How To Be Gay

Almost despite himself, Ken Plummer is beguiled by an eloquent elegy for queerdom’s camp old days

August 23, 2012

This is a delightfully puzzling book. David Halperin, originally a classical scholar, is eminent in the field of queer studies and co-founder of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. And here, based on a course he taught for 10 years, his focus is modern gay culture. The very question the book poses - “how to be gay” - raises hackles on all sides and means it arrives steeped in controversies. The book has come under attack from picket-wielding members of the Christian Right, who protest that Halperin teaches a course that recruits young people into homosexuality. And it has garnered much hostility from post-Stonewall gay men who, having now gone all macho, straight and normal, are suspicious of Halperin’s celebration of pre-Gay Liberation Front stereotypes of camp old queens. Indeed, Halperin himself ponders in passing whether he has written a reactionary book.

So what is this gay culture of which he writes? Curiously, he detects something that matches popular stereotypes. Forged under conditions of exclusion, gay culture is defined by a camp, feminine sensibility. It brings a refined aesthetic and a ritual style that can be found in classic Hollywood cinema, in Broadway musicals, in grand opera, in fashion, interior decoration, art and architectural design. It flows into female melodrama, diva worship and the adoration of a string of icons - Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, The Golden Girls. The Wizard of Oz becomes its story and Over the Rainbow its anthem. And at its extreme edge, it fosters a bitchy dislike of all things commonplace and routine - a dissident, “queer” response to mainstream things. It can, indeed, be snobbish and nasty. This gay culture takes straight culture and subverts and plays with it.

Halperin makes it clear from the outset that gay culture is not at all the same thing as gay sex, gay identity or even homosexuality. His focus is on gay male culture: its subjectivities, sensibilities and practices. It is a distinctively enigmatic cultural form, and he seeks to grasp its logic and explain its (radical?) politics. He is absolutely not talking about gay people or individuals, and he shuns psychological reductionism. He also bypasses vast amounts of sociological and anthropological discussion on culture, and looks instead to poetics, arguing that culture displays “the pragmatics of discourse and genre”. And at the heart of this culture is “gay femininity” and “camp”, which he says,”works to drain the sufferings of the pain that it also does not deny”. He distinguishes between the obvious gay cultural forms created by “gays” themselves (in, say, the works of Jean Genet or André Gide) and the gay subculture that takes straight culture and uses it in new ways. It can be illustrated in the difference between Judy Garland, who was not gay but who was transformed into a gay icon, and Rufus Wainwright “doing Judy” as a direct part of being an out and camp gay. They speak very differently.

What is marvellous is Halperin’s rich analysis of many aspects of this gay cultural life, showing the distinctive ways it makes use of straight culture. For example, and borrowing from the work of David Miller, there is a key chapter on the musical. He is absolutely not saying that all gay men like musicals, but he is suggesting that it is a form “of difference, of a desire to escape, of a will to imagine alternatives” that exemplifies the logic of gay culture. Halperin admits that he was not originally part of this culture when he was young. He had to be taught by his younger partner - it does not, it seems, come naturally by generation. But now he has become a particular fan of the “demented femininity” of Joan Crawford, and devotes a whole chapter to the film Mildred Pierce. It is clear to me, as it is to him, that Madonna, or Lady Gaga, who gay men can worship these days, come from different historical moments and therefore touch different historical contradictions and issues. While we have to move on, a sense of our past is important - to be neither mocked nor forgotten. There is continuity and discontinuity. Yet something in Halperin’s elegant writing smacks of a certain nostalgia for this painful past.

The book is selective: many an old queen might search in vain for favourites such as Eartha Kitt or Jessie Matthews. But this is not meant to be a coffee-table book, encyclopedia or “how-to manual”: these already exist. It is rather an erudite meditation by one of the world’s leading queer theorists. It provokes, sparkles and bristles with ideas, claims, defences and the kind of epigrams (“The Queen is not dead”; “Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people”; “Gay Pride is preventing us from knowing ourselves”; “Desire into identity will not go”; “Queer politics takes aim at the very heart of our modernity”) that would make for great seminar discussions.

In part, this is a book about the changes in North American gay life in the past 50 years. “Stonewall”, Halperin suggests, “did not make such a huge difference after all.” Other factors seem more important: urban transformation, the arrival of HIV/Aids and the internet. And as we have become decriminalised, demedicalised and turned into family-loving, child-rearing, partner-making and even marrying gays, willing and wanting to fight in the army, we have become normalised.

And yet at the same time we can never be fully normalised. The end of discrimination and growing social acceptance should not be mistaken for a decline in sexual normativity and the continuing prevalence of a more or less compulsory social form. In this, “the dignity and value of human life finds expression in a particular form of intimate coupled existence”, Halperin says. It brings together love, child-raising, mutual support, shared living space, shared finance, property ownership and the rest. It is heterosexual in shape because of the reproduction of children, but some homosexuals can now join in if they wish. But this heteronormativity is not likely to change, which means the gay will always grow up in a culture where “he” does not really fit. So resistance of a kind will be inevitable, and gay culture is a product of this.

Underpinning the whole book is a strong sense of defensiveness - Halperin has been so attacked from different quarters that he anticipates more. So despite all its brilliance, erudition and wit, this lovely book turns out to be sadly limited - perhaps like the culture it analyses. It is more than 500 pages long but stays obdurately restricted to one narrow view of one narrow strand of gay life. Halperin acknowledges this throughout, but keeps backtracking to it. What of all the other gay cultures around the world right now? He knows that gay culture in India is not the same as in Indonesia. What of all the historical shifts in gay cultures across generations over time? He knows that they must be bound up with changes - and continuities - in generations. What about the linkages with other oppressed groups who have forged cultures out of their subordinations? He must know that there is a vast literature on marginality, strangers and the subterranean world of politics, even as he ignores it. What about lesbian cultures, which are decidedly different? What of gay culture beyond the world of the US, as he describes a gay culture that is really a masked form of US imperialism? He knows that the culture is never homogeneous and is often damaging and restricting.

Halperin is clever and he knows all this. But somehow, in spite of himself, he makes his claim that this little cultural enclave is the real radical gay culture, and is worth preserving and passing on. Maybe: I love it, too. This is a great book, it will generate heated debate, but I doubt if he is right. I have to remain puzzled.

The Author

“For the past 10 years, I’ve commuted between Ann Arbor, Michigan and Paris, a city I have known all my life,” says David Halperin, W.H. Auden distinguished university professor of the history and theory of sexuality at the University of Michigan.

“My aim, however, has always been to live somewhere that has a Mediterranean climate. I have tried at various points to settle in San Francisco, Rome and Sydney, but failed. I still think Rome is the most magical city in the world, but then I’m a classicist by training.”

Halperin took his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College in Ohio - “it was said to be a place for misfits where everybody fits, and after high school it was like the Promised Land”. He became an academic, he says, when he realised that “I wasn’t fit for anything else. I’m good at languages, so I might have wanted to go into the foreign service, but I couldn’t find a country with a foreign policy I approved of.”

He has no regrets. “The academy gives you time and freedom to think and it imposes professional standards which are generous: one’s whole job is to help other people think better and to foster their development. It’s rare to be paid to do something that does not cause someone harm. So it’s a nice life and a protected one.

“Of course, there are all sorts of informal political constraints on what can be said and thought, especially in supposedly progressive scholarship, but one has the latitude to resist them. More academics should take advantage of that.”

Asked if, notwithstanding the academy’s freedom, he has paid a price for being outspoken, Halperin replies unhesitatingly: “Yes - but it’s been worth it.”

How To Be Gay

By David M. Halperin

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 560pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674066793

Published 30 August 2012

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