- Not in This Family: Gays and the Meaning of Kinship in Postwar North America
The increasingly robust gay and lesbian historiography of both Canada and the United States has focused much attention on large-scale political events like the Stonewall Riots and the 1980s AIDS epidemic. While these events are crucial to the shaping of homosexual experiences in history, Heather Murray's book Not in This Family: Gay and the Meaning of Kinship in Postwar North America provides new insight into how the political is also personal by situating the postwar homosexual experience within the family. Adding this new dimension to the historiography, she demonstrates the ways that family interactions, especially surrounding the 'coming out' experience, became increasingly scripted throughout the postwar period as gay men and lesbians became progressively more public with their sexuality.
Murray's book is divided into four, roughly chronological, sections. Beginning with the immediate postwar years she argues that, initially, coming out was a diverse, fluid experience; some gay men and lesbians chose to hide their sexuality while others chose to confess their sexuality to their parents. In the absence of a clear homosexual movement, these gay men and lesbians were able to exercise agency in creating [End Page 371] their own discourse of confession and in particular create narrative spaces in which their parents could react to their confession positively or negatively. However, in the 1960s and 1970s gays and lesbians became more politically militant, adding their voices to other social movements such as the feminist and civil rights movement; with this politicization came an increased demand that their parents accept their sexuality. Also, Murray argues, during this time there was a generational fracture between the boomer children's search for a public authenticity of self and their parents' assumptions of sexual privacy. Therefore it was during this period that an increasingly cohesive, scripted, coming out experience became the defining feature of familial interaction.
Murray does not examine the actions of homosexual children only. She argues that throughout the postwar era families became increasingly politicized as demonstrated by the creation of organizations such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays. During the 1960s and 1970s these organizations sought to undercut negative homosexual stereotypes, especially the homosexual as pedophile or psychological deviant, by emphasizing their children's domestic, familial role and their rights as citizens. Like the coming out experience, this familial political discourse became increasingly cohesive and constrictive over time. Murray's book concludes by situating the devastating 1980s AIDS epidemic within gay men's families. She argues that not only did the experience of caring for a dying son increase family politicization, it also provided another opportunity for meaningful domestic, family-based, intimacy for those who had rejected their gay sons during the initial coming out experience.
Demonstrating the intricacies of the connection between the public and the private is the book's main purpose; in this, it succeeds. Murray adds nuances to the homosexuality historiography by demonstrating the ways that parents and siblings shaped, and were shaped by, metanarratives of North American gay and lesbian experiences. This fresh viewpoint, combined with Murray's accessible writing style, make her book appropriate for undergraduate courses on postwar society, postwar sexuality, and general gay and lesbian history. However, this readability does come at the price of explicit methodological and theoretical engagement. Though Murray explains her methodology in choosing which discourses to highlight, she presents no overt theoretical viewpoint, which makes it difficult for the reader to engage with and evaluate her approach to the evidence.
Murray's use of both American and Canadian examples is a refreshing step beyond the narrow confines of the nation-state and, given the [End Page 372] degree of cultural interaction between the two nations, this is appropriate. Some scholars may, especially in the AIDS chapter, wish for more Canadian content. In that chapter, Murray focuses mainly on the Reagan and Bush administrations and the American medical system's ineffectiveness in combating AIDS without providing a Canadian counterpoint...