cover image How to Be Gay

How to Be Gay

David M. Halperin. Harvard/Belknap, $35 (560p) ISBN 978-0-674-06679-3

Rather than the how-to guide his title suggests, Halperin (Saint Foucault), a professor of the history and theory of sexuality at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, offers a response to the controversy surrounding a class he taught there in 2000. While conservatives charged Halperin with “initiating” straight students into a new sexual orientation, some gay rights advocates saw him as reinforcing hurtful stereotypes. This long-delayed answer proves to be not a polemic but an attempt to unpack his basic observation that there’s far more to gay male American identity than a same-sex preference. Halperin interprets gayness through traditional pop culture preoccupations like golden age Hollywood, opera, and Broadway musicals, focusing on Joan Crawford (in particular her role in Mildred Pierce) and Faye Dunaway’s notoriously over-the-top portrayal of the star in Mommie Dearest. Identifying the source of the camp appeal exerted by these ostensibly serious films, Halperin asks why gay men continue to be drawn to coded representations of their experience. He arrives at an apologia for such clichéd signposts of gayness in an era of domestic partnerships and Born This Way. Halperin persuasively defuses charges of misogyny lobbed against gay male culture, but may alienate some by too narrowly defining his vision of what that culture should be. Nonetheless, this book should appeal to specialists and general readers alike with its academically rigorous but accessible argument. (Aug.)