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