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Posted on Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 5:53 a.m.

U-M prof David Halperin courts debate with his new book, 'How to be Gay'

By Jenn McKee

University of Michigan professor David Halperin, throughout much of his life, has been told that he’s “bad” at being gay—a condemnation that raised questions for the scholar.

“I wanted to know, ‘What do I really have to do?’” said Halperin. “ … What more do I have to do besides having sex with people? … Isn’t everything else just a cliche or a stereotype?”

To answer this question—about the intersection of sexuality and culture, and how gay men teach each other "how" to be gay, culturally speaking—Halperin created a U-M course called “How to be Gay,” as well as a recently released book of the same name that’s now gaining national attention.

The book begins with the story of how and why Halperin’s class, months before it even started, became a national lightning rod for controversy: An editor at U-M's The Michigan Review alerted The National Review to the course offering in the spring of 2000, and when the NR published the course listing on its website, critics swarmed to condemn what was viewed as an “indoctrination” course.

“The political organizations that were using my class to foment a lot of outrage against the University of Michigan really had an interest in not communicating to people what the class was about, but as portraying it as something completely, absolutely outrageous,” said Halperin. “Something that no proper university or any decent professor would have taught to begin with. … That this was a class designed to convert straight students to the gay lifestyle. And they didn’t really care if this was true or not.”

U-M stood by Halperin, fielding countless emails and calls, while Halperin responded to messages and accepted a few media requests for interviews.

“I only accepted to do interviews when I thought that I would in fact have a chance to explain what the class was about, rather than simply to be made the object of media sensation, or provide an opportunity for opponents of the class to get a lot of airtime,” said Halperin.

The frenzy finally dissipated, and over the next few years, Halperin taught the class five times before deciding he’d satisfactorily answered, for himself, the questions that gave rise to the course, and thus had what he needed to write a book.

And “How to be Gay” has received some high-profile coverage since its release, including a generally positive review in The New York Times Book Review. But Halperin has been disappointed that “there has not been a single extended mainstream review that has contained an accurate summary of the book.”


David Halperin

“ … This book takes a series of controversial stands,” Halperin said. “It’s asking for trouble, to some extent. It’s understandable that lots of people would have very strong reactions and very negative reactions to what I have to say. On the whole, though, the negative reactions that have been expressed in the reviews have not been negative reactions to what I have to say. They’ve been negative reactions to something that I never said. …

"I’m not looking necessarily for praise or agreement, and I’m not opposed to or upset by controversy. In fact, I like to have an argument with people about stuff that matters. What surprises me is that people seem to be taking issue with a book that doesn’t exist, and that I didn’t write. … So that makes me think I may have hit a topic that is important.”

Halperin’s book discusses how the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village helped establish and mobilize gay communities, while also sparking a new wave of sexual openness within them. Because for many years, Halperin argues, silenced, closeted gay men had previously clung to certain films, musicals, torch singers, etc. for the purposes of vicarious self-expression, post-Stonewall gay men publicly eschewed these gay cultural touchstones, having supposedly been freed of their need for them by way of publicly owning their sexuality.

Halperin notes, however, that these cultural works quietly remained deeply entrenched in gay male culture, and the book explores why, if there was no longer a need for them, they continued to be important to gay men. Halperin’s answer, in part, is that when gay male sexuality was released from its closet, gay cultural touchstones were simply tossed into the closet in its place. But the link between sexuality and cultural subjectivity is one that may be far more complicated than many would like to believe.

“People get so hysterical at the very idea that there might be such a thing as a gay culture, or that there might be a cultural difference between the gay world and the straight world, or that there might be some association between gay male culture and some kinds of gender dissonance or deviance, not to say femininity,” said Halperin. “The very mention of this gets people apparently so upset that that they don’t stick around long enough to consider what I’m actually saying, or they look at the book and they impute to me all sorts of views that I’m not propounding. …

"I’m interested in understanding an absolutely contemporary problem, which is, what does sexuality have to do with cultural form? That’s the problem now. It’s a problem that has to do with why gay men now would have created such a cult around Lady Gaga, say, or around certain kinds of aesthetic practices or values, whether it’s design or fashion or certain kinds of music.”

According to Halperin, no existing theory could adequately be applied to the intersection of sexuality and cultural form, so in “How to be Gay,” Halperin aims to create a new theory and apply it to some cultural examples—like Joan Crawford—in detail.

“What my analysis implies is that one way to explain gay male culture’s investment in some of these figures is to say that gay culture is responding to certain hierarchies of gender and sexuality that pervade the cultural field,” said Halperin. “That there are still—we sometimes don’t like to believe it, but there are forms of social inequality and social stratification that have to do with the relations between men and women, and masculine and feminine, that have not gone away, and that have structured or have pervaded all of culture, so that we find these iniquities, these gender asymmetries, reappearing in such things as the value of tragedy and the value of melodrama, or the meaning of certain kinds of sentimentality, or the value placed on certain kinds of emotion and emotional expression.

"But these things are in fact gendered. Sometimes sexualized, but especially gendered, and the gendering of them creates a culture which is simply unjust in its treatment of women and people who are marked as feminine, and of people who are also marked as not heterosexual. That a lot of what I describe in gay culture represents a response to this, an attempt to appropriate some of this material so as to resist it and make it into a vehicle for contesting these gendered and sexualized meanings.”

At the end of the book, Halperin argues that the disappearance of gay culture isn’t a result of the mainstream’s growing acceptance of gay people, but rather the destruction of gay communities.

“We’re living in a period of great triumphalism about the success of the struggle for gay rights, with gay marriage being the prime example,” said Halperin. “And the notion is, we are on the verge of a major historical transformation in U.S., … with the complete social integration of gay people into society at large. … The very existence of gay culture in such a context seems like a threat to this story that we’re telling ourselves of the total assimilation of gay people into mainstream society. And so people don’t want to think about it at all. It seems like a completely retrograde topic. But what makes (gay culture) seem retrograde is not the fact that gay culture is or is not dead. What makes it seem retrograde is that gay people nowadays no longer have a choice to live in any other way but dispersed among straight people in mainstream society.”

Halperin might be viewed as both an insider and an outsider, given his status as a “bad” gay man.

And while he doesn’t think this by itself made him the best person to write “How to be Gay,” he conceded that “it perhaps makes me curious in a way that other people are not.”

Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for Reach her at or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.



Sun, Nov 18, 2012 : 3:23 p.m.

After reading the comments Im now more confidant than ever that many of the prolific commentors on here rarely read the article.


Mon, Nov 19, 2012 : 1:47 p.m.

LOL, Dairy. And what might be worse is that they'd be incapable of understanding the article and book, even if they bothered to read them.

Drew Murray

Sun, Nov 18, 2012 : 3:08 p.m.

First of all, the title is extremely offensive, and I have to ask if the book as nothing to do with the title, why choose such an off-putting name? After reading a little bit of news about the book, I was furious honestly, but after reading this article, I feel genuinely interested to see what it says. Because I do agree with some points mentioned such as the destruction/degentrification of physical gay communities as being the true reason gay culture is fading, not because straights tolerate us more. However, the first paragraph REALLY turns me off to the book because he basically admits that he wrote it because he didn't feel like a "good" gay or accepted in the broader culture. He seems to have begun his writing with somewhat of a quest to try to diagnose the hobbies, interests and tastes of the broader gay culture as if they are a disease only because they do not match his own in every aspect. I feel that such an approach will do a great disservice to the many complexities of gay identity as if its one simplified mold. So ultimately, I don't know if I really want to read it, or if I do, whether Ill be grossly offended or rather challenged with what he says. I just dont like his approach of, "Im bad, their good, let me see if I can find a causes them to be like that, so I can feel better about being un-caused".

Superior Twp voter

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:50 p.m.

How (non) newsworthy.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:06 p.m.

With all the worldly tragedies, wars and a few other maladies going I guess now I should focus on How to be Gay. I think I'll go walk my dog.


Sun, Nov 18, 2012 : 1:02 p.m.

With all the wars and tragedies going on in the world, how could you even think to have a dog?


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:48 p.m.

Being gay is not a choice, and you don't "learn" how to become it. Being LGBT is ok, there is nothing wrong with it! They should be allowed to marry, even if it is becoming married to a member of the same sex. Love is still love.


Sun, Nov 18, 2012 : 1:02 p.m.

@ Usual, please answer the question: When you were a kid (or maybe adult) and you were attracted to both girls and boys, what made you decide to be only attracted to girls?


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:25 p.m.

@ Suspect: Were you born attracted to both men and women and just chose one?

Unusual Suspect

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 3:17 p.m.

Class, do you have scientific support for that claim?


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 3:09 p.m.

2014, it looks like you might be misreading what the book is trying to convey. Academics who study sexuality and gender give attention to how our outward expression is influenced by culture. I don't think the author is suggesting that sexual orientation is a choice. What he is suggesting is learned is how people express their orientation - and that holds true for heterosexuals as well.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

Class, i couldn't agree with you more. Gay or Straight, Love is Great!!!!!


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

There was an interesting article in The New Yorker ("Love on the March" 11/12/2012) that extensively refers to Halperin's book and class. I'm not remotely connected with that culture (why would I be? I'm a middle-age heterosexual) but it the topic has piqued my curiosity. Not so much in gay culture but in the formation and subsequent identity of any subculture (dog owners, quilt makers, Michigan militia, etc.). I'd be interested in seeing whether the far right will publish their own book, "The Idiot's Guide to Homophobia".


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 5:07 p.m.

Mich Man - no doubt you're right. People tend to gravitate towards topics within their own comfort zone. But I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the book. Perhaps Senator Larry Craig will feel inclined to author it.

Michigan Man

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:54 p.m.

Scissors - I am a prolific reader. Really would like to read The Idiots Guide to Homophobia" - where may I secure such a title? I am totally homophobic and I suspect a book like you suggest would strengthen my convictions with empirical/academic vetted data.

Albert Howard

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 1:40 p.m.

On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate this article/book? Zero!


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 5:18 p.m.

@Albert Howard, I could rate the article (I'd give it a 7.5 on your 1-10 scale) but I am unable to rate the book as I have not read it. Have you? If not, how can you give it a rating of "Zero!"


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:52 p.m.

My '666' comment was in reference to those thinking that particular numbers have extra-numerical significance. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Michigan Man

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 1:54 p.m.

AH - Agree - Sounds like a worthless read to me!


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 1:49 p.m.

Sure it isn't 666?


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:55 p.m.

Maybe a follow up book he could write is"How not to be into Myself". I say that because I feel everybody is so into "What's in it for me" mentality. I say this because of all the recent article sin here about every special interest that want more crosswalks, more bike lanes, those who don't, those who can't obey existing traffic laws, etc.

Ivor Ivorsen

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 3:15 p.m.

"special interest" + "crosswalks"= people with legs?


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:46 p.m.

The book's title is actually quite funny, a playful nod to the social construction of sexuality. But the fearful "they're trying to recruit us" reactions it will draw are an indicator of how much homophobia remains.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:49 p.m.

even though more people are pro LGBT, there is still many people who are anti- unforunately


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:41 p.m.

Wow....things have sunken this low uh ? ( BTW if the book was how to be straight my comment would be the same )


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 6:36 p.m.

@tdw, I for one appreciate your most thoughtful and cogent reply. And, for the record, I am not one of your "left wing liberals" (redundancy aside). But I do appreciate your incisive and critical insights into the political leanings of the commenters who disagree with you.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 5:15 p.m.

@tdw, you really don't think this book is an instruction manual, do you?


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:27 p.m.

Johnathan.......I was going to until you piped in.Sorry but I don't need a book to tell me how to be straight.I'm sorry that some gays need a book titled " how to be gay " to be gay.I thought being gay was just how some people were born.I don't dwell on how I was born why should you ?

Jonathan Blutarsky

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:47 p.m.

And there you have it - another informed citizen with nothing worth saying who won't shut up.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:59 p.m.

northside......nope don't need to.( I did read the first paragraph ) the title is all I need


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:51 p.m.

Did you ever bother to read the article and get a sense of what the book is about? No, I didn't think so.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 11:44 a.m.

Interesting premise, if I understand it correctly. It has made me step back and think about it, which doesn't often happen from any news recently. Thanks!