If you asked the average man on the street whether he could tell the difference between a gay man and a straight man, he’d probably say yes, citing a number of reasons such as differing fashion or music tastes, cultural references and mannerisms. He may even suggest that gay men behave in a more feminine manner. And, on hearing that, many gay men would be very offended. But why? Well, put simply, if you can still spot the gayness, they’ve been caught out. All that carefully executed ‘straight acting’ has come to naught.
Gay men don’t like it when their masculinity comes into question. Not all gays are effeminate, of course, but a lot are, and much of the homo world doesn’t like admitting it. We are not fond of reminders of the bad old days, you see. Once upon a time we wanted to be accepted for who we were; now we just want people to think we’re straight.
Up until the 1990s, the UK’s exposure to gay men in popular culture was largely restricted to overly-camp ‘whoopsie’ types of guys. They lived with their mothers and minced around, rolling their eyes and utterly sexless. It wasn’t a particularly flattering view, and gay commentators and tastemakers never tire of pointing out how unjust these stereotypes were on dire, nostalgic clip-compilation programmes. As a reaction to this, there began a slow trickle of movies and TV shows depicting what it meant to be a ‘modern gay’.
Queer as Folk, penned by the future saviour of Doctor Who Russell T Davies, kicked things off, and the standard seemed to be set for the next decade or so. It wasn’t unusual to see male gay characters playing football and hanging out with the boys drinking beer, most of them struggling to come to terms with how their sexuality could fit in with their life, and occasionally falling in love with their straight best friends.
Straight acting, then, moved into the mainstream. Just as the real straight guys were making doe eyes at David Beckham, discovering moisturiser and fake tan and getting in touch with their metrosexual side, the gays started to ‘man up’ and become more macho – or at least their version of it. The difference between straight and gay became increasingly difficult to spot.
One very well-known British TV actor, and beacon for the new generation of straightish gays, has openly spoken at his disappointment at the only gay role models available to him seemed feminine, bitchy and limp-wristed, that nobody seemed like him – an ordinary, straight-acting lad.
A couple of years ago, I sat in front of this very actor on an aeroplane. His ‘straight-acting’ posturing in interviews is just that – a great big act. He was just as caustic, gossipy and salacious as a lot of those gay stereotypes he’d previously decried.
The new gay ideal isn’t just to be accepted as an ‘openly gay’ man. We must now strive for further acceptance by being indistinguishable from our heterosexual equivalents. Rather than carve out our own identity, we ape theirs. Now, the new gay norm is the ‘straight-actor’ with the ultimate compliment being someone not spotting your sexuality. The ‘fems’ or ‘queeny’ guys are dismissed as outdated stereotypes firmly on the descent, but it’s a myth – they’re still everywhere, no matter how much their much butcher brothers choose to deny them.
ITV’s commissioning of Vicious, a new sitcom featuring a dramatic, caustic gay couple in their twilight years, has received a rather predictable reaction. Gay men desperate not to be pigeonholed have criticised the portrayal of the two lead characters as grotesque, camp stereotypes, even though played by well-respected (and gay) actors Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi. “This isn’t us!” they cry. “These are not my people!”
The characters do verge on the grotesque, of course, but they are caricatures, cartoons. They’re not aiming to represent the gay community (such as it is). It isn’t pretending to hold a microscope up to homosexuality. And men like that do exist. One could almost be forgiven for thinking some of the sensitive souls taking to social media to sound the ‘gay stereotype klaxon’ have actually recognised a few traits in the characters that they themselves have been known to display. Even the butchest of gay boys has a flounce every now and again.
Leaving aside the weaknesses of the script and supporting characterisation, what few have focused on is the great thing that Vicious is a sitcom with not just gay, but gay and elderly central characters. Yes, gay men get old! It may not be the step forward into total assimilation everybody thinks they’re looking for, but it’s a step for somebody out there, somewhere.
From what I have seen on the many dating profiles or social networking sites I scour, gay men don’t want to have sex with other gay men at all – they’re just interested in straights, or at least someone who can give a good enough rendition of one, despite the very deed of having sex with another man being the least straight thing you could possibly do. They’re at pains to point out how un-gay they are in an effort to attract more men. The word ‘masculine’ is bandied about so much that it loses all meaning.
Perhaps we secretly miss the homophobia of days gone by, and are more than happy to perpetuate it among ourselves, or maybe it’s all those years of being ostracised which make the gay man strive to fit in.
Whether we’re carefully arranging ourselves into ‘tribes’ or behaving in a more traditionally masculine way to avoid ‘standing out’, we just want to belong, even if it means we have to alienate or deny the existence of everyone else along the way. And we’d rather you didn’t point out the futility or unfairness of it all while we’re doing it, thank you very much. We already know.
This post was adapted from a blog which originally appeared in The Huffington Post.