Wednesday, 29 August 2012

What does it mean to be gay?

A most fascinating debate has opened on The Guardian website today.

Esteemed gay author Philip Hensher (who was entrancing when he read from his own work King of the Badgers at Polari last October) has posted his review of a new book called How to Be Gay by David M Halperin. Here is an extract:
What does it mean to be gay? Is it enough, as many people think, just to fall into the sex-clinic's category of "men who have sex with men"? That is intended to include the closet case and the cottager who goes home to wife and children. There are plenty of people – increasing numbers, in fact – who are gay without having much to do with traditional gay culture. There are gay people who follow rugby and even play it – not necessarily in a pervy way – and those who genuinely quite like the New Statesman. Some gay men live their entire lives kitted out in beige anoraks. Some of them collect stamps and others work for engineering companies. Some of those men – gay but not Gay, as it were – regard the whole musicals-interior decoration-fashion-thing as a curious foreign language, not really worth learning. They have never said "Bona" or "fabulous" in their lives; the only musical they have ever seen is Phantom of the Opera, because their aunt took them. What their culture is, and whether it forms a unity, the cultural critic cannot, apparently, say. What he can be concerned about, it seems, is the culture of Gay, passed down through generations of slappers, propping up the bars of Soho in London, Chelsea in New York, and the Marais in Paris, all quarters which are now as dead as the proverbial dodo.

David Halperin has written an over-long book, more localised in its application than he seems fully to appreciate, about the aspects of being gay other than sexual choice. His thinking arrives courtesy of a course he teaches at an American university. Naturally, when a course in "How to Be Gay" was announced in the American mid-west, an army of enraged family-first campaigners rose up in taupe leisurewear to denounce Professor Halperin for wanting to recruit the innocent. The passages recounting this provide the most amusing sections of the book, as taupe leisurewear and its mental equivalents so often do. He admits that "American" is an unspoken adjective in much of what he has to say, including the title of the book – I guess "How to be an American Gay" would be an even more uninviting subject than the one he has chosen. Outside America, he reliably gets things wrong, suggesting that Bollywood musicals may represent the same sort of gay cult to Indian gay men that Sex and the City does to Americans – he's clearly never seen a film in a Calcutta cinema, or he would have noticed that the appeal is not a gay thing at all at its source. He's not even very good on opera, bringing up Aida as his prime example – if he knew any opera queens, he'd know that we are much more likely to be going to Tristan, Salome and Janacek. When I last saw The Makropoulos Case, the stalls were like Lo-Profile on a Friday night, packed with queens waving at each other, opera glasses in hand.

In fact, the limits of the book are set not just by the limits of his culture, but by his understanding of what culture might be, even just in America. His interests are not really in gay culture at all, but in gay taste, particularly in film and TV shows. He doesn't show much interest in gay meeting places – when he does record finding himself in a backroom, it is to talk about the porn playing to an accompaniment of 19th-century opera. He doesn't, amazingly, show any interest in clubbing, which I would say was a much more powerful expression of gay culture to recent generations of gay people than terrible old movies. He doesn't write about clothes, or gestures, or gait, or any of what identifies a gay man to another at 80 paces, or the syntax and vocabulary and slang which makes them mutually clear at closer quarters – I mean, you can't always be saying "Have you seen Mommie Dearest?" to strangers. Halperin pretends to be an outsider looking in, but you only need to look at the Earls Court, circa 1985 moustache ornamenting his face to realise that he's writing from well within his own culture, looking out, but not looking very far. Perhaps if you stand still long enough, you become an outsider, as the culture moves swiftly on, from Judy to Gaga.
True to form, this has encouraged a healthy discourse among Guardian readers, which I have really enjoyed reading! Comments such as:

  • "I have never believed anyway that what passes for most of gay culture is in any way radical. The pressure to conform to notions of what it means to be gay can be as suffocating (hell we in the past have managed to fetishize conformity to an extent that a whole generation of gay men self-identified as "clones") as the pressure to conform to the conservative white picket fence life."
  • "At the most we can have a bit of fun with these stereotypes, by either embracing them or subverting them, but at the very least I think we have to accept that it does no good to outright deny them."
  • "[I grew up trying] be a normal guy who shows no more stereotypically gay traits than my straight friends - but eventually [found] that this was leading to the exact opposite. I was consciously suppressing parts of the 'real me' to try to prove that the stereotypes were false."
  • "I suspect some of the more mannered gay behaviour in the past may have been because gays were isolated and threatened. Things like polari - which sound really weird today, like something out of a 19th century fable - had their purpose. Today there is no particular reason for gay people to look or sound especially different to the rest of the population - unless they want to. But if they want to, then that's cool too."

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

I doubt I will ever read, let alone recommend in the same way, the book itself.


  1. I've always said "Gay Identity" does not mean "Identical Gays." It's a world that embraces both Sylvester and Handel for heaven's sake.

    1. I do so agree. Although I am not drawn to read Mr Halperin's magnum opus, I wonder whether he should have treated his analysis as an "exploration of camp" rather than "explaining gayness"..? Mind you, even there - as I know - there is a myriad of genres to explore! Jx

  2. I just want you to know that I never wear taupe.

    1. Particularly not taupe leisurewear! Jx

    2. Taupe is such a *difficult* color.

  3. Love the Stephen Hawkings quote! Actually made me a bit teary... Thanks for finding it!!


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