booknotes: families apart

The University of Minnesota Press was kind enough to send me a review copy of Geraldine Pratt's fascinating study of migrant domestic workers and their families who have traveled from the Philippines to Canada as part of Canada's Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). Families Apart: Migrant Mothers and the Conflicts of Labor and Love (University of Minnesota, 2012) is the result of Pratt's collaboration with the Philippine Women Centre of British Columbia. With the assistance of the PWC, Pratt identified and interviewed twenty-seven families: mothers (the primary LCP participants), children, and sometimes partners, who have emigrated to Canada in hopes of economic and social mobility. Families Apart draws on these interviews, with analysis and reference to the relevant bodies of literature, to explore and theorize the long-term effects of the LCP on family relationships.

I came at this book from several perspectives: that of a former care provider (though in very different circumstances from those of the LCP participants), that of a family member, that of a feminist, and that of an oral historian. I want to talk briefly about each of these lenses through which I considered Pratt's work, and suggest that her research is of potential worth to those with a personal, as well as academic and political, interest in the intersection of family with wage-work and caregiving labor.

Pratt overtly encourages self-reflection in her readers, many of whom she presumes will be white, middle-class academics like herself, whose experience of parenting and family life is, materially speaking, worlds apart from the experience of the participants in her research interviews. Throughout Families Apart, she tries to break down the barriers to empathy and suggest that cross-class, cross-cultural experience of familial bonds of affection and care can help those outside the LCP program understand the trauma of separation and conflicting responsibilities and desires expressed by those who are (or have) lived through it. Pratt juxtaposes, for example, images of her own child (with his permission) and testimony from immigrant children recalling the trauma of their mothers' departure. Through such attempts at self-conscious narrative voice, Pratt pushes us not to imagine the families whom she interviewed as "others" whose emotional attachments are somehow qualitatively different from our own due to race, class, or culture. Instead, she argues, the pain of long-distance parenting for both adults and children is a point of connection.

This thread of Pratt's book prompted me to think about how our culture values separation and togetherness in family life. I read Families Apart long before the campaign-related kerfluffle over how parenting and work are valued in our society, but Katha Pollitt's ever-articulate analysis of the Ann Romney/Hilary Rosen dust-up could be read alongside Pratt's trans-national analysis as an example of how the relative value of wage-work and family care shifts in relation to social status:
The difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring. Unlike any other kind of labor I can think of, domestic labor is productive or not, depending on who performs it. For a college-educated married woman, it is the most valuable thing she could possibly do, totally off the scale of human endeavor. What is curing malaria compared with raising a couple of Ivy Leaguers? For these women, being supported by a man is good—the one exception to our American creed of self-reliance. Taking paid work, after all, poses all sorts of risks to the kids. (Watch out, though, ladies: if you expect the father of your children to underwrite your homemaking after divorce, you go straight from saint to gold-digger.) But for a low-income single woman, forgoing a job to raise children is an evasion of responsibility, which is to marry and/or support herself. For her children, staying home sets a bad example, breeding the next generation of criminals and layabouts.
Substitute "welfare mother" with "LCP worker" and this equation of worth applies. Women participating in the LCP program are caught in a double-bind of judgment. Expected to give up their personal and family lives in order to care around-the-clock for another family's children (traveling halfway around the globe to do so, often not seeing their own children for years at a time), they are judged by their families and society at large for abandoning their children. Their often-crucial financial support for the family back home often comes at the price of losing their partner and the alienation of their children. Pratt skilfully navigates the gendered dimensions of the LCP program, exploring the differing expectations of maternal and paternal care while not ignoring the real psychic pain for all concerned when a parent is absent for years of a child's life.

Families Apart echoed certain themes explored in Schalet's Not Under My Roof which I read shortly before Pratt's study. I'd argue that both books take a cross-cultural look at how we constitute families and value different types of families (and different types of family members) unequally. Notions of "good" and "bad" mothering (or fathering), what is a family unit deserving of respect, how young people should behave in relation to their parents -- who is the proper person, parent or otherwise, to care for a child and help them grow into an adult who can participate meaningfully as a grown-up person in society.

Finally, as a practitioner of oral history, I really appreciated the sections of Pratt's book where she stepped back to examine the process by which she and the PWC made the materials collected during research accessible in a variety of venues: through a multi-media exhibition, in theatre performance featuring monologues crafted from the interviews, in ongoing collaboration with the families whose stories Families Apart documents and synthesizes. Researchers within the social sciences and humanities whose research intersects with human lives are engaged in an ongoing discussion about the ethics of such work, and how to document without exploitation. I believe that Pratt's work is a valuable contribution to that professional conversation. While she herself is the first to argue that the social inequality between herself and the LCP women she collaborated with cannot be erased or overcome by this work alone, I'd argue that her example is a useful one for all those planning future collaborative projects to examine and learn from.

Anyone who wants the chance to think anew about how we value families (and what families we value) in our North American culture of inequality should definitely check out this book.

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.


"in their graves because of false modesty"? [neha spring 2012]

This past Saturday, I presented a paper at the spring meeting of the New England Historical Association (NEHA) at Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire. You can check out the full text of the presentation here: "In Their Graves Because of False Modesty?": An Allegation of Sexual Assault in Boston, 1914-1915 (PDF, via DropBox).

The paper was my first attempt to pull together a research project I'm working on into a coherent narrative. The research concerns a mysterious deposition I stumbled upon in the Godfrey Lowell Cabot Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. As I write in the opening paragraphs:
Mediated, it is true, by the framework of legal testimony, the narrative voice of the deposition is nevertheless an active one. [Nellie] Keefe [the deposed] describes herself purposefully seeking medical treatment and intervening in that treatment when it goes contrary to her expectations. She positions herself as a consumer of medical services, with the ability to select a treatment plan with which she feels comfortable, rather than the passive recipient of medical care with which she is uncomfortable -- from a medical professional whose authority she should not, or cannot, challenge. She evokes the spectre of sexual aggression by describing how Dr. Underhill “turned the light out [and] inserted his finger in my vagina,” yet ultimately circumscribes Underhill's actions by indicating that she successfully ordered him to stop.

To the modern reader, the deposition feels both remarkably contemporary, yet also deeply embedded in an historically-specific set of social and medical expectations surrounding patient-doctor interactions. While Keefe's self-reported actions make clear that she was dissatisfied with Underhill's professionalism, she also indicates that Dr. Underhill was similarly dissatisfied with her performance of the role as patient. “During the treatments he would pull the blanket off me and I would pull it on again and he would pull it off again leaving me stark naked,” she testified, vividly illustrating the battle between patient and doctor over the circumstances under which Keefe's treatment should proceed. Keefe was clearly unhappy with Dr. Underhill's methods, yet returned to his office multiple times to try and negotiate a more satisfactory interaction. What appears at first to be a straightforward account of a doctor's unprofessional conduct is, I would argue, a more complicated document containing multiple and uncertain meanings.
You can download the full paper from DropBox.

Like my past appearances at NEHA, it was great to spend a morning talking history with a diverse and encouraging group of practicing historians from all over New England. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of my co-panelist Allison Hepler (University of Maine, Farmington), whose research into the life of "Communist hussy librarian" Mary Knowles not only paralleled my own project in unexpected ways, but also gave me a certain amount of professional pride (who wouldn't want to be known as a "Community hussy librarian"?!).

While we had very little time for Q & A at the session, I had warm words of encouragement from folks for the continuation of my research. What questions and reflections I did field helped clarify how I might move forward from here. I'm particularly motivated to explore the network of female friendships and associations that seem to be such a central part of the Keefe-Underhill case. Time to roll up my sleeves and get to work exercising my reference and historical research skills!


girl talk 2011 [web video]

I meant to get a book review up today, but it's been one of those weeks. So here, instead, is a six minute introduction to Girl Talk 2011, the spoken word event that seeks to bring together queer cis and trans women in dialogue (via Whipping Girl).

In their own words:
Queer cisgender women and queer transgender women are allies, friends, support systems, lovers, and partners to each other. Girl Talk is a spoken word show fostering and promoting dialogue about these relationships.
You can check out the full playlist at YouTube.


comment / captcha note

Hi all,

Friend and fellow blogger Danika let me know that there have been some problems with the captcha word verification system on Blogger not allowing legitimate comments through. So I've shut the word verification requirement down, and also tweaked the comment format a little so that you can comment right on the post (rather than the system taking you to a whole new page). Hope this makes commenting easier for everyone! If it turns out a lot of spam is coming through, I'll probably have to think again about moderation -- but we'll give this a shot!

Please let me know if you're having any technical issues ... I don't mean to discourage folks from participating in the conversation!



booknotes: not under my roof

Ever since I heard about Amy Schalet's research and her forthcoming book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex (University of Chicago Press, 2011), I've been eagerly waiting to get my hands on a copy. Thus, when Not Under My Roof came out earlier this winter, I had ordered it from Amazon and read it before the month of February was out.

And I've been waiting ever since then for inspiration to strike vis a vis how to review the book. I'm not exactly sure why. It's got a whole host of things that usually cause an explosion of thoughts and words in my head: human sexuality, cross-cultural analysis, discussion of cross-generational family relationships, overall encouragement to re-examine our historical-cultural assumptions that a particular set of events or circumstances (in this case coming of age and emerging adult sexuality) just is a certain way. If you want me to experience the scholarly equivalent of an orgasm, throw an articulate article or book in my direction that suggests some naturalized assumptions about sex or gender are actually historically contingent. Not Under My Roof has all the above covered, in spades.

But mostly, it made me incredibly sad. Sad because the mainstream culture of the United States -- as well as the institutions and state apparatus that support/are supported by that culture -- is failing us abysmally when it comes to parent-child relationships and the incorporation of sexuality into family life and society. This isn't news, but it's still kinda hard to have a book-length reminder of how badly we fail at this. Schalet's research looks at the negotiations between parents and teenage children over sexual activity and relationships in the United States and the Netherlands. My marginalia, particularly in the U.S. sections, consisted of a lot of "so sad!" and "key disconnect" and sad faced emoticons.

Schalet, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted her research in the U.S. and the Netherlands (where she had spent part of her childhood) during the mid-to-late 1990s. She conducted qualitative interviews parents and their adolescent children in a number of different suburban and urban locations in both countries, focusing on white, middle-class families as her research sample. While she acknowledges the limitations of her research population, she argues that these middle-class families are also a key demographic in the development and maintenance of cultural norms. What she discovered is that, in the Netherlands, adolescent sexuality -- particularly in serious relationships -- is normalized by both parents and the wider society (culturally and institutionally). As a result, even when conflicts or anxieties around teenage sexual behavior emerge, families negotiate solutions that tend to integrate the children's sexual relationships and emerging adult life into the fabric of the family and society as a whole. In the United States, by contrast, adolescent sexuality is dramatized as a dangerously out-of-control physical and emotional experience that will signify a break from the family of origin. It is simultaneously a facet of independent adulthood and an activity which threatens a teenager's ability to reach successful middle-class adult independence.

Schalet broadens her examination of adolescent sexuality to look at how these differing concepts of teenage sexual desires and behaviors both reflect and inform our divergent understandings of adolescent development and adulthood cross-culturally. In the Netherlands, Schalet argues, adulthood -- particularly young adulthood -- is not understood to constitute economic self-sufficiency or emotional distance from one's family of origin. Dutch teenagers are expected to develop a self-determination within emotionally close family and social circles, rather than in opposition to them. While American teenagers are expected to be rebellious, incommunicative, out of control, hormone-driven beings, Dutch teenagers are assumed to be self-regulating individuals who will gradually assume responsibility over their social and sexual lives as they are able.

The Dutch framework is not without its troubling aspects, as Schalet points out, specifically the lack of language with which to articulate and grapple with unequal power within relationships (parent-child, a couple of differing ages or class standing, sexism within dating relationships). However, overall health indicators suggest that the Netherlands is modeling a much more successful way of supporting teenagers' development than is the United States. One of the most fascinating aspects of Schalet's interviews, I thought, was the widespread helplessness expressed by American parents and children when it came to cultural views of adolescent sexuality and parent-child relationships. Parents and children alike often expressed unhappiness with the status quo, yet were equally at a loss when it came to effecting meaningful change in their own family lives or in society at large. By conceptualizing American teenagers as hormone-crazed beings incapable of rational thought, parents either threw up their hands or resorted to an authoritarian rules-based approach which they acknowledged their child would likely evade or otherwise thwart. Children, in turn, expressed a desperate desire for adult support, but could not picture integrating their sexual selves into family life either through conversation about sexuality or by bringing a partner to their parents' house.

The title, Not Under My Roof, refers to the scenario Schalet presented to each of her interviewees: "Would you (or your parents) allow your child's significant other to sleep over?" Across the board, Dutch parents answered in the affirmative, though with some qualifications concerning age and nature of the relationship -- older teenagers and "steady" boyfriends/girlfriends were much more acceptable than were sleepovers requested by younger adolescents and relationships deemed more casual. Dutch boys were also more likely to report being comfortable with bringing a significant other to stay overnight than were Dutch girls (who generally preferred going to the house of their partner).* However, every single American parent rejected the idea of "the sleepover," conceptualizing the economic dependency of adolescence as mutually exclusive of (acknowledged) sexual activity -- even as they articulated a certain fatalism that their children were likely engaging in sexual activity elsewhere. Teenagers in the States were, likewise, unable to imagine being openly sexually active or to communicate with parents about their lives as sexual beings.

I feel like I should put some of my personal cards on the table here and acknowledge that my upbringing was much more like that of the Dutch teenagers than the American ones. I never brought a partner home to stay overnight as a teenager quite simply because I wasn't sexually active at that point in my life. My siblings romantic and sexual relationships were integrated into our family life in various ways, and my parents were always vocal about the fact that if any of us were to need a private space for sexual exploration, our bedrooms were available -- and preferable -- to more public, clandestine locales. Unlike many of the American parents Schalet interviewed, my siblings and I are welcome to bring our partners home and to share a bedroom with them. In contrast, Schalet's interviewees often persisted in rejecting their children's sexual selfhood up to the point of marriage and/or simply believing that a child's sexual relationships, even as adults, belonged outside of the family home. This seems to mirror the reflexive disgust many adolescent and adult children express when asked to contemplate the sexual lives of their parents -- something I find at best puzzling and at worst disturbing (surely we should be invested in supporting our parents' sexual well-being just as we ask them to support ours?).

Which is where the sadness of this book comes in for me: The entrenched helplessness of Americans across the generations when it comes to communicating more effectively and positively about our sexual hopes and fears, about the quality of our relationships, about what we need to foster health and well-being in our sexual lives. The Dutch families don't have everything it all worked out, certainly, but through Schalet's eyes they certainly seem to be light-years ahead of our dysfunction. I really wish Americans would start to take the lessons of other Western nations to heart and do better by our youth. Instead, as a society, we seem determined to move by inches into ever-increasing moral panic, non-communication, and policing.

I very much hope that Schalet's book will make its way into the hands of policymakers, parents, and sexual health professionals and that it will encourage us collectively to re-examine our assumptions about adolescence, sexual well-being, family relationships, and our conception of successful adult development. I can't say I'm very hopeful about large-scale change, but perhaps Not Under My Roof will -- if nothing else -- encourage individual parents and their children to assert their independence from normative cultural pressures and create more functional, integrative, patterns of family communication and togetherness.

*As a side-note, this book was frustratingly heterocentric, though that seems to have been the "fault" of the families interviewed rather than Schalet's process. She deliberately asked all questions in a way that left the sex/gender of the child's partner undetermined -- and virtually all parents, with the exception of a couple of Dutch parents, presumed straightness in their children. Virtually all of the youths Schalet interviewed, likewise, were either paired with an other-sex partner or identified future partners in other-sex language.

I'd love to see a follow-up study that deliberately sought out families with youth of wide-ranging sex and gender identities and experiences. I'd be really interested to see how or if parent-child interactions change when queer sexuality enters the picture. How do parents conceptualize their queer childrens' sexual lives? How do parental fears about youth sexuality shift when pregnancy prevention is no longer a concern? Are young people more or less likely to bring same-sex partners home? We may think we know the answers to these questions ... but I'd be really interested in the results of a deliberate cross-cultural study.


thought for the day: why are we still framing the conversation this way?

So I was going through my Google Reader feeds just now, from the last couple of days, and a lot of people seem to be talking about the possibility of male-female friendship like it's suddenly 1989 again and we've decided that When Harry Met Sally is once more culturally relevant.

The question being, as always, "Can men and women be friends or does sex/sexuality inevitably get in the way?"

Here's my thing about that question. Two things, actually. The question "Can men and women be friends?" assumes a) hetero-universality and b) that the possibility of sexual desire precludes a relationship that doesn't involve sexual activity.

Speaking as someone who experiences the possibility of sexual attraction across genders, if I ruled out friendship sans sex with anyone who I could envision sexual intimacy with, then wow I'd be shit out of luck when it came to friendship. Because, surprise! The type of people I tend to get along with as friends are also the type of people I'd be most likely to be open to sexual intimacy with.

Obviously, it's a moot point since I'm in a committed, monogamous relationship with Hanna. So sex with anyone else simply isn't on the table any longer. But the same could be said of any person in a committed relationship -- are you supposed to cut yourself off from friendship with any person you'd theoretically be willing to have sex with, simply because the possibility of sex and friendship don't mix? That isn't practical and doesn't even make sense?

And think about what it's saying about peoples' ability to keep it in their pants and, you know, practice fidelity to the ground-rules of their primary relationships! That somehow the very presence of sexual attraction makes rational thought and decision-making evaporate? That you experience the possibility of sexual attraction and whist! -- all prior commitments and promises out the window! Erm ... really?

I get why, in our aggressively gendered, heteronormative culture it feels like "common sense" to assume homosociality and heterosexuality naturally go hand in hand. That your friendships will be primarily with people of your own gender (to whom you're not sexually attracted in any way) and that your sexual intimacy will happen with a person or persons of another gender (the gender toward which you experience sexual attraction). But that formulae simply doesn't work for people who are gay or swing both ways. As someone who experiences desire toward people with female bodies, I nevertheless have friends with female bodies with whom I manage not to have sex.

I've also managed to be naked in a locker room, in communal showers, skinny dipping, and co-sleeping with female-bodied people without engaging in sexual intimacy. Given cultural taboos, I haven't done the same with male-bodied persons, but I'd wager the experience would be similar. That is, it's not about the shape of the body in question or the gender identity of the person embodied, but about the context of our relationship and what we've mutually decided it contains. If sex isn't part of our intimacy, we somehow (!) manage to not go there.

Granted, I'm not one of those people who experiences sex-exclusive attractions. Maybe if I only found women or men attractive, it would be easier for me to form platonic friendships with people of the gender which I wasn't sexually interested in, and save the gender I was for flirting and sexytimes? But I can't help feeling like the assumption that it's an either/or (friendship OR sex) proposition hurts even the people who experience those more exclusive desires.

Thus ends my thought for the day.


"have a moment for gay rights?"

via ACLU
Last week outside Trader Joe's I was accosted by charity muggers from the ACLU. 

This happens regularly in Coolidge Corner and I generally ignore them across the board. I make it a rule not to support any organization via street harassment, even if they're a group with a mission I support. (And yes, I have, in fact, been a card-carrying member of the ACLU when personal finances allow).

But anyway. Last Wednesday was the day the federal appeals court in Boston heard oral arguments against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And the chipper young woman in the ACLU vest was asking passers-by if they had "a moment for gay rights?" so I thought perhaps they had some sort of petition to sign vis a vis the whole DOMA-is-stupid-not-to-mention-unconstitutional thing. So after the internal debate while grocery shopping ("you should just suck it up, self, and be a good citizen and a social person for once") I actually stopped on my way out of the store and volunteered to hear what she was about.

"So do you have a petition you want me to sign or something?" I asked.

She seemed surprised I was even stopping, but gathered herself together and launched into what the ACLU was about, as an organization, and specifically some of the things they were doing to support queer folks who'd been discriminated against because of their sexuality. It turned out she didn't have any sort of petition to sign, but was just trawling for donations.

"I'm asking people to make a donation of $29 dollars today for each of the twenty-nine states where it's legal to discriminate against someone due to their sexual orientation!" she wrapped up with a note of breathless relief in her voice that I'd actually let her finish a thought.

"Well, I don't give out my financial information on the street," I tried to break it to her gently, "But I'll definitely keep you guys in mind."

"But you're behind what we stand for, right?" She asked, anxiously.

"Um --sure!" I said, shook her hand politely, and headed off down the street.

It took me most of the walk home to realize what was the most frustrating and surreal part of the interaction. It was that the young woman in question was pitching her persuasive skills at someone she presumed to be straight. Did I stand for "gay rights"? Well, yeah, actually, I'm pretty into having equal civil rights. The whole reason I'd stopped to speak with her in the first place was that I'd been thinking about DOMA that day. Because the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act has a direct effect on my life. Because Hanna and I are talking about getting married and even though we can do that perfectly legally here in the state of Massachusetts, as far as the federal government is concerned (taxes, social security benefits, etc.) we won't be a family unit.

So I'm not behind the idea of "gay rights" as this abstract great-good-thing that all card-carrying members of the ACLU should, you know, be in support of because it's the right thing to do. (Though I'm behind it for that reason too). I'm actually in support of it because it's about my equality of personhood before the law.

I'm not pissed at the young woman I spoke with (well, not much). She's getting paid probably minimum wage (if she's getting paid at all) to stand on the pavement and harass people at rush hour for what is probably an incredibly, incredibly low rate of return. And I'm sure whatever job training she received was cursory at best.

But I do find it note-worthy that the ACLU spiel is constructed in such a way that assumes the person to whom the spiel is pitched is outside the group of interest. I think I would have been less irritated by the encounter if I'd been told, "Here's what we're doing to support your right to equal protection under the law, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity." If you're standing on a street corner flagging people down, you can't actually tell whether they're gay or lesbian, bi or poly, trans, genderqueer, or otherwise. Whether their sexual practices put them at risk of arrest, whether they're afraid to us public restrooms, or whether they've got two partners waiting at home, only one of whom they could legally marry -- even in the state of Massachusetts.

So a tip to all you charity muggers out there? Keep in mind when you ask the question, "Are you for gay rights?" The chances are at least one in ten (more of you count family members of queer folks who identify as straight) that the person you're talking to isn't a supporter of gay rights 'cause it's a trendy liberal cause, but because it actually has an effect on their quality of life.

I'd say, just assume everyone's queer until proven otherwise. It might actually up your success rate.

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.


booknotes: not in this family

So I've got a backlog of books to review here, which I'm going to try and get to over the next month or so. But I thought I'd begin tackling them this week with the most recently-read: a history of the relationships between queer children and their parents in North America, 1945-1990. In Not in This Family: Gays and the Meaning of Kinship in Postwar North America (University of Pennsylvania, 2010), historian Heather Murray explores the way in which parents and children navigated -- personally, politically, culturally -- the subject of homosexuality in the children's lives between the end of World War II and the latter days of the twentieth century.

Murray begins in the 1950s by examining the relationships between homosexual adults and their ageing parents, as seen through existing correspondence and children's memories. She suggests that queer individuals who had come of age during the 1920s and 30s shared with their parents an assumption that familial relationships would not include candid discussion of sexuality, be it straight or non-straight. When one daughter profiled attempts to broach the subject with her mother, her mother's response expresses discomfort with discussing sexuality at all, and appears genuinely confused by her daughter's insistence that her mother acknowledge that the younger woman's close female friendships include sexual intimacy.

From that point forward, Murray traces the expectations and real-life experiences of parents and children navigating various levels of openness regarding the child's sexuality. For readers familiar with the history of gay liberation, lesbian-feminism, and AIDS activism, this book will provide a fascinating perspective on familiar events, seen through the lens of parent-child interactions. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on lesbian-feminism, which explored the ways in which mothers and daughters struggled to communicate across a chasm of politics and understandings of identity and performance. One mother-daughter pair Murray examines corresponded back and forth about the daughter's newly-proclaimed lesbian identity, with the mother focusing on what she feels is her daughter's rejection of her female self. Wrapped up in discussions of lesbian sexuality was the (to many mothers apparently more urgent) question of gender presentation. One exchange between lesbian journalist Penny House and her mother highlights this mis-communication between the generations:
For [Mrs. House], appearance was certainly not a simple matter of vanity or an instance of the oppression of women; rather it was an obligation, or as Alice Munro put it, a kind of housekeeping. This interpretation was at odds with her daughter's view of beautifying as social brainwashing. Her daughter even chastised her mother for "self-devaluatory notions" by wearing makeup to cover up her wrinkles (94).
Both mother and daughter read each other's actions as self-rejecting: the daughter valuing her mother's wrinkles as authentic markers of beauty and age, while the mother understood bodily "housekeeping" as a signifier of personal respect and valuation. In such exchanges, explicitly sexual attraction, desires, and behaviors are a secondary concern, playing only a supporting role as further evidence of a child's gender-nonconformity.

The primary sources Murray employs in Not in This Family are an impressive range of personal papers (diaries, correspondence), gay and lesbian newspapers, queer-authored fiction and poetry, published memoirs, literature from organizations like PFLAG, editorial cartoons, television shows, and other artifacts of popular culture. As an archivist, it's particularly exciting for me to see twentieth-century materials not only made accessible but actually utilized by historians of the period to contribute to our understanding of not only the public face of gay liberation and activism, but also the quality of relationship and personal meaning-making that happened in more private, inter-personal settings. Among people who weren't necessarily a central part of "the Movement."

While Murray's narrative ends in the early 1990s, the question of parent-child relationships and how they intersect with the lived (and particularly sexual) lives of the children has not gone away. Reading Not in This Family I couldn't help thinking about my own familial relationships and how they do or do not reflect the trends Murray outlines. There was never really a "coming out" moment for me, with my family, since I'd been open about my thoughts on sexual identity and desire throughout adolescence. Thus my parents were up to speed, so to speak, when I connected with Hanna. My siblings (both in other-sex relationships) and I have a similar quality of relationship with our parents regarding relationships and sexuality -- that is, my queerness doesn't trigger particular anxieties or reticence in my family of origin. We're all six of us understood and honored as couples. But I'd suggest that my experience is an outlier. Queer kids still fear their parents' reactions, and gender non-conformity continues to incite panic among parents and the wider society.

What we have ended up with, in the early twenty-first century is a culture that places a premium on "coming out" to one's parents (and society more broadly), as a central marker of queer adulthood. Whether or not that current emphasis is warranted, Heather Murray shows that it is historical contextual -- that what queer children and their parents expect from each other in relation to sexuality and identity varies over time. All in all Not in This Family is highly recommended both for historians of sexuality and for those with a more casual interest in the politics of queerness as it related to kinship cultures.


me --> writing elsewhere: springtime for harpies! edition

Blackthorn Fairy*
Here's what I've been "writing elsewhere" since the 5th of February. Yep. It's really been that long!

At the corner of your eye:
  • I wrote a joint review of In Search of Gay America (1989) and Art and Sex in Greenwich Village (2007).
  • I reviewed Seanan McGuire's new Discount Armageddon (2012). 
  • I shared a list of books read, not yet reviewed (sensing a theme at all?).
  • I posted the second episode of Ivor the Engine (1958), a children's television show from England. Oliver Postgate wins the things.
  • I reviewed six books at once in a pre-vacation round-up on subjects ranging from last year's best sex writing to the nature of identity in the twenty-first century.
  • I shared a list of ten books purchased but not yet read (randomly chosen from the many titles on our shelves!).
  • I reviewed The Hound of Conscience (1981), a history of English conscientious objectors of the First World War.
  • Also Bachelors and Bunnies (2011), a history of gender relations as articulated in the pages of Playboy through the 1970s.
At The Pursuit of Harpyness (excluding cross-posts):
Hope y'all are enjoying a long and fruitful spring. Can't believe we're heading back into baseball season already here in Boston ... that time of year when you have to calculate the options for your commute home based on the relative number of Red Sox fans crawling around the neighborhood!

*Before you ask, yes. I was completely besotted with Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies as a wee one. In my defenseI think I assumed they all behaved a bit like Tiki from The Fairy Rebel.


thoughts on reading and shame

via the Londonist
Yesterday, I was standing in a coffee shop near work waiting for my morning latte and reading Shaping Our Mothers' World: American Women's Magazines by Nancy Walker (University of Mississippi, 2000).

"Oh! Are you working toward your PhD too?" came the excited voice of a colleague, also waiting in line.

"Oh -- no," I responded, startled. "I mean, I have my Master's in History, but -- no, I'm just reading this. It's in my time period but -- no, I'm just reading it for fun. Because."

"It's so nice to see people reading books like that for pleasure," she continued. "So often when I'm on the T or standing in line I see people reading romance novels or stuff like that."

"Well, those can be fun too!" I blinked, thinking, Well, I did spend three hours last night reading fan fiction erotica ...

"Yes, well," she retracted slightly, "I personally like to read detective fiction, that's my habit."

I mumbled something encouraging about supporting reading generally, and ducked away to grab my bagel sandwich.

Then later in the day, this post by friend Shoshana @ Walk the Ridgepole caught my eye:
About half the adult customers buying The Hunger Games are still acting embarrassed about reading a YA novel. I've seen virtually none of that shamefacedness from the customers clamoring for Fifty Shades of Grey. Not that the latter group (which I'm sure overlaps with the first) should necessarily be embarrassed; from what I know about it, I think I'd have some issues with the dynamics of Fifty Shades, but to each his/her own. Still, it's odd to realize our culture has reached a point where reading about sex in public is largely okay, but reading a novel (in this case, a critically acclaimed novel) originally marketed toward teens is still something to be ashamed of.
You can read the whole thing here.

Why do we ascribe moral weight to the act of reading? As a librarian, I know, I'm supposed to champion reading per se as though it can make you a better person. And while I believe that participating in artistic and cultural activities can deepen our experience and promote well-being, I don't actually believe that reading in and of itself is somehow morally superior to having lunch with a friend, playing World of Warcraft, sketching in the park, or blogging.

On the other hand, I do believe the act of reading -- when done for the pleasure of it -- should be celebrated as one of the joys in life. We don't need to justify reading by reading only "worthwhile," morally-upstanding texts. Reading just is.

Yet the act of reading -- something that in the past was vilified as a suspect, erotic activity (especially for women) -- has been turned into a virtue in our modern-day educational realm. And I think that's where we run into trouble. Okay, yes, we're a print-based society and literacy is highly correlated with social and economic efficacy. But I hate how we've not only deified the act of reading, but further turned reading into a hierarchical activity in which some kinds of reading are more virtuous or worthy than others.

"Adult" novels are more virtuous than "young adult" or "kiddie lit" -- at last if you're a grown-up human being. Similarly, we have so-called "genre" fiction (shameful) and "literary" fiction (laudable), "real" fiction (legit) and fan fiction (not, in fact, "actual"). And swaths of fiction -- for example romance novels -- that are coded as guilty pleasures, something we all indulge in but speak about like a group of self-loathing women gathered around a pan of brownies. Why is it such a shocking or shameful thing to read romance novels, fan fiction, mystery novels, denigrated-category-of-choice for pleasure?

I'm not arguing, here, that doing something "for pleasure" of "for fun" means we aren't allowed to critique a specific example or trend in the written word and its effect on the well-being of ourselves and society. My point is that -- assuming our reading habits aren't actively harming others and/or we're involved in ongoing analysis of the messages said literature is conveying -- we should never have to apologize for reading in genre X, on topic Y, or literary medium Z. I don't want my nonfiction reading to somehow grant me an aura of respectability over the person three up from me in line at the coffee shop who's tossed Best Lesbian Erotica 2012 in her purse this morning (full disclosure: sometimes, I am that person) or even, let it be said, the young man across from me on the T who's engrossed in Eclipse (yes, male-identified folk do read Stephanie Meyer). Critique specific content all you like, but no literary form exists that deserves wholesale derision as being lesser than.

I just want my reading to be, and for all of us to acknowledge the written word, fictional and non-, genre or not, amateur or professional, for the pleasure it is.


from the neighborhood: baby pictures

It was my birthday last friday, and my parents sent me some fun artifacts from my infancy:

The summer after I was born, my parents took me to visit my great-grandmother Margery. She was in her nineties when this picture was taken; my mom is the one in the red sun-dress. I'm obviously the one looking really bored by the visit.

My mother notes below this photograph that I was ten or eleven pounds at this point (about the size of a large house cat). Since I was born about five weeks before my anticipated due date at about five pounds in size, this is double my birth weight. Since I had trouble nursing and keeping food down in the first few months, I bet my parents were pleased I'd started to grow at a healthy pace!

Although my early and precipitous birth meant my mother was admitted to the hospital, my parents had planned for a home birth. This is the map that my dad drew for the attending midwives so that they would be able to find our house without getting lost when the time came.