- Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II by Daniel Winunwe Rivers
The right of gays and lesbians to parent children is becoming an increasingly visible part of the mainstream LGBT movement—a new visibility that may lead some to believe that gay and lesbian families are a recent phenomenon. Up until recently, historiography of LGBT history would have supported this belief. Daniel Winunwe Rivers’s Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II represents a departure from this narrative, and it is an incredibly valuable addition to our understanding of the queer past and US history more broadly. Indeed, this work challenges one of the fundamental beliefs within American culture: the assumption that the family is, by definition, heterosexual.
The book is broken up into seven chapters that progress chronologically, ranging from the immediate post–World War II period to the 2000s. The first two chapters focus on the period between 1945 and 1969, years in which, as Rivers illustrates, gay and lesbian parents were forced to live in the shadows. Chapter 1, which draws on the evidence of oral interviews conducted by the author, focuses on the legal harassment lesbian mothers and gay fathers faced in this period. Chapter 2 focuses on the ways in which gay fathers and lesbian mothers persisted despite the legal challenges they faced in what Rivers refers to as the “pre-liberation era.” In fact, this chapter reveals that the 1950s and 1960s witnessed the formation of the first lesbian and gay parental organizing. Collectively, these chapters reveal both the ways in which the American heterosexual family ideal gained strength in the post–World War II period and the survival strategies that gay and lesbian parents began to develop to protect their families against strong opposition.
Chapter 3 focuses on the first generation of gays and lesbians to fight openly for their parental rights through the legal system. Here, Rivers tracks the custody battles that erupted after 1967 and chronicles the ways in which the heterosexual family ideal was used in arguments against gay and lesbian custodial rights. However, this chapter also points to incremental changes [End Page 543] beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, when attorneys, psychologists, and judges began to become more sympathetic to gay and lesbian parents.
Chapter 4 shifts away from legal battles and returns to a discussion of organizing, this time focused specifically on the efforts of lesbian mothers in the 1970s. This chapter introduces one of the most interesting aspects of Rivers’s work—his argument that the sexual revolution of the 1960s “was in fact a family revolution as well, of which lesbian mother organizing was an important part” (82). To illustrate this argument, Rivers emphasizes that the activism of lesbian mothers was part of a larger trend of organizing that focused on reproduction and the family, such as the women’s health movement and the struggles to end coercive sterilization of women of color and to overturn miscegenation laws. By highlighting how interconnected these struggles were (and the role that gay and lesbian parents played in them), Rivers successfully reframes the sexual revolution.
In chapter 5 Rivers turns his focus to gay fathers’ groups, highlighting how they diverged in significant ways from those of lesbian mothers. Specifically, Rivers argues that “although gay fathers groups had their roots in a radical politics of gay fatherhood that developed in liberation-era communities, by the late 1970s they were more assimilationist in their outlook than either this earlier radical politics or lesbian mothers groups, and they were pivotal in the development of a new politics of gay family respectability that became increasingly influential in the 1990s” (111). This chapter also outlines the devastating impact that the AIDS crisis had on gay fathers’ groups.
And finally, the last two chapters focus on the culture of lesbian feminist households with children...