While there are obvious fan studies classics, there are other books that don’t always fall into the “fan studies” canon that I have found incredibly useful for my own thinking. I cited one of them, Carol Dyhouse’s Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire (2017), a few posts ago; another is David Halperin’s How To Be Gay (2012)
How To Be Gay came out of a course Halperin taught at the University of Michigan, whose full title was “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.” The initiation in question was not sexual, but cultural: Halperin believes that there are not only gay texts, a gay canon of sorts, but also gay ways of reading that are taught and learned and that help constitute something we might call a gay subjectivity (that you don’t have to be gay actually to have): e.g. Hollywood movies, opera, Broadway musicals, camp, diva worship, drag, muscle culture, style, fashion, interior design. Halperin asked both why this set of things–why musicals? why this diva or that–and what do they tell us about gay experience? Halperin was trying to trace “gay men’s characteristic relation to mainstream culture,” which often involves collaborative and camp appropriation: a queering.
I find this book very useful, both because fandom also has its own shared languages and rites of initiation (consider the idea of watching something with fannish goggles or slash goggles or a fanfic lens, as was recently discussed in a previous post; think about all the languages and tropes and artistic structures we all learn from each other) but also because Halperin talks about modes of identification that aren’t representational or based obviously in identity politics. So, for example, he says that the gay male students in his class were more likely to express themselves vis a vis a shared text like The Golden Girls than vis a vis the traditions of what Halperin calls “good gay writing.” There is, Halperin argues, a queer pleasure in the Broadway musical that’s different than the pleasures of gay identity or even gay sex; similarly, queer female fans might find pleasures in identifying with, say, Sherlock, Crowley, or Blackbeard that are very different from the pleasures offered by a woman- or lesbian-centered text.
Here’s an excerpt that gives a good sense of the book, I think: fans might identify with this or recognize it as descriptive of their own fannish feels. (FWIW, the italics are all his!)
[H]omosexuality is not just a sexual orientation but a cultural orientation, a dedicated commitment to certain social or aesthetic values, an entire way of being.
That distinctively gay way of being, moreover, appears to be rooted in a particular queer way of feeling. And that queer way of feeling—that queer subjectivity—expresses itself through a peculiar, dissident way of relating to cultural objects (movies, songs, clothes, books, works of art) and cultural forms in general (art and architecture, opera and musical theater, pop and disco, style and fashion, emotion and language). As a cultural practice, male homosexuality involves a characteristic way of receiving, reinterpreting, and reusing mainstream culture, of decoding and recoding the heterosexual or heteronormative meanings already encoded in that culture, so that they come to function as vehicles of gay or queer meaning. It consists, as the critic John Clum says, in “a shared alternative reading of mainstream culture.”
As a result, certain figures who are already prominent in the mass media become gay icons: they get taken up by gay men with a peculiar intensity that differs from their wider reception in the straight world. (That practice is so marked, and so widely acknowledged, that the National Portrait Gallery in London could organize an entire exhibition around the theme of Gay Icons in 2009.) And certain cultural forms, such as Broadway musicals or Hollywood melodramas, are similarly invested with a particular power and significance, attracting a disproportionate number of gay male fans.
What this implies is that it is not enough for a man to be homosexual in order to be gay. Same-sex desire alone does not equal gayness. In order to be gay, a man has to learn to relate to the world around him in a distinctive way. (p. 12 – 13)