David Halperin insists he never meant to cause such a fuss. Sure, he knew that calling his new English-department course "How to Be Gay" was a bit "provocative"; he was aware it might "raise eyebrows and attract unfavorable attention." But, he writes in the beginning of his new book (titled -- wait for it -- How to Be Gay), he is "a big fan of truth in advertising" -- and the class was, indeed, about how to be gay.
Well, sort of. The course, which Halperin -- who is W. H. Auden Distinguished Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan -- first taught in 2000, was intended to be about "how men who are already gay acquire a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world...." But according to conservative news outlets, Halperin was out to recruit previously straight students to homosexuality (using taxpayers' money, no less). Soon, the American Family Association was pushing to get the course canceled, and by May of 2000, two months after the course's description was first published in Michigan's catalog, Republicans in Michigan's state legislature had sponsored an amendment to redistribute 10 percent of the University of Michigan's annual appropriations if the university offered a course "promoting or facilitating the participation in a sexual lifestyle or practices other than heterosexual monogamy." (The amendment failed, albeit narrowly).
The University of Michigan stood by Halperin throughout the profusion of negative press, stating its express "support of Professor Halperin's course and of his freedom to teach this course as he constructed it." The course remained controversial -- and a few years later, Halperin writes, "a bill was introduced... to give the state legislature veto power over course offerings at public universities in Michigan." But that bill failed, too, and Halperin continued to teach the class.
In How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), Halperin takes an in-depth look at the issues he first attempted to address in his course at Michigan. The book's goal, Halperin writes, is to try to understand gay male "counteracculturation": i.e., "the exact logic by which gay male subjects resist the summons to experience the world in heterosexual and heteronormative ways." (Hint: much of this can be explained via the movie "Mildred Pierce.")
Halperin talked to Inside Higher Ed via e-mail about the book, the course that gave rise to it, and what it means to be a gay studies professor today.
Q: Why did you originally choose to call the class How to Be Gay?
A: I wanted to convey the paradoxical notion that is summed up in the first sentence of the course description: "Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn't mean that you don't have to learn how to become one." I was interested in the old problem of how you become who you are. And I was interested in understanding that problem as a social process. I was not, obviously, offering practical instruction to my students in how to become a successful gay man. At least half of my students in that class have always been women, for starters. The class was called "How To Be Gay" because that formula named the issue it sought to address: the notion that there's a right way to be gay, a way that has to be learned even, or especially, by gay men themselves, and that gayness is therefore a cultural practice, not just a sexual condition.
Of course, if I had known how much trouble the mere title of the course was going to cause my university, I would have called it something else. But at the time I invented the course, neither I nor my colleagues thought it would cause all the fuss it did.
Q: How did the class evolve over the time you were teaching it? Do you still teach it today?
A: As the course evolved, it became less about initiation -- less about the way gay culture is transmitted from one gay man to another, about the way gay men learn how to be gay from others -- and it became more about male homosexuality as a cultural practice, about the distinctiveness of gay male culture. I wanted to inquire into the causes of gay male cultural difference and into male homosexuality as a cultural orientation rather than a sexual one.
I taught the class for the last time in 2007. I think I must have taught it five times in all. I stopped teaching it because I was starting to arrive at some answers to the questions I had been asking and because I was starting to see how I could go about finishing my book. I didn't think it was fair to my students to engage them in an inquiry whose outcome was known in advance. I still think it was a great class -- and since the book came out, my former students have been reading it and posting messages on Facebook saying how much they enjoyed taking the class and how much they got out of it (they may have forgotten how frustrating some of them found it at the time, partly because it was so open-ended and so lacking in definitive answers to its questions). If I were to teach the class now, I would have to teach it in relation to my book, and that would make it a completely different class. There was no textbook when I taught it before: we were doing all the basic thinking from scratch.
Q: How did the class lead to your writing this book?
A: When I started the class, all I had was a question: what does sexuality have to do with culture? Or what is it that explains the cultural object-choices of gay men? Or what does a sexual desire for men have to do with a liking for Judy Garland or Cher or Madonna or Beyoncé? I had no answers to those questions. What I had, on the one hand, was some very rich material that dramatized those questions, and, on the other, a few pioneering and brilliant texts by Richard Dyer, Neil Bartlett, and D.A. Miller, that addressed the questions (and that had inspired the class). I taught the class in order to explore the topic, to advance the state of reflection on it, to forge new approaches to cultural analysis, and to search for insights.
I expected that to be a slow process. But I underestimated how difficult it was going to be. At the same time, I hadn't reckoned with the political furor that the class provoked. I suddenly felt a lot of pressure to justify what I was up to. But I wasn't sure how to do it. I realized that nothing less than a substantial book would be necessary to deal with the topic and demonstrate its importance. Fortunately, it turned out that a lot of people were interested in the questions I was asking. So I had opportunities to develop my thinking in lectures and I got grants to write the book. And I did have a fantastic topic. The only problem was that I didn't know how to handle it. Only now, after working on it intensely for more than a dozen years, am I finally achieving a certain clarity. The book represents an interim report.
Q: You note that the class was objected to not only by conservatives, but also by many gay men. Why was that?
A: In general, it seems that a lot of gay men are allergic to the notion of gay male cultural difference. Part of that has to do with the fact that certain gay male cultural practices are associated with femininity (but I have an argument in the book that gay male femininity needs to be seen as an entirely distinctive kind of gender and sexuality that has little or nothing to do with women); part of it has to do with the widespread political insistence that gay people are no different from anyone else in any way, beyond some archaic and homophobic stereotypes; and part of it has to do with the threat that the mere existence of gay male culture poses to the project of social integration, to the total assimilation of gay people into mainstream culture and society.
Q: If you had begun teaching the course in 2012, rather than 2000, do you think it would still generate the same sort of controversy?
A: Yes, I do. Well, we'll see what people make of the book. The recent progress of gay rights has led to a common view that homosexual difference has been overcome by social change. Which makes the distinctiveness of gay male culture seem retrograde, out of date, an embarrassment, and a challenge to the current consensus. We hear all this talk about how we live in a post-racial society: The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was supposed to be proof of that, but his political fortunes have made such a notion appear increasingly dubious. In a similar way, many people now believe we live in a society in which the difference between gay and straight has lost its importance. In this context, there is a tendency to claim that gay culture no longer exists. Any evidence to the contrary arouses mistrust and hostility.
Q: How do you think the role of gay studies, and of the gay studies professor, has changed in the past dozen or so years?
A: We have become fashionable. We attract quantities of straight students to our classes. Some of those students are not at all committed to the value of the critical attitude to history and society that gay studies promotes and that helped to establish the centrality of queer theory in the humanities and social sciences. And students come to us in order to be trained in what is now an established discipline. We end up teaching canonical texts, which students often find boring. We are seldom trying to forge new ways of thinking what has never been thought, as we did 25 years ago. Still, the challenge for us is to keep that innovative thinking alive, to continue to find new problems that have not been explored, and to push our work in new directions. I still see my role very much as I used to see it.
Q: Do you see, over the long term, a sort of "mainstreaming" of gay culture? Is it a good or a bad thing?
A: I think gay culture is alive and well, but the material conditions necessary for its flourishing have been limited or eliminated. The mainstreaming you refer to has a lot to do with the replacement of local, community-based cultural institutions based in particular neighborhoods with a critical mass of gay people in them by delocalized, mass-media outlets that are only interested in work that is acceptable to the broadest range of gay people. That is a real problem for the success of new, experimental, innovative work.
Q: What is your ideal audience for this book? What do you hope those readers might take away from it?
A: Anyone who is interested in these questions. In some ways, it's an old-fashioned book -- classical gay studies, you could say. It doesn't pretend that gay issues might be valuable to explore because they cast light on something else. It assumes that gay questions are interesting in their own right. And that, if you take them seriously, you ultimately can illuminate our world as a whole.
Dr. Thomas Tam Visiting Professorship, Asian-American Studies (Visiting Associate or Full Professor)