This is three books in one, or rather two and a half. The half is a magazine-style essay on what happened when the author David Halperin, who is professor of the history and theory of sexuality at the University of Michigan, announced that he was running a course with the title of the book.
A hoo-ha followed with the religious right and others accusing him of trying to “convert naive innocent students” to becoming gay. It is an interesting piece of gay history in Chicago, and in the end good triumphs over bad.
The other two parts of the book are distinct in both style and content, though they interweave throughout the book. One is a political manifesto and analysis of the current state of affairs in gay and queer politics and is written in a direct and personal manner.
The other is an academic piece of “queer theory” on being camp – what it is, how it is part of a gay sensibility, and how it is used to subvert and undermine “normality”.
Halperin argues that “camp” uses society’s cultural normalities to subvert, at least in the world of Hollywood (Judy Garland, Betty Davies, Joan Crawford et al). This is an interesting exploration of how gay drag queen impersonators undermine the “serious”.
Here Halperin is developing and extending themes first proposed by Susan Sontag in 1964. However, he goes further and this is where his politics and political analysis come in.
Halperin was a leading US gay activist in 1980s and 1990s who adopted Foucault’s ideas and argued that being gay was socially constructed and not in your genes – that your sexuality was a product of society. His 1990 book, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, emerged out of a period dominated by identity politics and essentialism.
Halperin argued for a social analysis and a political struggle to overcome sexual oppression. But the times, and Halperin, have moved on. His current analysis is that, with advances in the law, gay people have achieved liberation, and the goal of equality with straight people.
So far so good, except that this it is a rewriting of history. The gay movement of the 1970s did not just fight for equality; they were revolutionaries who were actively part of a wider struggle for a new world.
At least Halpin is arguing against the safe world of gay respectability and for queer politics, leaving aside his vision of 50-style camp, which is supposed to be the alternative.
How to be Gay is a sad retreat and an annoying read.
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