a girl in California called Chelsea, who was biologically related to both her dads because they had combined one of their sperm with the other’s sister's eggs. “I just thought that was phenomenal,” says Gabriela. “I thought I’d heard everything and then she was the first person I had come across who had DNA from both her dads, it was incredible.”
Another was a woman called Danielle, who was raised by six parents. “That was a very unique scenario,” Gabriela laughs. “She had one lesbian couple and one gay couple who had decided to have kids together, so one of the mums and one of the dads had conceived her and her brother. Then the gay dads divorced and both re-partnered, so she had four gay dads and two gay mums raising her as one big family.”
And then there was a whole batch of kids that she calls "second gen", who also identify as LGBT themselves.
Of her overall findings, Gabriela says it definitely seemed easier or harder to deal with depending on where subjects lived. For people with a gay dad in the San Francisco Castro district, it was more regular – “Everyone had a gay dad!” she jokes – but for people growing up in places like rural Nebraska, with less diversity, or in more isolated communities in general, things seemed harder.
Whether or not the kids also came out as LGBT didn’t seem to affect the process of acceptance one way or the other, however. “For some it becomes a great bonding moment but for others, the coming out process is even more tricky,” remarks Gabriela. “Mark, featured in the book, is a great example, where he came out first and with his guidance and support he was able to help his dad come to terms with his own coming out.”
In a time when Donald Trump takes measures to regress the legal wins of America’s LGBT community almost monthly, and when global anti-same-sex marriage campaigns draw on the “but think of the children!” argument as a deterrent (such as in Australia, just recently), a photo project aimed at raising awareness around the complexities and joys of being the child of LGBT parents seems vital.
“I think that’s a dangerous rhetoric and I hope this book will help others who are feeling lost and alone and letting them know that there are people like them out there who have gone through similar experiences,” agrees Gabriela.
Things have improved for the photographer personally – she now goes on family holidays with her siblings, her mum, her mum’s partner, her dad and his girlfriend – and she also thinks things are improving for others in her boat. When she started in 2010, it was pretty difficult finding willing subjects; towards the end, there were people contacting her from all over.
On top of that, she’s noticed that more recently subjects report that having gay parents has never really been an issue to them at all, particularly her younger subjects. “I’m done shooting for a while now,” says Gabriela, “but that was definitely the most encouraging thing I took away from the project. Hopefully in the years to come, this won’t even be an issue at all, and people will wonder why I even made a book about it.”
Ahead, Gabriela’s subjects share part of their stories.
All images copyright Gabriela Herman from the book The Kids: The Children of LGBTQ Parents in the USA, published by The New Press.