Not Going Back: Queer American Families and the Value Voters Summit

Not Going Back: Queer American Families and the Value Voters Summit

On October 12, 2017, the day after National Coming Out Day, I received an email from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) informing me that President Donald Trump was scheduled to appear at the Value Voters Summit, a venue that combines virulently anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim “values.”

Like I have almost every day since last November’s election, I wonder how much worse this world I live in can get, and how much more quickly the civil rights gains of my adulthood can be reversed. Homophobia and transphobia have long harmed my community, leaving both psychological and physical harm in their wake. Despite this, some of us have lived to fight another day, to pick up where our sisters and brothers have left off, and to try to move the world toward justice for all people, including queer people.

In the last few years, when I have stepped into the classroom on the first day of Introduction to LGBTQ Studies, I have stepped into a classroom filled with students transformed by the rights gains of the last two decades, who are far less quick to judgment about people who might be different from themselves, who are out or straight allies, and who can’t even imagine the world of my young adulthood, the 1980s and 1990s.

Trump not only appeared at the Value Voters Summit on October 13, but his administration proudly attached his comments to the White House website. For the Value Voters Summit, and for Trump, members of the LGBTQ community pose a health hazard and a threat to what they see as the foundation to civilization, what they call the American family [emphasis mine]. Tony Perkins, the President of the Family Research Council, opened the Value Voters Summit by thanking the participants for their efforts to “advance faith, family, and freedom to every corner of America.” Perkins and his Family Research Council use pseudo science to claim that “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed. It is by definition unnatural, and as such is associated with negative physical and psychological health effects.”

As BuzzFeed news reported, those attending this summit “were handed totebags that included a flyer promoting an ‘important new book’” published by MassResistance. As you can see from the flyer, MassResistance insists that the acceptance of LGBTQ people in media and society has “created a public health crisis affecting us all.” The website referenced on the flyer includes a list of reasons homosexuality poses a public health hazard. The list is long and includes claims that “homosexuality is not innate,” “[t]he self-harming lifestyles and sexual practices of homosexual men and lesbians,” and “[t]the disproportionate disease incidence among ‘gays’, lesbians, and bisexuals.”1 They also claim that the support parents offer for their children’s gender identity is child abuse.

In his speech, Trump played to this hatred repeatedly. “We love our families,” he said, without adding explicitly that “our families” cannot be queer families, or even heteronormative families with queer members. He didn’t need to add that because his audience had already defined the American family as one that doesn’t look like mine. After all, Trump said, he and the members of the audience all “know that the American family is the true bedrock of American life. So true.” After telling his listeners that times have changed, he reassured them, “But you know what, now they’re changing back again. Just remember that.” In that sentence, and in his actions since taking office, he promised his one unwavering bastion of support — the religious right — that he would work with them against LGBTQ civil rights, and help them to prevent the spread of the disease of homosexuality.

As I have written for Nursing Clio before, Trump’s hateful actions and speech continually remind me of my own past. I turned 18 in 1983, went to college for two years starting in 1984, and dropped out of college to move to San Francisco in 1986. The society in which I came out was far less open than the society my students come out into, and tolerance was often the most we could expect from families, colleagues, or neighbors.

When Trump pledges to change the times back, my own experience tells me how damaging that change will be, and my knowledge as a historian of the more-distant past allows me to understand that it could be even worse than I have experienced in my own lifetime.

At one point in his Value Voters Summit speech, Trump said: “We know that it’s the family and the church, not government officials, that know best how to create strong and loving communities.” For many of us who are queer, however, family and church have rejected us from their so-called loving communities. Only since the 1990s has government on state and federal levels provided us with legislation that gives us leverage to fight back against hatred and discrimination.

For us, the health hazard has been the hatred and discrimination we have faced. Our “lifestyles and sexual practices” have grounded us in communities that work to protect us from that hazard. We learned from one another that we are not unhealthy. Our rights struggles have often been at the intersections of health, illness, and disability.

1979 photo of a massive crowd of protesters with the capitol in the background
In 1979, 75,000 participated in People March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights Thousands. (Getty)

As I read the SPLC email out loud to my wife Adele and we began to talk through our anger and despair, I recalled one of the first stories that made me realize that I had to stand up and fight for rights. In 1986, as I began to consider dropping out of college, I fell in love with Hope. She invited me to move to San Francisco with her, which I did. Almost immediately, we heard the story of Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson. At that point, Karen Thompson had been fighting for custody of Sharon for three years.

In 1983, a car Sharon was in was hit by a drunk driver and Sharon was paralyzed. She and Karen had been together for four years at the time of the accident, but Sharon’s parents did not know about their relationship. Once they did, they refused to acknowledge Karen’s role in Sharon’s life. Karen asked that Sharon be placed in her care, but Sharon’s father refused, moving Sharon to a nursing home 200 miles away and refusing Karen visitation. Karen sued for custody of Sharon.

By 1986, Karen was still battling in the courts to have Sharon placed in her care. Sharon, using what communication she could (typing, pointing to words, hand signals), indicated that she wanted to be put in Karen’s care. I knew then, that what had happened to Sharon and Karen could happen to any of us, and, in fact, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, I saw it happen every day as parents removed their sons from the people who cared for them or, after their sons died, refused to acknowledge their sons’ families of choice.

Only in the last five or six years did I start to believe that what had happened to Sharon and Karen was, mostly, a thing of the past. I am not naive, but more often than not, even in the conservative corner of the country in which I live, same-sex relationships were being honored. Since 2014, for those who chose to become married, their relationships were now officially sanctioned. Even conservative Catholic hospitals, like the biggest hospital in my city, were obliged to honor those relationships.

In the last year I have lost much of the optimism I had gained. The daily reality of 2017 brings me back to the 1980s where Hope and I were one of countless couples trying to redefine what family and family values meant. At the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, we participated in the mass wedding staged in front of the Internal Revenue Service on October 10. We heard the Reverend Troy Perry proclaim: “We stand before our nation and our friends because we wish to proclaim our right to love one another. We stand here knowing that love makes a family — nothing else, nothing less!”2

Three days later, Hope and I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court with thousands of others as part of a massive act of civil disobedience to protest against the ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld a Texas sodomy law. When we returned from Washington, we crafted powers of attorney so that we could have a say in each other’s care if the need arose, and we kept the paperwork in the freezer in case of fire. Indeed, when Hope had to have surgery at San Francisco General Hospital, I brought the paperwork with me in case they tried to make me leave her room. (The nurses were too kind and overworked to care that I was there.)

There were many good things about that time and place, but the tenuousness of our queer American families wasn’t one of them. I wouldn’t trade the experiences of my early 20s for anything in the world, but I don’t want Trump, Congress, and the Values Voters Summit to take us back to the 1980s, or even further back to the 1950s or 1960s. I don’t want to be back in the place where I have to fear that if something happens to me, the person I love and trust most in my life could not have a say in my care or could not participate in end-of-life decisions. As we chanted at the the 1987 March on Washington, “For love and for life, we are not going back.”


  1. I wondered why Mass Resistance always put gay into quotation marks, so I went on their website to find out. In an e-publication called Redeeming the Rainbow: A Christian Response to the “Gay” Agenda, Dr. Scott Lively wrote: “The reader will notice that the word ‘gay’ always appears in quotes unless it is part of a larger quotation from a source that does not follow this convention. For efficiency, the author appreciates the option of using a one-syllable word in place of the five-syllable word “homosexual,” but is unwilling to grant that homosexuality is gay (i.e. happy and carefree).” Return to text.
  2. Quoted in Ellen Lewin, Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 26. Return to text.

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.