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)