Off the Cuff with David Halperin, author of How to be Gay

David Halperin, OC ’73 and professor of history and theory of sexuality at the University of Michigan, will discuss his book, How to Be Gay, on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the First Church of Oberlin. Halperin spoke on the telephone with the Review about gay male culture in America.

Willa Rubin

You’ve said that “gayness is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos: in short, it is a practice.” Can you elaborate on this?

I’m interested in gayness as a way of being, as a practice, as a way of life. I mean, homosexuality is obviously a sexual orientation, but it is not the sexual aspect specifically that interests me, but what it’s like to be gay, what it’s like to feel gay and what it’s like to live in the world in a gay way.

What did you focus on in your class “How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation”? Was it just about gay culture and how gay culture is defined?

It was [on] the question of whether there is a gay cultural difference. In particular I was interested in non-gay objects from mainstream culture that gay men have appropriated and made over so that they function in gay male social worlds as vehicle[s for] gay male cultural expression. A well-known example would be anything from Judy Garland to Bette Davis to Madonna or Cher. Lady Gaga wasn’t around at the time, but that would be another good example.

The issue for the class was this: that there is no particular mystery about why gay men might have liked such things back in the bad old days before there was a public gay male literature, or cinema, or culture in general, nor is there mystery about why men would like contemporary works of gay male culture that feature gay men or represent gay male ways of life.

The mystery is, why is it that gay men nowadays still like nongay cultural objects when they have gay culture instead? Nowadays, when gay men can watch TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, why do some of them still prefer Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives or other things like that? That was what my class was about, and ultimately it was about the relation between sexuality in cultural form, and that’s what the book is about too.

Do you think the media reflects gay culture well? Do you think shows like Modern Familyand Glee with gay characters are a reflection of what gay culture has evolved into or how people who aren’t a part of the community view gay culture?

Well the interesting thing about Glee isn’t that it represents gay characters, because now lots of shows do have gay characters. The interesting thing about Glee is that it shows gay characters who are still into forms of straight culture, like Broadway musicals, that functioned in the past, when there was no overt gay culture, as vehicle for gay male identification. So that [is] what’s interesting about Glee. But widely, in the culture at large, [gay men] should gravitate to representations in culture of themselves, in those places where they do occur. Nothing mysterious about that, no need to write a book about it — the explanation is obvious. What isn’t obvious is why gay men who have access nowadays to direct representations of themselves should still be interested, in fact should even prefer, in some cases, nongay figures like, say, Lady Gaga, to any representations of a gay man available.

Why do you think this is?

Well, it’s a very complicated question, and it’s the topic of my talk in a way, and it’s the topic of my book. I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about it. … It is something of a mystery and that’s why it intrigued me.

What do you think makes gay culture unique from other cultures within America?

I don’t think it is absolutely unique. It has many other kinds of subcultures in that it is specific, and I try in the book to define it … as — or at least to begin to define it — as well as I can.

I’m really looking forward to a discussion with the people who show up. A lot of people I gather have already been assigned to read parts of my book, so I don’t want to rehash what they’ve already read. I want to discuss with them what they’ve read. I think this is going to [be] less of a lecture than it will be a discussion, and I hope that’s OK with the people.