The title of David Halperin’s How to Be Gay is clearly intended to be controversial; it’s also more than a little misleading. Apparently chosen for clarity’s sake, I rather doubt Halperin didn’t see the reaction from conservatives and liberals coming. This is hardly ‘truth in advertising’; a more accurate title would have been Why You Should Be A Gay Man. And why, on that point, should homosexuals embrace ‘gay culture’? His answer is less than satisfying.
The historical perspective that Halperin provides on LGBT history is interesting and enlightening. The US 1948 Kinsey Report concluded that all homosexual and heterosexual men are male. Today this may sound obvious, but the report ran against the grain of contemporary thought on sexuality, when it was commonly believed that homosexuals belonged to genders discrete from heterosexuals. During WWII, many straight servicemen deemed it acceptable to sleep with gay men, on the account that they were closer to women than men in terms of gender: Kinsey knocked this on the head, and created much of the groundwork for the concept that Halperin rejects in his book.
The LGBT rights movement considers ‘gay’ to be part of one’s identity. I, like many, would argue that being gay means attraction to people of the same sex. You may have blue or brown eyes; black or blonde hair; be male or female. The cause is for human and civil rights, and thus focuses on equal right to marriage, military service, adoption, employment and the donation of blood.
However, Halperin argues that this plays into the dominant ‘heteronormative’ culture. ‘Gay’ shouldn’t be thought of as an aspect of identity, but as a distinct culture, complete with a distinct way of living. With more and more homosexuals turning towards the ‘heteronorm’, and gay communities declining, this distinct culture is under threat.
The value of ‘gay’ as a cultural form, he argues, is that it subverts dominant heteronormative institutions and values. His strength lies (as you would expect from an English professor) in his interpretation of ‘straight’ cultural artefacts, and the appropriation of them by gay culture. The Wizard of Oz, ‘I Will Survive’ and the actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis have nothing ostensibly to do with homosexuality, and yet are indelibly associated with gay men. They are appropriated because of the catharsis provided through supplying a uniquely gay perspective, i.e. a subversive and ironic one. This is why, he argues, Lady Gaga cannot possibly achieve gay immortality with her song ‘Born This Way’: the song explicitly addresses gay rights and therefore cannot be appropriated. By embracing gay culture, we critique values taken for granted in our Western society.
But it’s wrong to argue that gay men are the only ones subverting heteronormative values. As Halperin admits, heterosexuals are today deconstructing the dominance of marriage, monogamy, joint bank accounts, and other apparently corrosive ‘norms’. This isn’t even a recent development: Nietzsche and the Modernists challenged commonly accepted bourgeois Judeo-Christian norms in the late 19th century. Free love wasn’t only practised by ‘gay culture’: how about the writings of Robert Owen? The Swedenborgians?
This book, despite at times valuable insights, is a sad attempt to have homosexual men live in a society where they have to reject ‘LGBT’ as an identity and instead embrace a way of life that is derived from ironic takes on ‘heteronormative’ media. It is also an attempt to apply the author’s personal experience to every generation of gay men alive today. Apparently, if you’re gay, and aren’t a neurotic, mother-obsessed, cynical, perpetually sarcastic, cultural snob, then there must be something wrong with you.