How to Be Gay 
by David Halperin.
Harvard, 549 pp., £25.95, August 2012, 978 0 674 06679 3
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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!”’

Halperin adroitly deconstructs this joke. Here the word ‘deconstruct’ doesn’t mean ‘modishly arrange’ (as in a ‘deconstructed fish pie’) but carries its strict sense: he shows it to be logically dependent on the assumptions it means to mock. What is the connection between a speech of drunken dissatisfaction from Martha in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (first produced in 1962, filmed with Elizabeth Taylor playing Martha in 1966), referring to a line spoken by Bette Davis in King Vidor’s 1949 film Beyond the Forest, and one man’s sexual desire for another? How is it that an Australian readership in 2000 can be expected to pick up these distant references without their being explained? How are such links forged? The cartoon makes the case, rather well, for the course it seeks to dismiss.

According to Halperin, one of the American soldiers in Iraq who arrested Saddam Hussein remarked, adapting a line from Tosca, ‘E avanti a lui tremava tutta Baghdad.’ He was felt thereby to have infringed the compromise system of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ the rule that then allowed homosexuals to serve in the US armed forces so long as they didn’t declare themselves. Why is it so hard to believe that any heterosexual serviceman would know Puccini, especially since the allusion is erudite, even solemnly statesmanlike, rather than campy? The anonymous combatant was comparing Saddam to Baron Scarpia rather than Widow Twankey, but still the utterance is seen as a cultural impossibility from a man who desires women.

How to Be Gay is a rather unsettled book, written by a gifted thinker and writer who has come to see that there is not just a political and sexual gay culture (its foundational event the rioting outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969), based on gay identity rather than sensibility, but also a non-sexual gay culture, based on modes of feeling and expressive artefacts. His deeper loyalties are to the political movement, though he feels that a degree of acceptance has made it forget the power of its transgressiveness: it no longer wants to change the world but only to claim a larger slice. Even within this line of thought there are odd moments, as when he says, rather petulantly, ‘sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people,’ only a few pages before his rather hollowly triumphalist peroration: ‘In a certain sense, homosexuality is culture. Which is why society needs us.’

The book examines cultural artefacts, often mainstream and by most standards second-rate, that have become charged with subcultural meanings, and tries to determine why and how. One example is the Hollywood musical, which Halperin describes as being the creation of a handful of gay men. The point, though, is not who invented it but who responded, and gay men were among the keenest devotees of an art form which didn’t in its classic period acknowledge their existence. When musicals start to include gay characters – with La Cage aux folles, say, and Rent – they become, according to Halperin’s argument (indebted here to D.A. Miller’s Place for Us), not more gay but less, since the genre derives its power from latent and not manifest content. These terms are not Halperin’s, perhaps because he wants to avoid psychological terms in what aims to be a socially grounded analysis, but they fit well enough. What’s in the dream is not what drives the dream. (It’s possible to feel, though, that the problem with La Cage aux folles is less the manifest presence of gay characters than the manifest presence of barely two songs worth the name.)

Halperin tiptoes his way into his argument, knowing how resentful gay men are (as he was himself before he reluctantly saw the light) of being saddled with the old assumptions. He points out that it is easy to be French without caring a great deal about wine, but it would still be silly to deny that there is a French culture of wine. In the same way, there need be no involvement on the part of any individual gay man with flower-arranging, hairdressing or ambitious house restoration, no love of opera or melodramatic old movies, for gay men as a group to be a real and disproportionate presence in the little worlds of these professions and pastimes. The difference, perhaps, is that casually assuming a French person’s knowledgeability about wine doesn’t bring with it a whole train of insulting associations.

The question of why ‘gay culture’ should be so persistent is resolved, relatively tidily, late in the book. Society is strongly coded in terms of gender, something that children learn early – boys who wear pink don’t do so in ignorance of its cultural status. Children who grow up gay may not locate their difference in terms of desire, but their alignment with conventional gender roles is likely to be non-standard. As Halperin puts it, ‘straight culture will always be our first culture,’ and finding your own meanings in what you are given is not only an earlier adventure than seeing your life culturally reflected, it may become the template for adult aesthetic experience. The white suburban boy-child of the 1950s playing cowboys and Indians could invisibly rehearse all-male dramas. The one who got excited when the Indians won was already on the path to dissidence.

There’s one cultural artefact discussed in the book that isn’t an object but an activity – the parading of the ‘Fire Island Italian widows’, a tradition that can’t have started earlier than the 1980s. These widows were (and may be still) participants in the Fourth of July Invasion of the Pines, a yearly drag event on Fire Island, the quintessential summer destination for gay men from New York and beyond. They were men of Mediterranean descent who for the occasion put on black dresses and veils like the ones worn by widows in southern Italy and Sicily. Halperin teases apart the layers of real feeling and mockery, directed both inwards and outwards, in this masquerade. On one level this is just festive exhibitionism, with the perverse sense of one-upmanship that leads some guys to choose dowdiness over glamour when cross-dressing. An element of the parade mocks the prestige of ethnicity, lampooning a genetic inheritance without disowning it, but these were men who had lost lovers, friends or members of their local community to Aids, and the grief they were performing was both a parody and the real thing. Doesn’t the entrance qualification seem rather broad, though? By the end of the 1980s ‘men who had lost lovers, friends or members of their local community to Aids’ was a description of every gay man in America.

This is certainly a richer appropriation of widow status than the sentimental claiming of the word in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, where ‘widowing’ becomes an intransitive verb: ‘Widowing … feeling sorry for myself, cursing every time I passed a couple walking hand in hand, watching tear-jerkers on TV knowing they could only cheer me up.’ Halperin describes the parade as a protest against the invisibility of gay mourning, and the way certain losses seem not to warrant acknowledgment. It may seem odd to covet an entitlement to loss, but between grief and nothing (to borrow a formula of Faulkner’s) these men choose grief. They impersonate bereaved women, ‘highly visible figures of mourning, authority, seniority and autonomy in traditional village life’, with the difference that their Mediterranean models will presumably not find new partners, or ever take off their sad rags. But the tenuousness of social sympathy for gay losses may not be a fixed thing. It’s hard to imagine that the legal mechanism of civil partnership hasn’t made the expression of sympathy less awkward in this country – though if you start showing off holiday snaps of your Italian widow routine the awkwardness may not be gone for good.

There is a resonance to the display of the Fire Island Italian widows beyond what Halperin analyses. Widowhood is a tragic state, but also at the deepest psychological and tribal level a baleful one. The widow is contaminated by her nearness to death, unable to rinse off the taint, and her remarriage is impeded not by reverence for the dead man but simple taboo. She is a sort of sacred monster. In that respect the Italian model of widowhood might offer a real correlative to those bereaved by Aids in the days before combination therapy. The survivor has the power of the evil eye.

There are a number of objections hanging over the whole practice of camp. Here is one of them, sharply phrased:

At its worst, it is a joke made by someone who acts in a certain way for laughs about a less fortunate person who makes the same gestures unconsciously. When I lived in Maida Vale in the flat of an invoice clerk, if I came into the kitchen and found him washing his socks, he could not have refrained from uttering some such phrase as ‘A woman’s work is never done.’ I longed to cry out: ‘You are washing your socks because they are dirty. The situation needs no comment.’ I never did. I needed the room.

This indictment of (unworthy) camp as a status game played at the expense of an absent or imagined woman seems up to date, though the passage is from Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant, published in 1968.

At the heart of How to Be Gay is an analysis of scenes from two famous films, Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) and Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981), which present two versions of mother-daughter conflict as well as two versions of Joan Crawford, the original (almost invisible under the layers of subsequent parody) and Faye Dunaway’s strident caricature. Parody can tell you everything about its target except how people could have taken it seriously in the first place, and perhaps it’s worth making an effort to retrieve Crawford’s persona as it seemed to spectators who saw her films as they came out, rather than as a screen on which to project mockery and artificial emotion. This was written by a beady-eyed critic three years younger than her (Quentin Crisp again):

Miss Crawford did not grow old as other women do, nor did she become a dehydrated version of her former self as other movie queens are apt to do. Age could not wither her nor custom stale her infinite monotony. Instead, her face appeared to undergo what geologists term a process of denudation. As the tides of youth receded, the implacable ambition upon which the critics remarked in her early films emerged slowly like a smouldering volcano arising from the sea. The cheeks became more hollow, the eyes more prominent, and the mouth took on the permanent curve of lips that are determined not to cry. Towards the end of her life, she looked like a hungry insect magnified a million times – a praying mantis that had forgotten how to pray. Even her springy posture started to resemble the stance of a brave soldier facing death.

The mystery of a Garbo or a Dietrich is a veiled glimpse of delights that, out of indifference or sheer perversity, they withhold from us. In Miss Crawford’s gaze we read the mystery that we are to her. Apparently, our presence wounds or angers or terrifies her. Her method of dealing with the menace of human relationships was to become a star – to be unassailable.

From this rich range of contradictions camp selects a pair of crude contrasts, steeliness and self-sacrifice (in the case of Mildred Pierce), which produce when combined a determination to suffer that is necessarily comic, or a hysterical fury and a demand to be treated with respect (as in Mommie Dearest). Halperin argues that such scenes of mother-daughter conflict offer gay men a unique set of possible identifications.

Why doesn’t camp reconfigure father-son confrontations rather than mother-daughter ones? Because, by Halperin’s argument, those are potentially tragic or reliably sentimental, and gay men are equally debarred, in cultural terms, from the dignity of tragedy and the security of sentiment. Melodrama is the home address, in terms of genre, for conflicts between women, and also a cultural space, unlike tragedy, where emotional inauthenticity need not be fatal: ‘For gay male culture the serious is nothing more (but also nothing less) than a performance of seriousness, an impersonation of it.’

Halperin seems serious in the claims he makes for camp as a way of seeing the world. He occasionally tries a little camp himself, mentioning someone’s unpublished lecture and adding: ‘You had to be there, darling.’ As he sees it, gay culture as a whole is elitist in its worship of beauty, while camp is democratic, a levelling downwards, sparing no one, but ‘a social practice that does not devalue the suffering it also refuses to dignify’. Camp knows its limits, for it represents ‘a challenge to the power of a feeling for which it knows itself to be no match. It does not seek or hope to conquer love, or to end our breathless, religious veneration of beauty. It merely strives to render their effects less toxic – by making the value and prestige of romantic love less axiomatic.’

Following Michael Warner in The Trouble with Normal, he points out that

the social function of romantic love is to be anti-social, to represent a private, spontaneous, anarchic rebellion against the order of society. Love is the one socially conventional emotion that is conventionally defined as being opposed to social conventions. Falling in love is thus the most conformist method of being an individual. Conversely, falling in love is the most original and spontaneous way to conform, perhaps the only way of conforming to social demands that will never make you look like a conformist.

This is rhetorically very stirring, but some strange assumptions have paved the way to it. Here’s one:

The camp appropriation of these dramas of mother-daughter conflict might be thought to confront the fear that haunts many a gay boyhood and that leaves a traumatic residue in the inner lives of many gay adults: the fear that the adored mother might express – if only unawares, or despite herself – her unconquerable aversion to her offspring, her disgust at having begotten and raised a deviant child. Even the most loving mother would be hard-put never to betray to her queer son at least a modicum of disappointment in him.

This passage, despite the caginess of ‘might be thought’, hardly leaves a middle ground between lifelong amity between mother and son (which would clearly be a denial of trauma) and raw psychic damage. Psychology of a particularly reductive kind seems to have been reinstated. Gay men ‘adore’ their mothers, just as they did in the bad old days. On the same page he presents the ‘volatility’ of the relationship between gay men and their mothers as an established thing, not subject to individual variation. The parenthesis in ‘the gay child’s (and perhaps every child’s) struggle for love and recognition’ impairs the consistency of the argument without rescuing its respectability.

Adoption fantasies are a defining element of gay childhoods. How do we know? Because ‘many gay men report … the conviction that they were exceptional creatures completely unrelated to the stupid, thuggish, crass society around them. They felt as if they’d been born outside their natural element, as if they were secretly descended from royalty.’ Would it be rude to ask for a little actual information? To ask a few heterosexuals if they ever daydreamed about a more lustrous parentage (perhaps while reading Great Expectations)? This isn’t so much social analysis as sociology without data.

On the same fact-averse basis, gay men are credited with having a particular relationship with possessions, because ‘adult satisfaction cannot quite make up for a previous history of unfulfilment.’ Speak for yourself, matey! Here’s another bizarrely prescriptive passage:

a man who arouses your desire initially appears to you as a pure archetype, as an embodiment of the masculine erotic value that makes him attractive … But as soon as you have him, he becomes an individual instead of an essence, an ordinary queen instead of a Platonic idea. He ceases to be pure Beauty and starts to become camp. He becomes a sister. So you stop sleeping with him.

This is presented not as one pattern among many but as the whole story. A change of pronoun brings with it no let-up of oppressiveness: ‘We develop, early on, a habit of communing with imaginary lovers, and it is a habit we never quite abandon.’ It’s great that it’s OK to be gay even if your idea of flower-arranging is jamming stems in a jar and hoping for the best, but enduring sexual connection seems more of an embarrassment – it might be less irritating to be sent for compulsory re-education on a Constance Spry crash course than it is to be encouraged to feel that having a functional relationship is somehow letting the side down.

Camp is anti-romantic, then, and Halperin also acknowledges it to be sexually off-putting. The group as a whole may be improved by the revenge camp takes for the power of beauty, but it isn’t a turn-on. Isn’t camp also, as he doesn’t say, in its usual conversational form of acidulated banter, hostile to both intimacy and fellow-feeling? In Halperin’s eyes, camp is inclusive, though at this point he’s talking about the variety of camp that rescues dishonoured objects from oblivion by finding a new context for them (Bette Bourne’s lavatory mat an extreme example). Here Halperin follows Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s line of thought in her Epistemology of the Closet (1990). To say that something is kitsch creates a divide in taste and puts you on the right side of it. To say something is camp is to detect its latent fabulousness and enter into a complicity with the object in a way that welcomes others in: ‘The ability to identify a particular object as camp, and to induce others to share that perception, thereby creates a basis for community.’

That’s not quite how it works in ‘Homer’s Phobia’, from Season Eight of The Simpsons, first broadcast in 1997. John Waters provides the voice of a dealer in ‘collectibles’ who admires the family’s style, assuming it’s knowingly camp. Even Homer’s record collection – The New Christy Minstrels, Ballads of the Green Berets – presses every button on the jukebox of conscious bad taste. ‘I’ve got the exact same curtains, only in my bathroom,’ the dealer tells Marge. (They bear a design of stylised corncobs.) ‘Didn’t you just die when you found these?’ Marge can only reply, uneasily: ‘Not really.’ As the praise continues, she manages a giggle and an awkward simpering twirl, the adult equivalent of Lisa’s strangulated whimper, half-pleased, half-mortified, when her own outfit was complimented: ‘Pearls on a little girl … it’s a fairy tale!’ Being a Simpsons episode, ‘Homer’s Phobia’ has lashings of irony in it. At one point Moe the sleazy bartender lists traditionally gay jobs, only it’s a list of stereotypes from a parallel universe: ‘Where you been, Homer? The entire steel industry is gay – yeah, aerospace too, the railroads.’ Only Broadway makes the grade in both universes.

Marge’s ambivalent reaction when invited to join the unjudging dance of camp seems relatively realistic. Under such circumstances people do think they’re being laughed at, even having the evil eye put on them, and sometimes they’re right. The welcome is only for an in-group. Not everyone is comfortable with an ‘anti-social aesthetic practice’, even when ‘anti-social’ turns out to mean ‘contrary to social norms’ rather than ‘hostile to communal belonging’. I understand that traditional gay male culture is a sort of cult of desecration, in which mockery is sacramentally consumed and not for casual swigging, but who gets to decide which forms of disrespect deserve respect? Presumably the fact that John Waters, described as ‘the Pope of trash’ by William Burroughs, consented to appear in ‘Homer’s Phobia’, amounts to a nihil obstat.

Matt Groening is, it seems, entitled to mock, despite his own aggressively normal lifestyle, but then Halperin is gracious enough to distinguish the oppressive and all-pervasive institution of heterosexuality from ‘the relatively harmless sexual practice of intercourse between men and women’. In the cartoon strip Life in Hell, which started to appear in 1977, Groening casually disproved one of the core assumptions of gay liberation rhetoric. The assumption was that mainstream portrayals of gay people would never be used to embody general truths about relationships. Homosexuals would always be a special case, not representative of humanity in general, yet Groening shows his characters Akbar and Jeff caught up in universal scenarios of crazed double-bind (‘I love you but I hate you’, ‘I feel exactly the opposite’) lightly indebted to R.D. Laing’s Knots.

It’s true that Akbar and Jeff (who serve other purposes in the cartoon, fronting such dodgy enterprises as Akbar and Jeff’s Airport Snack Bar or Akbar and Jeff’s Cryonics Hut) aren’t everyone’s idea of a gay couple, since despite the implied racial difference of their names they are identical big-nosed bald fez-wearing homunculi. Their emotional expressiveness, far from being florid, is virtually binary. When estranged, they sit at opposite ends of a long couch; when they’re in tune they sit side by side in the middle of it. When either of them is surprised, his fez pops off (there’s a certain amount of nuance in the hang of their fez-strings). Yet this vocabulary is enough to convey their reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling sodomy a crime (1986) or to one of them – couldn’t swear which – getting ‘tested’, presumably for HIV (1989).

By far the most extreme version of camp examined in How to Be Gay is the one that was practised by Diseased Pariah News. DPN, which was published between 1990 and 1999 by the Men’s Support Centre, Oakland, described itself as ‘more than just an Aids humour magazine’. The founder editors, Tom Shearer (died 1991) and Beowulf Thorne (died 1999), published a sort of manifesto in the first issue: ‘We should warn you that our editorial policy does not include the concept that Aids is a Wonderful Learning Opportunity and a Spiritual Gift from Above. Or a punishment for our Previous Badness. Nor are we much interested in being icons of noble tragedy, brave and true, stiff upper lips gleaming under our oxygen hoses.’ Halperin reproduces the back cover of DPN’s ninth issue, an advertisement for Aids Barbie’s New Malibu Dream Hospice. ‘Don’t let Aids Barbie waste away in an empty shoebox,’ the copy runs. ‘Let her spend her final days languishing in her very own new Malibu Dream Hospice! And while it’s true that all the opulence in the world won’t save Aids Barbie from her final demise, it will leave you feeling better – and that’s what really matters, doesn’t it? Hurry, before she develops one more unsightly lesion.’

DPN was even more extraordinary than Halperin’s brief mention suggests. There was a fundraising drive in which one of the prizes was a paperweight made from the previous editor’s ashes swirled in lucite (that would be Tom Shearer). There was an Innocent Victim Centrefold, where someone who had acquired HIV through blood transfusion had the chance to strut his stuff, with medications and T-cell count listed where hobbies and vital statistics would normally feature. How’s that for inclusiveness? DPN was raucously pro-sex, at one point producing a consumer guide to poppers, modelled on the wine reviews in upmarket magazines, listing intensity and duration of rush as against incidence of headache. This was at a time when poppers, supposedly implicated in the spread of Aids, were banned in some US states or surreptitiously sold under the label ‘carburettor cleaner’. Diseased Pariah News, inclusivity-minded to a fault, tested ‘carburettor cleaner’ too.

Halperin claims a ‘particular genius’ for the traditional gay male culture that failed to notice its own obsoleteness after Stonewall. If camp really amounts to a viable philosophy, as some of these pages made me think despite myself, then it shouldn’t necessarily be the preserve of gay men. (He refers in passing to female versions of camp style, but they don’t form part of what his book is about.) Is camp just the place where old cultural tropes come to die, or is there an afterlife for them? Perhaps they can be re-reappropriated, with a new balance between triviality and seriousness. The look of the vocal artist Diamanda Galás, for instance, owes pretty much everything to drag queens, though Maria Callas can hardly be ruled out as a model for a Greek-American dramatic singer. Her performances have been relentless in their emphasis on disease and death, overwhelmingly camp in a gothic mode yet refusing the release of hysterical laughter. Much of her work is a memorial to her brother Philip-Dimitri, who died of Aids in 1986. She has turned herself into a sort of Antigone, exhuming and reburying her brother with every show. The balefulness of her presence is a useful shorthand: it rules out the supposed softness of femininity and family feeling, and serves notice that rage will be acknowledged as a part of grief.

And then there’s Joan Rivers. Is there anyone who lives by a fiercer code of camp? She should even get Halperin’s vote for telling jokes about the bereaved of the World Trade Center mere months after the event, since he refers to ‘the large and highly lethal dose of unironised masculine histrionics that the world has had to absorb since 11 September’. The war on dignity is total. Nothing inflames her more than the question, ‘Is there anyone you wouldn’t make jokes about?’ Rivers has no time for any of the traditional guarantors of female identity: romance, marriage, family, motherhood, childbirth itself. (She has a certain amount of respect for the wedding ring as the certificate of a worthwhile contract, more for the bank account that makes the contract worthwhile.) Her attitude towards her body is one of distant contempt – but then after a certain point surgery, whatever the reason for it, more or less disposes of the category of the ‘natural’. Nothing seems off-limits, not her difficulties with her daughter, not the suicide of her husband, which makes her a widow at the bottom of the widow pile, obscurely disgraced as well as bereaved. Compare this with Frankie Boyle, a comedian who stakes everything on shock value but makes sure to include in his set some wholesome material about his daughter’s love of sausages, unwilling to let go of the dignity of the caring father. There may be tasers and knuckledusters for the world at large, but it’s still teddy bears and night-lights in the nursery.

All this is less of a love poem to La Rivers than it may seem. A little goes a long way, but it’s not possible for her to be Joan Rivers only a little. She dare not renege on the extremity of her persona. It seems a punishing solution to your contradictions, to go through life so armed, so armoured, and still bleeding.

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Vol. 34 No. 23 · 6 December 2012

Adam Mars-Jones’s reaction to the Baghdad story reported by Michael Halperin in How to Be Gay reveals an unsure grasp of camp (LRB, 22 November). Not campy: soldier quoting in Italian a prima donna in unseemly circumstances? Come on.

The quote is not in the least ‘erudite’ (Tosca is nothing like a rarity, most opera lovers know it, and they are not all erudite any more than they are all gay) and obviously not ‘solemnly statesmanlike’ (unless statesmen are all uneducated impulsive performers like Floria Tosca). It has all the cheap drama of Sardou and was already pretty stagey as uttered by Sarah Bernhardt in the original play (‘Et c’est devant ça que tremblait toute une ville!’). In Puccini’s opera, as spoken (rather than sung) by a prima donna milking each word for effect, it is frankly campy. Under the circumstances of Saddam’s death, the whole idea is at best as vacuously stagey as in Sardou, at worst like something out of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.

And while we are at Tosca, Mme Vera Galupe-Borszkh channels the Essential Diva rather than a specific singer, and if one should be mentioned, it would be, rather than Maria Callas, the famed Met (and Covent Garden) Tosca of the 1950s and 1960s, Zinka Milanov of the Balkan accent and memorable lines (‘This girl is wonderful: she sounds like a young me!’) – not to mention the glorious voice.

Luc Bourrousse

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