Saturday, September 08, 2012

Butch on the Street, Femme in the Sheets (of this Book)

Growing up in one of the larger and more prosperous towns of Mississippi, I had no access to representations of gay men or women. Despite growing up Southern Baptist, gays were not denounced in my church, they were never spoken of at all.  In sixth grade, a bully harassed me for much of the school year for being gay, but I didn't know what that meant.  I am not sure that he did either. Applied to me, it seemed to be more of an evolution of an insult that began when I took allergy medication at lunch time. I went from being a druggie to gay when druggie seemed to cause insufficient pain.  I cried in the arms of my mother, but only because I knew gay wasn't good--whatever it meant.  I was bullied in other grades also, although the insult of gay was not thrown around.  Still, as a scrawny introverted nerd scared of getting in trouble, I failed to perform masculinity properly and suffered the consequences.

Despite experiencing same-sex attraction in my teen years, I was unable to identify it as such at the time, largely because I had no conception of gay people or a gay identity.  I had no way to make sense of what those feelings meant, so I explained them away in the only ways I could: brotherly love, admiration, envy, and so on.  I would not make sense of those feelings until I was nearly thirty.  Even having gay and lesbian friends in college didn't help me identify myself as one--it honestly never occurred to me that I might be one too.  (Although later I would discover they clearly marked me as one when I was told it was about time I came out.)

I was, to use David Halperin's term, a proto-gay.  Gay in the sense of experiencing same-sex attraction, but proto, in not having a consciousness of it.  Halperin specifically uses this term to designate boys who will grow up to experience same sex object choice, but have not yet done so. The earliest I recall attraction to another boy was around seventh grade.

Yet prior to both my arrival at a gay identity and my earliest recollection of same-sex attraction, I was drawn to non-gay cultural artifacts that reflected a gay subjectivity, or in other words, cultural objects and characters that reflected how it felt to be a (proto-)gay.  Bugs Bunny, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Paul Lynde, Wayland Flowers and Madame (yes, both gay, but coded or covertly so), Flip Wilson, Beau Arthur, Kathy Bates, Bewitched, Maude, Golden GirlsDesigning WomenAuntie Mame, Steel Magnolias, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, Mommie Dearest, the Muppets, Spider-Man. (I realize some of these may seem more "obviously" gay appropriations than others.)  Specifically, I was a white nerd gay, and my cultural attractions reflect this sensibility.

This experience, along with my experiences with other gay men, makes David Halperin's premise (or one of them) in How To Be Gay highly compelling, to say nothing of Halperin's rigorous methodology, staggeringly incisive analysis, clever insight, necessary contributions, and sense of wit. In short, David Halperin's How to be Gay is a tour de force.