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Contrary to what conservatives feared back in 2000 when he taught his first course at the University of Michigan titled “How to Be Gay”, David Halperin does not have a “Straight to Sissy in Five Easy Steps” method of indoctrinating youths into the gay lifestyle. How to Be Gay (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) is not an instruction manual, nor is it a “learning to love yourself” self-help guide. Rather, Halperin’s book is an intervention against those who trumpet the “death of gay culture” (which he argues has been declared for over 40 years now) now that widening tolerance and greater visibility of gays in the media should make Judy Garland, show tunes, and drag queens obsolete. Halperin is not interested in a nature v. nurture debate on sexual orientation. Instead he investigates how a “distinctively gay way of being” is rooted in a “dissident way of feeling and relating to the world” that continues to nourish a distinct gay cultural practice interested in camp, Lady Gaga, and re-runs of The Golden Girls, even though we have out gay entertainers and the melancholic realism of Brokeback Mountain to directly depict us. As Halperin argues, “Gayness, then, is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos; in short, it is a practice.”
Halperin very well could have titled the book “Everything I Know About Being Gay, I Learned from Watching Joan Crawford”, because he spends over a hundred pages of his 500 plus page tome analyzing iconic scenes from Mildred Pierce and the camp classic Mommie Dearest. Contemplating the influence of Crawford’s diva persona on gay culture, Halperin argues that femininity functions “as a kind of proxy identity for gay men. The combination of feminine glamour and abjection that gay men assume through feminine identification and appropriation—through drag, in other words, or through the cult of Joan Crawford—makes available to gay men a position that is at once dignified and degraded, serious and unserious, tragic and laughable.” It is not that gay men secretly want to be a woman like Crawford, but instead, the historical fascination with the diva-figure is based on seeing “its own plight, in the distorted mirror of a devalued femininity.” Or, as Halperin says of Judy Garland, “in certain respects she could somehow express gay desire, what gay men want, better than a gay man could. That is, she could actually convey something even gayer than gay identity itself.”
Halperin’s fresh re-evaluation of the theory and practice of camp is one of his most fascinating insights. Departing from many of Susan Sontag’s famous Notes on Camp, Halperin makes a case for camp as politically subversive and a case study for the complicated structure of gay identification: “Camp works to drain suffering of the pain that it also does not deny.” In one of his more moving passages, Halperin praises the camp tactics of the Fire Island Widows, a group of gay men who lost lovers due to AIDS that don the traditional Italian widow’s garment of mourning. Since there was no public model for gay men to mourn their dead, they followed the gay cultural tactic of camp and appropriated one that identified solidly with the feminine position of grief, but retained a tone of parody to lessen the sting of loss.
One gets the sense that Halperin anticipates his greatest detractors to not be social conservatives (though he has been their pariah in the past), but instead to be other gay men who fear the essentialism of acknowledging the role a distinct gay culture plays in shaping gay identity. As soon as anyone makes a pronouncement about gay identity, there is an inevitable chorus of disgruntled gays who cite their love of hunting or hatred of Barbara Streisand as proof against any such universalizing gestures. Halperin brilliantly counters this reaction, reminding readers of the difference between studying culture versus identity: “A culture is not the same thing as a collection of individuals. Almost any statement one can make about a culture will turn out to be false as soon as it is applied to individuals.”
Halperin narrates the history of this masculine reaction against gay culture, culling from his own memories in the 70s of how newly “liberated” gay men appropriated the machismo of biker culture, mustaches, and construction worker clothing to combat the stereotype of the pathetic queens and fairies of the previous generation. This is a valuable history lesson to readers from subsequent generations given that these signifiers of 70s gay masculinity are now considered in the campy light of The Village People, and thus part of the gay culture from which today’s champions of machismo and normality try to distance their selves. How to Be Gay deserves a wide audience beyond academia, especially among today’s youth generation who come out in a climate more accepting of same-sex coupling, but still very much phobic and censorious of gay culture.
How to Be Gay
By David M. Halperin
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Hardcover, 9780674066793, 560 pp.