Among the course offerings announced by the University of Michigan in the fall of 2000 was an undergraduate English seminar titled “How to Be Gay.” Led by professor David M. Halperin, a well-known figure in queer studies, the class proposed to examine the Lavender Canon in all its mincing flamboyance: Judy and Liza, opera and Broadway, divas and drag, muscle queens and Mommie Dearest. “Are there,” Halperin asked, “a number of classically ‘gay’ works such that, despite changing tastes and generations, ALL gay men, of whatever class, race, or ethnicity, need to know them, in order to be gay?” Oooh gurl no you didn’t.
And so it had come to this. Academia—that fey, relativistic swamp of postmodern propaganda—was now literally recruiting for the homosexual agenda. Halperin, the author of a book on Michel Foucault, was not merely proposing a disinterested critique of cultural objects, he was inviting his students to study gay identity by sucking cock to Madonna records. OK, maybe not exactly: His actual phrasing explained that “the course itself will constitute an experiment in the very process of initiation that it hopes to understand.”
In any event, the collective head of the Right predictably exploded, with the inevitable calls for shutting down the class, punishing the school, and packing Halperin off to whatever sinister, exquisitely decorated hole from whence he came. Backed by his university, he continued to teach the class for several years—with no appreciable increase in limp-wristedness among the student body. Halperin narrates his claim to fame in the annals of the culture wars at the outset of How to Be Gay, a synthesis and expansion of the themes addressed in the notorious seminar. The academic origin of the text is apparent in the book’s ubiquitous methodological padding; Halperin indulges the pedantic scholarly habit of deferring, summarizing, and endlessly regurgitating his arguments as if they might gain traction through sheer repetition. Still, despite the rhetorical flab, there is some justification to this disciplinary address. How to Be Gay engages many of the foundational questions—and dogmas—of queer studies.
The idea that there is a kind of “classic” gay culture made up of identifiable components and traceable contours is, from a certain perspective, common sense. Halperin cites, as an example, a scene from the movie Heathers in which the chief semiotic tool used to determine a character’s gayness is a Joan Crawford postcard. Everyone knows, without quite knowing why, that certain things are “gay.” But how do we actually know these things? How did our sense of them become common, and why? If we allow for the existence of a distinct gay culture, in what ways does it change over time—and by what mechanisms is it sustained and transmitted across generations? What, Halperin wants to know, is gay culture?
The question is not as simple as it might seem. Halperin is well aware that an inquiry into “gay culture” invites accusations of essentialism—the idea that there are universal, “natural” traits hardwired into all gay men—and that a safer title for his book would be something like Pragmatics of Identification and the Politics of Identity: Toward a Critique of Performative, Class-Based Cultural Transmission in the Context of Homonormative Gay Male Discourse and Practice in Urban North America. The book itself is scarcely less cumbersome, with lengthy accounts of methodological questions and endless fussing over terminology. I won’t belabor the whole procedure; it’s more interesting to see where Halperin is trying to go than to nitpick his every move—tempting as that may be in a book given to hyperbolic claims (“murder is precisely where a total absence of camp will lead you”), dubious assertions (women’s daytime TV provides “a liberation far more complete than gay politics can offer”), and tone-deaf condescension (“as time goes on, some women may even allow themselves to be schooled in the dynamics of spectatorial irony and in the play of identification/dis-identification by gay male viewing practices”).
Halperin’s central argument is that gay identity is insufficient to account for gay desire. The iconic status of Mildred Pierce in queer culture, for example, entails a great deal more than the fact that gay men might identify with its characters. Halperin sets out to show how gay men’s attachment to this film—the shape of their desire—involves a complex set of formal and social dynamics beyond the merely personal. To this end, he offers an insightful analysis of how the feminized, highly self-conscious genre of melodrama works in historical and conceptual opposition to the authenticity of tragedy. Halperin is plying his own twist on the familiar idea that by aligning themselves with certain forms—flamboyance, abject glamour, exaggerated femininity—gay men implicitly challenge the uptight codes of a patriarchal culture.
Halperin doesn’t deny that Mommy Issues might have something to do with camp kicks and diva worship. But he does want to step away from the individualized (frequently psychoanalytic) models that scholars often deploy when accounting for gay men’s development. Gay culture, for Halperin, isn’t really attached to any given person’s experience; rather, it’s a set of tactics, adopted behaviors, and strategies imbricated in a much larger social field. By way of analogy, he notes that just as one can speak of “French culture” as a real thing, one of whose defining characteristics is the enjoyment of wine whether or not any individual actually drinks it, so too “gay culture” involves a magnificent flair for flower arrangement, even if some gays can’t tell the difference between a calla lily and a chrysanthemum. Deal with it.
Frivolity, irony, superficiality, inauthenticity, flamboyance, snobbishness, exquisite taste: How to Be Gay works hard to unpack the stereotypical characteristics of gay male culture and succeeds in demonstrating how the taint of pathology and the rise of a post-Stonewall ethos of hypermasculine self-determination conspire to shut down a frank inquiry into the persistence of such “faggy” traits. His claims for the egalitarian effects of gay culture are less convincing, and for all the nuances he brings to his reading of camp, his totalizing language can sound like that of an apologist. In a chapter titled “Irony and Misogyny,” he argues that “gay male culture’s embrace of degrading representations of the feminine is not an endorsement of them” but rather “the first stage in a strategy of resistance.” Camp refers to women, runs the argument, but is not about them; it is addressed to the idea of femininity, which is to say a set of cultural representations shaped by a patriarchal society. Camp no doubt operates as a distancing technique that burlesques the pretensions of authority, but resistance to heteronormative power structures notwithstanding, I think it’s safe to say that sometimes bitches just be acting shady. I’ve seen too much misogyny in the “wit” of people camping it up to accept Halperin’s thesis wholesale. Weirdly, so has Halperin: Of course gay men can be misogynistic, he admits, even in the context of drag shows where the self-reflexivity he points to would be most pronounced. These practices, he explains, “may not be typical. They may not be representative of gay male culture as a whole.” So, you know, never mind what I just said in the previous four hundred pages! Dizzy with disclaimers and caveats, Halperin frequently stumbles over his own arguments. The queer logic of How to Be Gay could use a little . . . straightening.
Halperin concedes that gay men’s attachments to Broadway musicals or Golden Girls reruns are historically contingent phenomena that may well recede as queer culture evolves. He is up-front about his methodological stakes in these questions and his own generational position on their continuum, and he is frank about the limitations of his study. Perhaps the greatest irony of How to Be Gay stems from its author’s inability to take seriously the networks in which camp, role-playing, and the transmission of cultural styles are now being disseminated with unprecedented intricacy and scope.
Halperin is deeply skeptical of the role of the Internet in queer culture—and intensely hostile to its “destructive” effect on the infrastructure required for “gay cultural sophistication.” This is a tediously familiar complaint from the generation of men who revel in their memories of the social and erotic promiscuity that flourished in the Gay Golden Years bracketed by Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. Pining for the loss of an authentic queer public sphere, Halperin rails against the isolation, narcissism, and all-around emotional and political retardation of the Grindr gays, with their “unreflective, unreconstructed criteria . . . unexamined ideas about politics . . . unliberated, heterosexist, macho prejudices.”
Such overwrought condemnation might carry more weight if Halperin hadn’t proved himself so ill equipped to write about online culture. He cites, in support of an argument about gay romantic fantasies, the fact that for many years “gay men looking for partners on the Internet would attach the poster from Brokeback Mountain to their profiles.” I seem to have missed that particular avatar trend entirely—maybe it was a Michigan thing?—but I’m fairly sure that if it happened it didn’t necessarily imply that “you have no need or place in your life for anyone else, because your inner world is fully occupied by the gay romance you are already living out in it with utter and complete sufficiency.” At another point, he regards the advent of social networking with the tone of a bemused onlooker circa 1998: “Whether these new electronic media perform their initiatory function as effectively as the older, more traditional social networks used to do, whether they expand or contract the available range of queer information, opening up new possibilities of literacy or reducing gay cultural references to a limited set of stereotypes—all that remains to be seen.”
Chances are that swishy reenactments of Beyoncé videos won’t maintain the cultural staying power of Faye Dunaway raging about wire hangers. The unresolved question of digital culture has nothing to do with the quantity of queer forms in circulation, nor with the initiatory potential of a (virtual) public sphere infinitely more conducive to cultural remixing than a West Village piano bar. What remains to be seen is whether the forms Halperin singles out will persist when prancing about to “Single Ladies” will do just as well—and for many of the same reasons delineated in How to Be Gay. Halperin would no doubt appreciate a meme that lately made the rounds. On the top, Lady Gaga bent over her trademark phrase “I was born this way.” Below her, a rebuttal from Michel Foucault: “No, you’re a product of power relations.”
Nathan Lee is a critic and curator in New York.