David Halperin Wants to Recruit You

The distinguished professor schools readers on “how to be gay.”
August 10, 2012

(David Halperin)

Well, not exactly. But that’s just what conservative Christian groups like the American Family Association thought when Halperin’s class “How to Be Gay” first appeared in the University of Michigan course catalog in 2000.

Needless to say, they weren’t too happy. More surprisingly, neither were some of the gay men who emailed Halperin, concerned that the course—intended to examine the initiation into the cultural practices and identifications associated with what it means “to be gay”—would perpetuate stereotypes of gay men as aesthetically gifted Broadway queens.

How to Be Gay (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press), Halperin’s new book, emerged out of his experiences over the past decade teaching this class, and his unblinking effort to understand just what it is that makes Joan Crawford (and Broadway musicals, and fashion, and antiquing) so gay. Refusing the simplicity of “Born This Way” essentialism, but also not afraid to investigate the truth lurking behind stereotypes, Halperin concerns himself here with gay male subjectivity—the experience of what it feels like to be gay—and how this particular relationship to mainstream culture produces certain social behaviors and cultural obsessions. Kitsch, camp and melodrama all receive arduous analysis, as does the long-noted gay male identification with women who are simultaneously glamorous and abject.

Crawford is Halperin’s crowning example of a powerful-yet-pathetic woman, and so he returns throughout the book to the famed mother-daughter confrontation scenes in both Mildred Pierce, in which she stars, and Mommie Dearest, in which Faye Dunaway gives her own over-the-top performance of Crawford’s tyrannical motherly “love.” Complete with film stills and shot-by-shot readings of the dynamics at work in each scene, How to Be Gay makes for as fun a viewing companion as it does a rigorously intelligent read.

Though Halperin (who reflects in the book that he himself has never felt very successful at “how to be gay”) admits he’s “not a huge Joan Crawford fan,” he says he was “blown away” the first time he saw Mildred Pierce—even before becoming aware of the film’s gay following. (I recommend surrendering yourself to YouTube for a couple hours and watching scenes from the original back-to-back with clips from the Kate Winslet HBO mini-series for comparison.)

Whether you’re well-versed in all things gay or tend to avoid pop divas at all costs, How to Be Gay offers a fresh perspective on what we call gay culture, why so many of us love what we love and why we’re afraid to talk about it. Thankfully, as Halperin notes in his conclusion, gay male culture isn’t going anywhere—as long as there’s a straight culture to appropriate for our own ends. Even as gay couples raise children of their own in an increasingly progressive society, Halperin tells me “...just because you’re raised by gay parents doesn’t mean that heteronormative culture isn’t always going to be your first culture.” Turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse—therein lies the gay genius.

David M. Halperin recommends: Who Was That Man?: A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde by Neil Bartlett, The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.