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Privacy, please! 'The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac'

by Jim Piechota

Privacy, please! 'The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac'

The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac by Clayton Howard; University of Pennsylvania Press, $45

Among the many inalienable rights we are afforded as Americans (for now, at least) is the right to privacy, but in author and Ohio State University professor Clayton Howard's lucid, thought-provoking examination "The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac," privacy was once a luxury item. It's now continually stretched to its tightest limits, particularly when associated with LGBTQ communities.

Using the San Francisco Bay Area as an example, Howard's insightful narrative charts the outbreak of culture wars in the 1970s highlighted by the Briggs Initiative in 1978, which threatened to roll back protections for LGBT people in education workplaces. Though it failed in the polls, Howard argues it opened up the floodgates for more contentious rhetoric and equal rights clashes between the gay and lesbian community and conservative religious groups with regard to issues such as sex education, public decency, and sexual freedom and privacies.

The author's research on the progressive Bay Area as an "exceptionally liberated place" is impressive. He integrates that knowledge into opinions on how sexual privacy has evolved through decades of oppression, from the "sexual crisis" of the 1940s to the restrictive homophobic legislation appearing on voter ballots in the 1970s.

More importantly, his narrative extends beyond San Francisco city limits to embrace Bay Area suburbs that were also experiencing rebirth and liberal growth.

Howard includes the legacy of Harvey Milk in his discussion, noting Milk's political prowess reached far beyond the Bay Area's borders and ushered in a new era of gay visibility and sexual freedom as the Religious Right and same-sex liberation efforts would lock horns for decades to come. Howard dutifully analyzes the crossroads reached when the "right to privacy" became a "bipartisan discourse designed to limit both the egalitarian agenda of gay liberation and the rightist vision of figures like John Briggs."

Dense and fact-heavy yet enlightening, the author's scholarly dissertation does meander a bit, extending outward into unexpected discussions, valid arguments, and relevant if curious local Northern California histories. To its credit, the book also includes rarely seen photographs of events like Tenderloin street gatherings in the late 1960s, and a youthful political candidate named Dianne Feinstein meeting members of the Society for Individual Rights in 1971. These diversions make for a lengthy read, but a history lesson in privacy laws that's worth the investment.


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