Image problem: gay or straight, we are all actors. Image by Pacifico Silano, 'Male Fantasy' series
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Damian Barr: Why do so many gay men hate camp men?

Masc only”, “Str8 acting”, “Not into camp”. Strain your thumbs swiping Grindr and you’ll see a depressing amount of this prejudice. You’d think that, having been oppressed, we’d be more enlightened.

Violence has a way of crackling the air just before it erupts. Like with thunder, you feel it before you hear it. An oppressive atmospheric weight. Gay men develop a sixth sense for it. Walking home along Brighton seafront around midnight about a decade ago, I lowered my head passing a knot of trackie-suited loud-mouthed lads. I knew I was going to have to run and that if I didn’t run fast enough I was going to have to fight. And if I didn’t fight hard enough?

The seafront was almost empty, so I could sprint properly. After what felt like for ever I dared to look back. They were gaining. Was that a knife? I felt ashamed for not turning and fighting. I felt desperate to get home to my boyfriend. I thought of all the times I’ve had to run. I remembered that scene in Torch Song Trilogy where Harvey Fierstein and Matthew Broderick finally dare to move in together and one of them pops out to get a bottle of champagne to celebrate but doesn’t make it back. Would I make it home?

I did. Just. I slammed the front door and fell back against it, panting. Milliseconds behind, the gang slammed into it, pounding the wood, shouting “poof” and “queer” and all the old names. Shaking, I hauled myself upstairs. I didn’t bother calling the police because back then it wasn’t worth it. Next day I told my then boss, who blurted: “But you don’t look gay!” As the day wore on, this response recurred, often accompanied by a sympathetic side-head or a cup of what passed for tea. They were trying to be nice: so why did I feel hurt?

What those sympathetic, mostly female, colleagues were really saying was: “You don’t look gay . . . so you didn’t deserve to be chased.” The implication being that a more obviously gay man would be fair game. It’s the short skirt argument. It’s blaming the victim. It’s where homophobia and misogyny meet and metastasise: men who refuse to perform masculinity and women who refuse to be corseted by femininity deserve to be punished. Much progress has been made in the decade since I last ran for my life but the twin forces of homophobia and misogyny are far from defeated. Now we have slut-shaming and the bullying to death of gay teens on social media. We have Emma Watson getting rape threats for speaking about feminism at the UN, and Women Against Feminism, and the rise of the straight-acting gay man – the most homophobic man there is.

“Masc only”, “Str8 acting” and “Not into camp”. Strain your thumbs swiping Grindr, the gay dating app, and you’ll see a depressing amount of this prejudice. You’d think that, having been oppressed, we’d be more enlightened. The punishment on Grindr is to click BLOCK so the offending profile disappears. The camp man becomes the invisible man. He is relegated to a minority within a minority. Like Jewish guards in the ghetto, we now police one another – we chase ourselves late at night.

I am a white, English-speaking, middle-class man. More accurately, I am white as only a Scottish man can be: white like the armpit of a cavefish (if fish had arms). I am English-speaking but my aforesaid Scottishness affords me bonus cultural prestige, especially as my baritone burr is non-threatening and heather-scented. I am middle-class now but wasn’t always so – I am the first, and so far the only, person in my family to go to university. I was born a man and haven’t felt the need to change that. I am, for the moment, able-bodied. I have basically won the lottery of life. Except for my gayness. If you work in “the media” this can be a bonus and it’s no accident that I’ve made a place for myself in an ecosystem where I can not just survive, but thrive.

There is a growing resistance to the straight-acting gay man. “Masc” is just another mask and the straight-acting gay man is just that – an actor. The bromosexual chooses his clothes as carefully as any drag queen; his mannerisms are as studied, his voice as carefully modulated. He is trying to pass. But so is the straight man. It’s just that over centuries all his careful nurturing has been naturalised. He is the norm but he is not natural.

All men and women are oppressed by straight male masculinity but we are not all oppressed equally. Some of us are chasing and some of us are chased, but we are all running. It’s time to stop.

Damian Barr’s memoir “Maggie and Me” is published by Bloomsbury (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era