So I’ve got a backlog of books to review here, which I’m going to try and get to over the next month or so. But I thought I’d begin tackling them this week with the most recently-read: a history of the relationships between queer children and their parents in North America, 1945-1990. In Not in This Family: Gays and the Meaning of Kinship in Postwar North America (University of Pennsylvania, 2010), historian Heather Murray explores the way in which parents and children navigated — personally, politically, culturally — the subject of homosexuality in the children’s lives between the end of World War II and the latter days of the twentieth century.
Murray begins in the 1950s by examining the relationships between homosexual adults and their ageing parents, as seen through existing correspondence and children’s memories. She suggests that queer individuals who had come of age during the 1920s and 30s shared with their parents an assumption that familial relationships would not include candid discussion of sexuality, be it straight or non-straight. When one daughter profiled attempts to broach the subject with her mother, her mother’s response expresses discomfort with discussing sexuality at all, and appears genuinely confused by her daughter’s insistence that her mother acknowledge that the younger woman’s close female friendships include sexual intimacy.
From that point forward, Murray traces the expectations and real-life experiences of parents and children navigating various levels of openness regarding the child’s sexuality. For readers familiar with the history of gay liberation, lesbian-feminism, and AIDS activism, this book will provide a fascinating perspective on familiar events, seen through the lens of parent-child interactions. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on lesbian-feminism, which explored the ways in which mothers and daughters struggled to communicate across a chasm of politics and understandings of identity and performance. One mother-daughter pair Murray examines corresponded back and forth about the daughter’s newly-proclaimed lesbian identity, with the mother focusing on what she feels is her daughter’s rejection of her female self. Wrapped up in discussions of lesbian sexuality was the (to many mothers apparently more urgent) question of gender presentation. One exchange between lesbian journalist Penny House and her mother highlights this mis-communication between the generations:
For [Mrs. House], appearance was certainly not a simple matter of vanity or an instance of the oppression of women; rather it was an obligation, or as Alice Munro put it, a kind of housekeeping. This interpretation was at odds with her daughter’s view of beautifying as social brainwashing. Her daughter even chastised her mother for “self-devaluatory notions” by wearing makeup to cover up her wrinkles (94).
Both mother and daughter read each other’s actions as self-rejecting: the daughter valuing her mother’s wrinkles as authentic markers of beauty and age, while the mother understood bodily “housekeeping” as a signifier of personal respect and valuation. In such exchanges, explicitly sexual attraction, desires, and behaviors are a secondary concern, playing only a supporting role as further evidence of a child’s gender-nonconformity.
The primary sources Murray employs in Not in This Family are an impressive range of personal papers (diaries, correspondence), gay and lesbian newspapers, queer-authored fiction and poetry, published memoirs, literature from organizations like PFLAG, editorial cartoons, television shows, and other artifacts of popular culture. As an archivist, it’s particularly exciting for me to see twentieth-century materials not only made accessible but actually utilized by historians of the period to contribute to our understanding of not only the public face of gay liberation and activism, but also the quality of relationship and personal meaning-making that happened in more private, inter-personal settings. Among people who weren’t necessarily a central part of “the Movement.”
While Murray’s narrative ends in the early 1990s, the question of parent-child relationships and how they intersect with the lived (and particularly sexual) lives of the children has not gone away. Reading Not in This Family I couldn’t help thinking about my own familial relationships and how they do or do not reflect the trends Murray outlines. There was never really a “coming out” moment for me, with my family, since I’d been open about my thoughts on sexual identity and desire throughout adolescence. Thus my parents were up to speed, so to speak, when I connected with Hanna. My siblings (both in other-sex relationships) and I have a similar quality of relationship with our parents regarding relationships and sexuality — that is, my queerness doesn’t trigger particular anxieties or reticence in my family of origin. We’re all six of us understood and honored as couples. But I’d suggest that my experience is an outlier. Queer kids still fear their parents’ reactions, and gender non-conformity continues to incite panic among parents and the wider society.
What we have ended up with, in the early twenty-first century is a culture that places a premium on “coming out” to one’s parents (and society more broadly), as a central marker of queer adulthood. Whether or not that current emphasis is warranted, Heather Murray shows that it is historical contextual — that what queer children and their parents expect from each other in relation to sexuality and identity varies over time. All in all Not in This Family is highly recommended both for historians of sexuality and for those with a more casual interest in the politics of queerness as it related to kinship cultures.