In an essay titled "How to be Gay" written for the review section of The Chronicle of Higher Education last month, David M. Halperin offered this provocative passage:
"Same-sex desire alone does not equal gayness. 'Gay' refers not just to something you are, but also to something you do. Which means that you don't have to be homosexual in order to do it. ... In short, it is a practice. And if gayness is a practice, it is something you can do well or badly."
Halperin's argument, excerpted from his new book, focuses exclusively on gay male culture. It's no romp through clichés about gay men singing show tunes and taking interior-design classes. It's serious and political, as when Halperin writes with longing of the urban-gay life of a few decades ago, when gay men "often held shockingly militant, uncompromising, anti-homophobic, anti-heterosexist, anti-mainstream political views."
There's a bland homogenizing going on now, Halperin says. A distinct gayness — though potentially practiced by gays and straights — is losing ground. And this is a loss for us all: "Where would we be," he asks, "without the insights, the impertinence, the unfazed critical intelligence provided by gay subculture?"
So are the glory days of gayness already long gone?
In order to get one informed person's take on all this, I exchanged emails with Ted Gideonse. A writer and a graduate student at the University of California-San Diego, Gideonse is completing his dissertation in Anthropology, focusing on HIV+ men who have sex with men who use crystal meth.
On what gayness is, Gideonse stands with Halperin.
"There's a big difference between what we call homosexuality and what we call gay. The former is an attraction to people of the same sex and the latter is the American and European [and, increasingly, non-Western] cultural interpretation of that attraction and all that it entails in the social world."
There's another key distinction to make, too, says Gideonse.
"Homosexuality happens, probably, when hormones in utero trigger a genetic predisposition, but gayness happens in, to borrow anthropologist Irving Hallowell's phrase, the behavioral environment — in the always cultural space in which we experience the world."
In other words, Gideonse explains, "gayness is a kind of subjectivity: not just a political and social identity, but also a way of being, seeing, and doing."
But is that distinct subjectivity fading away, the victim of factors Halperin identifies in his book? Is nostalgia for the good old gay days the best thing going?
Here Gideonse disagrees sharply; he sees in Halperin's writing "an idealized vision of the gay culture of the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS period."
"While I recognize that the 1970s was a really exciting time in the gay ghettoes, I think we all need to remember that they were virtually the only place gay people could be openly gay, that gay people had virtually no legal protection from being fired or evicted or jailed for being gay, that families usually cast out their gay members, that living outside the gay ghetto often meant the closet: loneliness, lies, and shame. ... That gay people can now live outside the ghettoes and thrive is a fantastic thing."
Gay people, Gideonse notes, have always wanted the privileges available to heterosexuals, including marriage, open military service and suburban life. He says that fact sits comfortably side by side with the recognition that gay culture is "rich, necessary, and worth promoting." And gayness is not fading away, nor, insists Gideonse, are the gay ghettoes, "as anyone who lives in the Castro, West Hollywood, Chelsea, Boys Town, Dupont Circle, Provincetown, Fort Lauderdale, or my neighborhood Hillcrest will tell you."
As for what I think? As an anthropologist, I'd say that people who embrace gayness — some who live in the thriving communities noted by Gideonse, some outside those communities — are making and remaking their subjectivities over time, in all kinds of right ways. Just like people do everywhere.
You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape