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The Closet and the Cul de Sac: Sex, Politics, and Suburbanization in Postwar California.

By Clayton C. Howard


“The Closet and the Cul de Sac” connects the history of state-sponsored repression after World War II to the outbreak of the “culture wars” over gay rights in the United States in the 1970s. Using the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study, it explores the ways in which heterosexual norms shaped public policies in the 1940s. It then analyzes how Gay Liberation and the Religious Right grew out of postwar patterns in metropolitan development and how in the late twentieth century most straight voters have struggled to stake out an ideological middle-ground between the two social movements. Most histories of the culture wars begin with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when gay activists and social conservatives first confronted one another at the national level. Beginning my analysis in the postwar period, however, draws attention to the ways in which public policies shaped Americans’ perceptions of legitimate and illicit sexuality. Beginning in the 1940s, public authorities across the country adopted policies that both celebrated straight relationships and penalized queer ones. These included classroom-based sex education, criminal penalties for homosexual acts, and employment discrimination. At the same time, federal housing officials gave married couples preferential treatment in the mortgage market, and private developers built new suburbs specifically for straight families. Their actions pooled millions of newly married couples in new communities outside older cities, and, inadvertently, concentrated queer residents in urban centers. Underscoring postwar government policies reveals two important truths about American sexual politics since the 1970s. First, the Religious Right and Gay Liberation owe at least part of their origins to contradictions in state-sponsored metropolitan development. When gay rights activists in cities like San Francisco arose to challenge repressive policies in the 1970s, social conservatives in churches from the “family-friendly” suburbs arose to challenge them. Second, although most straight voters never joined the Religious Right, many of them nevertheless benefited from government-supported privileges like homeownership. Integrating the state into an analysis of the culture wars, therefore, implicates most straight Americans who avoided the strident rhetoric of social conservatives but who nevertheless objected to homosexuality

Topics: San Francisco Bay Area, Culture Wars, Gay Rights and Religious Right, Straightness
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