On August 7, 2012, the New York Times printed a review of David M. Halperin’s “How to Be Gay”. The reviewer Dwight Garner entitled his review “How ‘Mildred Pierce’ Explains the World. I must admit, that as a Mildred Pierce fan my fascination was piqued enough to read the review. After reading the review however, my fascination was not piqued enough to wan to read the book. It’s not that Mr. Garner’s review was a bad one and it wasn’t that it wasn’t well written. By the time I finished the review I felt that this book had completely dismissed an entire population of readers: gay men of color.
David Halperin is is a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches a class with the same title of his book. His work was groundbreaking especially because the state legislature proposed a bill that would allow the Legislature to veto course offerings at all of Michigan’s public universities. The proposed legislation failed.
The class, who many thought was a proselytizing effort to recruit straight young men into homosexuality, was in fact a course designed for men who are already gay build, “a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world, a shared sense of self.” A touchstone example of this common culture is Joan Crawford and her classic character of Mildred Pierce. Without repeating the review in this piece, let’s just say that Joan Crawford’s strength, fierceness, grit, determination and glamour are lifted up as resonant characteristics found in the building sense of self as a gay man.
Mind you, I suggest that you read the book and the review for yourself. It’s not that the work isn’t an informative statement of the arc of gay identity formation. I think, however, that the work could be complemented perhaps in the next edition with a look at other cultures. Specifically, by taking a look at how gay identity and common culture is formed in gay communities of color. Asking questions about the impact of Eartha Kitt, Carmen Miranda, Bessie Smith or the Geisha tradition and others has helped build a particular outlook on the world.
My first inkling in regards to writing this piece was to blast Halperin as being an isolationist only concerned with the gay Caucasian community. After all, the LGBTQ community is commonly defined by the white gay male experience. And this reality is hurtful, demeaning and seemingly invalidates the experiences of persons of color. But after serious consideration, I decided to thank Mr. Halperin for his work and the foundation he has laid for further work to be done on the issues his work raises. In his role as academic, however, I do hold Professor Halperin accountable for accepting criticism and hopefully learning how to expand his important work for communities rendered invisible.