4 out of 4 stars
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For the United States, the 1970s brought the end of the Vietnam War, the resignation of a president, and revolutionary changes in social and political values. The decade also proved to be a pivotal time for people with non-traditional sexual orientations. It isn’t accurate to refer to a “GLBT community” when discussing this period, because there was not really a cohesive community then. Gay men and lesbians, long considered to be criminal, sexual deviants, were relegated to the threadbare fringes of the social fabric. That paradigm would soon begin to shift. In Coming Out: The Emergence of the Movement Lesbian, author Sharon Raphael, Ph.D. explores a transformative time when gay women (the terminology of the time) were beginning to “come out” and identify as members of a supportive social environment—the gay liberation movement.
In 1972 the author joined a “rap group,” a weekly gathering for Los Angeles lesbians. As part of her doctoral requirements, Raphael transcribed the women’s group interactions and interpreted them through the lens of sociology, focusing on the process of coming out, its effect on group and individual identity, and the personal and collective effects of being part of an emerging social movement.
Reading the transcripts invoked the intolerances of the time period: the bullying and lost friends, physical and emotional assaults, lost jobs, and the suicides brought on by the overall toll. Upon coming out to her father, one woman was called a “dirty queer” and beaten. Sadly, this was not rare. The alternatives were unfriendly; owning your “gayness” meant admitting to deviant, criminal behavior, and “going straight” meant living an imposter’s life. Joining a social/political movement enabled lesbians to see their experience reflected in others and feel a sense of belonging, maybe for the first time.
Being a scholarly work, Coming Out is presented with the expected front matter, as well as endnotes for each chapter. The introduction nicely summarizes the study and offers a bridge to present time. The sections covering the history of feminism, the detailed coming out process, and the activism that was the impetus for this movement held my interest completely. Raphael addresses myths and stereotypes that might surprise non-gay people, including the misconception that people in same-sex relationships are primarily organized around their sexuality. Lesbians in particular actually value connection and relationship primarily. I was pleased to see the complex issue of lesbian invisibility covered in the book. There is other research out there about the coming out process, but much of it focuses on gay men. This makes Sharon Raphael’s insider study of lesbians all the more relevant.
My Kindle copy of the book contains some formatting issues, though they are minor and do not detract from the message. There were several line break and spacing errors sprinkled throughout. Aside from this, the book appears to be professionally edited as I discovered very few errors. I recommend the book to students of sociology or psychology, and to anyone curious about the process of coming out. For lesbians and bisexual women, this book is a must for your libraries. The writing is very accessible, but if you are allergic to scholarly works, this is probably not for you.
Reading about shifting identity structures may sound a little academic—and it is—but Dr. Raphael’s research is compelling, and I think readers will find a personal way to relate to these stories and the impact of the liberation movements of the ‘70s. As a teenager then, I was beginning to discover that my sexuality was not so binary. Having lived the trajectory examined here, I appreciate Dr. Raphael’s historical look at a revolutionary time that gave rise to “the movement lesbian.” It marked a newfound social consciousness and a new infrastructure of support and purpose for many thousands of GLBT people. I gladly award Coming Out: The Emergence of the Movement Lesbian 4 out of 4 stars for its intimate, original research, historical importance, and comprehensive examination of the topic. Sociological inquiry will be gratified to count this work a part of its field of study.
Coming Out: The Emergence of the Movement Lesbian
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