I know. I've been threatening to diary this for months, but every time I get ready to, something happens. The concept of the book is really simple. David Halperin, an English professor trained in the classics, looks around and sees that the gay students he encounters at the University of Michigan don't have any real sense of the Church of Cole Porter, all the stuff that James McCourt has jammed into Queer Street. So he decides to teach a course, under the auspices of the English department, called "How to be Gay." After all the usual garbage about taxpayer money blah-blah-blah, in which he is supported enthusiastically by the University against the usual group of bigots and the National Review, he writes a post-mortem (70 pages) followed by, oh, 400 or so more pages about some of the cultural icons and images that he works with in studying
how men who already are gay acquire a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world, a shared sense of self, an awareness of belonging to a specific social group, and a distinctive sensibility or subjectivity(and he might have added) in this post-AIDS era.
As it happens, he covers what I thought he might have added in the last three chapters, which to me are the most interesting part of the book because he makes a really good attempt to understand why he needed to teach this course, and which I'll cover in some depth. But the last time I threatened to write about this, somebody said in the comments that a cliff's notes version of the book is what's really needed. I won't do that exactly, because it's more interesting than that, so follow me below the great orange thingamajig for my thoughts on this fascinating project.
Confirmation of WHY he does this comes from a column Michael Musto wrote in the Village Voice in March. At the end of his report on Kinky Boots: The Musical, he reported this:
By the way, in case there hasn't been enough gay content in the above report, let me add that Fierstein introduced Lauper to the press that day as "my daughter, Christina Crawford."That's a MAJOR clue to the nature of the course material, but the book takes a while to get there.
We start with a sort of biography of the author as a gay man. As he says, a BAD gay man because his friends tell him he's hopeless as a gay man because he doesn't know how to be gay (hence the title). It's not so much those four words, it's about
what sense it might make to claim there is a right way to be gay, a way that needs to be learned even (or especially) by gay men themselves.He talks about how this is typical of his generation who came of age in the mid-1970s when the terms on which male homosexuality could be lived in America changed radically. Here's the micro-generational thing again. I'm 2 1/2 years older than Halperin and I came out I'd guess three or four years before he did and I watched the terms change; I wasn't presented with the changed terms. David, I didn't venerate Judy Garland or wear fluffy sweaters or call people "girlfriend" either, and I started smoking cigarettes before I came out, so there's that, but what he's really saying is how different does "different" have to be. That's a good question.
So we talk about Karl Ulrichs and Alfred Kinsey and the postwar gay fiction like The City and the Pillar and Giovanni's Room (and he might have mentioned Quatrefoil) and the fact that in these ideas and these books "homosexuality triumphed over inversion." He suggests that these heralded the masculine gay man of the 1970s but notes that George Chauncey would say all this emerged in the late 1940s. All this is to lead to a hypothesis:
Perhaps there really is such a thing as gay male subjectivity. And perhaps gay men's cultural practices offer us a way of approaching it, getting hold of it, describing it, defining it, and understanding it.That there is the introductory background section.
We then have sections on gay male desire (this is NOT gay identity or sexual desire) which he thinks has been supplanted by identity claims although identity is less fundamental to who we are, to knowing ourselves. He isn't even that happy with "gay," which he says
permits my sexuality to declare itself socially under the cover of a polite designation, almost a euphemism, and in terms of an identity rather than an erotic subjectivity or a sexual behaviorand forecloses inquiry into queer sensibility or style. Again, of course. Because the suppression has already served the purpose of freeing us from the accusations of abnormality, psychopathology and sickness. So now, the inner life. The Broadway musical! You can pretty much tell how old a gay man is by how he reacts to the musical: official post-Stonewall homosexuality is ashamed of our cultural practices and the distinctive pleasures they afford.
Really . . .
But I digress (and Halperin refers to the video!). Halperin observes that he couldn't interest his gay male students in contemporary gay fiction, or, as he puts it
Why would we want Edmund White, when we still have The Golden Girls? Or rather, since there are very good reasons for wanting to have hay identity, and gay men, at least some of the time, we might wonder what gay identification does for us that gay identity cannot do. And what is it exactly that Judy Garland or the Broadway musical . . . offer us that an explicit, open, unencrypted [there are McCourt's codes again] does not provide.Those are the questions he wanted the course to answer.
So now we come to the course material. Joan Crawford, self-abnegating in Mildred Pierce. And Joan Crawford, the main character in her daughter Christina's book Mommie Dearest, and how she is played by Faye Dunaway in the movie made from the book, and how the drag performer Lypsinka plays Faye Dunaway from the movie. Meta, meta meta meta meta, META. This leads him to meditations on camp, on how the cultural practices of gay men must be disavowed if we want to express gay pride (I got a little lost here), and on the issue of gay male femininity, which I just skipped.
So FINALLY we get to Part Six: What is Gay Culture? He wrote the book because the course DID create a scandal, but he realizes his approach was too limited (and think of the list of things you must know about from Queer Street here). Opera, of course, pop music, fashion, style, divas and their defining style all over the world, which dogs, what kind of cat, SEX. Also, interpretations that started from a different place (Maria Callas, Oprah Winfrey, Tammy Faye Bakker) might have produced different results. Nevertheless, there are issues:
the social costs of insisting on your own differences from normal people when you have no choice but to integrate yourself into heterosexual society . . . and if you want your straight friends to accept you as one of them, despite your being queer, you would be wise to deny that you wish to belong to anything other than society at large."He invokes Kenji Oshino and Covering here as exposing the dark side of assimilation. He discusses the professional gay and the professional gay announcement that being gay is somehow unimportant to you, and he wonders if it's so important why such people have to keep saying it is. As for "old-fashioned notions of barroom community,"
Long before there was an open, explicit gay male culture, with its own "identity art," there was already a gay male cultural practice that consisted of appropriating, decoding, recoding and queering figures like Judy Garland and Joan Crawford, finding homosexual meaning in the novels of Herman Melville [guilty!], and embracing all female melodramas like The Women or Sex and the City.But there are other questions that STILL need to be considered.
Like Culture versus Subculture. Or, as he puts it,
there is a distinction to be drawn between the kind of gay culture that consists in new work by . . . gay men who for the first time in history reflect directly and openly and explicitly on gay male experience as it is being lived, or as it might be lived (or might have been lived) [one of his examples of this is Mark Merlis,An Arrow's Flight], and the kind of gay culture that is parasitic on mainstream culture [like drag and camp].Two lists of writers after Stonewall who have affected his life (and Joe Keenan is on the FIRST list, before the also) as a way of saying he had been slow to appreciate drag, divas and camp. Props for that.
And what are the prospects for gay culture? Well, it is endangered by structural causes:
the recapitalization of the inner city and the resulting gentrification of urban neigborhoods; the epidemic of HIV/AIDS; and the invention of the Internet.Well, guys my age have seen all that happen. He explains why, too. In the old days, you had to leave the house more often. The people you found in the places gay men congregated represented a wide range of social backgrounds, physical types, gender styles, races, sexual types and practices. Then more than 300,000 men, mostly from his and my generation, died too young, and that led in many neighborhoods to the loss of a gay public sphere. And the result? Again, we know this but it's refreshing to see it said this directly:
the agenda of gay politics and gay life is captured by the concerns of people who live dispersed and relatively isolated, stranded among heterosexuals in small towns and rural areas instead of bunched together in metropolitan centers. And what are the concerns of gay people who find themselves in such locations? Access to mainstream social forms: military service, church membership and marriage.Okay, maybe a little simplistic and a lot condescending, but considering where he's going, it makes sense. Because where he's going is our old friend heteronormativity, which will survive even the end of the monopoly of heterosexuality on sexual life.
Gay subjectivity will always be shaped by the primeval need on the part of gay subjects to queer heteronormative culture.It's an interesting read. If teaching this course got him to meditate on all of these
things, I'm glad he taught the course. And now you know what's in the book. Make your own decisions about reading it. I'm glad I came back to it.