Chase Dimock

Writer, Editor, and Researcher in Comparative Literature and LGBT Studies


September 2012

My Review of “How To Be Gay” by David M. Halperin

Contrary to what conservatives feared back in 2000 when he taught his first course at the University of Michigan titled “How to Be Gay”, David Halperin does not have a “Straight to Sissy in Five Easy Steps” method of indoctrinating youths into the gay lifestyle. How to Be Gay (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) is not an instruction manual, nor is it a “learning to love yourself” self-help guide. Rather, Halperin’s book is an intervention against those who trumpet the “death of gay culture” (which he argues has been declared for over 40 years now) now that widening tolerance and greater visibility of gays in the media should make Judy Garland, show tunes, and drag queens obsolete. Halperin is not interested in a nature v. nurture debate on sexual orientation. Instead he investigates how a “distinctively gay way of being” is rooted in a “dissident way of feeling and relating to the world” that continues to nourish a distinct gay cultural practice interested in camp, Lady Gaga, and re-runs of The Golden Girls, even though we have out gay entertainers and the melancholic realism of Brokeback Mountain to directly depict us. As Halperin argues, “Gayness, then, is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos; in short, it is a practice.”

Halperin very well could have titled the book “Everything I Know About Being Gay, I Learned from Watching Joan Crawford”, because he spends over a hundred pages of his 500 plus page tome analyzing iconic scenes from Mildred Pierce and the camp classic Mommie Dearest. Contemplating the influence of Crawford’s diva persona on gay culture, Halperin argues that femininity functions “as a kind of proxy identity for gay men. The combination of feminine glamour and abjection that gay men assume through feminine identification and appropriation—through drag, in other words, or through the cult of Joan Crawford—makes available to gay men a position that is at once dignified and degraded, serious and unserious, tragic and laughable.” It is not that gay men secretly want to be a woman like Crawford, but instead, the historical fascination with the diva-figure is based on seeing “its own plight, in the distorted mirror of a devalued femininity.” Or, as Halperin says of Judy Garland, “in certain respects she could somehow express gay desire, what gay men want, better than a gay man could. That is, she could actually convey something even gayer than gay identity itself.”

(Full Review Available at Lambda Literary)


My Review of “Queer Opacity” By Nicholas De Villiers

“The Closet” is an increasingly ill-fitting metaphor for queer men and women who wish to explore their sexuality outside of the two opposite states of either being “out” and having to confess their personal life aloud and align it with a specific identity category or being “closeted” and thus presumed to be living in shame, secrecy, or self-denial. It is this binary of being in or out of the closet that Nicholas De Villiers deconstructs in Opacity and the Closet with the advancement of a practice he terms “queer opacity.” Laying out the thesis of the text, De Villiers writes, “This book interrogates the viability of the metaphor of the closet and puts forth a concept of ‘opacity’ as an alternative queer strategy or tactic that is not linked to an interpretation of hidden depths, concealed meanings, or neat opposition between silence and speech.” Queer opacity is not the transparency of being “out” nor is it the concealment of being “in,” but it is instead a practice of queer living that resists confession, fixed identity categories, and public visibility as obligatory elements of LGBT identity.

De Villiers’ three case studies on practitioners of queer opacity, French philosophers Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, and American art icon Andy Warhol, have all greatly influenced the study and expression of sexuality in contemporary culture. Yet, none of the three ever fully came out of the closet in any conventional sense. All three engaged openly with gay themes in their work, and Warhol never denied his sexuality, but none of the three ever became openly gay self-identified voices of the community. It would be convenient and easy, as many biographers and cultural critics have done, to fault these men for not declaring their identity according to contemporary gay cultural standards set long after their deaths or to perform some one-size-fits-all, pop psychoanalysis to locate the source of shame or guilt that we have been taught to believe is the source of our sexual discretion. But instead, De Villiers’ concept of queer opacity allows us to see the sexualities of these men as they truly were expressed by widening our narrow narrative of sexuality to encompass the peripheries where the genius of these men flourished. Instead of seeing them as closeted, De Villiers praises their queer opacity for inventing new methods of queer expression and transgression.

(Full Article Available at Lambda Literary)

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