Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview
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Steven Seidman ( 1948-) is professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. Seidman is recognized worldwide for his writings on social theory, queer theory, and sexualities. His reputation is founded on an astonishing list of books, of which some are Liberalism and the Origins of European Social Theory ( 1983), Romantic Longings: Love in America, 1830-1980 ( 1991), Embattled Eros ( 1992), Contested Knowledge: Social Theory in the Postmodern Era ( 1994), Queer Theory/Sociology ( 1996), and Difference Troubles: Queering Social Theory and Sexual Politics ( 1997). The selection is from Seidman's 1998 essay "Are We All in the Closet?"


The Productivity of the Closet

Steven Seidman ( 1998)

The concept of the homosexual closet is a core category of knowledge and politics in postwar American public culture. More specifically, it has been integral to the discourses of homosexual life that are associated with what I'll call Stonewall culture, that is, the lesbian and gay culture that took shape roughly in the early seventies and eighties in the United States. The category of the closet has been the chief way individuals who identify as lesbian and gay--and individuals who analyze those who identify as lesbian and gay--narrate homosexual experience. Stonewall culture fashioned a romantic narrative of the homosexual heroically struggling to be free of the oppression of the closet. "Out of the closets and into the streets" was the rallying cry of liberationist politics in the 1970s and, as the politics of "outing" in the 1990s suggests, a politics of visibility or coming out remains at the center of the lesbian and gay movement. . . .

[Yet,] I intend to raise some questions about the implicit sociology and politics of the closet that have dominated Stonewall culture. . . . I outline a perspective that underscores the "productive" aspects of the closet, that emphasizes its limited sociohistorical applicability, and that underscores the limits of the politics of visibility or recognition. The theme of the closet as an organizing principle of American life is used to explore some reservations regarding recent queer theory. In this regard, I make the case, in fact only propose the contours of an argument, for a stronger sociological and cultural turn in queer studies. . . .

The dominant discourses of Stonewall culture framed the closet in a way that assumes an already formed homosexual self. Repressed in the closet, the homosexual would be liberated by the act of coming out. However, a queer critique, that is, a perspective that makes the making of the subject into a problem, opened up a line of inquiry that has been unthinkable in Stonewall culture--namely, the role of the closet in the formation of a homosexual self. Part of what I want to consider is to what extent the closet--or the condition of concealment and confinement that it refers toy--is productive of homosexual selves. Let me explain.

The dominant Stonewall narrative frames the closet as signifying the concealment of homosexual desire and identity--to the extent that desire functions as a cultural marker of identity. The closet is said to describe a state of self-alienation and inauthenticity. However, the experience of concealment implies not only repression but the formation of a desire and self around homosexuality. The interiority forced upon the individual by closeting makes it possible for same-sex desire to become an object of

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Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings
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