Edmund White on “Is There a Good Way to Be Gay?”

It’s a review by White of David M. Halperin’s How to be Gay.


Paul Cadmus: Finistère, 1952

My immediate gut answer to the question is “No”. How could there be? There are, however, no doubt plenty of wrong ways. To me being human is the hard one and that trumps being gay, which is not to downplay the importance of that consideration. After all, I wasted a large part of my life avoiding the issue, with considerable emotional and psychological damage ensuing, and came late into the gay scene which I found in many ways liberating and welcoming – all that – but at the same time highly peculiar. People who worry about some monolithic “gay lobby” don’t know much about the scene. If there is a scene any more.

Lost Gay Sydney captures in its name that feeling of a glory departed. Now while there is much I have found there that is heart-warming – as I have noted before – there is also much that explains how, aside from everyone getting old if they were lucky, the scene was lost and in some ways should have been. Such strident politics at times, sometimes about things that really mattered very little, and also such shallowness at other times and such, well, bigotry of its own kind.  The gay scene (and gay academia) has far too often been distinctly rancid and unhelpful. Not to mention the alcoholism and drug culture that it shared with other aspects of the period.

So what of Halperin’s book?

David M. Halperin, who coincidentally is the W.H. Auden Distinguished University Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan, starts with the idea that homosexual sexual experience is no guarantee that one is initiated into any larger sense of gay culture. It must, he argues, be learned from older or at least more savvy gays or somehow intuited on one’s own. Some straights are imbued with the gay sensibility, just as many homosexuals reject or don’t know about gay culture; those married men at the baths may be completely clueless and want to stay that way…

Whereas Halperin acknowledges that most young gays today disavow gay culture and say they have no need of it, nevertheless it continues to exert a strong appeal. When he taught a course called “How To Be Gay,” it attracted many straight and gay undergraduates and caused a scandal; it not only raised the question of what sort of university offered such a course but was taken to mean that Michigan taxpayers were bankrolling a recruitment project. The right-wing press had a field day; one publication showed a cartoon of a nerdy professor saying, “Class, repeat after me: ‘What a dump!’” Halperin quite unimaginatively felt the cartoon must have been intended for gay readers since only they would recognize Bette Davis’s famous line from an obscure film, Beyond the Forest.

His argument in his repetitious but ingenious book seems to be that gays respond to Hollywood films and old musicals, which are part of mainstream culture, more than to novels or plays written by gays for gays. Although Halperin admits that some post-Stonewall gays pretend to esteem books written for them, they would, he believe, prefer to decode and recode mainstream TV shows. As he puts it, “Why would we want Edmund White, when we still have The Golden Girls?”…

Although Halperin makes coherent points most of the time, occasionally he seems delirious: “In order to get to the bottom of the mystery of homosexual attraction, you have to focus your attention on the object of your desire in its most complete contextual realization, its full social concreteness, its specific social systematicity.” Here one thinks of Jane Austen’s remark: “For it is extraordinarily difficult to say foolishness clearly without exposing it for what it is.”…

I like both White and The Golden Girls, actually, and I have to say I devoted a lot of energy resisting the tribalism that would make me whatever kind of “queen” there was a cardboard cut-out for.  It always seemed to me – and still does – so beside the point. Being human is still the great game, and I am far from sure I have been all that good at that either…

Here is some viewing for you, the first coming my way via Lost Gay Sydney!