No one raises an eyebrow if you suggest that a guy who arranges his furniture just so, rolls his eyes in exaggerated disbelief, likes techno music or show tunes, and knows all of Bette Davis's best lines by heart might, just possibly, be gay. But if you assert that male homosexuality is a cultural practice, expressive of a unique subjectivity and a distinctive relation to mainstream society, people will immediately protest. Such an idea, they will say, is just a stereotype-ridiculously simplistic, politically irresponsible, and morally suspect. The world acknowledges gay male culture as a fact but denies it as a truth.
David Halperin, a pioneer of LGBTQ studies, dares to suggest that gayness is a specific way of being that gay men must learn from one another in order to become who they are. Inspired by the notorious undergraduate course of the same title that Halperin taught at the University of Michigan, provoking cries of outrage from both the right-wing media and the gay press, How To Be Gay traces gay men's cultural difference to the social meaning of style.
Far from being deterred by stereotypes, Halperin concludes that the genius of gay culture resides in some of its most despised features: its aestheticism, snobbery, melodrama, adoration of glamour, caricatures of women, and obsession with mothers. The insights, impertinence, and unfazed critical intelligence displayed by gay culture, Halperin argues, have much to offer the heterosexual mainstream.
David M. Halperin is W. H. Auden Distinguished University Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Six: The Queen Is Not Dead
We keep being told that gay culture is dead. Traditional gay male culture, or so the story goes, was tied to homophobia, to the regime of the closet, to the Bad Old Days of anti-gay oppression. That is why it is no longer relevant. Now that we have (some) gay rights, and even gay marriage (in half a dozen states, at least, as well as in Canada, several European countries, South Africa, Argentina, and Nepal), the sense of exclusion, and of specialness, that gay men have long felt is out of date. Once upon a time, gay culture was rooted in “the aestheticism of maladjustment,” as Daniel Harris calls it. With those roots in social rejection and marginalization now definitively severed, traditional gay culture is certain to wither away. In fact, it has already withered away. “The grain of sand, our oppression, that irritated the gay imagination to produce the pearl of camp, has been rinsed away,” Harris explains, “and with it, there has been a profound dilution of the once concentrated gay sensibility.”
Similar arguments also used to be made about drag, highlighting its outdatedness and forecasting its imminent disappearance. But since drag continues all too obviously to live on, no doubt to the embarrassment of many, and since it continues to take new forms—from RuPaul’s Drag Race on the Logo Channel to late-night appropriations of deserted Walmarts for drag displays by queer youth—the reports of its demise that continue to be issued seem increasingly to lack confidence and conviction.
In the case of gay culture in general, however, a death knell is continually sounded, often by forty-something gay men projecting their sense of generational difference, as well as their utopian hopes for the future, onto younger guys—or anyone who represents the latest generation of gay men to emerge onto the scene. These kids are said to live in a brave new world of acceptance and freedom, mercifully different from that prison house of oppression, that “cage of exclusion” (albeit “gilded . . . with magnificent ornaments”), which their elders knew.
If you want to gauge just how well younger gay men nowadays are assimilated into American society at large, you only have to look —or so the advocates of this view insist—at how ignorant of gay culture these boys are, how indifferent to it they are, how little need they have of it. That, you are assured over and over again, is a particularly telling sign: it shows that gay kids nowadays are happy and healthy and well-adjusted. “For the first time,” starting apparently in the 1990s, according to Andrew Sullivan, “a cohort of gay children and teens grew up in a world where homosexuality was no longer a taboo subject and where gay figures were regularly featured in the press.” The result of that change in mass-media representation, Sullivan contends, was a complete merging of straight and gay worlds, as well as a new fusion between straight and gay culture, with the latter now losing its edge and distinctiveness:
If the image of gay men for my generation was one gleaned from the movie Cruising or, subsequently, Torch Song Trilogy, the image for the next one was MTV’s “Real World,” Bravo’s “Queer Eye,” and Richard Hatch winning the first “Survivor.” The new emphasis was on the interaction between gays and straights and on the diversity of gay life and lives. Movies featured and integrated gayness. Even more dramatically, gays went from having to find hidden meaning in mainstream films—somehow identifying with the aging, campy female lead in a way the rest of the culture missed—to everyone, gay and straight, recognizing and being in on the joke of a character like “Big Gay Al” from “South Park” or Jack from “Will & Grace.”
Too bad no one bothered to tell my students. Maybe they would have stopped identifying with The Golden Girls and immersed themselves instead in The Swimming-Pool Library. Then I could have taught a successful class on contemporary gay male fiction. And I wouldn’t have had to write this book.