How To Be Gay

Harvard University Press
3 min readJun 22, 2021


To celebrate Pride Month, we are highlighting excerpts from books that explore the lives and experiences of the LGBT+ community. This second excerpt comes from How To Be Gay, a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, in which David M. Halperin, a pioneer of LGBTQ studies, dares to suggest that gayness is a way of being that gay men must learn from one another to become who they are.

The official line of the post-Stonewall gay movement in the United States has gone something like this: “We are not freaks or monsters. We are the same as you: we are ordinary, decent people. In fact, we are just like heterosexuals except for what we do in bed (which is nobody’s business but our own — and, anyway, the less said about it, the better).”

For a short time, around the birth of the “queer” movement at the turn of the 1990s, it became fashionable to claim the opposite. Those who embraced a queer identity (or non-identity) used to take a line that exactly reversed the official post-Stonewall one: “We queers are totally unlike anyone else; we do not resemble you at all. We are completely different from heterosexuals — except for what we do in bed (which is more or less what everyone does in bed, with some minor, insignificant variations).”

But that queer fashion didn’t last long, and a lot of lesbians and gay men in the United States…have now gone back to claiming that gay people are defined, if at all, only by a non-standard sexual preference which in and of itself does not strictly correlate with any other feature of the personality. In all other aspects of their lives, gay people are the same as everyone else. (That tendency may actually reflect a recent development of international scope, what Rogers Brubaker has called “the return of assimilation.”) In American popular usage nowadays, to be sure, the word “gay” may mean “stereotypically gay” or “culturally gay,” while men who are defined by their sexuality, by the sex they have with men, are more likely to be termed “homosexual.” But in the official language of the gay movement, “gay” remains an identity marker attached to sexual preference. To be gay, according to this latter outlook, is to have a sexuality, a sexual orientation; it is not to have a distinctive culture or psychology or social practice or inner life, or anything else that is different from the norm. Especially if — in the case of gay men — that difference implies any identification with women or femininity. Merely to question this doctrine is to risk conjuring up the dread

specter of sexual inversion, opening the door to a return of Victorian psychiatry, with all its ancient prejudices about the congenital abnormality and psychopathology and gender deviance of gay men.

But so long as we cling to the notion that gayness is reducible to same-sex sexual object-choice, that it has nothing to do with how we live or what we like, that our homosexuality is completely formed prior to and independent of any exposure to gay culture — and so long as we hold to that belief as to a kind of dogma — then the persistence of gay culture will remain a perpetual embarrassment, as well as an insoluble analytic puzzle.