How To Be Gay – David Halperin

How To Be  Gay – David Halperin David M Halperin

How To Be Gay

Belknap Press





To be published 30th August 2012

This is a delightfully puzzling book. The author, David Halperin, originally a classical scholar is eminent in the field of queer studies and co-founder of the journal GLQ. And here, based on a course he taught for ten years, his focus is modern gay culture. The very question the book poses –  ‘how to be gay’ – often raises hackles from all sides and means the book, like the course, arrives steeped in controversies. It has come under attack from the Christian Right, who protest and picket that he 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 very suspicious of Halperin’s celebration of old pre-GLF stereotypes of camp, old gay queens. Indeed, Halperin himself ponders, for a moment, if he has written a reactionary book!

So what is this gay culture of which he writes at length? Curiously, he detects a culture that matches popular stereotypes of gays. Forged under conditions of exclusion, gay culture is defined by a camp and feminine sensibility. It brings a refined aesthetic, and a ritual style which 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 ‘Somewhere 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 any kind of 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 gay culture is ‘gay femininity’ and ‘camp’. ‘Camp works to drain the sufferings of the pain that it also does not deny’. He distinguishes between the obvious gay cultural forms written by ‘gays’ themselves (in, say, the works of Genet or Gide) and the gay subculture that takes straight culture and then uses it in new ways. It can be illustrated in the difference between Judy Garland who is not gay but 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 often marvelous in this book is Halperin’s rich analysis of many aspects of this gay cultural life, showing the distinctive ways it makes use of the straight culture.  For example, and borrowing from the work of David Miller on the Musical, there is a key chapter on the musical. Now 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 he was not originally part of this gay 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, devoting a whole chapter and more 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 kind of nostalgia for this painful past.

The book is very selective: many an old queen might look for their favourites and find them missing. There is no Eartha Kitt or Jessie Matthews here! 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, epigrams and defenses. Here are just a sprinkling of his memorable epithets which would make for great seminar discussions. ‘The Queen is not Dead’; ‘We will be queer forever’; ‘Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people’;’ Will (can) gay culture wither way’ ; ‘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’.

In part, this is a book about the changes in North American gay life in the past fifty years. He suggests ‘Stonewall 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 decriminalized, 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 deeply normalized.

And yet at the same time, we can never be really normalized because of the deep hetero-normativity which cannot be easily wished away and may indeed be our lot. The end of discrimination and a growing social acceptance should not be confused with a decline in sexual normativity and the continuing prevalence of a more or less compulsory – total- social form. Changing rights and discrimination on the surface will not eliminate the deep structural forms of compulsory heterosexuality. In this, ‘the dignity and value of human life finds expression in a particular form of intimate coupled existence’.  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 indeed now join in this too – if they want to! This hetero-normativity is not likely to change. And this 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 – he has been so attacked over the past decade 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. The book is over 500 pages long; but it stays obdurately restricted to one narrow view of one narrow strand of gay life. He defensively recognises this throughout, but keeps backtracking to it; and in the end it acts as an irritant.  For 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 gay cultures 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 – of slave cultures, of nigger cultures, of Yiddish cultures and so on? He must know that there is a vast literature on marginality, strangers and the subterranean world of politics, even as he ignores it. What also about lesbian cultures, which are decidedly different? What indeed about gay culture beyond the world of the USA, as he describes a gay culture which is really a masked form of US imperialism? He knows that gay culture is never homogenous and is often a damaging and restricting culture.

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 across generations. 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.


Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and the founder editor of the journal Sexualities. He blogs at:

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