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BOOK REVIEW Straights: Heterosexuality in a Post-Closeted Culture
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Liz Baudler
2016-03-01

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By James Joseph Dean, $26; NYU Press; 305 pages

Basking in the glow of heightened acceptance, the LGBTQ community might scoff at putting the spotlight back on "the straights." But sociologist James Joseph Dean sees value in doing so. An out gay man, Dean is interested in how straight people feel about the LGBT community, and how the boundaries around straight sexuality have changed now that more people openly identify as LGBTQ. This is important research for at least two reasons. Not only does Dean give us insight into the roots of homophobia, but the words of his straight subjects shows the nebulous nature of identities, even privileged ones.

Dean's research focused on a medium-sized Eastern city called Orangetown, where he interviewed about 60 people of various ages and various class and racial backgrounds. All his final subjects self-identified as straight and were evenly split between male and female. It's a small sample that manages to feel sufficiently diverse, especially when Dean helpfully forms a continuum of his subjects in terms of their homophobia and identity boundaries.

To unpack his findings, Dean begins by discussing LGBT history and developments in gender theory. It seems like a logical start, but this intellectual discussion starkly contrasts with his subjects' plain-spoken interviews. While the historical and theoretical background sometimes helps inform his analysis of his subjects' words, perhaps these notions could have been totally integrated into the analysis rather than front-loaded. Needless to say, for the casual reader, the book may pick up after the introductory chapters.

Some of Dean's conclusions feel surprising, some feel like common sense, and often the difference is only in the interpretation. Dean's interviews with Black straight people indicate that they often find kinship with LGBTQ people because of their shared experience of discrimination. Yet while this leads some Black people to be anti-homophobic, others feel that sexual orientation is a choice and therefore, homophobia is a more valid viewpoint than racism.

Boundaries are important for Dean's conceptions of various straight identities. Where some straight people who support the LGBTQ community would only feel comfortable in a gay bar with their opposite sex partner, an example of "strong boundaries," others maintain a sense of ambiguity around their orientation. A curious example is that of the "metrosexual," a phenomenon among the straight men that Dean encountered often enough to discuss separately. Metrosexuals tend to be anti-homophobic and often perceived as gay due to their fastidious dress and penchant for female friends. It's intriguing to note that their commonalities with the gay community have led to their their openness, and that they are unique enough to form a separate straight identity.

Many anti-homophobic "straight" women in Dean's study have an amazing openness towards possible same-sex sexual experience. At least two women report having relationships with another woman, but for various factors still describe themselves as straight. Identity, then, feels like a thing one claims, rather than simply meeting a checklist of requirements. Maybe this has all been anecdotal knowledge and personal conclusions up until now, but still it feels official to have people say it to a sociologist.

For a community with often insular habits and who may have not taken the time to conceptualize their counterparts in years, "Straights" is an interesting read. If only it felt a tad less like a grad school thesis. Perhaps Dean could do similar projects in different regions, even finding a larger sample in one subgroup—racial or economic—and exploring varying attitudes within. ( And something focusing on straight reaction to trans identities would be very welcome ). But overall, "Straights" is a thought-provoking start to a valid line of inquiry in an era where closets continues to shrink.


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