At his Huffington Post blog, that great Renaissance man James Franco has been serving up recommendations for summer reading. Last week he offered what he describes as “two very fun reads”: Fredrick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, and Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal. Franco, who studied with Warner at Yale, characterizes The Trouble With Normal as “a smart and fun look at gay marriage and anti-normative lifestyles”:
(Warner) makes the liberating argument that the heteronormative lifestyles might learn more from queer lifestyles than the opposite, that instead of having the gay and queer communities try to conform to the hetero mainstream, maybe the mainstream might learn something from those wacky people living “alternative” lifestyles. As gay marriage is very much on people's minds, this is a book that can blow your mind about how we are taught to see ourselves in this country—straight, gay and otherwise—and how we can all learn to be still more open to variety.
The Trouble With Normal, a paperback edition of which we published in 2000, is something of a touchstone for a new work dealing with similar questions of identity, sexuality, and culture. In the much-anticipated How To Be Gay, pioneering queer theorist David Halperin joins Warner in arguing that the aspiration to “normalcy,” while understandable as a pragmatic approach to attaining civil rights and societal acceptance, leads to the embrace of an official, public gay identity that can countenance little deviation from mainstream norms, especially with respect to sex. Halperin cites Warner for “urging us not to turn our backs on the sophisticated and adventurous queer culture we have created around sex, not to sell out those members of our communities who do not (or who cannot) bury their sexuality discreetly within the sphere of private life, and not to purchase respectability at the expense of sex.”
For Halperin, the trouble with normal is its denial of a “unique subjectivity” expressed by male homosexuality. He argued as much in a recent op-ed occasioned by gay pride month and the attendant “state-of-the-gay” reports. Every year, writes Halperin, the “straight media,” offers triumphal declarations of progress along a projected narrative of complete gay assimilation into the mainstream. As the story goes, while older gay men may still claim a recognizably gay culture, today’s young gay men are said to have fully embraced the hetero-normal. The problem with this report of generational mobility, says Halperin, is that it’s been with us since at least the 1970s, and yet “gay culture” remains. So what work is being done by the continual report of its demise?
Why is it so important, particularly at this moment, that gay culture be pronounced, if not dead, then on its way out? Does the possibility of a distinct gay culture express the notion, now scandalous, that gay men might be different from other people? Does it challenge the myths of gay assimilation and gay ordinariness?
Yes, all of the above. Gay men who play by the rules of straight society and conventional masculinity, and who don’t aspire to belong to any other way of life, are more acceptable, to themselves and to others. The last obstacle to complete social integration is no longer gay sex or gay identity, but gay culture.
And yet gay culture is not just a superficial affectation. It is an expression of difference through style—a way of carving out space for an alternate way of life. And that means carving out space in opposition to straight society.
As Halperin argues in How To Be Gay, this stylistic deviation from the ordinary must be understood as having greater import than the surface-level meaning often attributed to style. For gay male culture, he claims, style is itself the definition, not merely an expression. So not only is there such a thing as “gay male culture,” but the key to understanding it lies in specifying the meaning of “gay male style,” which Halperin argues is a specific thing that young gay men must learn.
It’s not hard to see how such an argument opens Halperin’s view to both attack and manipulation from most points on the political spectrum. Certainly from the right, which would simultaneously embrace and demonize a characterization of male homosexuality as a cultural practice that can and must be learned. But also from the left, which has often made mainstream assimilation of minority identities a goal, and to whom this sort of essentialism is anathema.
The University of Michigan course on which How To Be Gay is based exposed Halperin to all such critique, so he’s surely aware of the hostility with which this book may be met. Yet, as he explains in his op-ed, without an appropriate understanding of gay male culture we can’t know how it survives in the face of so many declarations of its death. Nor could we understand what he calls the most essential thing about it: “how gay culture continues to perform a sly and profound critique of what passes for normal.”
For all its heavy lifting, How To Be Gay also presents Halperin’s considerations of camp and queens, glamour and Garland, muscles and Mommie Dearest. Sound fun, James Franco? Do let us know if we can send along a copy for the beach.