The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights (review)
- Anthropological Quarterly
- George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
- Volume 76, Number 3, Summer 2003
- pp. 565-567
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 565-567
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In The Stranger Next Door, Arlene Stein uses activism in rural Oregon around gay and lesbian civil rights to examine questions of strangeness and intimacy in a town referred to as Timbertown. Stein recounts how, following a failed statewide effort to pass a measure preempting civil rights protection for gays and lesbians, the Oregon Citizens Alliance advocated at the level of local politics across rural Oregon for similar amendments to local bylaws. The statewide initiative had passed in rural Oregon, indicating a receptive audience for the OCA's argument regarding the need to protect against government protection and promotion of homosexuality. Stein's organizing question is why such amendments find broad support in rural Oregon, where gays and lesbians are nearly invisible. Secondly, she explores how a defense of legal protection could be launched given this invisibility, and given the meanings attached to rights protection for gays and lesbians. Stein uses these questions to theorize the nature of group membership, the uses and impact of media on public debate, and to contribute to the literature on conservative Christians in the US. These additional problems are naturally interwoven throughout the text, demonstrating the usefulness of sexuality for addressing complex issues. This usefulness is all the more clear due to Stein's ability to link local, state and national [End Page 565] contexts. She has written a personable text that deals cogently with complex issues.
Stein's investigation centers on the conservative Christian Timbertowners who lead the campaign to pass a local ordinance against civil rights protection for gays and lesbians. She constructs them as dedicated to an ethos of self-reliance and hard work, arguing that they use these ideals to cope with economic uncertainty and Timbertown's changing social composition. Sexuality thus acts as a symbolic issue around which emotions, charged by a host of anxieties, gather for expression in rhetoric and political action. Treating sexuality as a symbol has a long history in sexuality studies; social scientists since Mary McIntosh's "Homosexual Role"1 vhave noted how attaching a stigmatizing label onto a segment of the population acts to police the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable. In this case, Stein's contribution is to see how such stigmatization works when the demonized Other is, quite literally, hard to see. What does it mean when heterosexual sisters living together are accused of being lesbians, and a lesbian mother is mistaken as a heterosexual woman? That is, what happens when the labelling being performed is simply wrong? Stein hypothesizes two responses to these questions. First, despite their relative invisbility, gays and lesbians still represent the "most difference" in rural Oregon, where few people of color live. Secondly, the potential for mistakes in identification actually adds urgency to delineating the line between "us" and "them." When social and economic change increased the importance of social boundaries in Timbertown, the existence of gays and lesbians among "normal" Oregonians became a source of great anxiety because they could not be reliably identified.
In a broader sense, The Stranger Next Door is also an investigation of the collision between traditional, conservative American values embodied by small town and rural residents and big city, global cultures represented by gays and lesbians. As a liberal, Jewish, lesbian academic, Stein's interest is piqued by the fundamentally different understandings her conservative Christian informants have of the value of multiculturalism and diversity. To explain conservative Timbertowners' desire to not "celebrate diversity," Stein reaches beyond both the theory of "culture war" and a materialist analysis of Timbertown's changing economics to argue that a combination of these factors effectively created a third force larger than the sum of its parts. Timbertown fits the culture war model to an extent—its citizens did organize along religious lines to respond to a political controversy in which submerged social differences...