Comment: Are we too scared to be camp?

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Last week Boy George claimed that gay men are now less willing to stand out and attract attention.

Speaking about a brutal attack on a friend, the singer said most gay men now “want to look normal and fit in”.

It’s fair to say that some people might equate campness with this exhibitionist style and naturally, George’s statement will provoke a lot of debate among gays both young and old, those who remember Boy George’s 80s camp and kitsch heyday and the new generation of gay men that are emerging alongside their ‘straight-acting’ counterparts.

The ‘death of camp’ is a subject which comes around once every few years, with ironically bitchy vitriol directed at those who dare to be effeminate. Are we to believe then, that the modern gay man is rejecting the ‘camp’ in favour of the ‘macho’?

One argument for this is that, for gay men, ‘camp’ promoted visibility at a time when acceptability was only just being discussed. To be radically different from the rest of society promoted their cause and helped win the equal rights that many gay people now enjoy today. We could argue that an exaggerated ‘campness’ was used to fight prejudices and help in the battle for acceptance and equality, and by adopting a persona different enough from heterosexuality, or by refusing to moderate their own effeminacies, gay men got noticed.

‘Camp’ may still be a part of today’s culture as a kind of remnant from these past struggles. Faced with a new era of acceptance gay men no longer need to make such a statement and are able to adopt a more ‘macho’, possibly even, a more natural manner.

But who are gay men are trying to gain acceptance with? Homosexuality is becoming much more normalised, with many television programmes now featuring openly gay characters; EastEnders is all set to have its first civil ceremony and gay sportsmen now feeling able to come out and receive a pat on the back for doing so. There is still a long way to go in terms of fully-fledged acceptance in an area defined by masculinity, but rugby player Gareth Thomas and Swedish footballer Anton Hysén have followed in the footsteps of Justin Fashanu who bravely came out in 1990. Together they have paved the way for further acceptance of gay men, inside and outside of sporting arenas. Society’s attitudes to gay people have certainly changed considerably in the past decade and on the whole, Gay rights are in a much better place than they were in the 1990s and certainly the 1980s and men are now much more comfortable in expressing their sexualities and have been given safer environments in which to do so.

In danger of pointing any fingers, it is often gay men themselves who are prejudiced against ‘camp’ and effeminate males. Many are irritated by the potentially negative stereotypes that camp men have attracted and wish instead to promote being gay with masculinity and essentially heterosexual qualities – the ‘straight-acting’ man.

It is probably fair to say that it is the camp and flamboyant gay male that has had more exposure in society, and helped form the stereotype manner people associate with gay men; look at the character Kurt on Glee for an example. However, studies have shown that the majority of gay men are attracted to masculinity rather than effeminacy.

Research conducted in 2009 by Aaron Glassenberg at Harvard University showed that some “gay men found highly masculine male faces to be significantly more attractive than feminine male faces”. And other studies have hinted the same in terms of characteristics. It would seem that a lot of gay men are attracted to the ‘macho’ and not to the ‘camp’. Gay personals websites are now filled with men seeking out ‘straight-acting’ males as more desirable.

Following this logic then, it would seem that Boy George’s statement rings true, not just because gay men are afraid of drawing attention to themselves in a heterosexual world of judgment and incurring harm for doing so, but are also wary of putting off potential boyfriends by being too ‘camp’. Both of these issues may have something to do with a notion that ‘camp’ men are disappearing from society. It may be true that gay men are, on the whole, more attracted to masculine males but that doesn’t necessarily mean that inherently camp men are any more likely to reject their inner ‘camp’ simply because they might be found more attractive. In fact it follows that they are perhaps more likely to do so if they fear rejection from society or homophobic attacks.

The Metropolitan Police Crime Figures make for interesting reading here and have been reported quite a bit in recent months; homophobic crime has actually fallen in London by three per cent in the period February 2010 to February 2011. However in Westminster, an area which includes Soho and the traditional gay scene, homophobic crime has risen by 20.9 per cent across the same period.

Animosity towards gay people definitely still exists and is, in some areas, actually increasing. If anything, this is a definite motivation for gay men to avoid being ‘camp’ and it could also discourage them from dressing in what might be considered attention-grabbing manner, instead making them more likely to align themselves with the heterosexual majority.

Being ‘camp’ may be something that gay men choose to exhibit or it may be something they have no choice over, but what seems to be clear is, that aside from certain ‘safe zones’, whereby they are free to express themselves fully, gay men are now under pressure in certain areas of their lives to tone down and reject the ‘camp’, either through fear of attacks or judgment or because it is no longer attractive.