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Camp For Beginners: David Halperin’s ‘How To Be Gay’

Mark Simpson interviews David Halperin about his controversial new book How To Be Gay  

(Originally appeared on Out.com 20/08/2012)

I’ve always been a big fan of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day. But it was a secret, shameful love – until, that is, David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), finally gave me the strength to come out about it. Talking about gay culture can make people of all persuasions very angry indeed. When Halperin began teaching a course on it at the University of Michigan called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” back in 2000, it caused a national scandal. He was inundated with outraged, abusive emails, politicians tried to axe funding for his university, and his course was denounced on Fox News, as well as in some corners of the gay press.

SIMPSON: How on earth did your charming—entirely chaste—course on gay initiation manage to upset so many people, straight and gay?

HALPERIN: It was the title. Conservatives in the United States had long suspected that college professors aim to convert straight teenagers to homosexuality; now they had the proof. And gay people in the United States get very upset at the slightest implication that any aspect of homosexuality might not be inborn. Of course, I was neither trying to convert straight students nor suggest that people become gay because they are recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. But in order to understand that, you would have had to read the entire course description, not just the title. It’s interesting, though, that gay culture should be more scandalous nowadays than gay sex.

If you’re doing it right… Do you expect your book to cause a similar outcry? Do you want it to?
I never like to upset people, and I don’t aspire to be polemical, but I have a point of view to defend and I think the book is going to be controversial because it celebrates the fact that gay men are not exactly like everybody else. In an era of gay assimilation, the notion of gay difference arouses a lot of doubt and suspicion.

Is it true to say that the gay culture you are writing about is mostly the “gay sensibility” – the subcultural appropriation and subversion of mainstream straight culture that characterized pre-Stonewall gay life? Judy! Joan! Oklahoma!
Yes, I’m interested in the persistence of that subcultural appropriation at a time when gay people have now created their own culture. I love that new, post-Stonewall gay culture, but it has trouble competing with the appeal of those traditional icons or their contemporary descendants, like Lady Gaga, and I wanted to find out why. I wanted to know why gay men in particular still thrill to divas and train wrecks when they have original works of gay fiction, movies, and pop culture that feature gay men instead.

Why has the out-and-proud gay identity failed to kill off the self-loathing, closeted gay sensibility?
Because gay identity can’t contain the full play of gay desire. I discovered this when I taught a class on contemporary gay male literature a dozen years ago — I expected gay male students to like such a class. But they got bored with the reading and amused themselves instead by drawing cartoons on the attendance sheet, portraying the members of the class — including me — as characters from The Golden Girls or Steel Magnolias. That’s when I realized I was doing something wrong and decided to teach “How to Be Gay.”

Does the fact that you’re in many ways an outsider on gay culture make you the right or the wrong person to write this book?
Both. I spend a lot of time reconstructing laboriously and imprecisely what many gay men already know. I’m sure they could do it better, but they aren’t talking, except in one-liners. It takes someone who doesn’t get it on the first take to work out the logic. I wish someone else would do the explaining, but it looks like I have to.

How bad at being gay are you? Embarrassing examples, please.
Terrible, truly terrible. I’m not a very camp person; I’m very serious. I spent the first several decades of my life absorbing high culture — studying Greek tragedy, German music, American politics. I thought the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men was a profound enigma. I hated disco and loved rock music. I was a junkie for meaning.

Tell me about your “mother” — or rather, the fact that you didn’t have one. Do you wish you’d had an older gay male confidante who taught you about gay culture?
Well, from time to time in my youth I would meet a wise old queen — that is, someone in their early thirties — who would explain to me why my idiotic notions about gay romance were wrong. But in some respects, my “mother” turns out to have been an Australian boyfriend half my age who made me watchThe Women about 20 years after I came out.

To my undying shame, I only saw that film myself a year ago. So many great, instructive lines: “Cheer up Mary, living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
Golly, I’d forgotten those. How about “Pride’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford”?

Back in the ’70s, when I came out, I saw no need for a mother. Like many gay people of my generation, I thought homosexuality was just a sexual orientation — I resisted being initiated into a separate culture. I just wanted to know how to find guys who would sleep with me, how to be sexually fulfilled, how to have a successful love affair.

Of course, it turns out that gay culture was full of information about that topic, but the information it offered seemed mostly useless or homophobic; it implied that the object of gay desire did not exist. Now, after decades of disillusionment, we may be coming round to some of those radical insights. But that will be the subject of my next book!

What will it be called? There Is No Great Dark Man?
Perhaps After Sexuality, Love.

A cherished line of mine in your book is ‘Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.’ Why are gays these days so keen to out-straight the straights?
They’ve been bought off with promises of normality, and their social worlds have been destroyed, so they lack the context and the courage to claim their cultural heritage, to the genius of being queer. They still produce cultural breakthroughs of brilliance, but they aren’t comfortable taking credit for them.

Is it a paradox that the resurgence of biological explanations of homosexuality has coincided with the dominance of the line “gays are just like everyone else,” except even more boring?
It’s kind of weird that so much of the gay movement embraces that bogus gay science, because that’s the one area in which claims of gay difference are triumphing in a kind of return to Victorian notions about congenital abnormality. You would think gay people would prefer to think of themselves as culturally different rather than biologically different. But here you can measure the effect in the United States of religiously inspired homophobia: In order to dodge the implication that homosexuality is a sinful choice, gay people are willing to accept biological determinism.

Believing that you only suck cock because God made you do it is kinda kinky, though. Are you a bit of a gay chauvinist. Do you believe that being gay is better than being straight?
Yes, I am and I do. At least, I can’t imagine living any other way, or wanting to. I certainly think being gay is better than being a straight man. But then nobody really likes straight men, except for some misguided gay guys.

I know I’m hopelessly misguided, but I do think straight men make the best bottoms. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether you might not have too much faith in heterosexuality. After all, how straight is straight these days?
Straight people these days may often be highly perverse, but that doesn’t make them gay. They would like to think they’re queer — the category “queer” is the greatest gift gay people ever gave straight people, because it allows straight people to claim an edgy, transgressive identity without having to do anything icky — but that’s just their usual insistence on being the everyman.

But you admit that some of your best “How to Be Gay” students were straight…
Yes, they were. There are lots of straight people who understand gay male culture better and who enjoy it more than gay men. There are numbers of straight people who are culturally gay, but gayness also involves that extra little sexual thing… It’s not a lot, but it adds something.

After teaching this course for a while and writing this book, are you any campier? Do you watch Glee? Desperate Housewives? Even Joan Crawford movies, when you’re not using them in class?
No, I still hate popular culture. I did love Desperate Housewives, even if it declined after the first season. But then, its producer was a great comic gay writer. I loved it for the same reason I loved Serial Mom: It produced such a demented version of normal life. I do think working on this book made me a lot gayer; I’m much more willing to claim my cultural birthright as a gay man in everything, from the kind of music I like to the kind of food I eat. But I’m still a desperate case, and I have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of you.

Mildred Pierce (8/10) Movie CLIP – Cheap and Horrible (1945) HD

Who’s the Diva? Hillary or Obama?

As camp comic Kenneth Williams might say: ‘ark at ‘er!

An entertaining, often incisive, if rather, er, campy, Huffington Post article ‘The Diva’s Camp’ about Hillary’s diva power (and why this turns off ‘Obama-colytes’) compares Hillary Clinton to Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest:

‘Hillary Clinton is possessed by the spirit of Joan Crawford. Like that notorious über-bitch immortalized by Faye Dunaway in the camp classic Mommie Dearest, Hillary bulldozed into a Democratic primary dominated by men and brazenly declared, as any self-respecting diva would: Don’t fuck with me fellas! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!’

Now, that’s funny, but where did I hear that before?

Oh, yes, that was me a month ago talking about the “3am” ad in a piece after her Ohio comeback called ‘The Bitch is Back’ on Guardian Unlimited:

‘…Hillary answering the White House phone in scarlet lipstick, has both a touch of 1990s nostalgia, and also one of timeless thrilling glamour – a hint of Joan Crawford talking to the board of Pepsi in Mommie Dearest: “Don’t fuck with me, fellas – this ain’t my first time at the rodeo!“‘

Even though I hear that Guardian Unlimited is quite popular in the American blogosphere, I’m sure it was just a case of diva-revering minds thinking alike. And I very much doubt I’m the first person to compare Hills to Joan.

Actually, though, we weren’t really thinking alike. Despite my comparison when discussing the ad, I don’t think that Hillary is possessed by the spirit of Joan Crawford, or is camp as a row of tents full of impossible divas on the blob. Apart from anything else, camp isn’t really possible in a world like the all-singing, all-dancing shameless one that cavorts and disports itself before our jaded eyes these days.

Everything and nothing is camp. Including the Huffington Post. More to the point, to talk about Hillary as being ‘so camp!’ seems to argue, whether intended or not, that the notion of a woman as the most powerful person in the world is merely ‘failed seriousness’. Or a joke.

And this is a very serious business. Medically serious. Sometimes it looks as if the Democratic Party is having a gigantic nervous breakdown over the idea of Hills as their ‘man’, or, rather, over the ‘arrogant’, ‘hopeless’, ‘divisive’, ‘ugly’ idea that she thinks she could be rather than Mr Obama. It’s tangibly Oedipal.

Despite that, I do believe that America is slowly, slowly, very, very tortuously, negotiating the five-alarm idea of having a ‘bitch’ and ‘cow’ and ‘whore’ and ‘c**t’ – to use the progressive, uplifting, non-partisan vernacular of righteous Obama fans – as Commander in Chief. America will learn not to cross its legs and whimper when Hillary is on TV, even if MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson doesn’t.

After all, Hillary has almost all of the crucial big states, and if the Democrats used the same first-past-the-post electoral system used during the Presidential contest itself, she would be well ahead of Obama. Contrary to what the media likes to tell us, she’s anything but Box Office Poison.

Perhaps because it attracts insecure men keen to big themselves up, it seems to be mostly the US media that’s having the nervous breakdown. The more than slightly deranged and hysterical – certainly much more deranged and hysterical than she is accused of being – nature of the press bias against Hillary and the extreme, frequently all-but murderous personal abuse casually levelled at her,compared with the loving, swooning indulgence bestowed on her stripling rival, does rather suggest that anxiety about a female Big Boss, thus far at least, looms and lurks much larger in their minds, than a black (or, rather, half-white) male one. This isn’t to say that ‘sexism is worse than racism’, it’s just to point out that sexism – no, sorry, untrammelled, uninhibited, shuddering, shivering, gut-wrenching misogyny – unlike racism, is considered perfectly acceptable prime time fare.

And as somebody who isn’t entirely free of misogyny myself, I think it terribly unfair that they should be able to get away with it.

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Sometimes, watching the American Primaries coverage has been like watching an especially horrifying episode of 60s retrosexist drama Mad Men, but without the irony or the smoking.

In her bitter battle to win this unconscious – and therefore by definition unfair – struggle, Hillary is using every powerful American feminine archetype she can lay her hands on. Unfortunately for her, there aren’t too many. Unlike our first female leaderene Mrs T (whom America loved, partly because she was, like Churchill, and Tony Blair, great at giving America head, but mostly because she wasn’t their leader), she doesn’t have chariot-driving Boudicca or Armada-vanquishing Elizabeth I or globe-ruling Victoria to call on as legitimising ancestral memories.

Because of the vital symbolic importance of these women in our national mythology, or maybe just because of Coronation Street, the UK is sometimes rather more matriarchal than the US. Elton John, who admittedly is not perhaps the best argument for matriarchy, recently announced himself shocked by the misogyny America has displayed during these Primaries.

Republics and their ‘Founding Fathers’ favour women even less than monarchies. Monarchies, which are after all based on reproduction and families, occasionally cut them a break, when no worthy male heir turns up – which is what happened with the Tory Party in the 1970s when it anointed Maggie. Though if she had used the famous line of Elizabeth, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,” everyone would have scoffed at the idea that her body was ‘weak and feeble’. Even her famous handbag was seen as a fearsome weapon.

Powerful women in American history, save perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt, don’t really exist – except as kindling in Arthur Miller plays. So they had to be imagined in 1940s Hollywood melodrama, aimed, of course, at powerless women: producing, literally, ‘divas’ such as Joan, Bette and Katherine. So if Hillary sometimes channels a little bit of Joan, Bette and Katherine it’s because she needs to imagine herself as a powerful woman in a man’s world, and American history doesn’t offer her much else to work with.

OK, she might possibly be a psychotic bitch too, but the media has yet to make that case – though it keeps trying. Hillary isn’t possessed by the spirit of Joan Crawford, as the Huffington Post has it – rather, Joan Crawford is possessed by the spirit of Hillary.

Handsome half white/half black but entirely male (if very eager to please) Obama can and does draw on both Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy, and in fact American political history at least as far back as Lincoln for his legitimation – and invites us, with that sexy smile, to a ‘more perfect union’. It’s an invitation that, oddly, seems to turn men on more than women. Hillary hating MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, for instance, talks openly about how how listening to Obama gives him ‘a thrill up my leg’ (a very different kind of feeling, I’m guessing, to that experienced by Tucker Carlson listening to Hillary). Lots of guys are gay for Obama – and out and proud it seems.

And as for Hillary being a ‘gay icon’, despite gay parade marching Hills being closer in many ways to the gay community than Obama, and despite (English) Elton John’s support, most American homos I know can’t bear her, while the main gay blogs practically dance on her head daily. Preposterously bearded MTM transsexual and recovering Republican Andrew Sullivan is completely obsessed, practically screaming ‘DIE, BITCH! DIE!’ at her, calling her a ‘horror movie without end’ and comparing her to Glenn Close’s insane stalker character in the infamous 80s career-woman hating flick Fatal Attraction. Get a grip, Mary. And a shave.

Despite Mr O’s reluctance to be interviewed by the gay press or attend gay parades, his Christian church base, and his gay platform vagueness, he is much the ‘gayer’ candidate simply because he is younger, better-looking, better-dressed, cooler – and male. He is, in fact, metrosexual.

If we are going to talk about camp, and if camp is a form of style over substance, mediagenic Obama is much camper than Hillary – and more of a diva too. Doesn’t he roll his eyes during debates with Hillary? Doesn’t he fill stadiums with his performances? Didn’t he flounce out of a press conference in which he was actually grilled instead of applauded in a huff, protesting ‘You’ve asked me like, eight questions already!’‘.

It’s the male divas you have to watch out for in politics. Over here in the UK we are still getting over our own Christian pop star politician, that nice Mr Blair who took us, smiling his drag queen smile, into a disastrous American war.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2008

The Bitch is Back: Hillary Comes Out Clawing

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After being written-off and told to give up, Hillary has earned grudging respect

By Mark Simpson (Guardian CIF, 6 March 2008)

What is American voters’ problem? The media, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been telling them for weeks that dreary Hillary was “finished” and that Tuesday’s primaries were going to be her “Alamo” – and that Obama, the glamorous, smooth-talking 1960s tribute act, was unstoppable. The kindly Fourth Estate made it as clear as they possibly could which way the idiots should vote on Tuesday, practically hitting them over the heads with it, and what do they do?

Only go and hand “that woman” a stunning, breathtaking – and completely unforeseen by the pundits – comeback last Tuesday, pulling the coronation carpet from under Obama and Michelle’s smartly shod feet. The cheek of it! The racism of it!

Not that you’d know Clinton won big in the Democratic primaries from reading the sulking liberal media. According to them (here and here), it was “really” Republican McCain who won.

So how did it happen? What gave the voters of Texas, Michigan and Rhode Island the nerve to defy their betters and hand Hillary victory? Well, it’s quite ironic, really. You see, it was Hillary’s willingness to become the very thing that she has been painted as being by a hostile media and Obama supporters (who for followers of a man who preaches so much about “unity” and “peace” can be awfully unpleasant).

A bitch.

Yes, of course, she was always something of a bitch anyway – how could a woman who got that far in politics not be? But in the run-up to this do-or-die primary she came out about it. Rather than shedding some tears this time, she presented herself as an out-and-proud battling bitch. She started to go after that nice Mr Obama head-on, claws out, instead of pussy-footying around, or letting hubby Bill do it from behind the lines – or hoping, vainly, that the press might subject Obama to anything other than adoring scrutiny. So she clawed him on his double-dealings over Nafta, she slapped him about over his dodgy links with slum landlords, kicked him in the nuts over his inexperience and his hot air. She became a backbiting face-scratching brawling battling bitch that you’d better not mess with.

Inevitably, battling bitch Hillary was portrayed as simply desperate and bankrupt by a disdainful media, but voters seem to have respected her for it. Voters, especially blue-collar Americans in places like Ohio already experiencing recession, have begun to see her as their bitch, able to fight their corner in difficult times – and, strangely, they’re less concerned than limousine liberals about whether this looks “cool” or “presidential” or not.

The Hillary’s now (in)famous “children” ad – “It’s 3am, your children are asleep, a phone rings in the White House” – announced the emergence of the new Hillary. Denounced by Obama as “the politics of fear”, it showed that at last she was prepared to play hardball, in public, and mess with Obama’s sainted hair. That because she was willing to run such a ruthless ad, she was the kind of person, the kind of woman, that was worthy of that office. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be up against the party of “national security” – in wartime. A party that won’t hesitate to play hardball will Obama’s halo.

Obama’s eager use of the “children” ad as a cue to play yet again that increasingly grating record of his blamelessness, his virgin stainlessness – “The phone DID ring, she answered it and she made the WRONG decision!” worked against him. Plaintively reminding the public how HE didn’t vote for THAT war (because, actually, he wasn’t in the Senate back then) reminded them that innocence and inexperience can be much the same thing – making him look a bit too goody-goody for the White House, with all its sulphurous compromise. That, whatever else it is, the Oval Office is not a pulpit.

Besides, didn’t Hillary spend most of the 1990s – the last time America was popular and at peace – in that house, surviving everything the Republicans could throw at her? Doesn’t her face, the one the press constantly jeers at for being so much less pretty than Obama’s (a candidate whose face appears to turn caricaturists into lovesick teenyboppers), bear the scars of those battles?

The end of the ad, Hillary answering the White House phone in scarlet lipstick, has both a touch of 1990s nostalgia, and also one of timeless thrilling glamour – a hint of Joan Crawford talking to the board of Pepsi in Mommie Dearest: “Don’t fuck with me, fellas – this ain’t my first time at the rodeo!” Or maybe Ripley in Alien: “Stay away from her you bitch!” (though of course Hillary is both Ripley and Alien Mother).

Hollywood itself didn’t rely on hints, meanwhile. The hit Jack Nicholson “Who Do You Trust?” YouTube ad – “there’s nothing sexier on this earth, believe me gentlemen, than a woman you have to salute in the morning” – endorsed, not just Hillary’s candidacy, but battling bitch Hillary: since we know a loveable bastard like Nicholson wouldn’t respect a woman boss unless she was at least his match.

After being written-off and told to give up, and fighting on regardless, her literally grim determination has earned grudging respect. People look at her face, and all the tiresomeness of it, its lines, its bitterness, its frozen, career-woman trailblazer features, and take them as terrible proof of her commitment. For Hillary, it doesn’t look like a dream; it’s closer to a nightmare. And so, of course, is real politics as opposed to stadium-rock politics. The White House is something she deserves – in every sense of the word.

Meanwhile, people looked at Obama’s much younger, much prettier, much softer, much more pleasing face, basked in his Hawaiian smile, heard his soaring words and phrases, and decided that, while this is one American Idol that they very much like the sound and look of – one who makes them feel mighty good -he just ain’t half the woman that Hillary is.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2008