Behind every photo, a story of the American family, a step toward LGBT acceptance

As relatives make plans to board planes and trains for holiday gatherings, we are reminded that even before Freud invented psychoanalysis, life with family has been complicated. Norman Rockwell’s painting of a happy family at Thanksgiving withstanding, marital relations often include different races and religions, opposing political believes, same-sex partners, and even close friends who legally adopt each other to share medical directives.

To celebrate the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that persons of the same sex can marry legally across all 50 states, the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School is exhibiting “The Changing American Family,” an exhibition of photographic portraits and videos by Gigi Kaeser and Seth Bernstein.

“One major method to promote understanding and acceptance of people who seem different has been the use of photographs and videos such as those seen in this exhibition,” says Bernstein Gallery Curator Kate Somers.

With Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair this past summer, transgender people are now more visible to the mainstream public. It’s no longer LGBT people coming out to their parents that is at stake, but also LGBT parents coming out to their families.

One of the first images we see on the walls of the Bernstein Gallery is of three pink-skinned women in an embrace under the dappled shade of a cedar shake house. These women look like your next-door neighbors, maybe your sisters.

In text written by Peggy Gillespie, co-founder, along with photographer Kaeser, of Family Diversity Projects, we learn about the relationship between Linda, Molly and Anna Heller.

Linda, a social worker, therapist and feminist/lesbian activist, says “For the last eight years, my daughters have been actively working to help other children to be comfortable, and to be proud of who they are instead of keeping secrets… Molly and Anna have educated people and opened people’s hearts…

I was married for 16 years and, as time went on, realized I was probably bisexual. When I fell in love with a woman, it felt like I was coming home.”

Daughter Molly, 25 during the time of this documentation, recounts how she was 11 when her mother brought home a woman she introduced as a friend. “At 11 p.m., they were still talking in my mom’s room,” says Molly. “I thought, ‘Uh oh. She’s staying overnight… Oh my god, my mom’s a lesbian!'”

The next morning, the girlfriend left early, and Molly told her sister Anna, 2 years older – they batted the idea around until a few days later confronting their mother: “Are you gay?”

Molly and Anna cried when their mother revealed the truth. Couldn’t she just be friends with her girlfriend? “Then we went out for dinner because that is what we always did whenever we were in crisis in our family,” says Anna.

“A few days later, we met Mom’s girlfriend,” continues Molly. “We were in the back seat of the car, and she and Mom were holding hands. We were pointing at them and sticking our fingers down our throats, pretending we were throwing up because we just thought it was so weird and gross. How could they do that? But we had a great time.” Soon “there was a lot of love and laughter and talking and listening.”

Molly and Anna kept their secret from their friends, fearing the reactions they’d get, and even forbid their mother from wearing Birkenstocks, imaging they would be perceived as “lesbian shoes.” Even boyfriends were not let in on the truth, for fear that they’d think Anna and Molly were also gay. The sisters made up stories about the other woman who lived in the house with them.

After high school, Molly and Anna went to the Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International conference where they met other children of LGBT parents and learned they weren’t alone – they finally had a chance to share their secret.

It turned out that all their high school friends knew the truth all along, but were waiting for Anna and Molly to tell them. One high school girlfriend said, “Anna, I would love you even if you were gay.”

Among the others profiled here are Crystal Jang, a 50-year-old lesbian who, as a child, felt as if she were the only Asian gay person and came out without any role models; Stacey Styles, a violin restorer who, as a mother, finds she has to come out every September to a new set of classmates and their parents; and

Marcelle Cook-Daniels, presenting first as female, developed a lesbian relationship with another woman and transitioned to male after bearing their child.

“What makes us the same as some traditional families is that we have fights over how much candy (our son) can eat and other mundane things,” says Cook-Daniels. “We think about his future and how to do everything we can to help him be happy and healthy. This is what families do.”

Videos of former Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall’s historic ruling in GLAD’s Massachusetts marriage equality lawsuit are also on view. On November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry violated the state constitution, and Massachusetts became the first state in the nation allowing marriage equality.

The Changing American Family is on view at the Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, through November 25.


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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