When I’m teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets to undergraduates, I often throw in this remark, including long pauses at each full stop for dramatic effect: “What the Sonnets tell us is that Shakespeare was definitely homosexual. Or heterosexual. Or both.” We can get terribly caught up in trying to pin down and label human behaviours, as though we were consistent and immutable creatures rather than the messy bundles of complex contradictions that most of us actually are. What James Joseph Dean does so well in Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture is provide a conceptual framework for thinking about this “messiness” of human sexuality and identity.
His premise is that in recent years we have seen an increase in the visibility of gay men and women to the point where Western understandings of both hetero-normativity and homophobia have had to expand to accommodate new social configurations. The doors of the closet are more open than ever before because, in the communities Dean observes, there is no longer a pressing need for gay men and lesbians to “pass”, or to live double lives.
Straights has an exclusively US focus, but much is also relevant this side of the Atlantic. Dean maps the disassembling of the closet against major paradigm shifts: the Stonewall riots of 1969, women’s liberation, economic booms and busts, and a radical restructuring of “the family”. In doing so, he acknowledges earlier theorists such as Kathleen Gerson, whose book, The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work and Family (2009), in turn owed much to Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home (1989). “Private” life was, in these sociologists’ works, repositioned in a matrix of wider, gendered social debates. Dean, like Gerson and Hochschild, used one-to-one interviews to ascertain what the reality of life is for many Americans today.
How “straights” negotiate “soft homophobia” – the rigid delineation and policing of what “straight” means, and an assertion of a “straight” identity, posited on the existence of its “other” – was at the core of Dean’s detailed interviews with 60 black, and white, self-identified heterosexual, American men and women in the northeastern US. The interviewees were drawn from a diverse range of social classes, ethnicities and belief systems. But this is perhaps the major flaw in an otherwise engaging and persuasive book: 60 people, no matter how “diverse” they are, cannot be said to represent wider cultural attitudes in any meaningful sense. It is an extremely small sample from which to extrapolate.
What’s thought-provoking is how many of Dean’s participants embraced their innate homo-phobia by eschewing “metro-sexuality” as anti-masculine and, by extension, homosexual, in order to shore up their own performance of “straightness”. Metrosexuality becomes one more tactic in erecting intangible social boundaries between “us” and “them”: “Like highschool heterosexual boys who use the word ‘faggot’ against other heterosexual boys to mark them as unmasculine, feminine, and unworthy of respect, adult heterosexual men draw on the discourse of metrosexuality for similar ends.”
Straights is timely and powerfully intersectional, with gender, sexuality and race established as robustly formative constellations of identity. Dean is the first commentator to articulate quite so clearly and thoughtfully how being “straight” is no longer a social given, but a political position.
Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture
By James Joseph Dean
New York University Press320pp, £16.99
Published 22 September 2014