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.

Halperin is making an important contribution to new ways of thinking about gay subjectivity in non-pathologizing, non-essentializing, and non-psychological ways.  Perhaps more significantly, he's making a methodological and conceptual intervention in queer and cultural studies.  The book is bound to be misunderstood by gays, the gay-friendly, and the anti-gay, as was his course of the same name when it garnered state and national attention, and as the only review on Amazon (as of 9/8/12) provides an example.   Still, Halperin anticipates many of the criticisms and answers them, at least briefly, or to clarify what his beyond the focus of his inquiry.  Halperin offers an essay (subscription required) this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week that provides the main argument of his book, if readers are short on time.

Halperin works from the premise that there is a recognizable gay male culture (e.g., Broadway, drag, camp, love of certain female icons, architectural restoration) that gay men created initially at a time to provide a means of self-expression when few or no explicit representations, at least no stigmatizing ones, were available.  Although the specifics change over time (e.g., from Judy to Gaga), and post-Stonewall liberation has afforded a bevvy of positive gay male cultural objects, Halperin argues this practice of appropriating straight cultural objects still continues.  His question is: if this practice continues, then why, especially in this era of gay liberation? What might reclaiming and identifiying with "straight" culture say about the experience and feelings of gay men, no matter what political or legislative inroads have been made?  How might it reveal the domination of straight norms and values in the wake of  gay progress? (And what might it say about that progress?)  Why do gays appropriate and identify with straight-produced cultural more so than with gay-produced culture?  As mentioned, Halperin also seeks to account for gay subjectivity without resorting to psychological, psychoanalytic, cognitive-science / essentialist ideas (i.e., that we are "born this way.").  But to clarify, he isn't interested in how people become homosexual, but how they engage with gay culture (which may be to not engage it) and why.

Halperin is clear that the gay culture he describes in this book is American, white gay male culture.  Beyond the scope of this book, he encourages others to pick up this project, if they are so inclined, and use it for other aspects of gay culture (e.g., while he uses a scene from Mildred Pierce, and discusses the cult of Joan Crawford, he acknowledges that examining the interest gay men have in Bette Davis may produce different insights) and to examine other gay populations' (e.g., gay men of color, non-American gays, lesbians, trans people, gay nerds) cultural identifications.  Thus, for me, Halperin has me thinking about my investments in the straight cultural objects that I grew up with--and continue to invest in.  How did Spider-Man help proto-gay me express my decidedly ill-fitting interface with the world? Bugs Bunny? The various women celebrities and women-oriented shows I enjoyed?  Flip Wilson, especially as Geraldine?  Why do those cultural artifacts still resonate with me more strongly than many gay cultural representations available to me today?

Halperin uses substantial space to explain how he sees one scene from Mildred Pierce (and a parallel scene form Mommie Dearest) doing gay cultural work.  By this focus, Halperin provides an example of a methodology and illustrates the difficulty of this project.  His exhaustive examination of this scene demonstrates the complexity of the task to go beyond it.

Halperin does not make totalizing or universalizing claims about gay experience,--or posit that gay culture expresses some superior or natural experience.  In fact, he notes that many gay men, or men who are attracted to other men, don't "do" gay as well as some straight men and women.  People become gay, in the cultural sense, through indoctrination, although, curiously, gays and proto-gays in various gay and non-gay communities may share similar cultural affections.  Gay, in the way Halperin discusses it, is a cultural practice, not a sex-object choice, and so anybody can do or not do gay, regardless of their sexuality.  This means some gay (i.e., homosexual) people aren't particularly gay.  Or in, Halperin's words, "Sometimes homosexuality is wasted on gay people."

By saying that, Halperin is cattily (read: gay-ly) asserting the value in being cultural gayness.  Although not attributing any superiority to it, he believes that gay culture makes a contribution--understanding the world  gay-ly (whether one is homosexual or heterosexual), provides a way of undoing limiting and harmful straight norms that will stay in place (and are still in place) no matter how many equality gains are made on a political or legal level.  Equality does not undo oppressive heterosexual culture, and, as such, gays and queers will continue to need to invest in certain cultural practices that allow an expression of a differing subjectivity, and as a way of resisting hetero-norms.  Halperin understands a political utility to gay culture, and so laments how quickly many gays are to divest themselves of it.  Gay culture exposes the artifice of heterosexual privilege and performance and crafts a space, although limited, of resistance and opposition to it.

I find this work masterful and a necessary intervention in queer studies.  Queer theory is, as Halperin notes, notoriously resistant to thinking beyond identity, even as it critiques it, and generally resists inquiring into any idea of shared culture.  Identity is too limiting for Halperin, and I welcome his conceptual intervention into queer studies, reviving older questions, lines of inquiry, and concepts, often with a fresh perspective or twist.  What may be overlooked is the methodological contribution here: Halperin doesn't lay out a specific way of tackling such a project, but his work provides a model for it.  This work unfortunately will likely be overlooked by social scientists and those doing cultural work in professional fields, but it could provide a rich contribution.

I want to suggest this work shares some commonality with Foucault's end of life line of inquiry.  Having moved from how institutional discourses created subjects, Foucault started thinking about how individuals create their own and others' subjectivities--how they discerned the truth of themselves and who was truth-tellers.  There are some notable differences, but I see these projects having points of intersections.

Ultimately, this review does a disservice to this important work, and I have omitted or under-emphasized a great deal of important and compelling material, the least of which is not Halperin's re-thinking of the relationship between sexuality and gender expression in gay culture.  As a gay man (and a gay nerd), I find How to be Gay compelling and a welcome response to modern gay identity politics.  This is an inventive, rigorous piece of academic work, although Halperin's language is very accessible.  Readers will benefit, however, from some familiarity with lesbian/bi/gay or queer studies, particularly Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal.  I strongly recommend this to anyone who has ever felt queer, or different (regardless of your sexuality), from the rest of society.  Halperin's methodology doesn't have to be limited to gay men, but following his lead, one can think differently about the cultural objects one picks up and what they might say about how you feel to be queer.


Anonymous said...

This is a great review. I learned really some things I will benefit later while reading Halperin's book.

Anonymous said...

This is a great summary of what sounds like an important book -- thank you!