University of Michigan professor David Halperin gave his definitive take on “How to Be Gay” to nearly 150 students and faculty members Wednesday.
Halperin, who teaches the history and theory of sexuality, discussed queer theory and gay culture for an hour in Linsly-Chittenden Hall Wednesday evening. There are general sets of traits and interests that tend to characterize gay people, Halperin said, such as a love for vibrant social scenes and pop-culture icons like Lady Gaga. Though Halperin acknowledged that these traits do not apply to every individual, he said that such “cultural forms” can help gay people define themselves and their sexual orientation.
“Straight or gay friend of yours discovers that you are into interior design, you love cooking, you want a Mini Cooper convertible and you have a thing for Lady Gaga?” Halperin posed to the packed room. “Gee, you must be gay.”
Halperin said that gays often laugh at tragic situations, for example, to offset the seriousness of the suffering and discrimination they may face.
“Human calamities, such as AIDS, can become vehicles of parody,” Halperin said. “By forgoing any personal commitment, you imply that no tragedy — not even yours — should be taken completely seriously. This is a way of building a collective understanding and social solidarity.”
Halperin, who is openly gay, came to Yale after winning the James Brudner ’83 Memorial Prize, which is awarded annually for outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of lesbian and gay studies. The faculty Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at Yale announced Halperin as this year’s winner. The prize includes $5,000 and requires the recipient to give a public lecture on Yale’s campus.
Michael Warner, chair of the English Department and a member of Yale’s 2009-’10 committee on LGBT studies, said in his introductory remarks that Halperin was awarded the James Brudner prize for work performed over a lifetime of scholarship and activism.
“There is no one else quite like him,” Warner said. “[Halperin] has been witty and provocative, tireless in combating stigma and homophobia.”
Bruno Perreau, an assistant professor of French studies at MIT who is studying gender and sexuality in French youth, said he traveled to New Haven specifically to hear Halperin speak. Perreau said the speech was insightful, and helped to connect the different notions of queer and LGBT culture.
Ron Gregg, a senior lecturer in film studies, said he felt Halperin’s speech was profound, but did not engage with all aspects of gay culture.
“He’s intricately looking at one aspect of gay culture. There is so much more, and I think he confesses that.”
Halperin is the cofounder of magazine GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.