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’How to be Gay’ Author Explains It All To You

by Bill Biss
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Sep 18, 2012

How homosexuals relate to the world, to the culture of being gay, and to the culture of heterosexuality is examined in a thought-provoking new book titled "How To Be Gay."

The book is written by David M. Halperin, a specialist in gay studies and a professor of English at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has done an exceptional job examining what constitutes the practices, history and ideology of gay culture and sub-cultures. 

Initially, when he started teaching his class "How To Be Gay" in 2000, it was completely misunderstood by some in the media and by others representing both the political and religious right. Halperin's desire to "set the record straight" so to speak, led to the writing of his latest book, "How To Be Gay."

Here for EDGE Media Network, is a revealing, interesting and personal conversation with David Halperin about discovering the meanings behind gay culture and sensibility while closing some of the generational gaps, along the way... in being gay.

Being culturally gay

EDGE: I want to start at the beginning, in regards to the title of the course you taught called "How To Be Gay" at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and using the same title for your book. I’m not asking you to defend the title.

David M. Halperin: Of course not. I understand that.

EDGE: For those who judge a book by its cover or in this case, by its ’title.’ Why did you name it as such?

David M. Halperin: I named the class ’How To Be Gay’ because it described the topic I wanted to cover. The class wasn’t designed to teach people how to be gay. It was about the notion some gay people have that there’s a right way to be gay, that gay men have to learn how to be gay. I wanted to convey the paradoxical idea that is summed up in the first sentence of the course description: ’Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn how to become one.’ I was interested in the old problem of how you become who you are.

EDGE: It’s a sense of being or belonging to so many variant factors, but knowing at the core of it, that there is one factor that must be acknowledged... the culture or subculture of a person’s homosexuality.

David M. Halperin: Right. I’m not taking any position on whether people are born homosexual or not. The book and the class were not about how to be homosexual or what causes people to be homosexual. (No one has a clue about that.) It was about how to be culturally gay. I was intrigued by this notion - by the very fact that some people believe you can be ’culturally gay.’ For me, that notion never made sense. For a long time, I didn’t understand it. But then, being culturally gay hasn’t been my experience at all. Being gay for me has always been a sexual experience. And in that department at least I’ve certainly met the definition of being gay. So what more did I have to do to be gay?

Ignore the title

EDGE: Right. Like you’re not gay enough and you are supposed to fit a mold.

David M. Halperin: Exactly. Like, having sex with guys isn’t enough? There’s something more I’ve got to do to be gay? I’ve also got to like Judy Garland? That notion didn’t make sense to me, so I wanted to figure out what was behind it, what people had in mind when they said that kind of thing.

EDGE: Yeah, I was trying to explain the premise of your book and I mentioned the title to a friend and he didn’t understand it. He almost took offense to it.

David M. Halperin: Yeah, everybody’s offended. A lot of the reviews have been hostile and a lot of the talk in the blogosphere has been hostile. People find the whole topic very offensive.

And I would say to them, ’Stop looking at the title. Stop reading the reviews and read the book.’ I understand perfectly well why people find it offensive. I used to find this idea offensive myself. That’s why I got interested in it. The book records both my hesitation about it and my reason for deciding that it actually made sense to explore the cultural differences between gay and straight.

Hey, that’s me

EDGE: Tell me about the process of taking what you taught and turning that into a book on the subject?

David M. Halperin: When the class caused a scandal, I realized I would have to try and address the topic seriously in my own writing. I needed to make it clear that I was a thoughtful guy and that the class wasn’t just some kind of stunt. I started working on the book in 2001. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. And I didn’t fully understand where the book was going until the very last draft.

My class was designed to explore a question. But if you write a book, it’s not enough just to raise questions. If you write a book, you have to have some answers -- some hypotheses and interpretations. So that’s why it took so long for me to write it. I needed to come up with some answers to the unfathomable question that I had asked myself: namely, ’what does sexuality have to do with culture?’ I taught the class from 2000 to 2007 on and off. I stopped teaching it when I began to figure out what I wanted to say in the book.

EDGE: I finished the book and there were numerous times of personal discovery from you answering that question.

David M. Halperin: I’m so glad you finished it because... partly because I want to know what you thought of the end and partly because it’s such a long book, I worry that people won’t finish it or they won’t keep reading it. I’m glad to know that it carried you through.

EDGE: I strongly related to several of the chapters in the book. I had to stop and think, ’Hey! That’s me.’

David M. Halperin: That’s very gratifying. A few people have written to me, people I know and don’t know, to say that they recognized a lot of their experience in some of these descriptions.

Conforming to stereotypes

EDGE: One important part of the book is that you describe your personal opinions and share a part of yourself in the discourse. When you put your two-cents in, it gives the reader a chance to identify.

David M. Halperin: Yes, I intended those references to myself to be a kind of hook for the reader and help draw the reader in. Also, I wanted to make it clear that I didn’t think I was speaking for every gay person in the world. I had my own experience and my own limitations. At the same time, I don’t usually believe in talking about myself in my work. I don’t think I’m especially interesting as a person. I’m pretty generic. The bits of my personal experience that are included in the book are designed to be exemplary.

EDGE: What is also fascinating to read about is how the generations take and discard segments of the culture or how the culture morphs over the years.

David M. Halperin: That is a large topic. Gay culture has changed in all sorts of ways, and in other ways it has changed astonishingly little. Nowadays we like to emphasize how much has changed, which is one of the reasons why we tend to think of gay culture as old-fashioned, irrelevant, on its way out. Why does gay culture look so archaic to us? That’s one of the questions I try to answer.

EDGE: There is a section of one chapter that you only wrote one sentence and the sentence is, ’Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people’ I busted out laughing.

David M. Halperin: That is my favorite sentence in the book. I’m glad you like it. I had a particular political point to make at that moment. But I certainly don’t mean that there is only one right way to be gay. I hope the book appeals to people who don’t necessarily like Broadway musicals, or old movies... it seems to me that there are all sorts of pathways that different people take in their gay cultural practices. What I mean by gay culture is not just some classic icons, like Bette Davis, or movies, like ’All About Eve,’ which many people will find stereotypical.

Gay culture refers to any practice that involves a departure from mainstream heterosexual culture. Whether it’s an obsession with austere modernist architectural design or Victorian antiques. Or any kind of stylistic pursuit that involves an attempt to escape from the world around you, a search for pleasure and beauty, especially a refusal of the standard model of heterosexual masculinity.

Changing culture

EDGE: There is a big window of uniquely personal aspects inherent to this.

David M. Halperin: There are still certain kinds of continuities or consistencies to it. The reason I picked examples that some people may find stereotypical (like Broadway musicals or Joan Crawford) isn’t that I believe that those items represent the essence of gay culture, as some of my reviewers have said. I don’t think that at all.

Rather, in order to talk about the relationship between sexuality and culture, I needed to pick some well-known, classic examples that people would agree on. I wasn’t claiming that these things are necessarily what young gay men today like: I was deliberately picking something that was not of our own time but was a classic instance, so there wouldn’t be any real disagreement about the fact that it did function as an element in gay male culture for many people.

EDGE: Yes, definitely.

David M. Halperin: One of the standard reactions to the book and the project of the book is to say, ’Oh, this only applies to a certain generation.’ Or ’This is only true for gay men in their sixties. The gay culture he talks about is completely meaningless to anyone in their twenties.’ Other people say, ’this book is really about how to be gay in your twenties. It doesn’t apply to anyone else.’ Or, ’this is about middle-class gay men.’ Or ’white gay men.’ Everyone seems to want to say the gay culture I’m talking about is someone else’s gay culture, not theirs. But then none of them can agree on whose gay culture it is. The main point seems to be to deny it’s your own.

I sympathize with that impulse. After all, my own generation thought we didn’t need gay culture. That’s because we had gay sex. We had masculinity and we had gay clones. We didn’t want to have anything to do with that old-fashioned, effeminate culture of people older than us. So, it’s interesting to me when people nowadays say, ’Oh, this gay culture belongs to people of just one generation’ (even if they can’t agree on which generation it is). One of the things that I try to insist on in the book is that there have been a lot of changes in gay culture, but the fact that a lot of people are culturally gay as well as sexually gay - that hasn’t changed.

The culture itself changes. Joan Crawford may no longer be important; it may now be Lady Gaga or Madonna or Beyoncé. But the phenomenon I’m trying to describe has not disappeared. It is still the case that a lot of gay men invest great amounts of feeling and meaning in certain specific works of mainstream culture, and they forge a non-standard relation to those works that straight people do not have. That phenomenon has not disappeared.

"How To Be Gay" is available at your local book seller or at Amazon.com.

A scene from the film ’Mildred Pierce’ that Halperin discusses in the book.


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