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How to Be Gay
      En Castellano

Young gay people often embark on a crash course to learn everything they can about gay culture, which unlike (say) ethnic culture, is something they seldom have absorbed growing up from parents and siblings. Despite misgivings about whether "gay courses" belong in universities, careful scholarship does have a legitimate role to play in illuminating what gay culture is and how it has changed over time.


THE MICHIGAN CHAPTER of the American Family Association is disturbed. More than usual.

It seems that University of Michigan professor David Halperin scheduled a course for the fall semester titled "How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation."

"Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn't mean that you don't have to learn how to become one," Halperin explained.

StudiantThat set off AFA state chair Gary Glenn.

"It is wrong," Glenn said, "that taxpayers are being forced to pay for a class whose purpose is to recruit and initiate teenage men into the homosexual lifestyle."

And, he added, "Nobody has to take a class in how to be African-American or Irish." Take that, Halperin!

Glenn might be on solid grounds if he criticized all taxpayer-funded education. After all, it is nothing more than a forced subsidy for people with children by people who have no children — which would include a majority of gays.

But Glenn conveniently ignores the fact that gays are forced to pay taxes too. In fact, every single time religious right advocates get upset about the use of taxpayer money, they act as if no gays or lesbians ever paid taxes. We need to keep reminding them that we pay taxes too and we expect some representation for our taxation.

So long as I pay taxes, I think I would like my taxes to help pay for this course, or a similar one here in Illinois.

As for Glenn's sparkling observation that no one has to take a class in how to be African-American or Irish, the answer is: Of course not, because they already learned it at home from their parents and family.

"Education is a subsidy for people with children by people who often have no children ... we expect some representation for our taxation. Little gay children seldom grow up in a home where they learn about being gay in a hostile world. It might be worth asking ... what were past gay generations interested in? What in the broader culture reflected their interests? What did they borrow and adapt?"



For instance, most black children learn their family's history with its stories about slavery, forced segregation, and encounters with prejudice in the United States. They learn about the civil rights struggle, about civil rights leaders and important black people in science, the arts, politics.

They learn where they can go safely and where it is dangerous, how to behave with hostile police, how to cope with prejudiced people, how to cope with random insults and dismissive treatment. They may pick up different ways of talking with blacks and whites, different rules about eye contact, different body languages.

They learn — we might say absorb — these various facts and coping skills from their family as they are growing up.

By contrast, little gay children seldom grow up in a home where they learn information about gays or absorb the nuanced skills of being gay in a skeptical, not to say hostile world.

Most of us grow up alone, without a clue, keeping a furtive eye out for elements of the general culture that will reflect our own developing self-awareness and might, if we are lucky, validate our existence.

Young gays are often surprised to discover both how much gay history and culture there is and how the courtesies and modes of social conduct differ subtly from their previous experience.

When you track down Halperin's course proposal itself, it turns out this is exactly what he wants to explore: How the gay community teaches homosexuals how to be gay.

Halperin posits a number of "cultural artifacts and activities" that play a role in learning how to be a gay man: e.g., Hollywood movies, opera, Broadway musicals, certain classical and popular music, camp humor and drag, diva-worship, body-building or "muscle culture," fashion and interior design.

UniversityHe says he wants his course to explore whether there are certain classical "gay" works and practices that all gay men need to know, what makes them so essential and what explains why gays are drawn to those things. These are good questions to ask.

Halperin's idea is not new, of course, but his questions are more probing than usual. And he deserves credit for treating gay male community and culture separately and not as part of some imaginary "LGBT community."

But the question is whether Halperin's example of gay "artifacts and activities" are any more than mere stereotypes. Although stereotypes often have a basis in fact, it might be worth asking how widespread those interests actually are or were and exploring whether his examples are limited to a certain time, place and social level.

All that cultural bric-a-brac was often present in pre-Stonewall middle and upper-middle class urban gay communities: At one point every gay home seemed to have a statue of Michelangelo's David and a Judy Garland record.

But the post-Stonewall gay culture saw many of those things dwindle into targets of bemused ridicule, especially among younger gays.

There is another difficulty. Gay men in Berlin in the 1920s, who surely count as gay, were probably not much interested in Broadway musicals or Hollywood movies. That would be even more true of the men in St. Petersburg's gay community at the turn of the last century.

What were they interested in? What did they find in the broader culture that reflected their interests? What did they borrow and adapt to legitimize their existence and tastes? It would be interesting to know.

Perhaps if "gay culture" is at least partly a response to hostility and prejudice, then gay men may adopt not so much specific things, but general types of things. For instance, they might adopt elements of high culture in order to assert some sort of intellectual superiority to compensate for social stigmatization.

Or they might be attracted to stylized or exaggerated elements of the general culture that implicitly offer the comforting thought that the source of oppression is faintly ridiculous.

If so, as gays achieve equality much of "gay culture" may become obsolete.


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