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Book Review: The Complexity of Gender   |    
Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition • Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Communities • Family Secrets: Gay Sons: A Mother's Story
Stephanie A. Bryson, M.S.W., L.I.S.W.
Psychiatric Services 2000; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.51.2.256
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by Barbara J. Risman; New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1998, 189 pages, $25 hardcover, $15 softcover • edited by Dawn Atkins; Binghamton, New York, Harrington Park Press, 1998, 467 pages, $32.95 softcover • by Jean M. Baker, Ph.D.; Binghamton, New York, Harrington Park Press, 1998, 241 pages, $14.95 softcover

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Can men mother? Is gender biologically based? Could families be truly free of gender roles? Are there only two sexes? What are the costs of our current constructions of gender? Through social science research, theory, and personal accounts, the three books reviewed here chip away at these profound ontological questions.

In Gender Vertigo, seemingly indefatigable scholar and researcher Barbara Risman has given us an impressively thorough and refreshingly cogent summary of her research on gender in heterosexual families. The author of numerous articles and the editor of Contemporary Sociology, Risman has established herself as a practitioner of well-constructed social science research. In this new book, which presents original data collected from at least three separate research endeavors over the past 20 years, Risman asserts that gender is not personal, but structural. Moreover, she says, gender is structural, but not immutable.

Risman advances one major point throughout Gender Vertigo, a point she supports with enough data to make even the most research oriented among us vertiginous. First, Risman posits that gender is a structure unto itself, akin to the economic or political structures in this country. Eschewing the individualist notion of "gendered selves" from feminist psychology and gender role socialization theory—and the permanence of some other structuralist approaches—Risman argues that although gender is indeed a structure that organizes our lives in myriad ways, we social actors also choose to reproduce gender in our interactions with each other on a daily basis.

Says Risman, certainly we must take into account the effect of gender socialization. The early inculcation we receive as children and young people does contribute to the creation of gendered selves. However, we must also examine the different expectations faced by men and women in exactly the same structural contexts and the attendant choices they make in these interactional contexts. And, finally, we must acknowledge gender as an integral part of all the institutions of modern life, a factor that militates against men and women ever being placed in the same structural context.

Seeing gender as an artifact of interaction between humans rather than as an a priori reality has important liberating implications. Risman's interactional approach focuses on choices. For if we are choosing to reproduce dominant gendered behavior, we can still choose to "do gender differently." Says Risman, "I believe that the expectations we face every day—the opportunities and constraints we negotiate as we interact with one another—are much to blame for the male privileges still accorded in contemporary American families."

Indeed, Risman believes that gender—and thus gender inequality—is something "we can get beyond." Borrowing her title from Robert Connell's treatise Masculinities, she asserts that "gender vertigo" is a kind of necessary historical disorientation we in America must undergo if we are to collapse the binary structure of gender inequity on which our collective identity is founded and daily sustained.

Motivated by a decade-long desire to understand "why men and women behave so differently, particularly in their intimate relationships," Risman turns her assiduously polished sociological lens to the ubiquitous factory in which gendered behavior is daily manufactured—the contemporary American family. She presents the findings of three major original research efforts: one focused on parenting across four types of family arrangements, one focused on women's life choices over time, and one focused on "fair" role-sharing families that divide family tasks equitably. "Reluctant" single fathers, baby-boom mothers, and self-identified feminist couples constitute Risman's samples. Attesting to the persistence of traditional (by late-20th-century standards) gendered behavior, study participants in the more post-traditional gender categories were especially difficult to find. Risman's rigorous screening criteria also account for this difficulty.

For example, to ascertain whether men can "mother"—that is, whether men can really do all the relational and domestic tasks performed by women in raising children—Risman selects only "reluctant" single fathers. She includes in her sample only single fathers who have been forced into full-time parenting by the exigencies of life to assure that these men don't represent a potentially confounding nontraditional gender cohort. Similarly, only feminist couples who truly divide the family's household and relational tasks equitably are included in her sample of "fair families."

Among Risman's more interesting findings:

• In fact, men can mother, and they experience the same difficulties as single mothers when they are the sole parents.

• The career and family choices women make are as strongly predicted by the life circumstances in which they find themselves as by the sum of their gender socialization measured in adolescence.

• "Fair families" do exist and produce healthy, well-adjusted children.

Risman supports this last finding by interviewing the children of her egalitarian heterosexual families. Her findings also indicate that although ideological inculcation by feminist parents plays something of a predictive role in forming children's identities, experience in the other institutions of our society—namely school —ultimately counts more.

Risman's research is impressive; it is intentionally conservative to control for significant threats to internal validity and, moreover, to insulate the inquiry from ideological contamination. Furthermore, Risman's mixed-method designs are carefully conceptualized and thoughtfully implemented. Her considerable attention to methodology enhances her credibility as a researcher and provides reliable data to deploy in the effort to dismantle gender inequality in mainstream American society.

This significant and far-reaching agenda has fueled Barbara Risman's career, and we are the lucky benefactors. Although Gender Vertigo may be more "straight sociology" than some mental health professionals might opt to read, it provides an important corrective to the individualizing lens of many "straight psychology" approaches to gender. I recommend it.

The book jacket of Gender Vertigo makes an interesting epistemological claim, which struck me as ironic as I read the next two books under consideration: Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Communities and Family Secrets: Gay Sons: A Mother's Story. The jacket suggests that Risman's monograph on heterosexual families "provides empirical evidence that human beings are capable of enduring and affective intimate relationships without gender as the central organizing mechanism."

During and after the recent trial of those who murdered Matthew Shepard, a gay young man, we have been poignantly reminded, as the Risman monograph cover states, that hundreds of thousands of human beings remain engaged in "enduring and affective intimate relationships without [traditional] gender as the central organizing mechanism." However, their legitimacy as providers of empirical evidence remains suspect in this society. Indeed, the two Harrington Park Press publications under consideration here provide ample qualitative evidence that some members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) communities have been reeling from "gender vertigo" for some time now.

Looking Queer is a collection of theoretical pieces, first-person accounts, and testimonials by GLBT people about body image. It is fascinating and, I must say, fully justifies the anthology format. Where Gender Vertigo is empirically validated, Looking Queer is ethnographic and equally compelling.

From the joy of lesbian fatness to the legacy of gender reassignment surgery at birth to transgender identity to looksism in the gay male community, Looking Queer is like a bus ride through the diverse GLBT community. Packed with graphic personal accounts and highly polished theoretical works, startlingly funny anecdotal pieces, and surprisingly interesting epiphanies about the interaction of gender, race, "queerness," and body image, Looking Queer addresses a lacuna in the knowledge base of body image and sexual orientation.

As an understudied area, the interaction of body image and sexual orientation warrants exploratory research. Looking Queer provides just that. For once, juxtaposing scholarly, activist, and personal stories enhances rather than fragments the effect of the text as a whole. For the uninitiated, this book provides a glimpse into the inner world of cross-dressers, transvestites, hermaphrodites, lesbians, and gay men whose experiences of their corporeality and their sexuality are profoundly influenced by affective ties, by ethnic-race categories, and by their choices to "do" gender in traditional or nontraditional ways. For those already familiar with the literature or with salient body-image issues in the GLBT community, this book will still offer surprises and new conceptualizations of old issues.

Similarly, those familiar with the process of acknowledging one's status as a sexual minority might at first glance dismiss Family Secrets as yet another coming-out book, this time one written by the mother of two gay sons. And, true, Family Secrets is a mother's story about coming to terms with her two sons' gayness. But even more, the book is psychologist Jean Baker's moving account of the loss of her youngest son to one of the early cases of AIDS, which claimed so many young gay men in the 1980s.

Baker has accomplished something rare in this little book. She narrates the true story of her two boys, Gary and Andy: of their growing up, their hobbies and interests, their college experiences. Without literary flourish, Baker takes us through the developmental stages of her youngest son, Gary, with an impressive amount of candor and self-reflection.

Baker is ruthlessly honest about her struggle with homophobia when Gary finally discloses his sexual orientation to her. She chronicles a mother's concern for her son's iffy romantic relationships, for his career choices, and for his fragile health once he is diagnosed with HIV and then full-blown AIDS. The reader accompanies Baker as she raises two talented, intelligent, loving sons; as she loses her husband to a heart attack; and, finally, as she holds her dying 27-year-old son.

Using letters from Gary to his parents and to his older brother, Andy, Baker reconstructs Gary's life. Her distinctive accomplishment is that she makes the reader know and care about her son and about the family that still mourns his loss. Miraculously, Gary becomes as precious to the reader as he clearly was to his mother, which is a true accomplishment for a first-hand autobiographical account.

Baker's book is a poignant eulogy to her son and an important treatise on the developmental needs of gay youth delivered in a powerful, personal way. In final chapters, Baker provides an appendix of sorts that addresses grief and mourning, right-to-die issues, and prevalent myths about homosexuality. Clearly written to dispel some of these myths and to induce people to think about gay men not in stereotypical ways, but rather as the beloved sons of solid, middle-class American families, Baker's Family Secrets succeeds. Infused with a good deal of understated clinical knowledge, Baker's perspective as therapist and mother makes this book a noteworthy contribution to the field.

Mental health professionals interested in thinking about the complexity of gender, body image, and sexual orientation will find a wealth of accessible information in Gender Vertigo, Looking Queer, and Family Secrets.

Ms. Bryson is affiliated with the Smith School for Social Work in Northhampton, Massachusetts.

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