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?