Cheri Pies, a public health professor who broke barriers with her landmark 1985 book, “Considering Parenthood: A Workbook for Lesbians,” a bible of the “gay boom” of the 1980s and beyond, died July 4 at her home in Berkeley, California. She was 73 years old.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Melina Linder.
Later in her life, Dr. Pies (her first name was pronounced “Sherry”) became a pioneering researcher and professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, investigating the effects of economic and racial inequality on issues such as infant mortality and health across generations.
But he made a name for himself decades before he turned to academia with his groundbreaking book. That journey began in the 1970s, when Dr. Pies worked as a health educator for Planned Parenthood, counseling heterosexual women considering motherhood.
His focus began to change in 1978, after his female partner adopted a daughter. At the time, the concept of openly gay parents was still unknown in the broader culture.
Just that year, New York became the first state to say it would not deny adoption applications solely on the basis of homosexuality. A year later, a gay couple in California broke barriers as the first known to jointly adopt a child.
Dr. Pies was surprised by the lack of support available to same-sex parents, as well as the lack of basic information about the unique challenges they face. He began holding workshops at his home in Oakland, California, advertising them with flyers in women’s bookstores and other places where lesbians congregated.
By the early 1980s, word of her work had spread beyond the Bay Area, and she was bombarded with letters and phone calls from lesbians across the country. In response, Dr. Pies compiled her teachings and experiences into a book. “Considering Parenthood: A Workbook for Lesbians,” published by lesbian feminist press Spinsters Ink, provided practical advice on a wide range of topics, including using sperm donors, adoption-related legal issues, and ways to build a support network.
The book, which appeared 30 years before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, opened the floodgates for countless other books on LGBTQ parenting.
“She was absolutely a pioneer, and those of us who came later built on her work,” said G. Dorsey Green, psychologist and author of “The Lesbian Parenting Book” (with D. Merilee Clunis, 2003), in an obituary about Dr. Pies on Mombian, a website for lesbian mothers. “She would recommend her book to clients. It was then that lesbian couples began to think about having children as lesbians. Cheri started that conversation.”
Earning a master’s degree in social work from Boston University in 1976, Dr. Pies eventually turned to academia, receiving another master’s degree in maternal and child health from Berkeley in 1985 and a doctorate in health education there in 1993.
She was serving as the director of family, maternal and child health programs for Contra Costa County, which borders Berkeley and Oakland, when she heard a lecture in 2003 by Dr. Michael C. Lu, who would become dean of the Berkeley School of Public Health.
Dr. Lu discussed a concept called life course theory, which focuses on the idea that social and economic conditions at each stage of life, beginning with childhood, can have powerful and lasting effects for generations. “What surrounds us shapes us,” Dr. Pies explained in a 2014 lecture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Some people would say that your ZIP code is more important than your genetic code.”
At Berkeley, Dr. Pies would eventually collaborate with Dr. Lu and others to create the Best Babies Zone initiative, an innovative program that would study, and ideally improve, health conditions in economically challenged neighborhoods across the country.
In 2012, she became the program’s principal investigator after Dr. Lu took a position in the Obama administration. The initiative included home health visits and working with community leaders to create parent-child playgroups, improve park safety and improve job training. It started in Oakland, New Orleans and Cincinnati and had spread to six other cities by 2017, the year Dr. Pies retired from Berkeley. The program is still active today.
“There are people working on large-scale policy around structural racism, trying to change policy and practice,” Dr. Pies said in an interview posted on the Berkeley School of Public Health website in April. “Best Babies Zone is at the other end of the spectrum, going small to make change for people who can’t wait for policy change to happen.”
The high incidence of low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome in these communities was one of the central points of the program. “Babies are the canary in the mine,” Dr. Pies said in her speech at the University of Alabama. “If the babies are not born healthy, you know something is not right in the community.”
Cheramy Anne Pies was born on November 26, 1949, in Los Angeles, the second of three daughters born to Morris Pies, a physician, and Doris (Naboshek) Pies, a nurse. Ella (she later changed her name to Cheri).
Growing up in Encino in the San Fernando Valley, the outgoing and enthusiastic Cheri was a fan of movies, particularly musicals like “My Fair Lady,” and got her early taste of the medical profession working as a receptionist in her father’s office.
After graduating from nearby Birmingham High School, he enrolled at Berkeley in 1967, earning a bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 1971.
Berkeley at the time was a cauldron of Vietnam War-era political passions, after the Free Speech Movement protests rocked the campus beginning in 1964. “Although I wasn’t actively involved in it, I was certainly exposed to politics,” she later said of the movement.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Pies is survived by his sisters, Lois Goldberg and Stacy Pies.
She would eventually channel Berkeley’s 1960s spirit of activism as an author and teacher, working to improve the lives of openly lesbian parents of the 1980s and beyond, whose numbers increased so rapidly that in 1996, Newsweek magazine reported that an estimated six to 14 million children in the United States had at least one gay parent.
“Adoption agencies are reporting increasing inquiries from prospective fathers, especially men, who identify as gay,” the article said, “and sperm banks say they are in the midst of what some are calling a lesbian-driven ‘gay boom.’”
Many of that generation would acknowledge their debt to Dr. Pies for the rest of their lives, Linder said in a phone interview: “Cheri and I could be anywhere in the world, on a hike in New Zealand or just walking in the Berkeley Hills, and people would see her and stop to say thank you, saying that Ben or Alice or whoever it is wouldn’t be in her life if it wasn’t for Cheri.”