The billboard, photographed by Chloe Atkins and featuring Pat and Karen Norman, on the side of a building in 1992. Courtesy Chloe Atkins
The billboard, photographed by Chloe Atkins and featuring Pat and Karen Norman, on the side of a building in 1992. (Courtesy Chloe Atkins)

How a 1992 Billboard Loomed Large in the Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights

How a 1992 Billboard Loomed Large in the Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights

“Another traditional family,” the billboards read in large bold text.

They measured 15 feet high and 30 feet wide. They all bore the same image: two women close together, one white and visibly pregnant, the other Black, cradling her partner’s belly and smiling up at the camera.

It was 1992, and the idea that Pat and Karen Norman were a family, let alone a traditional one, was a political statement aimed at the very president of the United States.

Chloe Atkins, who photographed the real-life couple in her San Francisco studio for a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) campaign, remembers the day she took the picture on her four-by-five camera.

“We got the pose right and the composition right and the lighting right and the exposure right,” she tells me in a recent phone interview. “And then I just said, ‘Feel how proud you are to have this child.’ And then Pat looked right into the lens and Karen looked down at her big belly—how sweet, huh?”

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Atkins, who now splits her time between Oakland and Sebastopol, was working as a commercial photographer at the time, taking pictures for a dance club promoter and doing the occasional magazine shoot. She says she got a thrill every time she saw her work out in the world, whether that was on posters around town or in magazines at the grocery store. But nothing approached the scale of the GLAAD billboards, which would go on to win a Northern California Silver Addy Award from the American Advertising Federation.

The subjects of the billboard weren’t just chosen for their photogeneity (though they are photogenic). Pat Norman was already two decades into her long career as an LGBTQ+ and civil rights activist. In 1971, she co-founded the Lesbian Mothers Union with activist Del Martin. She was the first openly gay employee of the San Francisco Public Health Department, and the first open lesbian to run for San Francisco city supervisor. (As a testament to her historical significance, Whoopi Goldberg played her in the 2017 miniseries When We Rise.)

Through the professional history of Pat Norman, and its momentary intersection with the life of Chloe Atkins, a story of the legal rights of same-sex couples and how they’ve changed over the past half century emerges. And it can be summed up in the now-ordinariness of the billboard’s once defiant message: “another traditional family.”

An illustration from the summer 1972 issue of 'Mother Lode,' a feminist paper published in San Francisco. (Archives of Sexuality and Gender)

The Lesbian Mothers Union

The story starts in 1967, when judges began to routinely deny lesbians and gay men their parental rights. These custody battles, the result of an increasing number of men and women coming out in the ’70s and leaving their heterosexual marriages, were often lost by gay and lesbian parents—yet they still slowly chipped away at judicial prejudice.

“Lesbians and gay men had to fight hard to change the perception of parenting as exclusively heterosexual,” Daniel Rivers writes in “‘In the Best Interests of the Child’: Lesbian and Gay Parenting Custody Cases, 1967–1985.” Ultimately, this struggle, he argues, helps explain how and why domestic, parental and marital rights came to occupy a very central role in the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement.

Groups like the Lesbian Mothers Union raised legal defense funds, provided social and professional support to lesbian mothers, and in some extreme instances, helped women go underground with their children. In a 1977 KQED news report by Randy Shilts, a lawyer describes the hardships lesbian mothers face. “A lesbian mother lives constantly in fear that she’s going to lose her children,” she says, adding that fear can be manipulated. “A lot of women are blackmailed into giving up their right to child support.”

For lesbian mothers of color, their situation was especially precarious, facing multiple discriminations within the legal system.

An image from Rosemary Regello's article in 'Plexus,' Oct. 1983. (Archives of Sexuality and Gender)

As an out woman of color, Pat Norman’s voice was especially important in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights, which often focused on white, middle-class men and women. And for her, the personal was always political: She spoke about her own court battles to retain custody of her children in the 1977 documentary In the Best Interests of the Children. Her advocacy work would continue in her role as a community mental health worker, and as coordinator for lesbian and gay health services within the San Francisco Health Department—a role she held when the AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco.

By the time she and Karen posed for Atkins, Pat had run for city supervisor three times, served on the city’s police commission and was the executive director of the Institute for Community Health Outreach. Pat and Karen Norman raised six children together, and by 1995, had seven grandchildren.

A Direct Message to the GOP

In 1992, the idea of “traditional families” and their supposed values was very much in the air. George H. Bush was running for reelection against Bill Clinton at the time, and the Republican platform presented at the party’s August convention used the phrase “family values” no less than seven times. To the GOP, traditional family values meant “having fathers and mothers in the home”; it meant opposing sexual preference as a protected minority status; and standing against “any legislation or law that legally recognizes same-sex marriages and allows such couples to adopt children or provide foster care.”

Against this backdrop, the “Another Traditional Family” campaign co-opted the language of the right, asserting the existence of loving families that didn’t fit the GOP’s narrow definition of American life. Atkins remembers one of the billboards, installed in San Jose, being taken down because of a bomb threat. “Can you believe that?” she asks incredulously. “I’m going to bomb your building because I’m homophobic?”

The billboard pictured over a restaurant. (Courtesy GLAAD)

Atkins knew Pat and Karen only as her subjects—their relationship never progressed past that one session. But her own life, as an artist and a lesbian, continued down a path only dreamed of by the liberation movement decades before. In 1998, she published Girls’ Night Out, a collection of photographs with St. Martin’s Press, part of a series called “Stonewall Inn.” Women pose in black-and-white photographs enacting playful, sensual and joyful encounters with one another, studio portraits mimicking the types of pictures Atkins would take at lesbian clubs.

That same year, Atkins was the subject of a short TV documentary, “Ooh La La: Chloe Atkins,” which shows the artist photographing San Francisco drag kings in her studio. “It’s four minutes long and they filmed me for like eight hours,” Atkins remembers. “Sometimes when I’m feeling not good, I watch that and I feel a lot better.”

Chloe Atkins' photographs of San Francisco drag kings: 'Steak' and 'Vinnie Testosterone.' (Courtesy Chloe Atkins)

The Movement is ‘Far from Done’

Atkins met Erin Flynn, her wife of 25 years, in 1994. She lists off the various certifications they filed over the course of their relationship, including a domestic partners’ reception hosted by then-Mayor Willie Brown. In 2000, they traveled to Vermont to have a civil union ceremony with their extended families. And on Feb. 14, 2004, they were officially married during what Atkins calls Gavin Newsom’s “subversive act of civil disobedience.”

Afterwards, she remembers, “We all went to Zuni Café. There were like 500 couples who had just gotten married at San Francisco’s City Hall. Everyone was drinking champagne and eating oysters. It was fabulous.” (Those 2004 weddings were annulled by the California Supreme Court, and Atkins and Flynn married once again at City Hall in 2008.) Finally, after years of legal battles, the 2015 Supreme Court decision upheld same-sex marriages as a civil right.

“Now, everybody can get married, which is the only thing we wanted honestly,” she says. “Of course it’s romantic as hell to get married every couple years, I recommended it to everybody. There’s nothing like it, really, it’s very, very affirming.”

Parental rights, marriage equality, the governmental recognition of loving relationships—securing the legal rights LGBTQ+ people in the United States is a ongoing battle. Just days ago, the Supreme Court ruled that gay and transgender workers are protected under the Civil Rights Act, an uplifting moment in an otherwise bleak year.

Rebecca Rolfe, executive director of the SF LGBT Center, says the decision is encouraging, “But we also must remember that until our laws remedy systemic racism and inequality, our movement’s pursuit of LGBTQ+ equality is far from done.”

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It’s a sentiment with which Pat Norman would likely agree. Interviewed by the Bay Area Reporter in 2007, on the occasion of her appointment as Grand Marshal of San Francisco’s Pride parade, she reflected on her decades of activism: “It’s strange. We go on, and certainly, there is some progress. On the other hand, there are issues in 1971 that are still the same issues we’re dealing with now.”