A few weeks ago a friend tipped me off to an NPR article by Barbara J. King titled, “Is There A Right Way To Be Gay?” and as I read the headline, I recalled that it was eight years ago that very week, during my freshman year of college, when I came out to myself and to everyone around me. And I remember asking myself that very question: is there a right way to be gay?
In high school I was a staunch conservative—even campaigning for George W. Bush’s reelection that year (shhh, don’t tell anyone)—and knew nothing of gay culture other than what I had been told or what I’d seen on TV.
So I might have found it comforting to know that David M. Halperin, a mustachioed 60-year old English teacher at the University of Michigan, believes that there is a right way to be gay. He wrote the book on how to be gay, literally, and his controversial college course of the same name featured a one-line summation: “Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn how to become one.” (Note: my copy is in the mail and I look forward to digging through all 549 pages…)
“…it is not enough for a man to be homosexual in order to be gay. Same-sex desire alone does not equal gayness. ‘Gay’ refers not just to something you are, but also to something you do. Which means that you don’t have to be homosexual in order to do it. Gayness is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos: In short, it is a practice.
And if gayness is a practice, it is something you can do well or badly. In order to do it well, you may need to be shown how to do it by someone (gay or straight) who is already good at it and who can initiate you into it—by demonstrating to you, through example, how to practice it and by training you to do it right.”
And as far as Halperin sees it, the gays today are fucking it up. Gayness is dying: “[as] the result of three large-scale developments: the recapitalization of the inner city and the resulting gentrification of urban neighborhoods; the epidemic of AIDS; and the invention of the Internet…In short, the emergence of a dispersed, virtual community and the disappearance of a queer public sphere, along with the loss of a couple of generations of gay men to AIDS, has removed many of the conditions necessary for the maintenance and advancement of gay liberation—for consciousness-raising, cultural and political ferment, and the cross-generational transmission of queer values. The lack of a critical mass of gay people physically present in a single location makes it difficult for the pace of gay cultural sophistication to accelerate. It stymies the diffusion of gay culture.”
Indeed, I’ve heard many stories from gay men who survived the AIDS crisis and wax nostalgic about the pre-AIDS days as the golden years of gay culture: gay men moved from everywhere and anywhere to crowded gay ghettos like San Francisco’s Castro or New York’s Chelsea in order to embrace sex and escape heteronormativity. Sex, the engine of gay culture, was free, fun, and a decisive act of political defiance. It’s this period, the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS heyday that Halperin seems most comfortable.
That’s when we have to say: that was then, this is now.
At the dawn of the 20th century, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, a criminal act when practiced and came with severe social repercussions, if not death. By the mid-20th century, women’s liberation and the sexual revolution created the framework for the LGBT rights movement that continued growing until the AIDS crisis hit. Fast forward to today and same-sex marriage is legal in several states (though Halperin doesn’t seem to think this is a win, at least on the face of it) and lesbian and gay individuals have more rights, recognition and visibility than ever before. Tomorrow, who knows.
So it would make sense that the shared experience of gay men who were my age during the AIDS crisis would be quite different than the experience I have today. And their experience was different from the gay generation of Liberace, or the gay generation of Cole Porter or of Oscar Wilde, and so on—and all of these will be different from the gay generation just coming to age today. Each of these generations and the individuals who comprise them will necessarily have a different understanding of exactly what it means to be gay, how to express themselves, what politics to follow, what to fight for or against and how to fit—or not fit—into society. Just as you’d expect.
Halperin’s greatest fear seems to be the loss of gay culture by way of assimilation. Who would gay people be if they weren’t distinctly and purposefully other than straight? Other than the majority? If gay people are “mainstream” or live in small towns in rural areas and seek access to military service, church membership or marriage, they might commit something more sinister: “in their determination to integrate themselves into the larger society, and to demonstrate their essential normality, [gay people] are rushing to embrace heterosexual forms of life, including heterosexual norms. In so doing, they are accepting the terms in which heterosexual dominance is articulated, and they are positively promoting them.” So, by being like straight people, gay people manifest a sort of societal Stockholm Syndrome wherein we enable our oppressors to continue to oppress us. So, there’s that.
To my 18 year old self who had just come out—and even to me now—there is something even more distressing than the idea that to be properly gay I might need to piece my identity together from post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS crisis yesteryear (populated by gay men who held “shockingly militant, uncompromising, anti-homophobic, anti-heterosexist, anti-mainstream political views”), it’s the idea that gay culture, whatever that means, is deteriorating before my very eyes and I’m completely oblivious to it happening.
If I had spoken to Halperin when I was coming out I might have become worried that I was beginning on a journey that wasn’t even authentically my own and that the shoes of my gay forefathers would be too big for me to walk in. That I might let my community down by being too ordinary, too boring or worse, not alienated enough. That I might fail at just being true to myself. Thankfully, I did not do my research.
All I knew then and all I know now is that I’m a collection of a million different qualities, interests, faults, insecurities, beliefs and behaviors. One of them is that I’m gay. Not just homosexual, but my very own version of gay. Just as with the rest of my identity, like everyone else in the world, I have to figure out what my sexuality means to me and how I apply it to my world—and my version of gay joins a wide spectrum of identities that create the fabric of the gay experience that is happening right-this-moment, all around us.
Just as it’s supposed to be.