Move over, Mr Humphries: The changing face of gay culture

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After decades of camp stereotypes on film and TV, gay culture is not only mainstream, says Philip Hensher, but is booming. He salutes Doctor Who, The Wire and Glee, but wonders why it has taken so long for homosexuality to become unexceptional

Look around you, and you'll see, reflected in culture, a thousand ways to be gay. There is Lafayette Reynolds, the drug-dealing cook in HBO's True Blood, or there are Mitchell and Cameron in ABC's Modern Family. There are the doomed cowboys in Brokeback Mountain or, shortly, there will be Tom Ford's directorial debut in an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood classic A Single Man. There is Captain Jack from Doctor Who and Torchwood, or there is the gay student Kurt Hummel in Fox's hit Glee. There is Sacha Baron Cohen's grotesque Bruno, and the deeply closeted Salvatore in Mad Men, but there is also Omar in The Wire with his shotgun and his blue silk pyjamas. (President Obama declared Omar to be his favourite character in the series, and it was a popular choice).

No sitcom, no television drama, not many ensemble films, and few novels with pretensions to be socially extensive can do without a gay character or two, and if some of these are painfully stereotypical, others are honest and convincing. A young person growing up gay can find a meaningful reflection of how he feels at the multiplex and in long-running popular or family TV series without too much difficulty. He will have to winnow out a lot of vile homophobia and hostility. But at least he will find himself there, and may consider himself fairly lucky compared to his lesbian friends, who remain more or less invisible.

It wasn't always like this. It's easy to look back and laugh at the representations of gay people in popular culture from thirty or forty years ago. Dick Emery's character Clarence, Lieutenant Gruber in 'Allo 'Allo!, and the camp personas of Larry Grayson or Charles Hawtrey are all directed at one particular audience: the audience which had never knowingly associated with a gay person. If the films, books and television series have changed beyond recognition since then, it must be down to one fact. The number of people in the modern world who don't know a gay person must be vanishingly small.

In 1970, it was an exceedingly brave act to "come out", to announce to friends, family and acquaintances that one was homosexual or lesbian. And, in fact, many people for years limited their coming out, stopping short, for very good reasons, of their employers or professional associates. Forty years later, the situation has entirely changed. I would say that, in Britain, the gay or lesbian person who lives a life of concealment and deception is much less common than in the past, and fewer and fewer people under 50 even understand the reasons for living like this.

Stereotypes could be sustained in the 1970s because most people watching a sitcom or a drama were not at all likely to know what a gay person was like. That goes for both straight and gay viewers: many people who knew themselves to be gay also felt themselves solitary in their condition, or a member of a small and beleaguered community. The real-life gay people most Britons could recognise or identify would almost certainly be the ones conforming to the most predictable stereotypes. The stereotypes on-screen and off reinforced each other.

Those camp representations – Mr Humphries, Dick Emery, Larry Grayson – have been long written off. There were perfectly serious attempts to depict gay people and relationships of the period, however, which see nothing wrong in depicting gay people exclusively in terms of camp. A Thames television series of 1976, The Crezz, about a West London middle-class crescent, now long forgotten, made a big impact on me with its frank account of a gay couple among the neighbours. (The gay-themed episode is entitled "Bent Doubles": you couldn't get that past the compliance-wallahs who run broadcasters these days). And of course there was the magnificent 1975 dramatisation of Quentin Crisp's autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, also produced by Thames, which should demonstrate in its disarming accuracy that those glamorous stereotypes were not, in fact, without any basis in truth.

What was wrong with these images of gay people were not that they were insulting, nor that they were inaccurate, nor that they were unfunny. The trouble was that they were a portrayal of only a narrow reflection of gay people's experience and nature. Over and over again, talking to gay people who grew up in the 1970s, you hear the view that they knew they weren't like Mr Humphries, but had no idea, from television or films, what sort of person they might grow up to be. You might say that it is not culture's job to reflect every possible sort of human being – some of them might not be that entertaining to watch, after all. Or you might think that a rich source of human variety was being closed off by the acceptance of a few thin stereotypes as the whole of the truth.

Film made a little bit more of an effort. William Friedkin's movie of the Mart Crowley play, The Boys in the Band (1970), tried to portray a range of gay types; Luchino Visconti's 1971 Death in Venice presented an obsessive love as profound and tragic; 1972's Cabaret went back to Weimar Germany to discover gay love as just one of a range of ways in which people fall in love or do things in bed with each other. By 1980 William Friedkin was introducing the gay leather scene to a bemused audience in Cruising, starring Al Pacino. It was undoubtedly sensationalist, but also a genuine, and apparently rather authentic representation of the extreme gay-sex clubs in the Meatpacking district of New York in the late 1970s. At the time, gay people protested in large numbers against the film, not only when it was released, but even during its filming. Today it looks, if not harmless, then certainly not likely to arouse such negative feelings. I saw it being played in the background in a Florence gay bar only three months ago, to nobody's apparent objection.

If you ask why gay people objected so strongly to Cruising in 1980, the answer is simple: they never knew when they were going to be depicted on screen again. They didn't want to go down in history represented only by a queen faffing about with a lavender cravat, or by a bloke with a moustache in a leather jockstrap being fisted on a bar. The fear that the depiction of gay men might stop while we were still in the stereotype phase seems to have gone away. Perhaps, now, we are in something of a golden age.

For once, television took the lead, with Russell T Davies's Queer as Folk for Channel 4 in 1999. Falsely remembered as a story exclusively about glamorous young gay men having promiscuous sex, it actually portrayed an impressive range of gay types, including the older leather-queen Bernard, a respectable Australian accountant, a closeted-at-work supermarket manager, and any number of nightclub grotesques and topless heroes. At the same time, Hollywood seemed to be going through a much more limiting gay-best-friend stage, with My Best Friend's Wedding and the bizarre Tom Selleck vehicle In and Out. It is difficult, too, to remember that the sitcom Will and Grace, about a straight female interior designer and her gay male flatmate, was hailed from its start in 1998 onwards as a breakthrough. What seems most striking now is its squeamishness about admitting that its gay male characters might fall in love in any kind of permanent way.

Will and Grace seems on the other side of an enormous divide, and the name of the divide is Brokeback Mountain. It seems odd now that 1970s campaigners complained that gay love affairs in movies always ended tragically. By 2005, a movie which, in many ways, had not moved on in its attitudes from 1970s tragic-gay-love movies seemed like a revelation. Perhaps it was the beauty of the film, or its emotional intelligence, or the amazing fact that it had been made at all – the screenplay, of a story by Annie Proulx, had been doing the Hollywood rounds for years, and had acquired the reputation as the best screenplay which would never be made. But few people seemed inclined to wonder why a gay love affair in Hollywood always ended with one partner dead in a ditch – the same thought that people had been having for 40 years. Brokeback Mountain seemed like an enormous step forward from the sexless, campy, fun-best-friends roles of the previous years.

But in the meantime, television was carrying out a quiet revolution. Many of the best and most acclaimed television series since 2000 have included a gay character as a matter of course – Six Feet Under or Desperate Housewives have their gay characters and their gay-themed storylines, announced without special pleading or self-consciousness. The Wire includes gay characters as a matter of course within its immense panoply of human behaviour. It, astoundingly, takes for granted that a woman police officer or a gangster may be just as likely to be lesbian as any other woman – it is sad that Kima's home life and occasional bar-hopping, or Snoop's thuggish lechery and pick-ups remain pretty well unique across American television.

Most unforgettably, there is Omar, who robs and shoots up drug dealers, who loves his grandmother and who, in between, beds men and clearly falls in love with them. Omar, wonderfully portrayed by Michael K Williams, takes everything for granted, and has a spectacular sense of style. In one scene, universally regarded as a classic sequence of television, he gets out of bed on a Sunday morning and, dressed in cerulean silk pyjamas, goes down to buy a box of cereal – the terrified street emptying before him, crying "Omar walking" in his menacing path.

American television has historically always been written and, often, performed by gay men – Frasier is a famous example. It is not surprising that they are using the medium to examine the topic. The 1960s advertising-agency series Mad Men's deeply closeted Salvatore is a subtle and accurate historical portrayal of a particular type. HBO's hit vampire series True Blood not only has explicitly gay characters, but may be about gay society in some allegorical sense. It's difficult to say: the allegory in True Blood seems to go in pretty well any direction you choose to take it. The genres, one after the other, are falling, and room is being found for a gay character in police procedural, horror, historical, comedy, even science-fiction programmes.

Russell T Davies used the revival of Doctor Who as a Trojan horse to smuggle stereotype-destroying characters and stories into mainstream television. At the end of David Tennant's farewell at Christmas, the Doctor used his powers to facilitate a pick-up between his omnisexual companion Captain Jack and a good-looking boy in a bar, played by Russell Tovey. You had to reflect that a barrier in children's television had fairly definitely been crossed by now. Theatre, too, takes it for granted as a subject now – the bisexual comedy Cock was a sell-out at the Royal Court, as was Alan Bennett's drama about Auden and Britten, The Habit of Art.

There is a question, however, about how effective some of these uses of gay characters are, particularly in popular culture. The American media are always quick to reduce a powerful original to a conventional template. This means few dramas now will be made without a gay character to go with the single black character and, increasingly, the single disabled character. The new high-school series Glee is an engaging and entertaining watch, but it covers the bases in an almost parodic fashion, scrupulously not allowing more than one of each.

And, despite everybody's best intentions, there remains a stubborn hardcore of anti-gay abuse posing as comedy. Gay men are not generally averse to a bit of mockery; they rather loved, if my observations are accurate, the BBC series Little Britain, Catherine Tate's "how very dare you" character, and the characters Ralph and Ted on The Fast Show. The deathless episode of Graham Linehan's The IT Crowd in which our heroes see a gay musical called Gay! The Musical is a favourite round our parts of south London.

But a new tone of frank, abusive hostility crept into the comic discourse some time in the last ten years. Chris Moyles entertains his radio audience by using the word "gay" as an insult. The spectacularly unfunny Jimmy Carr makes a point of offending PC rostra in his routines, though he carefully stays away from racial humour; it's easier, it turns out, to abuse women, gay people and the disabled. Sketch shows like Al Murray's, or Matthew Horne and James Corden's, got laughs with the mere idea of a gay Nazi (the Nazis put gay people to death, Al, in large numbers) or a gay war correspondent.

Where Sacha Baron Cohen's startling movie Bruno fits into this new tradition of straight comedians portraying gay characters is somewhat harder to say. Certainly, the effect of the film was to show rather a lot of heterosexual people in a state of complete terror and panic in the presence of a different sexuality. On the other hand, the film also sought to raise an ill-natured laugh at the simple idea of two men getting married to each other, something that has been legal here for years now.

Surely, you thought, every member of the audience must know two men in a relationship with each other. Trying to raise a laugh by the sight of a gay marriage is not very far from trying to raise a laugh with a shot of a white man marrying a black woman. In a very few years, we will surely be watching some of this, a sketch by Al Murray or Jimmy Carr using the word "benders", not with disapproval, but with genuine bafflement. Just as, when we watch the 1970s sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, or listen to an Elizabethan routine on cuckoldry, we can't see what was meant for humour, so, I believe, ten years after Milk (2008) – about the first openly gay man to win public office in California – won its Oscars, will we look at a sketch about a gay war correspondent.

As always, popular culture lags somewhat behind the novel. Shortly, the fashion designer Tom Ford will make his directorial debut with A Single Man. The word on the film is very strong; Colin Firth gives a powerful performance as a 1960s academic mourning his dead lover. The film, however, is of a classic novel from 1964 by Christopher Isherwood, one of the novelist's most admired works.

It seems utterly extraordinary that the attitudes of film have taken 46 years to catch up with the attitudes of the novel. Film-makers are not obviously less sophisticated or intelligent people than novelists, after all. And yet other supposedly ground-breaking films, such as Death in Venice, Brokeback Mountain or Merchant-Ivory's Maurice, often turn out, too, to be films of quite famous and sometimes rather elderly books.

The moral seems to be this: what in popular and mass culture seems outrageous, courageous and new, would be the purest old hat, if only we had taken the trouble to pick up a book once in a while.

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