Is There a Good Way to Be Gay?

How To Be Gay

by David M. Halperin
Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 549 pp., $35.00
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York © Jon F. Anderson, Estate of Paul Cadmus/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Paul Cadmus: Finistère, 1952

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s I used to gather some of my fellow students into sessions held on the balcony of the Pancake Palace. There, as we chatted, I would in effect teach them how to camp—how to reverse genders systematically, how to drop hints one was gay (called “dropping beads”), how to refer to oneself (as Auden does in a poem) as “Miss Me” or “Your Mother” (Auden was once confused with Robert Frost in the club car to New Haven by a Yale undergraduate who sent him a note via a waiter; he passed back a note that read, ”You’ve spoiled Mother’s day”), how to label a guy who likes blacks (“a dinge queen”) or Asians (“a rice queen”) or what to call an Asian who likes white men (“a potato queen”). Because I’d hung out in Chicago’s gay coffee shops at Clark and Diversey I knew more than the other gay boys in my playwriting seminar. I knew that someone who liked well-hung men was “a size queen,” just as someone with a small penis was “Princess Pencil Meat.”

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. The South African and German men in the first part of Damon Galgut’s wonderful, mysterious novel In a Strange Room are attracted to each other but would never describe themselves as “gay.”

Paradoxically, since gay men rarely have gay parents, cultural transmission must come from friends or strangers (a problem since the generations so seldom mix in gay life). Another oddity is that the more one knows about gay culture (Broadway musicals, home decorating, the lingo), the less attractive one is to most gay men, who are generally looking for a bona fide macho man. Gay culture must be the only one that esteems precisely those who aren’t initiated. Imagine a devout Jew who rejected someone who knew the Torah.

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…

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