ENG 317: "How Not To Be Gay"

Mike Adams

1/9/2008 12:01:00 AM - Mike Adams

I’ve been studying higher education for a long time, but I’ve never seen anything quite as queer as a new course being taught at the University of Michigan. Section Two of English 317 is titled “How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.” Taught by Instructor David Halperin (halperin@umich.edu), the course is worth three credit hours to Wolverine students interested in exploring learned gayness.

For years, I’ve been hearing that gayness is a function of some sort of gay gene but, apparently, I’ve been over-simplifying the issue. Here’s what Halperin has to say:

“Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn't mean that you don't have to learn how to become one. Gay men do some of that learning on their own, but often we learn how to be gay from others, either because we look to them for instruction or because they simply tell us what they think we need to know, whether we ask for their advice or not.”

When I read Halperin’s remarks, I was concerned that they were a bit phallocentric. But I’m sure the University of Michigan – fine institution that it is – will eventually develop a course called “Learning to be Lesbian.”

Just when I thought that Halperin was approaching gayness from a narrow perspective, I read his description of the course, which assured me that he likes to approach gayness from different angles. (Please, no tasteless jokes. Michigan is a serious place of higher learning). His three course angles include: (1) gay initiation “as a sub-cultural practice”; (2) gay initiation “as a theme in gay male writing”; and (3) gay initiation “as a class project, since the course itself will constitute an experiment in the very process of initiation that it hopes to understand.”

I really don’t know what the class will do to fulfill its “class project” angle but I’m sending a box of condoms to Ann Arbor just to make sure everyone’s protected.

According to Halperin, there is so much more to being gay than just simple genetic wiring. There are a number of “cultural artifacts and activities” that seem to be causally connected with gayness. There are, for example, Hollywood movies, grand operas, Broadway musicals, and other works of classical and popular music, as well as camp, diva-worship, drag, muscle culture, taste, style, and political activism.

Halperin also plans to examine whether there are there are “classically gay” works that appeal to gay men, regardless of generation, class, race, or ethnicity (hint: “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Sound of Music,” or anything starring Leonardo DiCaprio). Halperin will ask what there is about such works that explains their “gay appropriation.” Finally, he will ask what we learn about “gay male identity” by asking what it is that gay men “do or like.” That part should be interesting.

To his credit, Halperin hopes to approach gay identity from the angle of “social practices and cultural identifications” rather than merely from the perspective of gay sexuality. He wants to explain what such an approach can tell people about the “sentimental, affective, or subjective dimensions of gay identity,” which include gay sexuality, without an exclusive focus on gay sexuality. Is this making sense yet? Good.

Halperin’s description of ENG 317 “How to be Gay” has introduced me to some new terms like “disidentification.” Apparently, at the center of gay experience there is more than identification. There is disidentification. This means that almost as soon as a gay man learns how to be gay, maybe before, he also learns how not to be gay. Apparently, he says to himself, “Well, I may be gay, but at least I'm not Richard Simmons!”

But, fortunately, rather than trying to promote one version of gayness at the expense of other versions of gayness, Halperin’s course will seek to create wider acceptance of the different ways people determine how to be gay. In other words, there will be diversity within diversity. Or, perhaps, there will be perversity within perversity.

But Halperin issues a stern warning to potential students - as stern as he can be without disidentifying with his culturally acquired gayness: “This course is not a basic introduction to gay male culture, but an exploration of certain issues arising from it. It assumes some background knowledge.”

Halperin suggests that students wishing to prepare for ENG 317 “How to be Gay” should enroll in an introductory course in lesbian/gay studies. But I think they should just catch up on their shopping, trim their Shih Tzu, and rent “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s not like Michigan is a serious university.