- Not in This Family: Gays and the Meaning of Kinship in Postwar North America
The history of medicine has been the starting point for many scholars determined to explore the gay past in the modern United States. Deeply implicated in the punishing equation between homosexuality and disease, medicine has also promised enlightenment and incubated powerful ideas about sexual toleration. In Not in This Family, Heather Murray makes roughly the same claim about the paradoxical place of the family, an institution that has thus far been surprisingly marginal to the field of gay history.
To become subjects of history, the standard narrative goes, gay men and lesbians had to escape their families of origin and become symbolic orphans. Whether they were banished or went into exile voluntarily, what really mattered was their journey to a new place—typically a large city—whose distance from home made homosexual culture, commerce, and consciousness possible. Pioneering historians have concentrated on gay New York, San Francisco, and other "queer" destinations. When these studies considered kinship at all, it was as something achieved rather than ascribed. Gay and lesbian adults turned friends into families, creating "families we choose," to use the title of anthropologist Kath Weston's important 1991 book. The families that gay men and lesbians did not choose were left behind. Their significance resided in their absence.
Heather Murray insists that we bring those families back into gay history. From 1945 through the early 1990s, she shows that gay men and lesbians were as compelled to maintain or reestablish their places as children and family members as they were fearful that coming out would deny them any place in their families at all. "Gays have a uniquely urgent desire to express selfhood and comment on family life," she argues (p. xvii). That insight is examined in chapters about coming-out letters written to parents, parent memoirs, family responses at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and the origins of PFLAG. Interestingly, it was not until 1993, more than two decades after that group initially formed, that the word families was added to Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Not in This Family revises the picture of gay adolescents and adults cast adrift. Murray reconstructs efforts—clumsy, poignant, and full of rage—to negotiate new kinds of relationships between gay children and their parents during the years of homophile activism and gay liberation. Writer Barbara Deming, for example, maintained a close relationship with her mother during the 1950s and 1960s, when she lived openly with artist Mary Weigs. As Deming gravitated toward political activism in the late 1960s, however, her insistence on greater frankness about her lesbianism took her relationship with her mother into new territory. (It should be noted that Deming's radicalism also strained and eventually ended her relationship with Weigs.)
Similarly, PFLAG pioneers understood their loyalty to gay children as a conservative defense of their families' respectability. While PFLAG members bravely condemned the cruelty of those who rejected gay children or packed them off [End Page 523] to psychiatrists for cures, they also avoided publicizing details of their children's sexuality, maintained that those children led utterly discrete private lives, and insisted that gay children could not help who they were because homosexuality was a fact of nature. These responses were at once defensive and logical, designed to thwart the increasing tempo of attacks from the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s, which emphasized homosexual promiscuity and "recruitment" as terrifying threats to children and families. The AIDS epidemic, of course, offered heartbreaking opportunities for reconciliation between alienated gay men and their anguished parents. The depth of children's suffering allowed many parents to welcome their sons home to die, but because AIDS relentlessly stigmatized its victims, these tragic homecomings were often tainted by emotional ambivalence and shame.
The most important point Murray makes is not that families belong in gay history—of course they do!—but...