Two Tucson authors make a historical and artistic pilgrimage to document lesbian mothers.
By Margaret Regan
MAY 4, 1998: FOR BARBARA SEYDA and Diana Herrera, the "gayby boom" first hit home back in 1993 at a boisterous Thanksgiving dinner in a New Mexico farmhouse.
Gayby? It's no misprint: An elision of the words "gay" and "baby," the gayby boom's a real phenomenon. The National Center for Lesbian Rights gives a rough estimate of the number of lesbian mothers in American as between five and 10 million. And that's not even counting gay dads, who sometimes, but not always, join genetic forces with the lesbian moms.
But back to that Thanksgiving dinner, a multi-family affair populated by a rainbow of raucous kids and their lesbian mothers. Seyda and Herrera, a Tucson couple who've just published Women in Love: Portraits of Lesbian Mothers & Families, a book of black-and-white photos and oral histories, were struck by the "patchwork quilt of radiant faces" of the children, many of them adopted from points as far-flung as Guatemala and India. And they were moved by the self-evident joy of the mothers who were setting the all-American Thanksgiving table for turkey.
"That evening, I knew we must document the stories of the families gathered there," writes Seyda in the book's introduction, which the authors will present in a slide show at Antigone Books this Friday night. The families' lives and struggles "were not considered significant by the mainstream media, but needed to be recorded and valued historically."
Not surprisingly, that mainstream media didn't take too kindly to Seyda's brainstorm. Interviewed last week in Tucson, where the couple moved in September because of the town's "rich artistic environment and strong women's community," Seyda ticked off the series of rejections. Mothering magazine, known as an alternative publication, first green-lighted an article and then killed it. Then came "homophobic editorial feedback" from the likes of Parenting, Family Circle, Family Life, Redbook and Ladies' Home Journal. Eventually, Seyda realized that the only way she could write and picture what she wanted was in a book that she could control. The problem, and it was a big one, was that neither she nor Herrera had the money to finance it. The photos she had already taken gathered dust.
A painter with an MFA from Rutgers, Seyda first turned to photography while living in Brooklyn in the late '80s. In photography, she thought she could combine her "artistic skills and political sensitivity. I was trying to see a way to be an artist in the world." She started shooting artistic and political events in New York's gay and lesbian scene, and publishing them in Outweek, a national paper. Her first piece of writing, about a series of lesbian bashings in New York, not only sparked an anti-violence march and self-defense workshops, but prosecutions conducted by the district attorney.
"I saw the power of journalism," she said.
Fast forward several years to the Southwest, when the power in Seyda's pictures of lesbian moms and kids eventually jump-started the book project. Herrera and Seyda decided to raise the money for the project themselves. Showing the pictures and book proposal to women's groups and a handful of female philanthropists, they eventually rounded up $85,000. Herrera took a sabbatical from her practice of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, and the two took off in their old Honda on a two-year odyssey around the country in order to track down, interview and photograph moms and kids. Eventually, the book was picked up by Bulfinch, a photography imprint of Little, Brown that has published the works of such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Imogene Cunningham and Robert Mapplethorpe.
"It was our dream come true," said Seyda, who has also published her photography in Essence, British Elle and Sojourner.
The fine black-and-white photos in the book not only reveal Seyda's gift for putting her subjects at their ease--even the shyest of children agree to smile into her camera--but her painterly eye for composition. (Tucsonan Keith Schreiber made the final prints.) There are pictures of gorgeous newborns and thirtysomething sons of lesbian moms who are now grandmothers, of interracial couples and city slickers and country people. The 39 families profiled live everywhere from New England and New York to the Pacific Northwest, from the Midwest to California and the Southwest. Five are from Tucson.
"We wanted to create a broad base of diversity, in terms of ethnicity, economics, religion, generations and geography," Seyda said. "That was a necessity from the beginning."
Seyda compressed the lengthy interviews to one or two pages. (Herrera had transcribed them by hand.) All the stories differ in their particulars, but not in their universals: Every single one tells of women wanting babies and finding themselves transformed by motherhood. Seyda attributes the burgeoning gayby boom to a number of factors, including the gay rights movement, women's increasing economic independence, and new fertility technologies. Some of the women came by their children through heterosexual marriage, and some through artificial insemination, from both known and unknown donors. Many adopted.
"Women a few years older than us thought they couldn't have children," Seyda said. "Now a house, marriage, and children all seem like tangible possibilities."
Though some women declined to be in the book, for fear of harassment--or worse, custody battles--the courageous ones herein, said Herrera, "live by their truth."
Eighteen states now allow same-sex adoptions by the lesbian mom's partner, Seyda noted, but other lesbian families have been torn apart by disapproving judges who award custody elsewhere.
Following this weekend's slide show at Antigone's, Seyda and Herrera will embark on a nine-city tour to promote the book. The photographs will be exhibited at the San Francisco Public Library this summer. After that, they're planning more collaborative book projects and possibly films, Seyda said. And babies?
"Probably not," Seyda said with a smile. "We want to keep traveling and making books. And we have 25 nieces and nephews."
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