Radical Relations: An Interview with Daniel W. Rivers

Interview by Gillian Frank

In keeping with Notches’ commitment to fostering a public and widespread discussion of the history of sexuality within and outside of the academy, we are introducing a regular feature that we are calling “Author Interviews.” Here, we publish critical conversations with authors of recent publications on the history of sexuality. Through this feature, we hope to keep you appraised of advances in scholarship, ongoing debates and general discussions on the history of sexuality.

For our first author interview, Notches contributing editor Gillian Frank speaks with Daniel Winunwe Rivers, assistant professor of History at Ohio State University, and author of the acclaimed Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers and Their Children in the United States since WWII (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). Since its publication, Radical Relations was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award, LGBT Studies, winner of the 2014 Ohio Academy of History Book Prize and the winner of the 2014 Grace Abbott Prize, Society for the History of Children and Youth.

In Radical Relations, Rivers offers a previously untold story of the American family: the first history of lesbian and gay parents and their children in the United States. Rivers argues that by forging new kinds of family and childrearing relations, gay and lesbian parents have successfully challenged legal and cultural definitions of family as heterosexual. These efforts have paved the way for the contemporary focus on family and domestic rights in lesbian and gay political movements.


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Heterosexuality and Americanization: “Social Education” for Immigrant Youth in the 1920s

By Erica Ryan

In the nativist 1920s, in the wake of successive waves of mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, progressives in the United States engaged in tremendous efforts to assimilate immigrants into their vision of American culture. For these white, middle-class, and Protestant reformers, channeling sexuality into marriage was key to this enterprise. In this moment, after WWI, many Americans embraced anti-radical and anti-immigration positions. These sentiments coincided with sexual modernism—a refashioning of gender roles and the separation of sexual activity from marriage and reproduction—and together the two streams informed progressives’ response to immigrants. An “American Style” marriage, reformers believed, was one solution to the problem of unassimilated immigrants failing to adjust to modern life in the United States.

red war on family
Factory work, dancehalls, dark movie theaters, and amusement parks pulled immigrant daughters out of their homes, away from family chores and Old World influences. Urban leisure activities excited young men and women with the possibility of mixed-sex fun. In response to these changing gender and sexual mores, progressive Americanizers promoted marriage as the only available outlet for sexual behavior. Marriage, in their view, functioned as a vital social institution, one that would contain the disruptive potential of changing sex and gender norms. And so, as immigrant sons and daughters grappled with new forms of leisure, freedoms for women, and a range of sexual possibilities, reformers made allowances for pre-marital sexual experimentation even as they promoted marriage as the only appropriate site for sex. For reformers, marriage and families facilitated the maintenance of a vulnerable moral order, the smooth assimilation of working people in a period marked by fear of radical unrest, and the financial solvency of immigrant households.

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Bestiality in a Time of Smallpox

By Rob Boddice

The news is rife with fearful accounts of disease — influenza is epidemic and measles is re-emergent — and debates about how to inoculate against them. Opponents of vaccination, meanwhile, are fanning the flames of fear. Measles, for example, is entirely preventable, but remains among us because of concerns that the vaccine prophylactic is worse than the disease. The thoroughly debunked notion that the MMR vaccine causes autism is still at large, and with it a cluster of nebulous fears of Big Pharma conspiracies and the risks of contaminating children with manufactured diseases. Such fears are not new. Anxieties about vaccination are as old as vaccination itself.

John Gillray, 'The Cow-Pock', 1802. Welcome Library, London

James Gillray, ‘The Cow-Pock’, 1802. (Welcome Library, London)

At the turn of the 19th century, Edward Jenner’s method for preventing smallpox summoned the spectre of sinful flesh. Opponents likened vaccination to bestiality and compared the vaccine itself to a beastly sexual disease. The original ‘vaccine’, named after the cow from which it came, was a massive step forward in smallpox prevention. Until then, children were commonly inoculated with smallpox itself, which usually resulted in a light dose of the disease. Inoculation, however, killed many who underwent it, and left the rest fully contagious. Nevertheless, when Jenner’s Inquiry into the matter finally appeared in 1798, explaining how an animal disease would prevent a human one without resorting to dangerous inoculation, it attracted as much odium as it garnered support.

James Gillray’s popular 1802 print of the bestial effects of cowpox strikes the modern viewer as ridiculous: cows emerging from heads, trunks and limbs. Jenner stands centrally, penetrating the arm of a terrified patient with ‘vaccine pock, hot from ye cow’. The patient has previously been ‘opened’ by a special brew. To the right, those already vaccinated undergo a series of horrors caused by contamination with animal disease. The image is shot through with innuendo about sexual transgression (communing with the beast) and venereal disease (syphilis). The pregnant hag on the extreme right seems at once to vomit and give birth to bovine progeny, while behind her another matron sprouts the satyr-like horns of the beast. The breeches of a bumpkin are breached. The faces of others are marked by monstrous eruptions of ‘the pox’.

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The King’s Favourite: Sex, Money and Power in Medieval England

By Katherine Harvey

In November 1326, Hugh Despenser was condemned to death for treason. Drawn to the gallows on a hurdle, he was hanged from a height of 50 feet; then, before he was completely dead, he was cut down from the gallows, eviscerated, and beheaded. His head was displayed on London Bridge, and his body was divided into quarters, which were sent for display in the populous cities of Bristol, Dover, York and Newcastle.

The Execution of Hugh Despenser, 1326 ( BNF MS Fr. 2643, f.197v, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Execution of Hugh Despenser, 1326 (BNF MS Fr. 2643, f.197v, via Wikimedia Commons)

The fate of Hugh Despenser is intriguing not just because of its brutality (this was, after, all, a brutal age), but because of the allegedly sexual nature of his crime. Later accounts would add a new twist to the story: the late fourteenth-century chronicler Jean Froissart claimed that, in a final indignity, Despenser’s genitals were cut off, because ‘he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the king.’ The king in question was Edward II, and the death of Despenser came only weeks before his deposition. Within a year, Edward himself would be dead, allegedly as the result of the insertion of a red-hot poker into his anus. The symbolism of this act was not lost on later authors, who (in the words of Mark Ormrod) were keen to ‘construct the relationship of king and favourite in the sexualised imagery of a meeting between Hugh’s genitals and Edward’s anus’, thus rendering the deposed king as ‘the mere catamite of an ambitious courtier.’

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Umutoni: Why Histories of African Homosexualities Matter

By Sarah E. Watkins

Homosexuality in Africa has been a hot topic of late, particularly in the aftermath of Uganda’s recently repealed (but still threatening) anti-homosexuality law of 2014. Among the arguments the law’s supporters put forward was that homosexuality was somehow un-African. Many scholars and activists have pushed back at this ridiculous notion. Indeed, as elsewhere, same-sex loving and desiring people have long existed in Africa, and will continue to do so.

Often missing, however, are the stories of who precisely these historical Africans are. In some cases their personalities and individual lives have been lost to the historical record. But we often do have some details of their lives, which can help us better understand how different societies understood same-sex behaviors and identities, and how those were even institutionalized in those societies. The role of the umutoni in the pre-colonial Rwandan monarchy is an example of this kind of institutionalized relationship. Because the lives of individual kings, or bami (sing. mwami), were meticulously recorded by court historians, we have a glimpse into how these relationships functioned at court, and how they were understood in their own historical context.


Though the royal court was ambulatory, in the nineteenth century its base of power lay south of the Nyabarongo River, and especially around Butare. (Wikimedia Commons)

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365 Notches: (re)marks on our 1st anniversary

It’s hard to believe that we are celebrating one year of Notches! On 6 January 2014, with the support of the Raphael Samuel History Centre, we launched a new blog with the goal of getting folks inside and outside the academy to think critically about histories of sex and sexuality across theme, period and region. We are proud of what Notches has gone on to achieve in 2014. The quality, range, and significance of our contributors’ posts has exceeded our expectations, as has the response. It’s a testament to our fantastic contributors that we gained 3,500 subscribers and achieved a viewership of some 100,000 well in advance of our 1 year anniversary. Thank you!


But, if the year went by as quickly for you as it did for us, some wonderful posts may have escaped your notice. Some from the early days didn’t benefit from the same attention that came with our growing readership. Others are more recent interventions that warrant a second look. We present some of these below and we hope you enjoy each. We also hope that you continue to follow Notches for exciting new blog posts, dispatches and feature interviews coming in 2015!

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Lines of Dissent at London Metropolitan Archives: Finding and Creating LGBTQ Histories

By Claire Hayward

On Saturday 6 December, historians, archivists and activists joined together at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) to discuss ‘Lines of Dissent’. The 12th LGBTQ History and Archives Conference at LMA chose queer inheritance as its theme this year, which was run in collaboration with the Raphael Samuel History Centre (RSHC). (Disclaimer: NOTCHES is sponsored by RSHC, and I am also a team member). The annual conference raised questions about recording and reading queer inheritances and highlighting ways that queer history and individuals subvert traditional lines of heritage.

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The day began with a keynote by Daniel Monk, Reader in Law and Director of Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality (BiGS), who discussed the perils and pleasures of queer wills. Monk placed queer history within the history of inheritance, highlighting the ways in which queer wills differ from ‘straight’ wills. For example, queer wills include more instances of friends as beneficiaries, as well as more godchildren, nieces and nephews (and the ‘lesbian clause’ — cats). Monk also argued that while queer wills provide an insight into who queer people have gifted to, they are also significant in who is excluded from wills. Monk posited that wills are also a way for queer people to communicate with family members who have rejected them for their sexuality, omitting them and subverting lines of inheritance through gifts to non-family members. Mixing together money, death, families and friendship with queer history make for a fascinating reading, and in doing so Monk highlighted the importance of the many ways we can interpret and subvert inheritance to reveal LGBTQ histories.

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