Speak for yourself, matey

Adam Mars-Jones

  • BuyHow to Be Gay by David Halperin
    Harvard, 549 pp, £25.95, August 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06679 3

Back when the Independent was young and thriving, the paper used to sponsor lunchtime ‘theatre conferences’ at the Edinburgh Festival in association with the Traverse. The description ‘theatre conferences’ makes these public discussions sound starchier than they were. I was happy to do my bit chairing events in exchange for the train fare and somewhere to sleep. One conference was on the subject of drag, and though the subject made me a little uneasy, it was a memorable session. Lily Savage was appearing at the festival that year, but Paul O’Grady turned down our invitation on her behalf, explaining that Lily didn’t know she wasn’t a woman. How could she contribute anything? This made sense of a sort, though it was probably O’Grady we wanted to hear from. There was no shortage of available guests, though: Bette Bourne, best known then for appearances with the troupe Bloolips, said yes, and so did two members of La Gran Scena Opera Company.

We were hoping for a certain amount of technical discussion, perhaps even scraps of a masterclass, and had borrowed a screen from one of the Grassmarket’s antique shops in case our performers felt the need for an onstage changing room. Bette Bourne didn’t disappoint, although no screen was necessary. (S)he had brought along a black bin-bag of oddments, which (s)he emptied onto the floor, picking through the motley treasures between sips from a mug whose tawny contents may have been cold tea without milk.

(S)he: I have no idea whether this compromised pronoun represents sensitivity or the opposite, but it seems the best choice of a bad lot. ‘He’ is reductive in one way, ‘she’ in another, and though ‘(s)he’ seems to indicate an intermediate category, which is precisely not the point, it does at least reflect the fact that issues of gender are being contested in some way.

Eventually, Bette picked up what looked like a very unpromising item, a curved mat intended to fit round a lavatory pedestal, a degraded horseshoe of crimson acrylic. ‘If you want to know,’ (s)he said, in a puréed-plum voice (Bourne trained at the Central School and had a strong career on stage and television in the 1960s before seeing the radical light), ‘if you want to know what a Bloolips rehearsal period is like, then you must imagine us staying up all night saying’ – a Norma Desmond eye-flash at this point, while staring into an imaginary full-length mirror – ‘“Is it that?” “Is it that?”’ With each that the lavatory mat was reconfigured, first twisted round the head as a garish outsized Edith Sitwell toque, then sliding down around the neck to become a fake fur collar worthy of a colour-blind down-and-out Eleanor Roosevelt.

The American pair, the performers from La Gran Scena Opera, were very different in their self-presentation, and different from each other. They were appearing under their own names, Ira Siff and Keith Jurosko, rather than their stage personas (Vera Galupe-Borszkh, Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola), seeming to re-establish the boundaries between actor and role that Bette Bourne was so keen to abolish. Before the conference Ira asked, in an extremely quiet voice, very hard to catch, if there were microphones available. ‘If there aren’t microphones,’ he murmured (visualise very small print to represent virtual inaudibility), ‘I won’t raise my voice. I have to protect it. People think we’re imitating opera singers, but we’re not. We are opera singers.’ Keith meanwhile was lighting a cigarette and asking gruffly where he could get a gin and tonic.

La Gran Scena’s shows were loving parodies of operatic set pieces. (Ira Siff can regularly be heard these days on Radio 3’s relays of opera from the Met, expounding the nuances of repertoire and production.) There was necessarily some teasing of the diva ego: Vera Galupe-Borszkh, milking the applause after a spectacular number, would moan tragically: ‘I geeve too much. I geeve too much! I have nothing left for you! Nothing!’ Just as the hungry-eyed second rank prepared to relieve her of the burden of the spotlight she would whisper: ‘Except perhaps this little cabaletta …’ Then she was off again, good for another twenty minutes.

This gleeful onslaught on operatic excess was the opposite of philistine. It was the high comedy of disrespectful connoisseurship, showing a love deep enough to stand the test of its own compulsive mockery. Siff (channelling Galupe-Borszkh channelling Callas) might twist a famous line from Act Two of Tosca – ‘Il prezzo?’ – by staring with incredulous horror at the wine she was drinking, so that a question about what recompense Scarpia would want in exchange for saving Cavaradossi’s life became a query about how much had been paid for the rotgut in the glass. Or Galupe-Borszkh, this time singing Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, might belatedly realise she’s appearing in a production so cheap that her costume has been made from the same bolt of material as the gingham tablecloth in Lucia’s wine shop.

I felt I learned a lot from the session. Drag had always been a disreputable aspect of gay culture, and twenty years after the Stonewall riots (as it was then) had the extra liability of seeming passé. Yet drag was clearly not a single thing but a range of wildly contradictory activities. It made sense that neither Paul O’Grady nor his creature Lily attended, since theirs was not a performance about performance in the way that the others’ were. Lily Savage’s act was about social deprivation as much as anything, perhaps unsurprisingly given O’Grady’s varied work history, which included a stint as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council. Anyone sceptical about the combination of drag’s parody glamour and social awareness has obviously missed Lily Savage sprawling on a piano in Eartha Kitt mode, adapting the lyrics of ‘Santa Baby’ to reflect the difficulty of getting emergency repairs done to a council house over Christmas.

For Bette Bourne cross-dressing was a political act in a different sense, a campaign to confront oppressive norms: wearing drag in the street was part of that programme. Ira Siff and Keith Jurosko had a more straitened notion of theatrical display. As Keith explained at the Traverse that day, he had only once ventured into the outside world in drag, and that was in Edinburgh. The BBC wanted to interview him, so he had to take a taxi to the studio between performances without changing. This meant venturing into the great outdoors, then into a taxi, in the guise of the 105-year-old soprano Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola. Keith was aware of the driver’s eyes in the mirror fixed on him with great intensity. He found it hard to bear that burning gaze, and watched the meter closely, trying to assemble the exact change so as to escape with as little human interaction as possible. The cab rolled up outside the BBC studios on Queen Street, and he was just about to hurry away when the driver crooked a finger to bring him closer. ‘With your height,’ he said, ‘and the weight of your chin, I’d recommend a hat with a broader brim.’

David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay, addresses the mysterious persistence of discredited elements from pre-Stonewall gay male culture. In theory camp should have been rendered obsolete by the arrival of models of gay behaviour not driven by the old toxic blend of shame and defiance, but there are still careers to be made from the man-sized frock and the killer putdown. Halperin’s argument is that these oddly resilient practices need to be looked at closely rather than swept under the carpet (relegated to gay liberation’s own closet, as he sees it).

The book shares its title with the course Halperin started teaching at the University of Michigan in 2000. The title has a wryness that will be recognisable to anyone who doesn’t quite fit a cultural stereotype. Can’t dress? Can’t dance? Can’t keep your place tidy, let alone packed with exquisite things? What makes you think you’re allowed to be gay? Wryness doesn’t communicate at a distance, though, and certainly not in lists of university courses. Halperin must have realised that there was controversy waiting in the wings, though he starts the book on a slightly forced note of high drama: ‘The first hint of trouble came in the form of an email message.’

Hostility to the course (actually to the idea of the course) came as much from gay individuals and institutions as from conservative ones, and was soon international. The book reproduces a cartoon that appeared in the Sydney Star Observer, a gay paper, above the editorial headline ‘B+ COULD TRY HARDER’. The cartoon is of a teacher with a little beard, showing off his trim body in a T-shirt. He is saying, ‘Class, repeat after me: “What a dump!”’

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