Living to tell family histories

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday June 19, 2007
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Everyone enjoys a good story. People pack movie theaters, watch TV, and scan the shelves at bookstores and libraries all in search of a good story that might entertain them or enrich their lives in some way.

While many stories are available for people to enjoy, there are countless others that remain only as memories or emotional imprints left by family members or close friends. What would those stories look like if they were recorded on a DVD or in print, especially LGBT families' stories? How would these stories possibly become a part of history?

"We are becoming more family oriented, marriage oriented, and kid oriented that we think there is a growing need," said Lis Cox, 56, a personal historian and owner of Talking Stories. Cox, with her partner, Ida Oberman, 49, has recorded 70 personal histories. Three of those were of LGBT individuals, Cox said.

"We would like to do more GLBT families," said Cox. "Our hunch is that we are going to have more families contact us as gay couples have gotten married and they are having kids."

They might be right. And with the flood of reality shows, real life might be more interesting than fiction.

According to Sally Goldin, 61, a personal historian and owner of Tell Me A Story, personal histories are different from genealogy because genealogy only traces where people came from and where they lived, not who they were, what their lives were like, or what their humanity was.

Goldin, who is the co-coordinator for the Northern California region of the Association of Personal Historians, which has 700 members around the world, began her career as a personal historian after spending years as a mediator and one year in a social work program.

"I have always loved stories. I've always liked people," said Goldin. She adopted her son Morris Goldin (her former partner is the birth mother), and said that he always asked her to "tell me a story about when you were little," when he was a child.

Goldin told the Bay Area Reporter that is when she began to think about the importance of family storytelling and recording personal histories.

"I just got the idea that it would be a great thing to do for people so they could really remember their family memories," she said.

She didn't imagine that she would begin to record her own family's history. Her family includes Morris; his half-brother Cooper Reaves and his mothers, Tanya Starnes and Martina Reaves; and Stephen Young, the biological father of both boys.

Young donated his sperm as a way to help women who wanted to have children but didn't want to by having a sexual relationship with a man, according to Starnes.

Morris Goldin, 20, and Cooper Reaves, 21, were two of the first children to be born by artificial insemination at the lesbian-owned and operated Pacific Reproductive Services, which was started in 1984 by nurse practitioner Sherron L. Mills, who is the clinic director.

Cooper Reaves's story was so intriguing that MTV documented his first call to Young in its true life documentary series I Have Gay Parents, which aired in the fall of 2005 both on MTV and Logo.

According to Martina Reaves, 58, the biological mother and who is a mediator for divorcing couples and domestic partnership dissolutions, and Starnes, 53, a former lawyer, Cooper Reaves was the first child to look up his donor father at Pacific Reproductive Services.

Cooper Reaves and his mothers met Young in late 2005. Cooper Reaves also found Morris Goldin early in 2006 and introduced him to Young that spring. Since then the families have bonded, sharing holidays and special events together.

Martina Reaves and Starnes told the B.A.R. that the experience of doing the documentary inspired them to begin recording their own history. Martina Reaves enrolled in a writing class at the University of California at Berkeley Extension and began working on her memoir.

"I wrote it because I just wanted to get it down," said Martina Reaves. "But when I was done with it and looked back at it I thought, 'Boy this is sort of historical. These are things that not very many people have done in this lifetime.'"

After meeting Sally Goldin, Martina Reaves and Starnes decided to start working with her to record their family history, which they recently started.

"When [Cooper] first met Stephen, he couldn't ask enough questions and get enough information," said Starnes. "He has a very inquisitive mind, so I think, for him, the more information he has the fewer questions he will have unanswered."

Morris Goldin agreed. "Knowledge is power. The more stories that you share and tell with people, the more bonding they are going to have in their lives. The more stories you incorporate into your life [the] more you can be free to express yourself and understand things about yourself."

Both young men are in college. Morris Goldin is a student at City College of San Francisco and Cooper Reaves is a student at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.

Cooper Reaves did not return attempts to contact them for this article. Young told the B.A.R. that he was proud to be a part of the family through his personal and political action to be a sperm donor.

Personal is political

San Francisco residents Sam and Julia Thoron hired Sally Goldin to record their personal histories, in particular to record their activism with Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays. Julia Thoron is the co-chair of the San Francisco chapter of PFLAG. Sam Thoron currently is on the national steering committee after serving on the national board of directors from 1992 to 2002, including a stint as president.

The Thorons became involved with PFLAG after their daughter came out to them in 1990 when she was 19 years old. They realized that they had "new information about their daughter," according to Sam Thoron, and that they needed to become educated.

"I think the motivation for getting political is based in the personal," said Sam Thoron. "That we are deeply committed to the principle that our daughter deserves to be treated in the same respect as her brothers in every aspect of her life. That includes the right to choose to get married or not, as she sees fit, and if she deserves these life privileges and obligations, so does everyone else."

Julia Thoron, now retired, believes their personal histories book will be useful for telling their story when they lobby elected officials.

"We've told our stories, but we've never put it in a book," said Julia Thoron. "So, this is fun. It has been very interesting to go back with a purpose and think about our childhood experiences and what might have encouraged us to be open to differences, to be open to working for change in our family backgrounds."

Julia Thoron said that she believes the most important thing about this project is "the outgrowth to our commitment to change" through print rather than other oral or media sources as a way to "illustrate the importance of telling our own personal story to effect change."

Sam Thoron, who is also retired, added, "If we are going to change the hearts and minds ... our most powerful tool, perhaps, is our personal stories. By telling our truths and it seems to be important to leave tracks."

Preserving LGBT history

Sally Goldin is committed to preserving LGBT history.

"There are so many people that exist on this earth that are not in the limelight and these regular normal people are contributing so much and especially to my community," she said.

Bay Area resident Cathy Cade, 65, has also expanded the definition of family beyond parents and children.

"LGBT families ... don't necessarily mean a child and their parents or a parent and their children, because we define our families in different ways," said Cade, who has been photographing and recording queer history since the 1970s, when she obtained her doctorate in sociology. "Some of my work has been centered on biological families, but ... some of it has also been people who have a sense of history and want to leave their stories for the larger LGBT community."

Cade told the B.A.R. that placing personal histories in archives across the United States is what "really energizes" her. Cade has provided individual personal histories that she has worked to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco; the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City; the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles; and the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library for researchers and the public to use.

"We now have the ability to leave our stories in these archives," said Cade. "So they will be available for generations."

Making history

Producing a personal history is a worthwhile endeavor that anyone can do if they set aside time or have the resources to hire professionals to assist with the process.

Sally Goldin suggested creating an "ethical will," a documentation of values and hopes for future generations to pass on. The document can be anything from a collection of poetry to lists, essays, or letters.

"My point of view is that everything counts," said Cade. "Whatever you can do is worth it. Even if you can't do everything that you wanted to do it's important to do what you can."

Hiring a professional to assist with creating a personal history can cost anywhere from $900 to $30,000, depending on the project.

For more information about personal histories, visit; Cathy Cade at; or Lis Cox at