Letters to the Editor

Gay Lifestyle, or Gay Life?

September 17, 2012

On "How to Be Gay," by David M. Halperin (The Chronicle Review, September 7), from chronicle.com:

As a lesbian with many gay male friends, I found much in this article that resonates with my own experience of gay male culture, and the parallel but different lesbian culture, particularly between about 1985 and 2000. The problem, though, for me was that the "how to be lesbian" norms during that period imposed their own kind of orthodoxy and expectations of conformity. I found that while I sometimes enjoyed the company of that community very much, and we shared common ground—particularly in political activism—I couldn't quite become a separatist, and thus I felt like something of an outsider. I think I resented the (subtly expressed) view that there was a right way to be lesbian. My intellectual interests and my tastes in music and popular culture didn't quite cut it with them.

I understand that gay men and lesbians are losing something valuable in our (apparent) efforts to assimilate and become mainstream, and that heterosexuality will always be the norm that we stand apart from. But I can't embrace the extent to which Halperin seems to present gay culture and mainstream culture as binary opposites from which we have to choose—you're either in or out. A more realistic model would be one in which we place ourselves, as individuals, at the point on a spectrum where we are most comfortable. I, for one, am happy to feel more free to do that than I did in 1990.


The last time I checked, "culture" was not a static thing but something that reflected the members of the community it represented. Changing gay culture is not necessarily something to bemoan—it is what it is. As a lesbian, I am happy not to be pressured into any particular stereotype but just allowed to be myself. As my spouse said in reply to a comment about not agreeing with the homosexual (and lesbian) lifestyle: "It's not a lifestyle, it's a life." And as such, it must be whatever each of us needs and wants it to be. Some gay men embrace traditional gay culture—some lesbians do as well. But for others of us, it's just about wanting the freedom to have an authentic life.


I applaud Halperin's courage in pursuing this question. It's a great example of how tenure protects academic freedom. However, his position is myopically grounded in Queer Theory and dismissive of the variety of ways that homosexuals purposefully choose to exist. I personally know homosexuals who self-identify as "down low," gay, nonheterosexual, nonbreeder, same-gender-loving, and, yes, even straight. My point is that when people pursue self-liberation from oppressive and imprisoning ways of being, we should grant them the freedom to do so, especially if it brings no harm to themselves or anyone else. Perhaps there is a bit of sentimentalizing here as well?


If there is a "right" way to be gay according to gay culture, then there would appear to be intolerance for nonconformity within that culture itself. Is gay culture merely reproducing the intolerance of the dominant heterosexual culture?

The gay "dissident way of feeling and relating to the world" noted by Halperin may therefore apply to the way gay culture relates to itself, as well as to the way it relates to the outside world.

Not that such currents are unknown within the heterosexual world, of course. In which case Halperin may be quite correct: Homosexuality is wasted on gay people. The amenities of a gay lifestyle could just as well be sought and found by inventing oneself as a heterosexual.


Halperin's point is so true. One learns about gay male culture, but often contradictorily, sequentially, variously. I wish the title could simply read: "How to Be Variously Gay." Developing self-awareness in the Minneapolis gay-athletics scene is different from developing self-awareness in evangelical gay-activist churches, for example. These scenes affect one's deepest attractions and sexual ideas as well as one's nonsexual practices. There are varieties of gay experience in self-becoming and self-expressing, just as there are varieties of these processes in heterosexual experience.


When I've taught the "human identity" part of our university's diversity course, we discuss not only that individuals are mixtures of all sorts of identities but that the importance of a particular one of those identities may be either primarily self-determined or socially determined—whether we like it or not.

Halperin's course might have been titled something along the lines of "How Gay Culture Was Created and How Individuals Become Part of Gay Culture" (way too many keystrokes for the schedule)—a title which better suggests that it is descriptive and analytical rather than a set of instructions. That said, such topics as how a particular culture has been created (history), how cultures are created (sociology/anthropology), and how individuals fully enter into a culture (psychology, sociology) are appropriate areas of research and instruction. The interaction between assimilation, "appropriation and reuse," and separation can be particularly interesting.