"Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn't mean that you don't have to learn how to become one." Or, at least, so read the description for David Halperin's University of Michigan class, How to be Gay, on which his book is based. Halperin is an "utterly hopeless" gay man, one that is incapable of dressing well. The idea that specific interests - Hollywood musicals, interior design, fashion, Broadway, or Lady Gaga - define gay male culture is "routinely acknowledged as a fact" and "just as routinely denied as a truth." The very idea of a gay culture is anathema to many in the gay community who see themselves as simply a sexual orientation, one that makes them, fundamentally, "no different from anybody else."
Initially, Halperin agreed, saying that he didn't see why his "sexual practices identified (him) as a member of their group," one that required him to adopt "their" tastes. No longer, though, as he now believes "there really is such a thing as gay male subjectivity," a gay culture encompassing much more than just homosexual sex. Indeed, being homosexual doesn't necessarily mean you're gay, and anyone can participate in "homosexuality as culture." This reminds me of a line from the Simpsons, in which the gay character "Grady" says, in effect, `practically anyone who's even seen a play is gay!' I don't think that Halperin would disagree: to him the "gay" love of Broadway, to which the entirety of chapter 5 is devoted, takes place "in childish queer pleasures that don't come directly from sex."
Not only sexual but emotional and romantic bonds between men, Halperin argues, were once conventional. As the idea of heterosexuality slowly entered existence, and men feared being considered deviant, these bonds began to unravel. Deviancy entrenched the idea of "normative" gender styles, from which the "straight-acting and -appearing gay man" emerged. To be gay was simply to have a sexuality, not a culture, and the femininity that once identified traditional gay male culture was shunned. Then, in the 1990s, the "queer moment" reclaimed the ideas of tops and bottoms, twinks and bears, butch displays and "high-femme theatrics," and gender styles.
Every generation thinks it's "the first gay generation in history to see nothing of interest or value in inherited, traditional culture." It is in this repudiation of the previous gay culture that a new gay culture is ultimately born. We must "learn how to be gay," that is, learn gay culture, since our birth families cannot teach us how to be gay. "Older" gays - those outside their 20s - are then marginalized by the new culture. He admits that his ideas of gay identity were once trendy and defined gay culture before detailing changing mores and norms of the culture and bemoaning the fact that it has changed.
His main hypothesis is that gay men are more willing to appropriate and find meaning in "straight" culture rather than exclusively "gay" culture. (He argues that "Desperate Housewives" is more popular than "Queer as Folk" in the gay community and that Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" will not stand the test of time as a gay anthem because it is explicit in its 'gayness.') But isn't this true of everyone? Most people would rather subscribe to a universal culture and then assign importance to what they find to be personally meaningful. Tailoring culture feels somehow cheap, as though, instead of finding meaning, meaning is ascribed and forced upon you by its author.
While I agree with his hypothesis, I disagree that gay people are somehow different than straight people, that they contain some "subjectivity" that "straight" people don't that make them more creative or wealthy or more likely to enjoy musicals than anyone else. His ideas are merely thoughts and opinions, backed up by the thoughts and opinions of others. Maybe it's simply my misanthropy, but I would not subscribe to the idea of a homogeneity of homosexuality Halperin attempts to put forward. His argument does not speak to the fundamentally conservative fight for gay marriage, nor is it true of gays of color or of low socioeconomic status or, really, anyone who is gay who isn't also American, white, and in their twenties.