Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Wrap Yourself Up in Garland

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Wrap Yourself Up in Garland

Article excerpt

Almost despite himself, Ken Plummer is beguiled by an eloquent elegy for queerdom's camp old days.

How To Be Gay

By David M. Halperin

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 560pp, Pounds 25.95

ISBN 9780674066793

Published 30 August 2012

This is a delightfully puzzling book. David Halperin, originally a classical scholar, is eminent in the field of queer studies and co-founder of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. And here, based on a course he taught for 10 years, his focus is modern gay culture. The very question the book poses - "how to be gay" - raises hackles on all sides and means it arrives steeped in controversies. The book has come under attack from picket-wielding members of the Christian Right, who protest that Halperin teaches a course that recruits young people into homosexuality. And it has garnered much hostility from post-Stonewall gay men who, having now gone all macho, straight and normal, are suspicious of Halperin's celebration of pre-Gay Liberation Front stereotypes of camp old queens. Indeed, Halperin himself ponders in passing whether he has written a reactionary book.

So what is this gay culture of which he writes? Curiously, he detects something that matches popular stereotypes. Forged under conditions of exclusion, gay culture is defined by a camp, feminine sensibility. It brings a refined aesthetic and a ritual style that can be found in classic Hollywood cinema, in Broadway musicals, in grand opera, in fashion, interior decoration, art and architectural design. It flows into female melodrama, diva worship and the adoration of a string of icons - Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, The Golden Girls. The Wizard of Oz becomes its story and Over the Rainbow its anthem. And at its extreme edge, it fosters a bitchy dislike of all things commonplace and routine - a dissident, "queer" response to mainstream things. It can, indeed, be snobbish and nasty. This gay culture takes straight culture and subverts and plays with it.

Halperin makes it clear from the outset that gay culture is not at all the same thing as gay sex, gay identity or even homosexuality. His focus is on gay male culture: its subjectivities, sensibilities and practices. It is a distinctively enigmatic cultural form, and he seeks to grasp its logic and explain its (radical?) politics. He is absolutely not talking about gay people or individuals, and he shuns psychological reductionism. He also bypasses vast amounts of sociological and anthropological discussion on culture, and looks instead to poetics, arguing that culture displays "the pragmatics of discourse and genre". And at the heart of this culture is "gay femininity" and "camp", which he says,"works to drain the sufferings of the pain that it also does not deny". He distinguishes between the obvious gay cultural forms created by "gays" themselves (in, say, the works of Jean Genet or Andre Gide) and the gay subculture that takes straight culture and uses it in new ways. It can be illustrated in the difference between Judy Garland, who was not gay but who was transformed into a gay icon, and Rufus Wainwright "doing Judy" as a direct part of being an out and camp gay. They speak very differently.

What is marvellous is Halperin's rich analysis of many aspects of this gay cultural life, showing the distinctive ways it makes use of straight culture. For example, and borrowing from the work of David Miller, there is a key chapter on the musical. He is absolutely not saying that all gay men like musicals, but he is suggesting that it is a form "of difference, of a desire to escape, of a will to imagine alternatives" that exemplifies the logic of gay culture. Halperin admits that he was not originally part of this culture when he was young. He had to be taught by his younger partner - it does not, it seems, come naturally by generation. But now he has become a particular fan of the "demented femininity" of Joan Crawford, and devotes a whole chapter to the film Mildred Pierce. …

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