How to be Gay By David Halperin. Reviewed by John Cook


How to be Gay

This was a case of a book that promised to be mildly interesting of its type which turned out to be a lot heavier than anticipated and which then demanded that I persist and I am glad I did. This is not an easy or light book but it has its rewards. I have often sat in this queerreaders group and looked at those who grace the table from time to time and marvelled at our variety yet sameness. Presumably we all have something like a same sex preference or understanding of it at base. But what else do we share? What do we come to such a group seeking? Has it anything to do with our sense of identity, established or developing? It is clear from offerings and reactions at our meetings that we are all quite different people which begs the question ‘what is the importance of the sameness that draws us together in a common interest? What is that sameness? Is it something unchanging or in a state of flux? What has been our identity, what is it now and what might it be in the future? Those are big questions and it takes someone like Halperin to take them on.
Wiki says

David Halperin was born on April 2, 1952, in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1973, having studied abroad at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in 1972–1973. He received his PhD in Classics and Humanities from Stanford University in 1980.

In 1977, he served as Associate Director of the Summer Session of the School of Classical Studies at the American Academy in Rome. From 1981 to 1996, he served as Professor of Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1994, he taught at the University of Queensland, and in 1995 at Monash University. From 1996 to 1999, he was a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of New South Wales. He is currently W. H. Auden Distinguished University Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan, where he is also Professor of English, women’s studies, comparative literature, and classical studies.

In 1991, he co-founded the academic journal GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, and served as its editor until 2006. His work has been published in the Journal of Bisexuality, Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, Journal of Homosexuality, Michigan Feminist Studies, Michigan Quarterly Review, Representations, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Ex Aequo, UNSW Tharunka, Australian Humanities Review, Sydney Star Observer, The UTS Review, Salmagundi, Blueboy, History and Theory, Diacritics, American Journal of Philology, Classical Antiquity, Ancient Philosophy, Yale Review, Critical Enquiry, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Notes & Queries, London Review of Books, Journal of Japanese Studies, Partisan Review, and Classical Journal.

He has been a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome and a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, as well as a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra, and at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. In 2008–2009, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He received the Michael Lynch Service Award from the Gay and Lesbian Caucus at the Modern Language Association, as well as the Distinguished Editor Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. In 2011–2012, he received the Brudner Prize at Yale University.

Halperin is openly gay. In 1990, he launched a campaign to oppose the presence of the ROTC on the MIT campus, on the grounds that it discriminated against gay and lesbian students. That same year, he received death threats for his gay activism. In 2003, the Michigan chapter of the American Family Association tried to ban his course ‘How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.’In 2010, he wrote an open letter to Michigan’s 52nd Attorney General Mike Cox to denounce the homophobic harassment by one of the latter’s staffers, Andrew Shirvell, of a University of Michigan student, Chris Armstrong.

Halperin is not the only heavyweight working in the field of queer studies and his work is often disputed, as it is in this case. However, it is very much worthy of attention if you want to be challenged. Essentially, he is fearful that some of the successes of liberation over the last forty years and the collapse of many of the old inner city gay ghettos have led to the normalization of homosexuality such that it is in danger of being absorbed inside the heterosexual world. His examplars are mostly historic leaning heavily on older movie stars (Joan Crawford in particular) and more recent influences through to Lady Gaga.

His examination incorporates elements of sociology and psychology and psychoanalysis and is heavy on the language of critical analysis. Many readers may find this to be a problem but I can only counsel to persist, skim if necessary, and try to absorb the points he is making. They are challenging to gay people who rarely spend much time considering or challenging their identity. It is the very lack of a need to consider and challenge that Halperin sees as most concerning. “For all its undeniable benefits, gay pride is now preventing us from knowing ourselves.”

This book is the considered outcome of the controversial course ‘How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation’ mentioned above.
(sorry about the relatively long note)


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