Clayton Howard

The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac highlights the ways that the expansion of the state after World War II elevated normative heterosexuality from an unmarked social tradition to an advantaged political identity that garnered economic, legal, and cultural benefits. It does this by using the history of San Francisco and its suburbs from World War II to the late 1970s. After the war, federal authorities gave married white men preferential treatment in the mortgage market, encouraging millions of straight-presenting residents to buy homes in the suburbs. This process helped create many different kinds of heterosexual-identified communities in Northern California and, inadvertently, facilitated the meeting of numerous LGBTQ people in the central city.   The book shows that as San Francisco became a center for Gay Liberation and the Religious Right organized in suburban churches in the 1970s, many white, straight-identified voters identified as moderates and disliked both social movements.  These heterosexual moderates simultaneously distanced themselves from what they saw as the discriminatory rhetoric of social conservatives and the egalitarian politics of the gay rights movement. This book broadens our understanding of the kinds of people involved in the culture wars over LGBTQ rights. It’s not just a story of polarization between Gay Liberation and the Religious Right, but also one of a consensus over the value of protecting straight privilege.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic?

Clayton Howard: The project began as a dissertation. I read a lot of incredible histories of race and class in the postwar United States in graduate school, particularly related to schools and housing segregation.  At the same time, I was witnessing the ugly debates over same-sex marriage in the early 2000s. They were political fights that echoed earlier conflicts over nondiscrimination laws, AIDS, gays in the military, and other issues. I began to ask how some of the tools that historians were using to think about whiteness and segregation might also help us better understand debates over LGBTQ equality. In 2009, Margot Canaday published The Straight State, and it inspired me to want to know how the policies that she analyzes in her book played out at the grassroots level. Her book helped me to try to answer some of the questions that I was having about the history of the politics of heterosexuality. I initially wanted to know what the history of cities and suburbs could tell us about the “straight state” and vice versa.

NOTCHES: This book is about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to? 

CH: I’d like scholars to think about American political history differently. The book really highlights straight-identified people who saw themselves as moderates. They’re voters who don’t like extremes, and they often presented themselves as reasonable people trapped in the middle. In the debates over gay rights, they often expressed ambivalence, rather than hostility to gay communities. On one hand, they did not like the idea that someone might lose their job or face arrest because of their private sex life. They were often uncomfortable with the Religious Right. On the other hand, they also thought that heterosexuality was better than same-sex relationships of any kind. Straightness always seemed normal to them, so they often discriminated even as they condemned discrimination.

This is a book about gay rights, but moderation is a concept that applies to a lot of different kinds of U.S. politics.  A lot of Americans have liked to have it both ways, which is often an expression of privilege. Debates about gun control have tended to allow for both gun ownership and “commonsense” restrictions. I remember Bill Clinton promised to keep abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” People have prefaced statements with “I am not a feminist, but…” only to end the sentence with a feminist idea. The list could go on. The point is that while social movements and political parties are really important, there are large swathes of the American public who dislike activists of any kind and think of themselves as reasonably in the middle. I hope that my work inspires more scholars to explore moderation as a kind of politics with its own history and contradictions. 

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? What sources did you use and were there any especially exciting discoveries or any particular challenges?

CH: My attempt to document queer lives in the postwar suburbs particularly fascinated and challenged me. During the 1950s and 1960s, many gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals struggled to live open lives outside of large cities. But some of them turned the privacy of suburban houses to their advantage. Postwar architects and planners often designed single family homes to make the lives of married couples with children easier. They did not want kids to witness their parents’ sex lives, and they hoped private bedrooms made husbands and wives feel more comfortable having sex. However, I found traces of queer relationships among people who presented as heterosexual and even a few unmarried men who owned their own homes. In a way, these suburbanites were “in the closet,” but they also used the privacy of their homes to safely express queer desires.  Their bedrooms were sites of liberation and repression at the same time. Unfortunately, most of my sources for these stories were police related. Hidden relationships only came to light because the authorities arrested someone, and therefore I could only see a limited, often unflattering, glimpse of queer suburbia.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

CH: Yes, of course! Like many authors, I had to sacrifice some topics in order to make the project manageable. My book brings together histories of the city and suburbs; straight and queer communities; secular and religious institutions; public policies and the attitudes of people at the grassroots level. The book also takes questions of race seriously, but it focuses more on whiteness as a category of analysis than the voices of communities of color. If I had been able to, I would have loved to look more at how ideas about sexuality and straightness differed across the color line. Northern California is an exceptionally diverse place, and I hope that my work can at least make it easier for another scholar to look at those histories.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?

CH: Yes, I initially focused on the history of conservatives, and it took time for me to see straight politics as something broader than the left-right partisan divide. As I looked at the history of sex education and the first conflicts over LGBTQ rights in the 1960s and 1970s, however, I noticed that even though conservatives sometimes lost battles, heterosexuality always seemed to win. For example, the book begins and ends with the Briggs Initiative, which was an attempt to ban gay teachers in California in 1978. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it, but my sources told me that a lot of people who turned out against the measure also expressed a lot of homophobia. In that moment, they disliked the Religious Right, but they also opposed LGBTQ equality. It was a key turning point in my thinking to realize that while social conservatives were important, focusing on them too much risked obscuring a larger kind of straight identity politics.

NOCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

CH: I remember witnessing the AIDS crisis as a kid. I recall being struck by how little many people cared about the epidemic. I am talking about people that I saw on tv, but also in my own life. I learned a little about ACT UP and other kinds of queer activism by the time that I finished high school, and, of course, I knew that the Moral Majority described homosexuality as a sin. But most people that I knew seemed indifferent to the epidemic. In hindsight, that disinterest felt like one of the most painful parts of the crisis. When I was researching my book, I found a poll from the late 1980s where around 70 to 80 percent of respondents agreed that HIV+ “homosexuals” and “drug addicts” deserved to have the virus. It was shocking, but not surprising, to me.

In graduate school, I read a lot of texts on racial normativity. In many contexts, white people, particularly middle-class to affluent white people, did not get involved in politics because things often worked pretty well for them. When they got involved, they often insisted that it were not “activists,” just “ordinary” people. Again, I am thinking about the great books on segregation and schools. I began to think about heterosexuality in similar terms, and on some level, I was probably thinking about my memories of AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s. I suspect that I came to this topic because I have a deep fascination with the history of indifference and that brought me to the history of sexuality. Sometimes the people who do not care worry me more than those who actively seek to cause harm.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with? 

CH: The clearest texts that I would assign alongside my book would be The Straight State or a metropolitan history such as Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority or Robert Self’s American Babylon. Those are the kinds of texts that initially inspired me, and they would work well alongside The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac. I also imagine that an innovative teacher could come up with an assignment that encourages students to think about sexuality in the built environment. In my own classes on urban history, I ask students to write essays that critically assess parts of the physical landscape of Columbus, OH. Some of the early chapters of my book highlight the ways that city builders created homes and neighborhoods with assumptions about the sexuality of the people would live there. Students might use the book to offer their own analysis of their home, neighborhood, or metropolitan region.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

CH: While the book is not about same-sex marriage, I think it inevitably speaks to the history of the recent debates over the issue. While the legalization of same-sex marriage after 2015 is an undeniable victory for LGBTQ rights in the U.S., I also think that some of the underlying homophobia of the last fifty years continues to shape how many straight-identified people understand the issue. As many queer activists in the 1960s and 1970s argued, “legal” does not necessarily mean “good.” The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac argues that many straight people have tolerated gay rights even as they have seen heterosexuality as a more natural, better way of being. Many straight supporters of same-sex marriage today also hope that their kids will be heterosexual, which gives them something in common with the Religious Right.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next

CH: I am presently finishing an essay that builds off some of the research from my book. It’s about how straight-identified people in the late twentieth century came to see LGBTQ rights as good for economic development. Economic and political elites, in particular, often justified nondiscrimination laws because they thought that they would be good for business. I am also starting a new book project on gun violence and gun control in the U.S. It’s still in an early stage, but I am particularly interested in the story of a group of Black women in Chicago and white women in the North Shore suburbs who advocated for gun control together in the 1970s.

Clayton Howard is an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University. His research and teaching focus on the histories of sexuality, race, politics, cities, and suburbs. He is the author of The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California (2019) and has written essays for The Journal of Urban History, The Conversation, New England Quarterly, and Origins.

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