I think it’s fair to say that queer folk in general, pretty much just like straight folk. We all eat, sleep, shit and fuck, and whom we sleep with doesn’t determine the way we walk and talk. Nevertheless, there are innumerable pressures upon us all to act in certain ways depending upon our sexuality. We are all – whether straight, gay, or something else – encouraged to act straight: to be a real macho man, or a foxy feminine lady. However, for those within the queer community, there is another pressure: the pressure to conform to this community by being camp or butch.
These pressures also come from without. For example, the straight girls who want their stereotypically gay pals to go shopping and boogie to Kylie in plastic pants. A similar situation applies within the lesbian community, which is further complicated by hetero men’s fascination with steamy straight-acting girl-on-girl action.
It makes me think: things sure were simpler when the choice was between rugby and beer on the one hand or books, church and teetotalitarianism on the other.
Because there is more to being queer than just fucking in a queer way, I want to try and look at how identity-pressure explodes in a tangled web after coming out. Now, it may turn out that the only way to convey the tangly-ness of all this is by becoming tongue-tied and using abysmally uncool, pretentious pomo terms (which I secretly love) like performativity. But, meh. Let’s give it a go.
Pressure I: Sparky, Don’t Be Gay
Massey University this year conducted the Lavender Island survey of 2000 lesbians, gays and bisexuals. They found that two-thirds of the girls and three-quarter of the boys had been verbally abused during school for being queer. The current counsellor from my old high school in Nelson reckons this leads to “homophobia-phobia”, in which boys act “hyper-masculine” to avoid ridicule. Even for the proudest fag this pressure is going to alter behaviour: as a lover of all things heavy metal, I cannot help but adjust my behaviour for safety when at largely bogan-populated gigs – the same applies when I’m working for salt-of-the earth types on orchards. Lesbians get even more pressure in the form of incredible strings of abuse, slung at them on talkback and the internet by conservative pundits who are adamant that a bull-dyke conspiracy has constructed CYFs and Civil Unions to steal their children. This often means that hiding one’s selection of plaid shirts is the only way a girl can pick up other girls without being accosted and accused of plotting the downfall of the state.
Pressure II: Oh, Be Gay Dahling, Be Veeery Gay
We don’t actually know why there are so many tough, leather-jacket-clad lesbians and preening, Abba-crooning queens. The same nature/nurture debates swirl around this as they do around every facet of our refusal to be straight. First of all, we should note that the idea of a homosexual identity hardly existed prior to the birth of psychoanalysis around 1900. Before then, those silly ideas of sin or illness we faced were generally focused upon homo-sex as an act; it took pseudo-science to turn homosexuality from a verb into a noun. Bolstering this nurture argument is the influence of the closeted world of secret foot-tapping signals, code words and coy behaviour used to attract partners in late-19th and early-20th century Europe and North America. Fairie queens acted as focal points for underground communities and often led bacchanalic festivities.
According to historian George Chauncey, straight-acting gays were often called “trade” or “a bit of rough” within underground clubs. They were desired and solicited, but not considered real members of many gay worlds. Following the pivotal 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, which were predominantly led by screaming queens and bulldykes (partly because they were the ones most singled out by police for baton-treatment), the most outrageous gay stereotypes took on another role: by being so obvious and impossible to ignore, they forced the heterosexual community to acknowledge the widespread existence of queer sexualities. They may be able to ignore hordes of vaguely effete poet-academics, but they cannot avert their eyes from a single Carmen Rupe, Wellington’s iconic transvestite madam. And the Political Lesbian movement popular in the 90s (“Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice”) made a point of standing up and standing out.
Pressure III: Be Macho Hot, Be Aggressive – Be Straight-Acting
But as hetero culture has picked up on these stereotypes, they have come to seem restrictive. Straight folk often seem to accept us only on the condition that we stay in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and away from rugby; that lesbians stay on feminist communes and away from corruptible straight girls who, if exposed to their “plotting”, will forsake men. Okay, so I may be exaggerating, but the point is there has been an anti-camp and anti-butch backlash which became especially vocal around the early 90s. The rise of Riot Grrrl punk promoted a new wave of lesbians, which kept much of the political anger but embroidered it with bikinis and exotic dancing. At the same time, straight men cottoned on to the potential of pseudo-lesbian pornography designed for a male audience, who wanted to see feminine starlets unencumbered by Ron Jeremy’s backside. Both the gay and straight worlds seemed to want girly lesbians.
A similar thing was happening to the boys, too. In 1992, hard rock outfit Faith No More released the song ‘Be Aggressive’, penned by grungy-yet-gay keyboardist Roddy Bottum as an ode to hard oral sex. Bottum was touted as an alternative gay role model, and said he wrote the song to alienate audiences and embarrass the band’s hetero male singer Mike Patton (though given that Patton is known to eat garbage and his audience’s spit on stage, this latter aim failed). The queercore image was also spread by Pansy Division, a San Francisco punk bank who opened for Green Day on their Dookie tour, singing about the cocksuckers club to angsty teens.
Sometimes, hard and manly rock’n’roll coexists perfectly with flaming, screeching fairydom – just look at Queen. ‘I Want To Break Free’ is one hell of a hard rock song, and it has the most awesomely camp video known to man, with Freddy’s black plastic skirt and hairy chest. But too often, macho-gay wants to abandon camp, especially when he feels compelled to play the Gay Best Friend promoted by Sex and the City, but just doesn’t want to see another pair of fucking shoes, ever. This is a pity, not just because shoes rule, but because by serving as a figurehead, camp has done so much for us.
Oh How I Want To Break Free…
The competition between gay-gay and straight-gay can be illustrated by the back two pages of Proud: Celebrating Queer Wellington, a special newsrag released to celebrate pride week which you have no doubt perused while waiting for class. The inside-back-cover advertises the Glamazons’ Pyjama Party in fabulously camp style: glitter-clad drag queens. The back-cover advertises a Fag Party with a cartoon of a burly, square jawed boy, accompanied by an emphatic declaration: “NO DRAG SHOWS!”, demonstrating the belief that there is something distasteful about the dominant queer culture. However, it should be noted that the boy is also wearing a thong.
According to my friend Matty, there is “not so much pressure to be camp as there is pressure to be insanely energetic all the time.” Matty links this “fucking boring mindless exuberance” to the need to go out and dance all night if you want to find a mate. We simply have to attend this community, not only in order to get laid, but in order to talk to other people with similar experiences. Not understanding this need to relate to similar folk is what leads many hetero folk to believe that queer culture is really all about sex. Matty argues that it is, in fact, because most gays are not camp – and thus not easily identifiable – that they have to go out and boogie.
But he also notes that the need for a particular camp, identifiable community is more common among older men, since it is now possible to meet other gay guys at, say, the Big Kumara (although I can’t say for sure, since I don’t go to that sort of bar). And my friend Tom says that the pressure to be part of a camp community pretty much disappears once you are part of a couple, and can find the support and solidarity you need at home.
Nevertheless, the pressure to act gay exists even within couples. Matty, who grew up on a farm, recalls meeting at a party “a guy who went milking and liked fishing, and I struck up a conversation about whether he used a rotary or a herringbone milking shed and my boyfriend just stared at me as if I was speaking another language.”
My friend Charlotte says that pressure to act gay is still going strong within the local lesbian community. “You get a lot of backlash if you’re too femme – they think you must be straight. It’s quite oppressive, actually.” The backlash is even worse for bisexuals, who risk being labeled traitors for straying too far onto the other side (although, personally, I like to think anyone who calls me a traitor in such situations is really just jealous).
The pressures to conform to queer identities varies from region to region. At gay discos in Dunedin, the dominance of mulleted leather-jacketed women and lisping men in tight-plastic-pants strikes you like one of those red-bull-and-vodkas everyone’s drinking. In Wellington, the scene is a little more diverse, by virtue of being larger, but tends to follow largely the same lines.
According to Salient Queer Columnist Pachali Brewster, Auckland is even less stereotypically gay. She says that Auckland, being a business town, tends to encourage straight-acting, suit-wearing behaviour, whereas political Wellington attracts activists who enjoy making a point of their difference. “I think it’s probably the differences in the cultures of these two cities that are the reasons for the differences between our queers. But I don’t know why that means they don’t like to date the type they aren’t (generally speaking). Perhaps it’s just a case of like attracts like.”
While the pressure to act gay can be oppressive, the pressure to be a straight can be equally so. Tom reckons that “there are not a lot of gay people who are actually comfortable being camp – camp guys certainly don’t want to sleep with other camp guys.” Similarly, Matty points to the fact that “almost any gay sex ad contains the words ‘straight-acting’.” Of course, it is worth reiterating at this point that most queer folk, just like heteros, are neither fully camp nor fully straight-acting. People are just people, and the same guy who is mincing around the dance floor one minute might be skulling beer and playing air-guitar the next. It is almost impossible to find one person who entirely fits a stereotype – so what am I wasting so much ink over? Well, the point is we get told to act in certain ways, and we cannot always avoid these pressures, especially when this comes from the dominant (hetero) world.
When Hetero Gets Queer
Charlotte says that lesbians are often encouraged to act girly, but that this tends to come from hetero guys and the straight girls who like to tease them. “The male view of lesbianism is unrealistic – for example, they want lesbians to have big fake boobs and super long nails. Which is just a tad impractical. And lesbian porn is obviously made by men, for men – the girls in these films don’t even make out, they just brush their tongues together and giggle. One of the Victorian beliefs was that women did not have sexual urges of their own. Lesbian porn is, I think, similar in that it’s mostly about male visual gratification. It has nothing to do with female pleasure at all. And it’s so fake and plastic, which is why lesbians don’t really watch it.”
But besides promoting unrealistic gay stereotypes and projecting their own desires on the queer world, hetero-society is showing more and more indications that it does understand, but gets a kick out of, the nuances of queer life. Take a look at the Tourism Board of Paris’ recent poster aimed at attracting travelers from London, which features the scrum packs of the French and English teams making out. My favourite example of straight folk managing to “get” queer is a song called ‘The Passenger’ by the Deftones, in which two predominantly heterosexual metal singers, Chino and Maynard, croon a luscious, lustful love song to one another, with Maynard urging Chino to “roll these misty windows / down to catch my breath and then / go and go and go just / drop me, oh man, back again.”
It can be hard to be yourself when everyone around you wants you to be this or that, and when you want to be one thing for the sake of your safety and another for the sake of getting laid. Personally, I love drag queens, because taking the piss out of your audience while balancing in twelve inch heels fucking rocks. But if I want to have a beer and watch some rugby or mosh, well, that hardly makes me a traitor, now does it? Just remember that Freddy Mercury is looking down on you from the candy clouds of the heavens, and he wants you to be whatever you want to be, darling.