- Being Gay
In this handsomely presented and rigorously argued book, David Halperin recounts the scandal over a course he offered at the University of Michigan in 2000. Titled How to Be Gay and meant as an attempt to explore the nature of gay subjectivity in a homophobic culture, the course was a lightning rod for antigay rhetoric from Michiganders, local legislators, and a raft of national and international writers expressing outrage at the very notion of gay proselytizing.
Halperin recounts this controversy in the book’s first chapter and then goes on to expound his theory of gay culture and his sense of what he calls “the cultural practice of male homosexuality” (16). He is interested in exploring gay subjectivity not as a psychological but as a cultural phenomenon and in placing that subjectivity in relation to its cherished objects. Most cultural theorists would be intimidated by this gargantuan project, but Halperin is intellectually bold enough to take this on.
For Halperin, the key feature to gay male subjectivity concerns its relation to femininity and female identification, which can be the means for gay men to “assert a particular, non-standard anti-social way of being, feeling, and behaving” (318). “Traditional gay male culture,” he says, “is a way of coping with powerlessness, of neutralizing pain, of transcending grief” (218–19). He argues that it is at our cost that contemporary gay men reject such traditional coping mechanisms, which are to him paramount in the enthusiastic gay appreciation of an actress like Joan Crawford. For Halperin, Crawford becomes a touchstone of female identification, and he tries to explain in detail why gay men adore films like Mildred Pierce and Mommie Dearest.
Halperin is eager to understand what explains this attraction to the femme fatale and what that says about gay subjectivity, and he makes the point that “however rapturously or deliriously gay male spectators may identify with characters [End Page 584] in [a] movie, their identification is mediated by their gender difference” (265). For him, these encounters display “a specific kind of engagement that somehow mobilizes complex relations of similarity and difference—but without constituting subjects or objects in the usual ways” (259). Everything he says about Crawford, in other words, might be said about any celebratory object of gay identification.
Halperin’s explorations of these questions take up most of the book and are far too complex to summarize in a review. He is right to focus on how younger twenty-first-century gay men tend to forswear the traditional ways of being gay and even at times to deplore their own gayness. In what Lisa Duggan calls their homonormative desire, some gay men reject the alternative of radical politics and subscribe to the very terms of heteronormative culture that they may have been in a position to reject.1 Halperin argues something very similar when he says that the radical potential of the early post-Stonewall gay movement has been lost in the desire for marriage and other forms of middle-class equality.
It is in this spirit that he makes his already much-quoted statement: “Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people” (448). What he means, of course, is that the new gay normality “sounds a lot like heterosexual business as usual. . . . Is it the whole purpose of gay politics, or gay culture, to return gay people to the fold of normal middle-class heterosexual family life, with all its obligatory rites and rituals—to enable us to reproduce the worst social features, the most ghastly clichés of heterosexuality?” (448).
If I am tempted to answer this rhetorical question with a yes, it is partly as a devil’s advocate that I do so. For what is wrong with gay men wanting to be married or to serve in the military? Consider these two most obviously homonormative desires and, without saying gay men must do these things, what could be wrong with allowing gay men to do them or understanding why they might want to? What alternatives to such simple desires does Halperin’s radical...