How to be Gay by David M. Halperin
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.
“How To Be Gay is a sheer pleasure to read and utterly thoughtful too: it is pedagogical in the most provocative sense. David Halperin’s acute attention to gay male sensibility provides a great case study in how sexuality takes shape as such, finding anchors for the expression of its pleasures and its dramas. A genuinely profound contribution to the scholarship on kitsch, camp, and melodrama, this book is also its own command performance of a gayness it wants to extend to its readers as a kind of friendly and exciting disturbance.”—Lauren Berlant, University of Chicago
“How To Be Gay, with its teasing title, asks whether there might be such a thing as gay culture that resides neither in our genes nor in our psyches. By insisting on gayness as a social form, the book offers an important provocation to contemporary queer criticism that resists the specification of identity. One could ask for no better guide through the complexities of late twentieth-century American gay male culture.”—Heather Love, University of Pennsylvania
“Distinguished scholar David Halperin’s long-awaited manifesto delivers on its promise. Macho, faggy, queeny, butch diva, opera-swilling, Broadway-loving, gourmet, sex-fascinated, beauty-appreciating, love-desiring, rough trade, high art, race- and class-inflected but not exclusive, generationally situated but not entirely, intellectual, open-hearted, politically minded, leather chaps! Mary!”—Sarah Schulman
“I’ve always been a big fan of Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Doris Day. Though it was a secret, shameful love. David Halperin’s wonderful, wildly ambitious masterpiece has given me the courage to come out about it. And even tell the golden daffodils. As Halperin eloquently explains, desire into identity will not go, even with plenty of poppers and lube. What’s more, the dignified, proper, and very particular gay identity really doesn’t deserve the giddy, gushing, world-grabbing gay sensibility. And vice versa.”—Mark Simpson
“How To Be Gay is…written by a gifted thinker and writer who has come to see that there is not just a political and sexual gay culture (its foundational event the rioting outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969), based on gay identity rather than sensibility, but also a nonsexual gay culture, based on modes of feeling and expressive artifacts.”—Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books
“[Halperin] provocatively argues that when it comes to defining what it means to be a homosexual man, sex is overrated… Culture matters more… [How To Be Gay] is never a bore… [It] explores a fundamental kind of gay sensibility… Halperin teases an enormous amount out of [a] scene [in Mildred Pierce], including the sense of ‘glamour and abjection’ gay audiences find in [Joan] Crawford, and how the film packages the ‘transgressive spectacle of female strength, autonomy, feistiness and power.’ …Halperin works up to an argument (impossible to summarize here) about how the film evokes a ‘dissident perspective’ on the very idea of romantic love. He is articulate about many other things in this book, including how gay men often find more resonance in straight cultural artifacts than in gay ones. His funny shorthand for this is: ‘Why would we want Edmund White, when we still have The Golden Girls?’ …He is excellent, too, on how classical tragedy is nearly always about men, or fathers and sons… Dozens of similar arguments are rehearsed in How To Be Gay. Halperin even neatly mows down hipster irony in the face of the kind of gay male irony that defines camp. It’s a kaleidoscopic book that at its base breaks with what the author calls ‘the Brokeback Mountain crowd.’ He urges gay men to take their so-called femininity out of ‘homosexuality’s newly built closet,’ to see it plainly and to give it affirmative interpretations.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
Imprint: Harvard University Press
Publication Date: 31 March 2014