In Quotes

Author David Halperin Theorizes Being Gay Is All About Joan Crawford

Among the most unusual things about How to Be Gay is that it is, at heart, a 500-plus-page work that explores a fundamental kind of gay sensibility by concentrating almost exclusively on one actress, Joan Crawford, and on a single scene in a single movie, the 1945 drama Mildred Pierce.

Dwight Garret of the New York Times review of David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay. By the way, he’s referring to this scene, naturally

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  • Ronald

    Absolute trash.

  • QJ201

    This book is 30 years out of date. You have to explain to anyone under 40 who Joan Crawford is.

  • Daez

    It is nice of someone to right a book about how to be gay. Maybe they should have realized that there are as many ways to be gay as there are gay people though. What a horrible concept from a horribly small minded author.

  • uu

    So she is an actress then?

  • iltman

    no wire hangers!

  • Ian

    I’m curious, of the people who have commented above, how many have read the book? I haven’t, so I have no way of commenting on it yet. It may be trash, it may be insightful, but how can anyone critique before reading it?

  • Henry Holland

    It may be trash, it may be insightful, but how can anyone critique before reading it

    There’s a review that’s been linked that describes it. Example:

    The great value of traditional gay male culture, he further posits, perhaps even more challengingly, “resides in some of its most despised and repudiated features: gay male femininity, diva worship, aestheticism, snobbery, drama, adoration of glamour, caricature of women and obsession with the figure of the mother.”

    I want NOTHING to do with any of that, I never have and I’m old enough to remember coming out and being expected to know whole chunks of dialogue from Crawford and Bette Davis movies by heart and getting looked down upon because I’d never seen Mildred Pierce or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. I never cared about that at all and if that makes me less gay –a term I loathe in any case– then nothing would make me happier.

  • Spencer

    What a horrible comment from a horribly provincial commenter. Perhaps there are as many ways to be homosexual as there are homosexual people (although for men, at least, most of them seem to revolve around the basic notion of “in the butt”), but there are really only a few ways to be gay.


    I no nothing this book or really know much about the book… these smart asses of the times we live that act ignorant of Crawford’s very existence are the real losers while she is not a great favorite of mind she was still a force in film.

    Check out this one scene from a movie called “Flamingo Road” her character Lane compares to Sheriff Titus played by Sydney Greenstreet to a “white elephant” I think you will get her!

    Young gays quit and commenting just like nothing in the past matters really matters…without it there is no future so be aware of it!

  • steve

    @Spencer: but ther are, unfotunately so many ways to hate gay people in the name of god

    the right wing xtians believed in the bible cuz that piece of ancient history said “a slave shall obey his master

    then the slavers told their victims that the master was second only to Jesus

    And fcukd the slave women then sold their own progeny for a profit.

  • Henry Holland

    What a horrible comment from a horribly provincial commenter

    Was that directed at me? “Provincial”? Hahahaha, I love symphonic music, opera and ballet, a love I learned from my awesome Dad, but I’ve never cared at all for campy B-movies or female worship or snobbery –who the fuck worships snobbery?– or any of that. If that makes me not gay, then I’m ecstatic, I want nothing to do with that dinosaur concept of what being a man-loving-man is.

  • Evan Martin

    I agree QJ101 and Henry Holland. I have older gay male friends who are big into Joan but they’re queens and most younger people don’t know who she is but I have a friend that’s 29 who does but he grew up watching old movies with his parents who are now in their 70s.

    Nowadays younger LGBT people don’t care about Bettie, Joan, Judy, or Marilyn.

  • Geri

    Joan Crawford was a bisexual woman

  • mattsy

    Joan slapped the shit outta bitches in almost all her movies, shes a little sub here

  • What the f**k

    @David Ehrenstein: Agreed…they say she’s not relevant and then hold up gaga or madonna as icons….personally I don’t get the Judy,Liza sensibility but Crawford is all about the fight and as such was a warrior.Beautiful,grotesque,awesome….that bitch WERKED!

  • Codswallop

    I haven’t read the book so can’t comment on it, but I suspect, based on the NYT review, that Halperin himself is being a bit “campy” and provocative. Does Halperin *really* think that in order for someone to be be gay they have to love Joan, Bette, Judy, etc? I doubt it.

    I came out before there was an internet, back when there was a subtle message that if you were gay there was a certain way to go about it, a pantheon of stars you were “supposed to” like. Mainly because I like old movies anyway, I saw many of the films in that alleged “gay canon,” and read books by Capote, Vidal, Wm. S Burroughs, Jean Genet, Armistead Maupin, etc. etc. And I “get” it, I understand the mind-set and the point. It’s an outsider mentality, a group identity carved out of what was available, which was next to nothing. Back then gay people were considered to be members of the demi-monde, literally a half-world because we weren’t welcome in the whole world, sad creatures living half-lives because we were so sick and mentally ill. It was a victim mentality, but guess what? We WERE victims and standing up for yourself rarely got you anywhere! (And look at the news- we still are being victimized, which isn’t exactly the same thing as being a victim.)

    But now that we’re entering the mainstream, does it mean that NONE of that that old stuff counts or matters, that there’s nothing to be learned from it? No, I don’t think it does. Gay bars were always being raided, dancing together could get you arrested, and the first gay rights groups met in apartments with the shades drawn because they were afraid a SWAT team might swoop in to break up this illegal, subversive activity. It’s a story of grace under true pressure, taking what you need then leaving the rest, bending but never breaking. Ultimately it’s a story of resistance and strength, and ultimately turning the tide. It’s something to be proud of.

    So I don’t think Mr Halperin is *really* saying that modern gay men should know the lines to old Joan Crawford movies, but that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Maybe instead of trying to convince everyone that “We’re just like you!” and fitting in we should be saying “We’re US and who we are deserves recognition.” Take what you need and leave the rest. And stop being so ass-achingly serious and worrying about whether you’re “masculine” enough and demonizing what seems to be feminine in others. Be yourself because those Joan Crawford-watching, Judy Garland-listening “queens” fought to be themselves when things were FAR worse. That took true nerve, if not courage.

    And FWIW, some of those old Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies are pretty fun, the old books are worth reading, the history is worth knowing. Don’t think that because THINGS are better that YOU are better.

    But you’re never going to make me like Barbra Streisand! Blechhhh! ;-)

  • lizcivious

    Come on, the quintessential Joan character took no shit! We should all aspire to that.

  • Kev C

    @Codswallop: I think young and modern gays want to be accepted by the mainstream society, which means foregoing the underground culture, the campy, absurd, droll, and even the sexy, in order to fit in to the mainstream. Glee, for example, is not any of those things. Gays are now horrified of flamboyant gay parades. But what they are discovering is how poor and empty the mainstream culture actually is.

  • Henry Holland

    The book isn’t about Joan alone, but merely uses Joan as an example of teh (wait for it) “Gay Sensibility” that we’re not supposed to traffic in anymore now that we’re all “Straihght-acting, straight-appearing.”

    Zzzzzzzzzz. You’re just as bad as the “Straight acting, no femmes” types, it’s just a different set of tired, dated roles you and your Baby Boomer ilk are trying to impose on everyone. BTW, “teh” is sooooo 5 years ago.

    back when there was a subtle message that if you were gay there was a certain way to go about it, a pantheon of stars you were “supposed to” like

    There was NOTHING subtle about it! You were either in the club or if you had different interests –loud guitar bands, sports, zero interest in old movies or female performers or their woes– it was made very clear that you were a) not welcomed and b) you were probably a straight dude only looking for dick.

    I mean, I bought the LIE that there was this big welcoming “community” –another huge LIE– awaiting me when I came out (this was the 80’s), but I encountered some of the most vile, wretched people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet, all because (according to them) I wore the wrong clothes or didn’t have my hair cut the correct way or couldn’t quote long stretches of 40 year old movies or didn’t worship Maria Callas and Stephen Sondheim. It wasn’t new-found freedom or grace under pressure or being part of the demi-monde, it was groupthink conformity at its worse. Fuck that!

    But now that we’re entering the mainstream, does it mean that NONE of that that old stuff counts or matters, that there’s nothing to be learned from it?

    Well of course there’s value in it, it’s part of the historical record, but the idea that you’re “less than gay” because you don’t give a fig about long dead movie stars or camp or drag queens or any of the myriad litmus tests that people like Ehrenstein have is really boring and frankly, it’s no better than hetero’s dinging someone because he can’t throw a baseball or doesn’t know anything about fixing cars.

    From the NYT review: “Mr. Halperin teases an enormous amount out of this scene, including the sense of “glamour and abjection” gay audiences find in Crawford, and how the film packages the “transgressive spectacle of female strength, autonomy, feistiness and power.”

    Why should I care about any of that apart from its place in the historical record? I had the example of Dave Kopay, the ex-NFL player who came out in 1975, wrote an excellent book about it and has continued to be out and proud. My first operatic love was Benjamin Britten, who had a 39-year relationship with the tenor Peter Pears. I read book > saw the movie adaptation of the great E.M. Forster’s Maurice, about the love between two men prior to WWI. etc. etc. Morrissey and The Smiths were singing of being smitten with a “Handsome Devil”, Bronski Beat about being a “Small Town Boy” etc. There’s a whole world of art about male-male love, why bother with trivia like Madonna or The Golden Girls or Mildred Pierce?

  • Schlukitz

    Joan Crawford. The original “Crazy-eyes”. LOL

  • Codswallop

    @Henry Holland: It sounds like you and I came out around the same time and share some of the same experiences. I read the David Kopay book, listened to The Smiths and Bronski Beat too, though there were other harder-edged bands I liked better that weren’t “gay” at all. I was sometimes rejected by others for actively disliking Madonna or whoever the Diva du jour was.

    But so what? It’s not some either/or proposition, that because I don’t like those things I’m at war with those who do unless they try to force it on me. Just like I’m not going to start watching sports just to be “one of the guys.”

    I really think Halperin is being ironic by calling his book “How To Be Gay,” not actually saying there’s only one way. He’s just explaining one stream of gay identity, which for many years was the dominant stream, the only part that was publicly acknowledged. God knows I don’t expect any young gay men to love dead movie stars, OR The Smiths or Bronski Beat for that matter, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea that they understand a little bit about gay history, the Cliff Notes of it, how things were and why things are the way the are right now.

  • dvlaries

    I love reading up on Crawford any chance I get. The leading lights of MGM in the 30s are always more interesting to me than Garland or Streisand and others that have come since. Garbo, Harlow, Marie Dressler (the first woman -ever- on the cover of Time), Myrna Loy, Jeannette MacDonald were all made of the tough stuff.
    Far more interesting to me than Crawford’s occasional run-ins with Davis, was her deeper and substantially longer-running rivalry with fellow MGM queen, Norma Shearer. From her New Year’s Day 1925 landing in Hollywood, Joan had a seething, 17 year jealousy of Norma till the latter retired in mid-1942. When George Cukor -gay himself, and loving bitchfests- put them together in 1939 in the original and quintessential “The Women” (see: Gay Studies 101), they got along like two queen honeybees under a drinking glass in the hot sun.
    Young gays don’t care? It’s their prerogative to suit themselves, but they do so discarding some of the most consistently entertaining show business dish.

  • Felix

    This book is 20 or more years out of date. Gay people are “evolving” out of the narrow stereotype that this stupid tome is intent on enforcing.

  • DrewSF

    I agree with Henry Holland, the queens I met in the 80s and who I’ve met through the decades are some of the most hateful and backstabbing people you’ll ever meet, and it’s true that bitchy queens love to backstab other gay men. Even a good friend of mine who is effeminate admits that about gay men who are also effeminate.

    Of course if you say how this is true a queen will accuse you of having a lot of internalized homophobia, or call you femme-phobic. I have nothing against queens I just do not like the bitchy ones who pretend to be your friend and are anything but, and I have no interest in dating or sleeping with an effeminate man. I’m fine with being a gay man but I don’t feel the need to worship dead female movie stars or worship any wannabe “divas” with terrible music.

    As someone who has been out as gay for over 25 years I’ve noticed that Gay men particularly the nasty queen contingent demand and preach equality and acceptance but practice segregation, bigotry, hate, and intolerance down to the tiniest details towards people in the LGBT community who do not fit the mold of being either gay/lesbian and who are bisexual, and to people who are transgendered.

    It’s no surprise why in the United States LGBT people do not have basic rights like same gender marriage and lots of people do not like LGBT people.

  • Patrick

    @Kev C-Let’s be honest what gets called and passes as a “gay culture” is pointless and empty too! ;) I guess it makes me a “bad” gay since I don’t care about Joan Crawford, putting on women’s clothing, being a flaming queen, or Madonna.

  • Kev C

    @Patrick: It sure is, but that wasn’t what I meant.

    Mainstream culture has done everything they could to get away from the appearance of gayness. Look at Batman. The campy 60s TV show was totally gay, even though they gave us the most iconic villain actors yet unmatched. They needed darkness and fear without any tongue-in-cheek wit. And now we have nihilist Jokers shooting up Batman movies. Campyness is the antidote for the self-serious psychopaths.

  • Scott

    Kev C quit talking out your ass, camp is not any sort of antidote to a psychopath, and has no cultural relevance at all; but queens will claim that it does and say that you’re being “homophoic” or that you hate yourself as a gay man if you say this.

  • Kev C

    @Scott: p-ss off, troll.

  • Scott

    Kev C you’re the only troll here.

  • Kev C

    @Scott: Beavis and Butthead weren’t meant to be role-models, Scott.

  • brad

    @Felix: Actually, NYC is SWARMING with bitchy 19-23 year old gay men who act just like Joan in Mommie Dearest. We are not evolving, we are still stuck in the dinosaur ages. Sigh.

  • PTBoat

    @QJ201: Joan wasn’t much of a star to those of us in her forties, either, unless we took the time to know about her. It’s the same with all of those great artists from so many eras prior to our own births, one has to choose to be educated if one wants to appreciate their world. Even though the Liberal Arts education has met its demise, I’ll be that there are still some erudite, young gay people out there.

  • Phil

    Dwight Garrett’s review is not only disgusting and offensive but dangerously irresponsible. According to Mr. Garrett, gay identity is defined by either anal penetration or “culture,” which in this case mean drag and effeminacy. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that sexual behavior may be a function of culture, nor that there are other ways for two men to have sex that do not put their lives at risk, nor — most astonishingly — that being gay can simply be about loving other men! What a wonderful message he sends to young gay men.


    All the HATE ..amongst US gay people as if we do not have enough with the rest of the world everyday trying to erase US from the face of the earth ….so who cares if one lost gay does not know who Ms Joan Crawford is… or we do not agree with the writer and this and that ….. bottom line we are QUEER and we are here to STAY.. LETS LOOOOVE ONE ANOTHER …

  • Brian Smart

    I agree Phil!

  • John Crawford

    Well well here we have a situation prenagnt with possibilities and u called yourself a playwright==Fasten your seat bealts it going to be a bumpy night. U mean I didnt have to watch all those other old movies and could have stopped after Mildred Fierce Dam!!!!

  • Stephanie

    @Henry Holland:

    “The great value of traditional gay male culture, he further posits, perhaps even more challengingly, “resides in some of its most despised and repudiated features: gay male femininity, diva worship, aestheticism, snobbery, drama, adoration of glamour, caricature of women and obsession with the figure of the mother.”

    I want NOTHING to do with any of that…”

    Holland, in claiming to want “NOTHING to do with any of that,” seems a little backward. One thing that I personally find interesting about men who love men, but yet “worship” female images: You get the whole MALE dynamic in your personal life, yet also aesthetically incorporate the FEMALE dynamic, without actually having to sleep with women if you don’t particularly want to. Everybody needs to experience the whole spectrum, however they can, whether physically or aesthetically.

    Holland goes on to post other messages about how he likes football and other so-called “manly” activities. OK, um, but if you’re a gay butch man who likes football, et al, then you’re just as generic and dull as straight butch men who like football. In other words: Who cares? Way too much YANG there, which is why it’s not interesting to anyone. Too much butch guy YANG is obnoxious, just as too much femme girl YIN is obnoxious.

  • Stephanie

    @Henry Holland:

    RE: “Provincial”? Hahahaha, I love symphonic music, opera and ballet, a love I learned from my awesome Dad, but I’ve never cared at all for campy B-movies or female worship or snobbery –who the fuck worships snobbery?

    Liking ONLY “symphonic music, opera and ballet” while completely disdaining “campy B-movies” is the very epitome of snobbery and ignorance. Symphonic music/opera/ballet can be inspiring (thanks, awesome in-the-closet dad), just as campy B-movies can be inspiring. It’s always bizarre to me, especially in this day and age, how people like Holland always try to draw a black/white line between two things and never attempt to see the other side: male/female (good daddy/bad mommy), art/camp, you name it. It’s backwards and, frankly, stupid.

  • Anonymous Troll

    I’m glad I don’t need Joan Crawford anymore. I WANT Joan Crawford and there’s a big difference. I needed her at one time, let me tell you. Closeted, scared, fucked up and needing to know some other kind of drama than I had and some old time glamour. But now the more I know more about myself, Miss C and the world outside the gay bubble, the more lucky I am to be able to experience all those worlds. It is very freeing to be able to step into and out of each world and not feel confined to one or the other. THAT is liberation. Not the bars, not crack, not barebacking, not certain parties or clothing or phones, not Joan, not Liza, not fucking Madonna or goddamned emo bitch princess Amy Crackhouse or Lady Gaga Me With A Spoon.

  • Anonymous Troll

    By the way, the best website on the planet for knowing the REAL Joan Crawford, not the Mommie Dearest, not the camp, but the high level of connection and impact that woman had on World Society:

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