Janna L. Horowitz: Janna L. Horowitz received her M.S.Ed. in counseling psychology from the University of Southern California in 1996. She is currently earning her doctorate in counseling psychology at USC, with specialty areas in college student development, gender, and sexual orientation.
This book is a part of the Critical Studies in Education and Culture Series edited by Henry A. Giroux and Paulo Freire. This series attempts to analyze education from the perspective that schools function as cultural cites, actively engaged in the production of knowledge and social identities. Within this series, Coming Out in College provides a detailed account of the coming out process for gay and bisexual male college students. The focus of the book is both the experiences individuals face in coming to terms with their sexual identity, and the process of developing a group identity. The development of a group identity involves a degree of political investment which is often referred to by the students as queer identity. This book revolves around the notion of queer identity and explores how students engage as cultural workers seeking both campus and societal change.
Coming Out in College reads like a long, academic journal article. According to Rhodes, it is based on an ethnographic study of gay and bisexual male college students. It is jargon filled with explanations of critical postmodernism and its relation to education and sexual identity formation. The information contained in the book is interesting and valuable, especially if you have a particular interests in college students and sexual identity, as I do. However, presentation of some of the material is very academic and requires deliberate attention.
Rhoads describes critical postmodernism for the purpose of contextualizing his study. He states that critical postmodernism aims to confront oppression and to seek to bridge the chasm between research and action (p. 32). According to Rhodes as he cites from Tierney and Rhoads (1993), critical postmodern research rests on five main premises: 1) Research is concerned with the structures in which the study exists; 2) Knowledge is not neutral but is contested and political; 3) Difference and conflict, rather than similarity and consensus, are used as organizing principles; 4) Research is praxis oriented; and 5) All researcher/authors are intimately tied to their theoretical perspectives. We are all positioned subjects (p. 42-43). In light of this explanation, the critical postmodernist perspective seems like a good theoretical orientation for the study of stigmatized and marginalized groups. In this particular case, the method is a good fit for investigating the queer movement on a college campus, because both the theory and the topic have agendas for change (eradication of heterosexism and homophobia). Throughout the book, Rhoads reminds the reader that he is trying to tie the theory to praxis, a goal which is usually but not always accomplished as sometimes the theory is left floating and somewhat disjointed from the rich life stories of the informants.
The stories of the students, at times quoted directly, provide the real treasures in this work. The stories are heartfelt and well portrayed. They demonstrate first-hand the struggles and triumphs of these college students as they navigate their sexual identity development. Their stories tackle such issues as heterosexism in the classroom, gay bashing, and coming out to friends and parents, as well as career aspirations.
The issue of central focus in this book is the meaning of queer identity, which Rhoads states is twofold according to the students: one meaning is political, the other is unifying. He adds, even in these two senses the meanings converge in that queer as unifier is a political statement (p. 139). Rhoads describes the queer identified students at the university as standing in opposition to the heterosexist culture that pervades society within and outside of the university.
The culmination of the book is Rhoads' modification of Epstein's (1987) Model of Constructivism/Essentialism Debate, in which Epstein considers the constructivism/essentialism dualism as sameness versus difference and choice versus constraint (p. 151). Rhoads modifies Epstein's model by rejecting dualism and embracing a Gay Ethnicity that reflects both choice and constraint and sameness and difference. Rhoads' conceptualization allows for sexually diverse people to unify under one umbrella of Gay Ethnicity. Although I think this is a good idea theoretically, I do not know how realistic it is practically to expect such a diverse group to embrace a Gay Ethnicity. In fact, many people I expect would reject a Gay Ethnicity (I am thinking particularly of groups that may reject the label gay, such as some lesbians and bisexuals). Additionally, Rhoads' model is ripe with academic jargon such as strict essentialism, strict constructivism, and constraint, words which I believe would not be particularly helpful for an individual looking for an ethnicity.
Overall, I found this book interesting. Its appeal seems limited due to its research focus and emphasis on theoretical perspectives. The critical postmodern perspective was useful and appropriate for this research project, and Rhoads does a satisfactory job of explaining difficult concepts. The stories of these gay and bisexual male college students is worth reading. As this project focused solely on men, it seems clear that a parallel research project focused on women would be a necessary contribution to the literature in this area.
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