Kaftans and camp eunuchs – pop culture’s neutering of visibly queer men

“This”, Stanley Tucci says of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada, “is a shining beacon of hope for oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers, pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class.”

A cursory lunchtime viewing of Project Runway will more than confirm it’s an industry of gay men – and more than that, the natural home of unreconstructed queens. On the catwalk, if not currently on Grindr, extravagance is a virtue, and it’s no doubt helped the careers of many designers that their mannerisms are as vibrantly theatrical as their work. This is a field where camp is not a problem.

Perhaps because of this, many influential gay men in popular fiction have been fashionistas. Tucci’s aforementioned character, Nigel, Glee’s Kurt Hummel, Marc St. James and Justin Suarez from Ugly Betty, mincing Alexander from the British Queer as Folk – no series now seems complete without such a figure. Alexander, in particular, owns one of TV’s best ever throwaway lines: “So, I’m stood in Battersea Power Station in nothing but me Tommy Hilfiger pants, when he comes back in…” Unlike some, I’ve nothing against camp men being visible, but I do want to point something out.

Where they appear, these characters are often shown as objects and not subjects, reactive and not proactive, done-to and not doers. They’re depicted as victims, or as lacking sexual agency – especially compared with their “straight-acting” peers.

Justin doesn’t kiss straight-acting Austin, but is kissed by him…

Just as Kurt doesn’t kiss the “manlier” Blaine, but is kissed by him…

…and when Kurt is bullied, Blaine is the one who comes to his aid.

Alexander, similarly, is passive when his family disown him; Stuart, mistaken for straight at times, confronts his mother and destroys her car.

In The Devil Wears Prada, it’s Nigel who is ultimately victimised; in United States of Tara, pouting Lionel dies a violent offscreen death, outlived by his less flouncy boyfriend, Marshall; in Torchwood, sensitive Ianto’s relatives confront him over who he dates, before he dies in lantern-jawed Jack Harkness’ arms. Justin, unlike self-assured Austin, agonises over coming out.

The trope is inescapable. So how should we interpret it?

When gay male characters who are camp always seem to suffer more, it’s tempting to cry overt bigotry. Queeny, gender-atypical fashionistas are often those most accused of “flaunting it”: as long as Neil Patrick Harris or Anderson Cooper don’t get flirty or make penis jokes, homophobes don’t have to acknowledge they’re gay, whereas in Chris Colfer’s presence or Louie Spence’s, there’s no dodging the issue. Camp men in fiction are most visibly queer, so it makes sense their storylines would be hardest hit by prejudice – then again, many of those mentioned were created by gay writers.

The alternative is still more troubling. Are we to conclude from these characters’ misfortunes that a harder life is to be expected if we don’t perform our gender conventionally? That Justin, Kurt et al. might have avoided pain by simply “butching up”? If so, queer liberation’s still a distant goal.

Certainly, their desexualisation speaks volumes. On Glee, the closest Kurt gets to making a romantic pass is a tribute in song to a dead canary; it’s Blaine who initiates their first kiss, who first instigates sex and who is led astray by the similarly “straight-acting” Sebastian; he, Nigel and the gay men of Ugly Betty are shown centrally as eunuch-esque GBFs, whose main role is to entertain and to make things – especially women – pretty, not to be players. Their sexual identity is worn proudly, a must-have accessory, but rarely played out.

Think what this says about gender roles. Sex, the constant subtext tells us, is the domain of manly men and womanly women: if you’re not the former, you don’t get to be a sexual being, and you’ll have to wait patiently until one chooses you.

It’s enormously disempowering, because camp male sexuality is radical. The mere sight of Julian Clary makes straight men in my family squirm, or sometimes change channels – the notion of being subject to a man’s sexual advances, as women are to theirs, genuinely disturbs them. Clary’s famous single-entendre about Norman Lamont was powerful and shocking, I’d suggest, largely because of his effete demeanour: the audience had no doubt he was really capable of penetrating the then-Tory chancellor. At Stonewall, too, it’s said the first bricks were thrown at police by drag queens.

Camp gay men are an essential part of our community, and fears of stereotype threat are misguided – if pop culture doesn’t show the full queer spectrum of gender expression, why infiltrate it? But these characters can be more than passive victims. Let’s give them the power their transgressive, real-world counterparts wield so well.