How to Be Gay
September 12, 2012
The first hint of trouble came in an e-mail message. It reached me on Friday, March 17, 2000, at 4:09 p.m. The message was from a guy named Jeff in Erie, Pa., who was otherwise unknown to me.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why Jeff was writing me. He kept referring to some college course, and he seemed to be very exercised over it. He wanted to know what it was really about. He went on sarcastically to suggest that I tell the executive committee of the English department to include in the curriculum, for balance, another course, entitled “How to Be a Heartless Conservative.”
It turned out that Jeff was not alone in his indignation. A dozen e-mail messages, most of them abusive and some of them obscene, followed in quick succession. The subsequent days and weeks brought many more.
Eventually, I realized that earlier on that Friday, the registrar’s office at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where I teach English, had activated its course-information Web site, listing the classes to be offered during the fall term. At virtually the same moment, the Web site of the National Review had run a story called “How to Be Gay 101.” Except for the heading, the story consisted entirely of one page from Michigan’s newly published course listings.
So what was this story that was too good for theNational Review, which had evidently been tipped off,to keep under wraps for a single day? It had to do with an undergraduate English course I had just invented called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.”
The course examined how gay men acquire a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world, a distinctive sensibility. It was designed to explore a basic paradox: How do you become who you are? Or, as the course description put it: “Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn how to become one.”
The course looked specifically at gay men’s appropriation and reuse of works from mainstream culture and their transformation of those works into vehicles of gay sensibility and gay meaning. The ultimate goal of such an inquiry was to shed light on the nature and formation of gay male subjectivity, and to provide a nonpsychological account of it, by approaching homosexuality as a social, not an individual, condition and as a cultural practice rather than a sexual one.
Those who study gay male culture encounter an initial, daunting obstacle: Some people don’t believe there is such a thing. Although the existence of gay male culture is routinely acknowledged as a fact, it is just as routinely denied as a truth.
That gay men have a specific attachment to certain cultural objects and forms is the widespread, unquestioned assumption behind a lot of American popular humor. No one will look at you aghast, or cry out in protest, or stop you in midsentence, if you dare to imply that a guy who worships divas, who loves torch songs or show tunes, who knows all Bette Davis’s best lines by heart, or who attaches supreme importance to fine points of style or interior design might, just possibly, not turn out to be completely straight.
When a satirical student newspaper at the University of Michigan wanted to mock the panic of one alumnus over the election of an openly gay student-body president, it wrote that the new president “has finally succeeded in his quest to turn Michigan’s entire student body homosexual.” Within minutes, the paper wrote, “European techno music began blaring throughout Central and North Campus.” A course in postmodern interior design became mandatory for freshmen, and “94 percent of the school’s curriculum now involves show tunes.”
This is the stuff of popular stereotype.
Perhaps for that very reason, if you assert with a straight face that there is such a thing as gay male culture, people will immediately object, citing a thousand different reasons why such a thing is impossible, or ridiculous, or offensive, and why anyone who says otherwise is deluded, completely out of date, morally suspect, and politically irresponsible. Which probably won’t stop the very people who make those objections from telling you a joke about gay men and show tunes—even with their next breath.
Happily, some large cracks have lately appeared in that fine line between casual acknowledgment and determined denial. At least since the success of such cable-television series as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and RuPaul’s Drag Race, it has become commonplace to regard male homosexuality as comprising not only a set of specific sexual practices but also an assortment of characteristic social and cultural practices.
This flattering image of gay culture—of gayness as culture—is not entirely new, even if its entry into the stock of received ideas that make up the common sense of straight society is relatively recent. That gay men are particularly responsive to music and the arts was already a theme in the writings of psychiatrists and sexologists at the turn of the 20th century. In 1954 the psychoanalyst Carl Jung noted that gay men “may have good taste and an aesthetic sense.” By the late 1960s, the anthropologist Esther Newton could speak quite casually of “the widespread belief that homosexuals are especially sensitive to matters of aesthetics and refinement.”
Richard Florida, an economist and social theorist (as well as a self-confessed heterosexual), may have given that ancient suspicion a new, empirical foundation. In a series of sociological and statistical studies of what he has called the “creative class,” Florida argues that the presence of gay people in a locality is an excellent predictor of a viable high-tech industry and its potential for growth. The reason is that high-tech jobs nowadays follow the work force, and the new class of “creative” workers is composed of “nerds” and oddballs who gravitate to places with “low entry barriers to human capital.” Gay people, in this context, are the “canaries of the Creative Age.” They can flourish only in a pure atmosphere characterized by a high quotient of “lifestyle amenities,” coolness, “culture and fashion,” “vibrant street life,” and “a cutting-edge music scene.” And so the presence of gay people “in large numbers is an indicator of an underlying culture that’s open-minded and diverse—and thus conducive to creativity.”
All of which provides empirical confirmation, however flimsy, of the notion that homosexuality is not just a sexual orientation but a cultural orientation, a dedicated commitment to certain social or aesthetic values, an entire way of being…