How to Be Gay
The first hint of trouble came in an e-mail message. It reached me on Friday, March 17, 2000, at 4:09 p.m. The message was from a guy named Jeff in Erie, Pa., who was otherwise unknown to me.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why Jeff was writing me. He kept referring to some college course, and he seemed to be very exercised over it. He wanted to know what it was really about. He went on sarcastically to suggest that I tell the executive committee of the English department to include in the curriculum, for balance, another course, entitled “How to Be a Heartless Conservative.”
It turned out that Jeff was not alone in his indignation. A dozen e-mail messages, most of them abusive and some of them obscene, followed in quick succession. The subsequent days and weeks brought many more.
Eventually, I realized that earlier on that Friday, the registrar’s office at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where I teach English, had activated its course-information Web site, listing the classes to be offered during the fall term. At virtually the same moment, the Web site of the National Review had run a story called “How to Be Gay 101.” Except for the heading, the story consisted entirely of one page from Michigan’s newly published course listings.
So what was this story that was too good for theNational Review, which had evidently been tipped off,to keep under wraps for a single day? It had to do with an undergraduate English course I had just invented called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.”
The course examined how gay men acquire a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world, a distinctive sensibility. It was designed to explore a basic paradox: How do you become who you are? Or, as the course description put it: “Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn how to become one.”