Tue, Aug 21, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Book review: How to Be Gay

An American academic’s case for the empowering virtues of flouncing, archness and Judy Garland is backward-looking

By Peter Conrad  /  The Guardian

How to Be Gay, by David M Halperin.

No, this is not a manual — by which I mean that it’s not a book that’s meant to be read with one hand. Despite its pink wrapper and the cover photograph of a naked young man with a flap-happy wrist, it’s a solemn pedagogical production, derived from an undergraduate course taught by Halperin, who is WH Auden distinguished university professor of the theory and history of sexuality at an address somewhere in the American cornbelt. Out there on the dreary plains, Halperin instructs students who could be his grandsons in irony, archness, melodramatic flouncing, the worship of Judy Garland and all the other queeny foibles and fetishes that most of us thought had been discarded when gay men marched out of the closet and asserted their right to respect and acceptance. Bobs, bangs and military buzzcuts probably feature in the curriculum: Halperin has an earnest interpretative interest in “what a hairstyle is ‘about.’”

The course, when first offered, created a local scandal, because a state university was expending public money on what Halperin enticingly called “an experiment in the very process of initiation.” Affronted legislators wondered what kind of homework was required of the inductees. I’m curious myself, since Halperin on one occasion addresses the reader of this book as “darling.” He relished the outrage of the puritans: he was used to it, having been accused of sexual harassment while teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1990s. That charge was dropped, and MIT sent him off on study leave for a couple of years; his next academic appointment, however, was in faraway Australia, where he can’t have made many friends if he imperialistically announced, as he does in his book, that “being gay is like being American” and presented himself as the proselytizing agent of “total, global queerness.” Now repatriated to the US, he is assiduously milking the fuss about his course, which has enabled him, as he reports with a hoot of triumph, to increase his lecture fee.

Publication Notes

How to Be Gay

By David M Halperin

472 pages

Harvard University Press

Hard copy: US


Halperin’s first efforts to profess “gay male studies” were half-cocked. He made the mistake of expecting his mid-western students to read books, which bored them; they spent his classes covering the attendance sheet he circulated with doodles of themselves in drag, preening under the hair-dryer in a beauty salon. Revamping the course as “How to Be Gay,” Halperin eased the strain on their bubbly brains by dispensing with a bibliography and instead prescribing excerpts from a few campy movies. His book devotes literally hundreds of pages to the obsessive analysis of a catfight between Joan Crawford and her bitchy daughter in the film noir Mildred Pierce, with footnotes on Faye Dunaway’s maenadic impersonation of Crawford on the rampage with a coat-hanger in Mommie Dearest and Sofia Coppola — the distinguished professor, incidentally, misspells her name — lewdly mimicking both Crawford and Dunaway in a music video for Sonic Youth.

The abusive encounter between Crawford and Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce is, for Halperin, a Freudian primal scene, an authoritative primer from which gay men can learn how to be ersatz women, suffering with grandiloquent flair while rolling their eyes and spitting epigrammatic put-downs at each other. I’m glad that he mostly stays away from literature (which, as he found, gave his students headaches), since he describes Melville’s Christ-like Billy Budd as the apotheosis of rough trade, a pick-up whose naval pants obligingly unbutton in the rear, and his only reference to Auden, in whose honor the professorship he holds was endowed, refers to the old boy’s quaint habit of referring to himself not as “I” but as “Your mother.” Halperin is more at ease when enthusing over curiosities like To the Last Man, a porno western in which cowboys wearing very snug jeans gun down their bunkmates and are ineffectually reproved by a preacher who lisps “I’m tired of getting blood on my dog collar.”

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