Rainbow List 2014: You don't have to play it straight - it's fine to be naturally butch, camp or anything in between

This year's Rainbow List shows that gay men can succeed simply by being ourselves

Matt Cain
Sunday 09 November 2014 01:00 GMT
John Inman playing Mr Humphries in Are You being Served?
John Inman playing Mr Humphries in Are You being Served?

As ever, I welcome the publication of this year's Rainbow List as a brilliant way of celebrating LGBT people who are helping improve our position in society. But I also see the list as a barometer of how we LGBT people feel about ourselves. And, as a camp gay man, I have a special interest in gauging how it reflects our ongoing relationship with camp. Because the effeminate gay man may be one of the oldest stereotypes in existence but it's still at the cutting edge of gay politics and identity.

For years, the Rainbow List, and its predecessor Pink List, has proven to everyone in Britain that LGBT people come in all shapes and sizes. It has helped educate those without much experience of gay men that we're not all hairdressers who like listening to Kylie and dressing up in women's clothes, but can also be lawyers, politicians and sportsmen – often with no eye for fashion and a complete inability to sing a show tune. But in the fight to break free from the stereotype, some of the more camp members of our community have been left behind. And often vilified by other gay men.

Comedians like Alan Carr and Graham Norton have been publicly accused by other gay men of playing up to an outdated, dehumanising stereotype popularised by the likes of John Inman and Larry Grayson – and used in the past to put us in our place. But the truth is that both Carr and Norton aren't, by nature, very masculine, whether or not they choose to accentuate this into full-blown camp for comedic purposes. Why is it that this makes gay men so uncomfortable?

I admit that when I was growing up I used to hate those limp-wristed gays who flounced around calling each other girls' names but I can see now that this was because I wasn't entirely happy with my own sexuality. Years of hearing other people mock the camp in myself left part of me feeling repulsed by the same trait in other people. I've now worked through this internalised homophobia and learnt to embrace my identity as a camp gay man. But not everyone in the gay community has done the same.

You only have to look at any dating website or hook-up app to see how many times the phrase "no camp guys" appears. The most sought-after men are the ones who are what's known as "straight-acting". But for me this is problematic; doesn't the word "acting" imply some kind of concealment of one's true nature? And I don't see how it can be healthy for gay men to be disgusted by any overt display of their sexual identity. A community that can only be happy playing at being straight obviously isn't at ease with itself.

An uneasy relationship with camp isn't just confined to within the gay community. All right, if you're a fun, flamboyant gay man, everyone wants you at their party – but this shouldn't be confused with acceptance or respect. During my career as a broadcast journalist, one TV exec told me not to "camp it up" on screen or I'd be seen as a lightweight. I insisted I wasn't affecting any kind of persona but simply being myself. And I resisted all attempts to deepen my voice or adopt a more masculine walk, refusing to accept any correlation between camp and a sense of authority.

But some of the reactions I received during my time as culture editor of Channel 4 News show that my opinion isn't shared by everyone. "Who is this camp cabaret artist?" tweeted one viewer the day I first appeared on screen. "I just can't take him seriously." When I left the role three years later, the Sunday Times TV critic A A Gill compared me to Basil Fotherington-Thomas, a character from a now obscure series of 1950s novels who's described on Wikipedia as "an effete and loathed sissy". In case anyone missed the point, Gill added that watching me report on the arts was like watching Wayne Sleep trying to play darts. The message was clear; camp gay men might make great ballet dancers but they shouldn't try to be heavyweight news journalists.

I believe that anyone attacking a gay man for being camp is guilty of homophobia – and this is true whether that attacker is straight or gay. So I'm happy to see so many camp men celebrated in this year's Rainbow List because this sends out a positive message about how the LGBT community is evolving. It shows that we're finally learning to love and accept each other exactly as we are. Because we shouldn't be under any pressure to act straight but nor should we be making any kind of effort to camp it up. It's fine to be naturally butch, camp or anything in between. And this doesn't mean we're suited or unsuited to any particular roles in society.

So I'm happy to be making my debut on this year's list. And I'm proud to be doing so as a gay man who can tell a mean dirty joke and loves slut-dropping to Madonna but also writes novels and has a degree from Cambridge University. Because, yes, I'm camp but I'm not just camp.

Matt Cain's debut novel, 'Shot Through the Heart', is published by Pan Macmillan

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