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)

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