Camp Attack: ‘Camp-phobia’ in the gay community
From Kenneth Williams to Graham Norton, campness is generally a celebrated commodity in the world of entertainment and is loved by the masses. However, take it out of a televised setting and the idea of being camp is often derided – and arguably this is most true within the gay community. What causes this negativity towards camp behaviour, and is it actually a form of internalised homophobia?
While writing this article, I discussed the topic with some work colleagues, which led to me to ask them whether they knew I was gay when they first met me. As I think of myself as a masculine sort of bloke, I expected a resounding ‘We had absolutely no idea’ response; however I was met with a chorus of, ‘Of course we knew!’ My reaction was that of a fallen crest and I was, to my surprise, a little bit offended. I couldn’t quite figure out why I was hurt by their (accurate) assumption. I’m proud of being a gay man, yet I was offended by the notion that anyone would think I was gay and a flash of instant self-doubt entered my mind: ‘Oh god, do I act camp?!’ I don’t dislike camp behaviour, yet the thought that anyone would see me as camp terrified me. I consider myself to be a liberal, Guardian-reading, open-minded-until-my-brains-fall-out-of-my-ears kind of guy; so where does this hidden prejudice stem from?
Playing It Straight
For many of us, to be considered ‘straight acting’ can be the crowning achievement of our gay existence – the homosexual lifestyle equivalent of an Oscar or BAFTA. But why is being perceived as straight such a prized possession?
‘There is obviously a certain logic to not finding camp behaviour attractive,’ believes Philip, a 24-year-old copywriter and blogger from Shropshire. ‘If I’m going to generalise, as gay men, I think we are drawn to more masculine qualities and the idea of a ‘real’ man. Honestly, I actually believe that a lot of us simply resent being reminded that we’re gay.’
Could this be why so many of us emblazon ‘straight acting’ so proudly across our online dating profiles?
Philip thinks so, ‘Often, I think we see ‘straight acting’ as the ideal because it implies acceptance by their straight peers – If a man is straight acting, he is essentially straight – except for the bit about fancying other men! It’s probably a fear of standing out – and nothing stands out more than camp, flamboyant behaviour, so this can make us uncomfortable.’
Ian Howley, the Editor of FS, the gay men’s health magazine, believes a lot of internalised homophobia and fear of camp behaviour can originate from a regional level.
‘I think if you look at small towns and villages, they are a very straight-orientated world and gay lads seem to think that to fit into this world you have to act straight to be accepted. I remember when I met my first boyfriend and his mates, the internalised homophobia was crazy. They used to hate camp people and drag queens because of the attention they used to bring on the gay community.’
In a small town where every difference is noticed, gay men may seek to reject that which obviously sets them apart.
‘Where I grew up (Athlone, Co. Westmeath in the Republic of Ireland) there were no gay youth groups and no gay bars – there was nothing remotely ‘gay’ – but what I came to realise is that my ex-boyfriend and his mates had issues. None of them were ‘out’ completely. I think internalised homophobia is really a form of self-hate and jealously you project onto the ‘camp’ guy.’
Camp in the Community
It’s clear that as a community we can be pretty brutal to those we deem to be camp, often calling them ‘bitchy queens’ or dismissing them as a stereotype. Many of us do this so casually, we barely stop to think how it might affect the man in question, perhaps justifying our harsh judgement because camp men have a ‘sharp tongue’ or ‘biting wit’ (another stereotype). But what is it actually like to be gay, out and camp?
‘My family noticed that I had camp tendencies before I even recognised I did,’ explains Jack, a 20-year-old law student from Coventry. ‘People tell me that I have a fairly high pitched voice and I’ve been told that comes across as camp. The fact that I like fashion, carry a ‘man-bag’ straddled across my elbow is apparently also a giveaway and I think my height also makes me seem camper, as I’m smaller than most boys but I’m roughly the same height as all my female friends. Most people are very quick to count me as ‘one of the girls’.’
Even though he is considered to be camp, he explains that it’s generally something he avoids in potential partners.
‘Personally, I find people who act more straight to be the most attractive because I prefer the idea of a man as opposed to another gay person who acts in the same way that I do. I think it’s the differing aspect that I like. That said, I think people should behave how ever they like. I don’t believe that ‘straight acting’ gay people are necessarily better or more accepted. I know a few straight acting gay lads that other have others question why they act straight and not what they see as gay. I think all people will question the way people behave, no matter if they are gay or straight.’
Standing against Stereotype
Sometimes the rejection and distaste for camp behaviour can be a symptom of a perceived stereotype that some gay men fail to ‘live up’ to. 22-year-old Civil Servant Leo explains his experiences of being accepted as gay.
‘I’ve had a very turbulent relationship with the idea of campness. When I first came out to my friends and family they refused to believe that I’m gay because I wasn’t ‘gay’ enough. It actually took me showing my Gaydar profile for some of them to believe me. Even now in my current job, when I inform a colleague that I’m gay they don’t believe it, as I don’t act ‘gay’ or if I go to a gay club, I’m often asked at the door if I’m gay because I’m not screaming wildly in neon clothing and drunkenly reciting the lyrics to Steps. I don’t mind campness in men when it’s natural, but I dislike it when it’s an act. It irritates me and only fuels the stereotype of all gays being Gok Wan wannabes and the go to person for fashion advice or bitchiness. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people behave differently and there’s no such thing as ‘normal’, but it annoys me that as a community we preach about equality and acceptance and yet I feel like I’m being pigeon-holed into a certain kind of mannerism before I’m accepted for who I am.’
There is obviously an issue at large within the gay community that leads us to be prejudice towards ‘one of our own’ but what can we do to address it?
‘What some gay men’s discomfort around campness proves is that homophobia is both internalised in a fairly routine way among our own community and is ultimately a by-product of misogyny,’ explains award-winning journalist, columnist and broadcaster Patrick Strudwick.
‘The fear and hatred of the feminine and the rigid adherence to gender roles is what underpins individual and societal intolerance of homosexuality. The line so often rehearsed by gay men that they ‘I just don’t find campness sexy’ is so common and is left so unexamined as to represent a serious failing in us to look at ourselves in the mirror. Just as homophobic supposedly straight people fear us because of what we represent in themselves, so too does campness in other gay men trigger distaste around that which we know is in ourselves. Until we learn to love and embrace our own campness we will never truly be a community that looks out for one another.’
Perhaps, for a community with much-vaunted pride, we should be proud of our diversity, rather than sneering at the more effeminate members of our society? It may not be to your taste, you may not find it attractive but there is certainly nothing wrong with it. In a society where we strive for acceptance, how can we expect that from others when we can’t always do it ourselves?
Great article on an important topic, however I would take issue with Patrick Strudwick's statement that:
"What some gay men’s discomfort around campness proves is that homophobia is both internalised in a fairly routine way among our own community and is ultimately a by-product of misogyny".
There is another factor, which is that some - not all - men who are very camp (straight or gay) can be very, very loud and very, very in your face, sometimes in a combative or provocative way. This can be as uncomfortable to be around as a really shouty, blokey hetero guy, whose company woud be unlikely to be solcited by other, less brash/confrontational straight men. That doesn't make one hate camp or camp people - but we each need the freedom and space to be who we are.
Ultimately, the question being asked here is very important, but saying that x, y or z "proves" something indisputably is not helpful; the situation is not black and white (insert 50 shades gag), and there is a big ol' spectrum of camp (dear).
But let me say again, cool article, ta.
Probably the biggest reason for campphobia is that society expects gay men to fit in with the camp stereotype. When you're treated as something which is nothing like what you are, it's easy to get annoyed with the people who are furthering that image of gay people, rather than the person who is incorrectly assuming that gay=camp. Doesn't make it right, but it's a natural reaction. Basically I agree with what Leo said in the article.
I feel like there is an undertone in the article that gay men who aren't camp just haven't accepted themselves. I don't want to be an anything-acting gay man. I just want the freedom to be myself without people telling me what being a man or being gay have to mean.
@EducationNinja I'd highly recommend this article (by a femme guy) which examines the stigma surrounding femininity. http://t.co/IlXLrurK
@EducationNinja (1/2) You might also appreciate this article. It's had a huge influence on me and the way http://t.co/IlXLrurK
I think the argument is getting confused. No I dont find men who have female traits attractive just in the way that I dont find females themselves attractive. (But neither do I find Men with ripped muscles attractive.) The idea that makes me a self hating homophobic is ridiculous and is a form of homophobia in itself . Yes there are some gays who are anti camp but just because I dont find female traits in a man attractive does not make me an enemy of them its all about personal preference.
It really is sad this self-hating homophobic crap and well done for talking about it. And it is self-hating (an actor once told me that gay casting directors are the worst for prejudice against gay actors). I remember seeing this sort of thing on Gaydar - a lot: "No camp/fem - if I wanted a woman I'd be with a woman wouldn't I!!!!!". It made me want to stick staples in their eyes, not because I'm particularly camp but because the idea that a gay man is going to start justifying his own arbitrary preferences (or indeed hangups) by dismissing others' as abnormal or wrong is a sad little irony too far.
Yet: is this not a natural consequence of the way we tend to treat sex, as a commodity we can log on and get, as if ordering a movie from LoveFilm? I was similarly saddened by similar comments relating to race. "No Asians - I'm not racist it's just not what I'm into". Well, we can argue about what "racist" is til the cows come home, but what a revolting little line to put on your profile, and how unnecessary.
When clubbing recently I've twice had friends be on the receiving end of edgy, nervy, buff, slightly older guys telling them they ought to get to a gym and be more ripped. I like a nice body as much as the next wired queen, but if your own self-confidence is so precariously tied to the worship of the artificially sculpted body that someone with other values is perceived as a threat, something is seriously wrong.
I think Patrick's right on a link to misogyny too. The revolt and disgust - stagey or real - expressed by some gay men at the idea of - gasp - a vagina is... well, it's like little boys who haven't grown up yet and think girls are horrible. Hell, I see people on TWITTER of all places that describe their homosexuality in anti-feminine terms ("not a lover of prawn purses" is the one that springs to mind). I mean what? Really? You have just 160 characters in which to describe yourself and you've decided to say that you don't like women's genitals?
Is it a problem generally though? I so what is its impact? I usually end up just thinking "how sad" when I encounter anti-camp attitudes. As I do with those bitter yet complacent freaks who seem embarrassed by Peter Tatchell... Which is exactly what you'd expect of a community that won't look out for one another.
@windsorbuoy The last paragraph sums it all up. 'Camp' can be a dirty word - I've certainly used it like that in the past. Not any more...
@liamwaterloo @sosogay I honestly thought camp-phobia was referring to those who don't like tents and camping in the wild.
@Welshbeard probably my sheltered existence but straight acting to me means non comedic. Ex Shakespeare
@liamwaterloo good article, the only time I was "straight acting" was before I came out, and it was more literal than it's common usage.
@liamwaterloo @SoSoGay love the article. posted it on FB for all my camp & straight acting friends. thanks
Interesting article on an interesting topic that I’ve not seen covered elsewhere – thank you for writing and publishing it.
I don’t think the award-winning journalist, columnist and broadcaster Patrick Strudwick is entirely accurate in saying “The fear and hatred of the feminine and the rigid adherence to gender roles is what underpins individual and societal intolerance of homosexuality”. Recent research mentioned in the New Scientist (19th May) suggests it effectively boils down to a disgust of what gay men do to each other in the bedroom http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428655.700-why-gay-marriage-divides-the-world.html or as the Guyliner succinctly put in his blog on the Huffington Post - organized religion thinks “that gays are icky” and I think that would apply to other groups of people uncomfortable with gay men too http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/the-guyliner/gay-marriage-the-churches-real-reason_b_1379176.html .
A possible reason for the seeming importance of appearing straight has been, until recently, the very real threat of homophobic comments or violence. As the general population associates campness with being gay, it is therefore sensible to advertise yourself on a dating website as being straight-acting so that when out on a date with someone you are unlikely to attract homophobic abuse. You would expect older gay men to be particularly concerned with this, but younger men to be not so bothered, having grown up in a more gay accepting society. Not entirely sure whether this is the case with younger gay men as, sadly, I don’t come across many nowadays.
The term 'straight acting' is horrible, it enforces stereotypes and is just a symptom of a heteronormative society. I don't think masculine 'straight acting' gay men are internally homophobic, I think that they just (quite rightly) see being gay as something incidental to their personality, rather than being something that defines their personality. Its important to be proud to be gay, but I believe that to think of yourself as a 'gay man' as opposed to just 'a man' is again a symptom of, and a component to a homophobic heteronormative society.
@SoSoGay What about the opposite problem? Being told you're a "bad gay" for not being gay enough (really!)
@liamwaterloo Got half way through paragraph two, but then you wrote "fallen crest", and I instantly started thinking about Falcon Crest.
@liamwaterloo Great article, I can empathise a lot. I've been judged before for not being camp/gay enough. Bizarre really.
@adebradley would have been 1000x better with actual research & experts not just random peoples opinions. A bit lazy IMO.
@liamwaterloo I'm so straight-acting, I can't even read articles about campness.... *wipes glitter away from eyes*
@liamwaterloo @sosogay it should be legal to shoot anyone whose gaydar profile says "no camp/fem if I fancied women I'd sleep with one LOL"