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How to be Gay by David M. Halperin is not; as Halperin points out, a guide on how to become gay (even though this was a popular assumption when Halperin first started teaching the course with the same name), but rather an attempt to answer the question how do (already) gay subjects acquire a gay culture? Halperin does not believe that sexual orientation is the only signifier of being gay, but rather that gay men also acquire a gay culture that is based not on stereotypes and beliefs in essentialism, but rather a collective notion of gay male culture based on queering parts of mainstream heterosexual culture. The focus is therefore on practice, not people.
When discussing the notion of gay male culture, Halperin uses diverse examples (that he states are signifiers of gay male culture), such as Broadway, the performing arts, films (Halperin focuses much attention on Joan Crawford, the film Mildred Pierce, as well as the film Mommie Dearest depicting Joan Crawford's life) melodrama, camp and performance, beauty, the mother daughter bond, the ability to laugh at tragedy, divas, genre and style to explain and depict gay male culture. Halperin does so because he states that there are certain elements of mainstream heterosexual culture that are more alluring to gay men than others. As the book is very long it is necessary to give a short overview of the main themes of the book. At the same time, the connection between displays of masculinity and femininity (and based on ones point of view, the denigration of women) in gay culture does need some further elaboration, especially since Halperin focuses much on gay male culture queering traditionally feminine cultural forms.
"The homosexual desire that gay men feel places them in the subject position of women, and marks them symbolically as feminine, but it also allows them to retain at least some features of traditionally masculine gender roles" (p. 376-377). Perhaps I am reading the book from a feminist perspective, in that I do not necessarily appreciate the almost excessive and spontaneous use of terms such as "feminine" and "feminized" because I feel that they are overused, and also used to denigrate women, to mark them as feminine, even in cases where femininity and masculinity are not necessarily even needed. The constant feminizing of everything that we assume is related to women creates the notion that noting women do is up to par with that of a man.
Halperin is aware of this positioning (particularly from feminists) and therefore elaborates on the tension and misunderstanding of feminist and traditional gay male culture as he states; "…traditional gay male culture consistently delights in excessive, grotesque, artificial, undignified, revolting, abject portrayals of femininity, and it seeks its own reflection in them. It can afford to do so, because gay men, being men, are-unlike women-never in danger of being completely reduced to their social marking or positioning as feminine" (p. 379). In many ways, I agree with Halperin's statements. At the same time, he does not discuss why male cultures, gay or straight, almost always use negative and highly stereotypical depictions of women when positioning themselves in relation to these women (is it because in contrast to the eternally weak feminine, masculine characteristics always come out on top?). It is only in relation to women, it seems like, that men can develop their sense of culture, whether it is traditionally straight or gay, and most often the picture of women they use for comparison and evaluation is not a very positive one.
As such, Halperin also notes that the gay male feminine identification has little to do with women: "Rather it expresses something else-something specifically gay. It actually helps to constitute a gay identity that does not equate straightforwardly with any existing gender position, but that is defined instead by its dissonance, by its departure from the conventional gender map of masculinity and femininity" (p. 374). But almost everything about the book is in relation to gender roles related to or associated with traditional notions and stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. For example, when discussing the more butch and traditional masculinity of the g0y (gay men who do not relate to gay effeminacy) Halperin states that "It would be easy as it would be pointless to make fun of these folks-by observing, for example, that their hearty masculine disregard for the niceties of punctuation is queerly at odds with their suspiciously unrestrained, rather emotional, downright feminine overuse of the exclamation mark" (p. 312). In instances when associations with the masculine is expressed through the use of word such as "hearty" and are associated with the lack of punctuation and words such as "emotional", "unrestrained" and "overuse" is used in combination with the feminine, it is difficult not to note that there seems to be little departure from "the conventional gender map of masculine and feminine" (p. 374), but rather more of a mixing of the two.
Halperin knows that gay male culture can be misogynist, but he distinguishes between gay femininity and gay masculinity in its application of misogyny. "The kind of gay male culture that tends most to misogyny is likely to be the masculine variety" (p. 383). It is beneficial and valuable to distinguish between different forms of gay culture and misogyny, as well as noting that some women feel targeted. Their femaleness therefore seems to be the objective of irony and mockery. "They may feel that gay male aggression is being directed against the very condition of being a woman" (p. 384). The sincerity with which Halperin writes about his own life and gay male culture (along with notions of misogyny) is commendable as it provides a nuanced, but reflective opinion.
How to be Gay is an extensive undertaking as it is nearly 550 pages (including notes and index) and 21 chapters. It is also a fairly difficult read as Halperin also notes. At the same time, How to be Gay is a very interesting and thought provoking book about queerness, one that some people are going to agree with completely while others feel that it is stereotypical and promotes essentialism (even though Halperin states that this is not his attention). The intended audience is both scholars in the field of gender studies, men and masculinity, sociology, and queer studies (even though Halperin states that those in queer studies are less likely to adopt or examine the viewpoints of which he bases the book) as well as a more general audience interested in gay culture, and the queering of mainstream (heterosexual) culture. Even though the level of technicality of language is high, Halperin is able to make it less complicated by providing many diverse examples of gay culture, which further highlights his ideas. Overall, the book is an interesting read that will keep you reflecting over the connection between gender roles and sexual orientation, as well as whether or not there is a distinct gay male culture, or if sexual orientation is the guiding notion.
© 2013 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.