Anthony Cotton and our contempt for camp

Straight acting. It’s a weirdly self-referencing, self-loathing little term. One that when isolated to a single sentence on a gay dating profile seems incongruous yet harmless – a queer flourish in a resolutely anti-queer façade. Recent years, however, have seen this term develop and mutate into something altogether more worrying.

Last week the out gay actor Anthony Cotton revealed the extent of the hostility directed towards him in Manchester’s Gay Village. Oddly, the homophobic abuse wasn’t from straight viewers, but gay men.

Speaking at Manchester Pride fringe festival, Cotton said, ‘I get a lot of stick from people who say, and these are people who are 21 years old, “You’ve put the gay cause back 21 years.”‘ Whether it was his character, the actor’s portrayal of the character or the actor himself they’re against is somewhat unclear and yet, grimly, one suspects it’s all of the above.

It seems unlikely that anybody who would care to take more than five minutes contemplating the difference in public perceptions of gay men over the last twenty years would agree, but it seems more and more commonplace in the younger circles of gay men to equate a range of very particular characteristics as unacceptable, ‘offensive’, or somehow regressive.

What we risk forgetting is that our tastes are being dictated to us. Worryingly, our sexual trends are appearing to be dictated by an overtly heterosexist peer pressure, where binary modes of ‘masculinity’ are represented by crude, dated signifiers. Facial hair, musculature, clothing, hairstyle and even accents are used to build composite images of masculinity that we are meant to aspire towards.

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What starts as a harmless diversion or a whimsical fantasy soon turns into a dangerous value system that we begin to judge each other by. What’s worse, not only is this juvenile scale encouraging self-hatred and damaging our own self-esteem, it’s homophobic, racist and classist.

If black or Asian queer men are represented at all, it’s in hyper-sexualised, fetishistic and racially questionable settings. East and South East Asian men get dragged up in bizarre, out-dated Orient-themed theatre; and the black male body is sexualised in the way only a superior white male gaze could ever bestow. Meanwhile, regional accents that we consider working class or representative of poverty, low class or little-to-no education are parodied and mimicked as signifiers of strength, but at the same time vilified and mocked as sexually malleable, stupid or exploitable (see any porn claim that a ‘Str8 Scally Lad Will Do NEThing 4 CASH!!’).

So, while we degrade ourselves by limiting our own outlook, we also perpetuate the very homophobia that for decades has been quietly creeping into an ever more acceptable form of mainstream outlet, and then we give it our approval.

We say to the heterosexual man that being gay is only ‘acceptable’ if we are seen to integrate into a cisgender, heterosexual value system of acceptance. And we reinforce that message every time we dismiss the limp-wristed, the femme, the fag, the queer or the fairy. We reinforce it every time we mock the theatrical and the camp – and we devalue our own cause as we do it.

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If we accuse the slightly effeminate or ‘obviously gay’ traits as inferior to apparently more overtly ‘manly’ characteristics, we effectively say that we are anti-diversity and anti-equality. We say that to be hidden and to be disguised is to be acceptable and tolerated.

The awareness of queer issues and LGBT+ rights has been undoubtedly accelerated by the increased visibility of actors such as Anthony Cotton.

The actor himself says of his character, Sean: ‘The fact he’s never had to explain himself makes him the most political gay character in soap.’

And he’s not wrong. Openly gay comedians, camp entertainers and shamelessly effeminate queers up and down the country have done more to push the LGBT+ agenda forward decades, not set it back. The truth is that while you may prefer to wake up to a man who looks like a straight woman’s version of a hero, no queer man will ever achieve anything for the cause by pretending they are straight.

If we fail to support and celebrate our varied cultures, we face an unfeasibly bleak future – and all for the sake of saving a straight-looking face.

Illustration by Mark Ferbrache.