Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II by Daniel Winunwe Rivers (review)
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Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II. By Daniel Winunwe Rivers. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. 312. $32.50 cloth; $32.50 ebook)

As same-sex marriage becomes more accepted in the United States, the growing visibility of lesbian and gay parents has challenged the assumption that childrearing is a strictly heterosexual affair. Daniel Winunwe Rivers has written an important history of lesbian mothers, gay fathers, and their children, shedding factual light on a topic that is too often debated on the basis of emotion, anecdote, and what the Bible might or might not say. Rivers shows that gay parenting is hardly a new phenomenon, and that activism promoting the rights of gay parents is as old as the gay rights movement itself.

Radical Relations traces the legal, political, and social trends in gay parenting from the end of World War II to the present. The 1950s were “difficult and dangerous years for lesbian and gay parents and their children” during which lesbian mothers and gay fathers lived secretive lives, often passing as heterosexual in opposite sex marriages (p. 12). Gays faced persecution for even the slightest visibility, and for gay parents, an arrest for homosexuality could result in legal separation from their children. But the 1950s also had a progressive undercurrent. The first gay rights organizations emerged, some of which (especially the Daughters of Bilitis, the first American lesbian rights organization), put gay parenting at the top of their agendas. Some gay parents also found acceptance during these years in Bohemian and working-class communities.

The legal establishment was squarely against gay parenting in the 1950s and 1960s, but that started to change in 1967 when a California court, for the first time, “established that a lesbian or gay man could not be declared an ‘unfit’ parent per se, simply as a matter of ‘law’” (p. 58). This precedent was the beginning of a thaw in the legal system that would increasingly grant lesbian and gay parents legal custody of their children. Gay parents could come out of the shadows [End Page 544] and become a visible part of American family life for the first time. Psychiatrists were often important allies in the legal reevaluation of gay parenting by providing expert court testimony supporting gay parental rights. A full chapter documenting important custody cases is probably the most powerful in the book.

In the wake of these early legal victories, activist networks emerged during the 1970s to raise money and provide legal assistance to lesbian and gay parents. Lesbian parental activist organizations emerged out of the lesbian feminist movement while gay fathers’ groups grew out of radical gay liberation before turning more mainstream by the late 1970s. Indeed, one of the most fascinating analytical threads of the book is how gay parenting went from a radical fringe idea in the early gay rights movement to becoming so mainstream that some LGBT activists deride the current focus on marriage and family issues as overly assimilationist.

The book is at its strongest when it uses oral histories to richly describe the nuances of being a lesbian, gay, or bisexual parent, or being the child of a gay parent. Rivers has a fascinating discussion, for example, on controversies generated by lesbian separatists raising boys—some activists welcomed boys into these female-centric spaces, but others did not. Rivers deals superbly with race by including ample stories from gay people of color as well as drawing from black civil rights scholarship to frame some of these issues. Although the book emphasizes lesbian mothers, there is plenty of fascinating material on gay dads as well. Overall, this readable and valuable book sheds important light on a significantly overlooked dimension of both American family life and the history of sexuality. [End Page 545]

Craig M. Loftin

CRAIG M. LOFTIN teaches in the American Studies Department at California State University–Fullerton. He is the author Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America and the editor of Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s.


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