Once upon a time - as every fairy story must begin - Camp was something that could be spelt with a capital C. Well, it wasn't the Daddy Studs or the butch leather tops who rioted back on 27 June 1969 when the police fatefully raided the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village, New York. It was the drag queens who took to the barricades in their ball gowns, weeping over the death of Judy Garland five days previously. This was the hissy fit that changed history - and, in case you were wondering, also explains why fags are occasionally billed as "friends of Dorothy". If it weren't for Camp and its followers, there would be no gay liberation, no sense of Pride and definitely no Clinique three-step skincare range for men. And that would be terrible. For my skin.
OK, was that flamboyant enough? Brightly bitchy? Knowingly shallow? After all, I'm a screaming queen and I know how I'm supposed to behave, thanks to my good friend Dame Television. For what used to be spelt with a capital C is now a lower-case light-entertainment phenomenon, trolling the culture looking to put bums . . . on seats. Fairy Godfathers (Channel 4), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy US and UK, Straight Dates by Gay Mates (Living), Brian's Boyfriends (ITV), Red Carpet Bitch (VH1), Camp Jim (MTV) and all those How Not to Decorate shows on Channel 5 with the twinky Colin and Justin have taught me how to be a hag fag - a homosexual is a girl's best friend - to dress like a teenage girl and love it, and how to be absolutely fabulous, 24/7. It is such a gift to be able to get laughs at funerals, isn't it? No, not a gift: apparently a duty.
Now before all the Hampstead (Heath) intellectuals dip into their lavender inkwells and fire off offended letters evoking the spirit of Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag and Lily Savage, let me say that I have nothing against Camp. Au contraire. I am part of the generation that grew up with Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Larry Grayson, and, honey, let me tell you, I was grateful. Frankie, Kenneth and Larry were all we boys had - and it isn't as if these performers had any choice. The effeminate are born out - no passing for straight here - so it was the sissies who first had the uphill task of making homosexuality palatable to the masses, and they did it by making homosexuality, well, entertaining. Like First World War infantry, the Camp were the first to go over the top . . . and they've been going over the top ever since. Privates Inman, Everett, Barrymore, La Rue, Norton and Savage, we salute you.
Camp with a capital C was essentially subversive. It got you heterosexuals to swallow something you really, really didn't want to put in your mouths. It said the unsayable. Or at least made pointed use of innuendo. It had politics and purpose . . . and lurking fear. Dear god - what if Danny La Rue turned that sharp tongue on you? Even its negatives had a positive effect: gay men who detested the stereotype decided to be something else. If they weren't Camp, then what were they? Anything they wanted.
Or maybe not. Despite three decades of diversity, it appears that gay men are still best suited to be a) grooming gurus, b) fashion savants, c) food and wine connoisseurs, d) design doctors or e) culture vultures. Or worse. Take Dan and Marco from the last series of Big Brother (every home should have two). You know, camp but crap at it - the sort of flighty Nellie number who thinks he's hysterical and unfortunately is. How does Matt Lucas's Daffyd character put it in Little Britain? Oh, yes: "I'm the only gayer in the village." Shouldn't gay men have moved on?
I'll let you in on a little secret: we have. Peruse the gay personals and you will find that what everyone desires is a "straight-acting" partner. Or, to put it in the brutal parlance: "No fats or fems." It's not us but the heterosexual audience who, like Homer Simpson, want their "beer cold, music loud and homosexuals flaming". Lower-case camp is for them, not us, and never mind the claims of progress. In 2004, if gay men so much as lock lips on Corrie, The Bill or Footballers' Wives, record numbers of complaints are registered. Fact: it's one thing to be arranging cushions, but it's quite another to be biting pillows.
Thanks to lower-case camp, some heterosexuals now believe they are experts on gay culture. Why not? Perhaps it's the cost of joining the mainstream. If gay can be taught in weekly etiquette lessons - it's the bumming, stupid! - then why shouldn't the metrosexual Channel 4 commissioning editor I saw a few weeks ago lecture me on my faulty grasp of homosexual history, even if he does labour under the delusion that the Village People are an offshoot of the Countryside Alliance? Did I do wrong when I leaned over and patted him on the arm and said: "It must be wonderful to know all about television and blow jobs"? Should I really have lost my temper when Channel 4 wanted to call the two-hour documentary about gay performers which I was consulting on Poofs in Primetime? "The guys in the office think it's funny," I was told. "Don't you appreciate camp?" It is pretty hard to appreciate when someone at BBC3 turns down a proposal for a film on barebacking by quite rightly pointing out that 60 minutes on unprotected anal sex "isn't entertainment". Well, no - fascinating, perhaps, possibly even educational, but certainly not entertaining. (Ah, the Reithian imperative: don't tell me your problems, tell me a joke.) This is the curse, of course - lower-case camp mincing over its light-entertainment borders and becoming the one-stop shop, shop, shop on gay representation. (Quick, off the top of your head: name the last big serious gay documentary series you saw.)
It's all getting mighty queer - that is, the other sort of queer. Here's a stereotype teaching the joys of reinvention. On Queer Eye UK a few weeks ago, I saw a gay man advising a straight guy on how to propose to his girlfriend. Excusez-moi? Who do you think has given the matter of marriage more thought? The proffered advice - drop to one knee, produce ring, beg - made me laugh out loud, and I'm afraid I laughed even harder when I fantasised how the poor fellow might react if the make-over madame had recommended that he dump her, sleep around and do a tonne of drugs . . . Which is another classic gay image, but surely equally valid? Not that such words will ever be uttered. As the once-hot Julian Clary discovered to his cost, handmaidens at the heterosexual spectacle are licensed to go only so far. Makes a lad wonder if there's any point coming out of the closet if the majority still wants you in a straitjacket, even if it is cut on the bias and sprinkled with sequins.
John Lyttle is the producer of a session at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival called Poofs in Primetime