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Is There a Good Way to Be Gay?

Bert Six/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Joan Crawford at the time of the filming of Mildred Pierce, mid-1940s

Although he repeatedly eschews “ego psychology,” most of his strategies for analyzing gay culture derive from Freud’s analysis of dreams, including displacement, symbolism, black-for-white reversals, condensation, screen memories, and so on. And where, pray tell, do these processes take place except in a person’s mind? I’m just as hostile to psychoanalysis as Halperin, especially for its harmful mission to “cure” gays. Its conclusions are as dubious as his—but he should acknowledge the influence of psychoanalysis on his thinking.

Halperin argues that gay culture does perpetuate itself. He writes:

Despite the widely held conviction that gay male culture is constantly going out of date, it turns out to have changed a lot less over time than we like to claim. Gay liberation has actually not been all that successful in its efforts to remake the subjective lives of gay men. It has not managed to install gay politicians or sports figures in the place of female divas, nor has it ended the cultural valorization of taste or style—even if gay fashions have evolved since the 1950s. Gay men have not stopped finding gay meaning in female icons, from The Golden Girls to Desperate Housewives to Lady Gaga.

Once again “turns out” introduces a questionable series of conclusions.

But how do pregay kids discover gay culture? They don’t usually learn about it from older gays, as was the case in the University of Michigan restaurant. I once participated in a strange panel discussion in London at the Institute for Contemporary Art on “pricking thumbs” (derived from the witch’s verse in Macbeth that “by the pricking of my thumbs” you shall know when you’re in the presence of “elves and fairies”). Did we as children feel drawn to artistic figures we later discovered were gay? I claimed that as a little child I was drawn to the actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, who was cast by Truffaut as a gay man in Day for Night (La nuit américaine); to be sure, in real life he had four marriages and sired two children.

Several people on the panel mentioned Tchaikovsky as a precocious enthusiasm as well as Barbara Stanwyck. Halperin quotes with approval a remark by Barry Adam: “Musical theater is one of a number of possibilities that speak to the sense of difference, desire to escape, and will to imagine alternatives that seems a widespread childhood experience of many pregay boys.” The Belgian film My Life in Pink is about a cross-dressing transgender gay boy who lives in a fantasy world with “Pam,” a transgender doll much like Barbie.

Halperin makes a bold assertion: “So I can claim to have put forward a conceptual model for understanding the social process of acculturation by which a gay male sensibility is formed.” One nagging trouble with discussing a gay male sensibility—or any sensibility at all—is that we would feel uncomfortable referring to a “black sensibility” or a “Jewish sensibility.” When a sensibility is attributed to a group it sounds like a prejudice. Again and again Halperin reminds of how insaisissable or elusive is gay sensibility or style, though he is certain that he has captured this butterfly. He is trying to analyze why a one-second sequence of his beloved Mildred Pierce is so “heart-stopping”—the moment when Joan Crawford walks through the shadows cast by Venetian blinds as she heads for a confrontation with her erstwhile lover, the cad Monte, played by Zachary Scott. According to Halperin the scene says to the spectator something like “Get ready for Joan. She’s a-coming. She’s on her way. Watch out—here we go!”

Halperin takes up the question of why gay men identify with women (if they do). Feminists used to claim that camp was a form of satire and functioned as a put-down of the women it was supposedly worshiping but actually ridiculing. Halperin thinks that camp is like what Warhol said of Pop Art: “It’s a way of liking things.” But he also makes a more radical claim:

This instance of gay male feminine identification, then, actually expresses neither an underlying female nature nor a masculine one, nor something in between. Rather, it expresses something else—something specifically gay. It actually helps to constitute a gay identity that does not equate straightforwardly with any existing gender position, but that is defined instead by its dissonance, by its departure from the conventional gender map of masculinity and femininity.

Tell that to drag queens.

Halperin claims that if gays take delight in the degraded status of women, it’s not because they despise actual women. Worship of someone like Mildred Pierce “is the beginning of a process of reversal and resignification: it is a way of claiming ownership of our situation with the specific purpose of turning it around, or at least trying to turn it to our account.” In other words, in something like Freud’s repetition compulsion, gays share the low status of women and by elevating and concentrating on them—oh, I give up. It’s all too spidery for me!

Halperin’s favorite instance of camp’s way of both being ironic about a feeling and also expressing it seriously is an annual Fire Island gathering of “the Italian widows,” men who are of Italian extraction and who’ve lost their lovers to AIDS. Their hair-tearing, hysterical displays of Sicilian grief are perfectly genuine as well as ironic comments on their feelings. Thanks to camp, gays get to have it both ways. Like diva-worship, camp treasures both the glamour and the abjection.

Halperin honors many earlier analysts of gay culture, such as Esther Newton, who wrote a groundbreaking study of drag, and Neil Bartlett, the author of a study of Oscar Wilde. But unlike many of his predecessors he does not have an optimistic vision of where gay culture is heading. He is the author of Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, but whereas he embraces many of Foucault’s theories about the formation of culture and the origins of homosexuality in neither nature or nurture but in discourse, in this book he has none of Foucault’s emphasis in his late work on the importance of friendship and of leaving behind the legacy of a life beautifully lived.

Foucault was fascinated by Burckhardt’s notion of the “esthetics of existence” and of the hero making himself “his own work of art.” We turn to visionaries such as the French writer Didier Eribon for their sense of where the endless gay struggle is leading us. Foucault thought that radical politics dominated gay history. I can sympathize with Halperin’s impatience with the current wave of gay assimilation, the bland effort to blend in with the “heteronormative” crowd, but I would suggest we should look forward to a renewed progressive struggle for more adventurous lives rather than turning toward the security (and irrelevance) of Mildred Pierce.

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