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Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life
Steven Seidman
New York & London: Routledge, 2002.
$27.50, £18.99, 250 pages, ISBN 0-415-93206-8.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Steven Seidman is Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the author of the splendid Embattled Eros: Sexual Politics and Ethics in Contemporary America (1992) and of the no less interesting Romantic Longings: Love in America 1830-1980 (1991), among other titles. He has also edited quite a few books, notably about the postmodern, of which he has a real grasp—an achievement that is not as common as the abundance of the bibliography in this field might lead one to believe.

In The Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies (2002), he recalls (with Diane Richardson) that in the mid-1970s, "for the most part, sociologists and gay and women's liberationists did not question why it was that society defined people in sexual terms and why sexuality had become an identity." He continues: "They assumed that there had always been homosexuals and heterosexuals." Indeed it is only in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jonathan Katz that constructionist queer thinking developed. This in no way means that all gay and women's liberationists (let alone all sociologists) have now become constructionist and realized at last that the category "homosexual" as we understand it today is a nineteenth-century invention (along with the category "heterosexual", obviously)—as opposed to homosexual acts, which indeed have always existed. As long as feminists, lesbians and gays remain essentialist, heterosexist oppression will continue to thrive. I wonder, incidentally, why he did not choose to entitle his book The Handbook of LGBT Studies, or even The Handbook of LGBTQ Studies, which would have been more in keeping with some of its contents.

Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life chronicles the evolution of American society as regards to homosexuality. This has been discussed in CERCLES before, notably with the review of Suzanna Danuta Walters's book All the Rage. Of course, if some lesbians and gays have been able to come out, it is because society has become more open-minded. For progress to continue, heterosexuals need to change, but homosexuals too, as I intimate in the preceding paragraph. I don't think old-fashioned identity politics is the answer (though it served its purpose in the past). Seidman's new book is perfectly constructed, with just the right dosage of history and sociology. The five chapters are respectively entitled "In the Closet", "Gay and Lesbian Life After the Closet", "Straight Encounters", "From the Polluted Homosexual to the Normal Gay", and "From Outsider to Citizen". Seidman has used interviews of "real people" (including straights) and looked at cultural products, practicing a form of sociology that steers away from the excesses or facile pseudo-methods often encountered elsewhere. He has also looked at politics, current affairs and legislation, obviously, while making sure never to indulge in over-politicization himself.

In the Introduction, Seidman writes: "No one […] can seriously maintain that the realities of homophobia and heterosexism are in the past." (8) Because they are not, a great many American lesbians and gays remain closeted. But things have changed in our post-Stonewall culture, and books like this can help further the changes, even though it is not its primary objective. He then establishes what identifying as lesbian or gay actually means and entails, looking at the definitions of "identity" and "core identity". He shows the way lesbians and gays may in some areas of life in the US be viewed as "normal" yet remain unequal; he looks at the way sexual orientation is inextricably linked to race, class, age, and what I call "the dictatorship of gender"—which too many commentators forget. "Not all lesbians and gay men can manage a conventional gender presentation […] effortlessly […] managing gender has been and still is at the heart of managing sexual identity." (49) He also takes into account, naturally, the way feminism and gay liberationism are linked. I disagree with Seidman only on two (minor) points: he believes on the whole that the concept of the closet should not be used loosely, if we want it to be sociologically relevant and convenient. So he sometimes tends to restrict it to massive, solid, hermetically locked closets, whereas I don't see what's wrong with the notion of translucent closets with doors ajar. Surely many people are partially closeted, according to context, i.e. work, family, or social life. That in no way means that their partial closeting is less significant. He does, admittedly, accept to speak of "multiple closets". Besides, he seems to belong to those academics who think Camp would disappear if homophobia and heterosexual domination disappeared, whereas I'm not so certain that is true, nor am I certain it is desirable—but this belongs in some other debate.

He recalls the growing bibliography on the subject, addresses the issue of "passing", and examines the different paths one may choose to contest heterosexual domination. Another phenomenon people often neglect is that "when gay men pass by means of exhibiting a conventional masculine persona they share fully in men's gender privilege" (50), whereas things are not so simple for lesbians.

What makes this book invaluable, among other qualities, is Seidman's courageous non-avoidance of a key question. He does not phrase it quite like that, but he hits the target in several passages: does heteronormativity win or lose when gay or lesbian couples live and dress exactly like heterosexual couples, with nice jobs, nice joint bank accounts, a nice house with a backyard for the Sunday BBQ, two nice children, a nice dog and nice neighborly smiles on their faces? The interviews that inspire reflections in Seidman and the reader might not fully answer this question, but they're as good a place to start as any, and may become classics of the genre.


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