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How To Be Gay Hardcover – August 21, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Halperin is an openly gay University of Michigan professor who achieved notoriety in 2000 when his class “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” was included in the school’s online-course catalog. Angry e-mails and outrage quickly followed, with the Michigan chapter of the ultraconservative American Family Association launching a crusade against a perceived militant homosexual political agenda. Based on that same controversial college course, How to Be Gay posits that “gayness” is not simply the act of two men having sex but a mode of perception that must be learned from—and shared by—other gay men. Halperin homes in on, among many topics, the yin and yang of gay male existence: the beauty and the camp. A pivotal scene from the 1945 Joan Crawford melodrama Mildred Pierce is used, repeatedly and somewhat jarringly, throughout the text as a musty yet still potent example of how gay subjectivity is shaped by heteronormative society. If this sounds a bit like reading a dry, sprawling textbook, to some degree it is, but the provocative subject matter ensures a strong niche audience. --Chris Keech

From Bookforum

How to Be Gay works hard to unpack the stereotypical characteristics of gay male culture and succeeds in demonstrating how the taint of pathology and the rise of a post-Stonewall ethos of hypermasculine self-determination conspire to shut down a frank inquiry into the persistence of such "faggy" traits. His claims for the egalitarian effects of gay culture are less convincing, and for all the nuances he brings to his reading of camp, his totalizing language can sound like that of an apologist. ––Nathan Lee

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Sew edition (August 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674066790
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674066793
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #753,292 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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22 of 31 people found the following review helpful By J. Michael Denton on September 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Halperin's book is a tour de force. He's making an important contribution to new ways of thinking about what it means to be gay in America. In this book, Halperin works from the premise that there is a recognizable gay male culture (e.g., Broadway, drag, camp, love of certain female icons, architectural restoration) that was created initially to provide a means of self-expression when no explicit representations, at least no stigmatizing ones, were available. Although the details change over time, and post-Stonewall liberation has afforded a bevvy of positive gay male cultural objects, Halperin argues this practice of appropriating straight cultural objects still continues. His question is: if this practice continues, then why? What might it say about the experience of being gay in a society that is still culturally straight (i.e., heteronormative), no matter what political or legislative inroads have been made? He also wants to know how we can describe and account for the way it feels to be gay without resorting to psychology or essentialist ideas (i.e., that we are "born this way."). Halperin isn't interested in whether or not people are born this way, or how they get gay, but how they engage with gay culture (which may be to not engage it) and why. Some gays aren't very gay, to say it differently.

Halperin is clear that the gay culture he describes in this book is American, white gay male culture. Beyond the scope of this book, he encourages others to pick up this project, if they are so inclined, and use it for other aspects of gay culture (e.g., while he uses a scene from _Mildred Pierce_, and discusses the cult of Joan Crawford, he acknowledges that examining the interest gay men have of Bette Davis may produce different insights) and with other gay populations (e.g.
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20 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Richard A. Jenkins on October 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I was tempted to give this book 3 stars because of the strength of much of its beginning and end, and because those parts might be a useful point of departure for someone else. However, the long march though the midsection of the book and its recycled nature made me think 2 stars was about right. The very beginning of the book sets a rather problematic tone--Halperin recounts the stir caused when he taught a course called "How to Be Gay". I dimly remembered the controversy, but Halperin writes as though his readers would recall all of the details. There seems to be an assumption that the reader knows all the details. There also is a lecturing tone where one is forced to read the same points reiterated in often tedious prose.

The strength of the book is Halperin's effort to locate elements of a gay culture that is largely independent of sexual desire and that has continuity over time, although some of the specific outward manifestations of it may change. He puts this out as a challenge to those who say "gay culture" is dying but really mean that their own generation's cultural references are not being adopted or fully appreciated by the next generation. These are points that make sense to me and are fairly easy to illustrate. Unfortunately, the follow-up to this is an analysis of gay culture where examples that are mostly located in Halperin's generation (people who came of age in the early 70s) and the generation before, often drawn from the films, "Mildred Pierce" and "Mommie Dearest" which have Joan Crawford (as well as camp and melodrama) in common. He later suggests that these two films provided what he thought was an enormous base of material for thinking about gay culture, which simplified the process of presenting his ideas.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Duncan Armstrong on April 23, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'd love to have had a course like this in my 20's - level-headed, amusing, detailed without being overly academic or polemical - a great handbook for may one wondering what it's like to be gay -
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By K. Clarke on November 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Admittedly, there is quite a lot of repetition in this very thick book. But if you can overlook that (or simply fast forward every now and then) you will be rewarded with many thought provoking observations. For me, personally, a direct result of reading this book was to embrace to 'camp' and 'gay' side of my personality more, instead of trying to look/appear 'normal' and 'fit in' with the rest of society. Because, as Halperine describes, just wanting to be 'normal' throws away the unique gift that is given to many gay people. His account of a lesbian activist who wants to get married to her girlfriend, only so she can dress up for the wedding like everyone else and enjoy the normal joys of run-of-the-mill-heteros, was truly shocking. (Is that what the LGBT community is fighting for: boring normality?) You certainly come out of reading this book wanting to watch your old Joan Crwaford movies again! Instead of being ashamed of liking such films, Broadway musicals etc., one should celebrate the fact that different things speak to gay men, or men with a gay sensitity (which heteors can also have). Hughly enjoyable, on the whole.
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43 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Jared Branch on August 23, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn't mean that you don't have to learn how to become one." Or, at least, so read the description for David Halperin's University of Michigan class, How to be Gay, on which his book is based. Halperin is an "utterly hopeless" gay man, one that is incapable of dressing well. The idea that specific interests - Hollywood musicals, interior design, fashion, Broadway, or Lady Gaga - define gay male culture is "routinely acknowledged as a fact" and "just as routinely denied as a truth." The very idea of a gay culture is anathema to many in the gay community who see themselves as simply a sexual orientation, one that makes them, fundamentally, "no different from anybody else."

Initially, Halperin agreed, saying that he didn't see why his "sexual practices identified (him) as a member of their group," one that required him to adopt "their" tastes. No longer, though, as he now believes "there really is such a thing as gay male subjectivity," a gay culture encompassing much more than just homosexual sex. Indeed, being homosexual doesn't necessarily mean you're gay, and anyone can participate in "homosexuality as culture." This reminds me of a line from the Simpsons, in which the gay character "Grady" says, in effect, `practically anyone who's even seen a play is gay!' I don't think that Halperin would disagree: to him the "gay" love of Broadway, to which the entirety of chapter 5 is devoted, takes place "in childish queer pleasures that don't come directly from sex."

Not only sexual but emotional and romantic bonds between men, Halperin argues, were once conventional. As the idea of heterosexuality slowly entered existence, and men feared being considered deviant, these bonds began to unravel.
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