Sunday, 25 July 2010

In defence of Ooh-missus!: why Andrew Pierce's article marks a worrying trend in the gay community

I've never met Andrew Pierce, but I can't imagine he's much fun in bed. His rather joyless little column in The Daily Mail yesterday, 'Why I, as a gay man, abhor these TV queens' follows in the footsteps of 'Why I, as a gay man, agree with the Pope' in February. Whether this is just lazy sub-editing on the Mail's part or old Andy is developing a camp sitcom-style catchphrase of his own is unclear. Nevertheless, it seems he is fast developing into the Mail's 'House gay' of choice.

There's nothing inherently wrong with criticising the attitudes or values of gay men, but take a look at the bile that drips from Pierce's fingertips in his latest offering. He rails bitterly against “the prancing, preening fashion icon Gok Wan”, the “lisping, limp wristed” Alan Carr, Graham Norton - “with his mincing, ooh-missus act” - and Julian Clary, “who has made an entire career out of making Larry Grayson look butch by comparison”. These “simpering, soppy, superficial cissies” give “ordinary [gay] men” a bad name, he says.

That the Mail has to resort to channelling its resentment towards the gay community through the proxy of a gay man is a strange victory of sorts for the gay rights movement, I suppose. Ironically, it is the history of that movement which Pierce owes his throat-clearing, 'as a gay man...' identity politics-stylee prefix to – a history he betrays by using his article to define himself against other gays. By so thoughtlessly bashing 'camp personalities' he inherently looks to set up a discursive divide between 'ordinary' gay men and 'camp queens'.

This seems to reek of a desperate plea for acceptance to his conservative audience; “Accept me, I'm not like them!”. He swears to them that most of his gay friends just want to watch Football and “worry far more about the state of the economy than over whether Kylie has found true love” (and what a hoot they sound!). Sadly, though, this kind of self-loathing should be placed in the context of a worrying trend within the gay community, where the more gay guys become integrated into mainstream society, the more they become embarrassed by their peers in the gay world. Go to any gay dating website and you'll see men describing themselves as, and looking for, “straight acting guys”; “no queens please”, “Sorry, I don't like camp guys”, and so on.

Many gay guys, at some point, feel alienated by mainstream gay culture and can become resentful. This is usually – like it was for me - just a stage on the path to self-acceptance, owing more to how we feel about ourselves and fretting over what our family or friends will think of us. The trouble is more and more gays are becoming stuck in that stage, legitimising it with the kind of intellectual froth Pierce echoes: gay identity doesn't 'define them', it's 'just who they fuck'; through this view, gay clubs, gay pride seem rather old hat. The corollary is often – as it is for Pierce – that all this is needless now gays have “genuine equality”.

But this is deeply misguided and dangerous for a number of reasons, not least because there are many remaining battles to be won by the gay community at home and abroad. Related to this, though, it ignores the history of camp. It was not 'ordinary gay men' who lead the Stonewall riots, kicking back against police harassment and sparking the gay rights movement in the Western world, but drag queens. That movement was not led successfully by people who defined themselves against others being oppressed or denigrated in a scramble for the lifeboats, but who wore their homosexuality proudly, loudly and with a sense of togetherness and brotherhood against outright hostility.

Most fundamentally, the gay movement which 'camp' spearheaded has achieved what it has because it was radical. It was not fuelled by a desire for Pierce's conservative ideas of equality (non-discrimination, marriage etc.), it has just come to land there in modern times. It was originally linked to a much wider political and social critique; it wanted to change institutions not just be accepted by them, to challenge conservative ideas of 'normal' gender roles not be subsumed within them. Through this prism calling camp an 'act', even if true (a tricky argument anyway based on its complex interaction with orthodox femininity), misses the point and betrays the original cause. Such ignorance could also partially explain so much of the gay worlds disgraceful treatment of transgender members of the community.

I don't mean to imply here, as Peter Tatchell has, that any gay who is not a radical is a sell-out. It is rather that people who bash 'camp' at least partially owe it the comfortable place within mainstream society (and columns in the Daily Mail!) from which they emit their prickish sneers, and should understand and respect its place within gay history.

Just because people like Pierce feel they don't need gay identity, or gay clubs, or gay pride, doesn't mean others cast out by their families or society don't. What binds gay men is not just 'who they fuck' but a shared history of exclusion, denigration and (until recently at least) out right oppression.

Articles and attitudes like Pierce's splinter solidarity and carry within them historically illiterate, depoliticised concepts of sexuality and identity. As worryingly, they are complacent, potentially offering a new cloak for those who wish to attack the gay community or unpick its successes. I've lost count of the number of times straight guys have said to me words to the effect of “You're fine, it's the mincers I don't like”. It will not do for people like Pierce to legitimise this modern form of homophobia. It's high time they thought twice before being so selfish and lazy, and recognised whose rather more fabulous shoulders they stand on.

Twitter: @SteveAkehurst

Also see: The hilarious David Hoyle's little rant!