Share via Email The man standing just along the bar is getting a lot of attention, and he's only been in here a couple of minutes.
His appearance may be something to do with it; the hair colour and the skin colour, for that matter, make quite a statement. But he's not the only one in here with bleached hair or a tan that owes little to natural sunlight. It's not just the look. He's also very camp. Indulge your most extreme stereotype of the effeminate gay man, and you won't be far off. It occurs to me, suddenly, that there seem to be fewer of these very feminine types around these days. Most of the gay men I know or see around me aren't camp at all: A small city like mine, where the gay scene amounts to one bar and a men-only ballroom dancing class, is perhaps not the place for flamboyancy to flourish.
But this is fairly typical middle England, the sort of place where millions live, and it has become pretty much a camp-free zone. I wonder about the man at the bar, with his loud shirt and louder personality. Strangely, some of the most thorough research was conducted by speech therapists — a lisp being one of the classic camp traits.
I'm interested in the reactions I'm seeing to the man at the bar. He isn't going down well. The men in the bar exchange disparaging looks, raised eyebrows, whispered comments. If it was a straight pub I would have expected this, but this is a gay bar, and virtually all the men in here are gay. Many gay men find "camp" entertaining, funny — attractive, even, as a personality trait in their friends and acquaintances.
But very few find it sexually attractive. That limp-wristed, bitchy queen might be hilarious, but you wouldn't want him as a boyfriend, or even as a one-night stand. Research has shown that 20 times more gay men who visit dating sites want a "masculine" or "straight-acting" partner than a "femme". Even the vast majority of gay men who identify as effeminate prefer masculine men as sexual partners, according to a study by the American Psychological Association.
By now we should be feeling a little sorry for the man at the bar. But what a strange term "straight-acting" is. Hardly empowering, at first sight. It appears to mean "copying the way straight men behave"; it implies faking.
Why should gay men choose a phrase like that to describe themselves? I think the choice of the word lies more in the psyche of sexual attraction. For many gay men "straight-acting" is highly attractive, but "straight" is even more so. So if you're looking for a description of yourself that will have the maximum appeal on your dating profile and can't use "straight", for obvious reasons, maybe "straight-acting" isn't so bad.
It's clear and descriptive, and it's fit for purpose, providing that you can overlook the implication that "-acting" means you're just putting it on. And what of this masculine gay man?
He isn't new, of course, he's always been there, especially in the leather subculture, but now he's mainstream, confident and critical of the short-comings of the camp-it-up gay scene. A friend of mine summed up the new attitude in a couple of sentences. He had been to Birmingham Pride to work on the stall of a gay outdoor pursuits group. I asked him how it had gone.
And what if the pressure to be "straight-acting" gradually squeezes out camp behaviour? Will we have lost something important? Perhaps we should be pleased to see it go, an unnecessary relic of a time when gay men risked prosecution and when a lisp and a limp wrist were a relatively safe way of communicating your sexuality to other men.
Or maybe it would be a sell-out, allowing ourselves to be railroaded into behaving like straight men — and, what is more, the kind of straight men who are most likely to give us homophobic abuse or a beating.
Perhaps gay men should view "camp" in the same way as we view a minority language or regional accent, something to nurture and encourage, even if we don't speak that way ourselves.