The Elusive ‘Great Dark Man’? Gays Get Some Self-Respect

Camp phobia is rife on the gay scene. It’s time we ditched the old stereotypes and started having some self-respect as we embrace our individuality, says Alex Hopkins.

“Oh Alberto, have you heard Shirley Bassey’s new album?” the shrill, camp voice rang out from the right hand toilet cubicle.

“No,” grunted the blatantly bored and clearly paid for Alberto from the adjacent cubicle.

“Oh well, never mind,” sighed the nameless extra from ‘Julian and Sandi’. “Come over here and hold my winkle for me.”

It was an interesting moment. In the cramped, grubby confines of the bog of a bar I was witnessing something quite rare in gay life – the brief, crashing sound of the worlds of camp and sex meeting. It felt awkward.

As much as camp is an integral and vital part of our gay heritage, it has always been taboo to bring it into the sacred confines of the boudoir, or in this case the cottage. The two simply don’t seem to mix; having Like a Virgin blaring out while you’re going down on the latest piece of trade isn’t considered much of a turn on.

You only have to look at the hook-up sites, those modern barometers of our self-worth, to get a glimpse of gay men’s attitude to camp: “Straight acting”, “Non camp,” “No Fems”, it’s as tedious as the rancid posed pictures in front of the mirror with the smartphone.

Yet looking at these profiles you can’t help but wonder what the poster himself is like. Is he really some naturally muscled, butch labourer type who spends his weekdays fitting kitchens and his evenings boozing with his burly, belching straight mates as they watch a Millwall football game?

Or is he really just another super-hyped gym queen, projecting the outward exterior of the gruff, aggressive top, when actually, he likes nothing better than to sneak home from a helium-heeled session at The Hoist and chill out to Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall concert, lip synching frantically to The Trolley Song, while tweaking away on the Tina?

There are many facets to every person, yet all too often on the gay scene we are expected to fit one particular mould. We’re supposed to do this effortlessly and completely, naturally embodying one of the prescribed types that we’re assured has the ultimate “gay” sex appeal.

There’s nothing very subtle about the groups we’re sold. Muscle man, twink, leather queen – their uniforms, postures and types of behaviour are frequently predictable and, ironcially, as camp as a Liberace performance.

Yet all the while we’re maniacally fashioning ourselves in to super men some part of us knows that there’s another part we’ve hidden away. It’s often the part that we know it isn’t fashionable to show – that bit that we worry might make us a less desirable commodity in the gay marketplace.

This secret part of ourselves has a name – it is called our individuality. Gay men are amazingly adept at wearing different masks. It can be empowering and exciting. It can protect us. Sometimes though, the danger is that we begin to select the same two or three masks all the time and our real face is left languishing, forgotten at the bottom of the dressing up box. There’s nothing very special about the masks we’ve chosen if we’re also sharing them with thousands of others.

Recently I rewatched the DVD of Quentin Crisp’s novel ‘An Englishman in New York’. Crisp was a man who didn’t believe in wearing masks at all. He was uniquely himself. While homosexual identity was evolving all around him, unabashed, he refused to change. It caused him problems. It made him stand out. It also made him a sexual pariah.

In his first novel, ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, Crisp famously fantasised about a figure he called The Great Dark Man, saying:- “If the Great Dark Man met me, he would not love me. If he did love me, he could not be my Great Dark Man.”

These are melancholy words, embodying an internalised homophobia that we like to claim belongs to the past. Yet, looking around the gay scene now, these words seem to be just as relevant as they were back then.

As gay men we are so frantic to fit the very limited moulds that we’re told will make us ‘a number’ that we often lose sight of who we really are, of the person we were when we were growing up and of the dreams we once had.

The compulsive attempts some gay men go to in order to fit these templates seem to be evidence not only of a severe lack of self esteem, but also of an almost over powering sense of shame. We’ve come this far and yet a part of us is still buying into Crisp’s self-hating words.

It’s time we relegated Crisp’s words to the closet. Gay men need to have the courage to step away from the crowd, to have the self-confidence to get back in touch with their quirkiness and boldly claim that the great dark man they seek will love them for the uncompromising sense of self that they display, and that it is precisely because he loves them for this that he is their great dark man.

Yet only by discarding the wholly predictable masks of gay conformism can we start to search at the bottom of that dressing up box for our real faces again. How often do you hear gay men complaining that they cannot find their ‘soul mate’?

Yet the truth is that until we begin to strut down Old Compton Street wearing our own faces, boldly basking in our own individuality and unashamedly sharing our eccentricities with others, we’re probably destined to end up with someone as faceless, uncaring and ultimately as unreachable as Crisp’s dark man.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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