- Not in This Family: Gays and the Meaning of Kinship in North America by Heather Murray
As twenty-first-century gay and lesbian households enter the mainstream, historians will pay closer attention to the relationship, rather than the dissonance, between biological kin and the “families we choose.”1 Mutual acts of understanding, reincorporation, and love might center a new family history practice that takes queers into account as active agents in the reinvention of the late twentieth-century domestic sphere. As Heather Murray argues, the post–World War II “family of origin, as both a lived relationship and a symbol, has been a central animating force and preoccupation of both gay culture and politics and has shaped gay thought more broadly” (vii). Joining scholars like Margot Canaday, Murray is interested in how larger social and political structures disciplined, but were also shaped by, the cultural and practical demands of nonheteronormative sexuality.2
Not in Our Family begins by reexamining the significance of “coming out,” the iconic break with normalcy celebrated by the gay liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. During the Cold War, children often sought to reassure their parents that “the claim to sexual selfhood and the idea of being family members were not entirely incompatible” and that “gay selves [could be] rooted in families” (40). Murray mines private correspondence to demonstrate that coming out was an exchange between adult children and their parents. She explores this crucial moment as a private and a public act of identification contextualized by a larger confessional and psychotherapeutic culture that invited increasing public scrutiny of family dynamics and parenthood.
Murray offers the historian new possibilities for understanding the everyday transformations of the public/private divide as Cold War domesticity gave way to looser ideas about love and sexuality promoted by feminism, gay liberation, and the counterculture. These transformations, in turn, rattled assumptions about the family. Lesbians, for example, often tried to reconnect with mothers through consciousness-raising about women’s [End Page 138] oppression within hetero-patriarchy, promoting lesbianism as a political choice available to all liberated women. Not surprisingly, their critique of men was “a personal slight to some fathers,” disrupting gender relations within the family as a whole (96).
By the 1980s, parents had organized to defend their queer children from attack by right-wing ideologues and religious leaders. As AIDS drove gay men and their families into public, organizations like Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) created viable narratives that normalized acceptance and reincorporation of queer children. Deploying a liberal rights discourse of moral parenting that has since become an important theme of gay marriage and adoption politics, PFLAG parents “reinscribe[d] homosexuality in nature: their children had no choice in the matter, nor had their parents any hand in it” (109).
As Murray wisely notes in her final chapter, the tragic historical accident of AIDS created openings to talk about gay children. Parents had to come to terms with the reality of sex acts rather than abstract “sexual identity”; they had to address their own fears of physical intimacy with ill sons; and they battled the stigma attached to a new and frightening disease. While some gay men returned home to die, others could not. Here Murray returns to the families we choose: networks of friends, caregivers, and organizations evolved from gay liberation that became “peer communities of care” (175). These fictive kin networks had little recourse as the gaps, inadequacies, and bigotry of family law caused persons with AIDS and their partners to be evicted, robbed of their belongings by avaricious parents and siblings, refused deathbed visits, and denied insurance coverage.
The question that Not in Our Family begins to answer is how gays and lesbians of many different political persuasions—as well as their parents, siblings, and heterosexual friends—have coalesced so strongly around a legal “gay marriage” as a natural successor to the heterosexual family of origin. Arguably, the modern gay marriage movement, which positions queer families...