“How to Be Gay” by David Halperin— Learning to Be Gay

Halperin, David M. “How To Be Gay”, Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2012.

Learning to be Gay

Amos Lassen

Most of my gay friends will react to David Halperin’s new book, “How to be Gay”, by simply stating that they do not need a 500 plus page manual or do they need to put out more than $35 to know how to be gay. I am quite sure the consensus among them is that they not only know how to be gay but they are such experts that they actually teach courses about it. What they miss is that Halperin explains that “gay men must learn from one another in order to become who they are”. His book is an offshoot of a course of the same name that he taught at the University of Michigan that caused a great deal of talk from the right-wing politicians and from the gay press as well. What Halperin does is trace the way gay men are different from other men in regards to the social definition of style. While many in the larger society regard gay men as something of a stereotype (simplistic, irresponsible politically and suspect morally), what we see here—and this is so important—is that being gay is not just about sexual preference (but we already knew that—it is just everyone else who doesn’t). Much too often, we have been characterized by our sexual habits and there is so much than that in being gay.

Halperin is one of the pioneers in the field of gay studies and he has already written two controversial books—one about existential philosopher Michel Foucault and the other about what he calls gay shame. It is his contention that “the genius of gay culture resides in some of its most despised features: its aestheticism, snobbery, melodrama, adoration of glamour, caricatures of women, and obsession with mothers. The insights, impertinence, and unfazed critical intelligence displayed by gay culture, Halperin argues, have much to offer the heterosexual mainstream”. He looks at the names and titles that have been put on gay men—“macho, faggy, queeny, butch diva, opera-swilling, Broadway-loving, gourmet, sex-fascinated, beauty-appreciating, love-desiring, rough trade, high art, race- and class-inflected but not exclusive, generationally situated but not entirely, intellectual, open-hearted, politically minded, leather chaps! Mary!” and shows how these came to be a part of the gay community.

I loved reading this book because I could identify with so much of it and I thought to myself, “been there, done that”. It is the sensibility of the gay male that is the main focus here and it is through this that sexuality comes into being and it holds fast because of the way it expresses itself. What we gain from reading this is the ability to truly come out of the darkness into the light and talk about it. As far as I know this is the first time that a book covers this.

The book poses the question of whether there is a gay culture and if there is, where does it come from and what does it do. Halperin looks at gayness as a social form as it takes us through the complexities of what is considered to be gay culture today. Halperin forms his definition of being gay or gayness that does not totally rely of sexuality and he uses pop culture as a way to form that definition. He wants to know why gay men allow themselves to be codified and he relates what is going on in that culture to the tremendous changes with which we live. Maybe we really do need a 544 page book with which to learn about ourselves. I found those pages to move very quickly because as you read you will find yourself somewhere in it.

I wish I could explain how much I love this book and it led me to do something that I rarely do–I bought a copy. One of the advantages of being a reviewer is that I am sent a great many books so I rarely buy any. When a book speaks to me like this one does, I have no regrets about paying for it. I do not think that you will either.