Camp. Flamboyant. Fashionable. Effeminate.
Time and time again we hear gay men described using these adjectives, but this narrow, outdated stereotype is inaccurate – and it’s ruining lives.
The prevalence of it fuels homophobia and isolates members of the LGBT+ community, according to Matt Horwood, senior communications officer at LGBT rights charity Stonewall.
“If you are someone who doesn’t necessarily fit into a clear stereotype you may struggle with coming out to friends and family,” he tells The Huffington Post UK.
“Family may say things like ‘you don’t seem gay’ or ‘you’re not like the gay people we’ve seen on television’. Young people may worry that their family expect them to fit into a certain box.”
With a recent survey showing 59% of LGBT+ people in the UK feel threatened by other people’s attitudes towards them and 41% of gay men saying they worry about holding their partner’s hand in public, it’s clear something needs to change.
Mike How, a 26-year-old administrator at Sony Music, didn’t start coming out to friends and family until he was 22.
“One reason it took so long for me to accept that I was gay and to come out was that I didn’t identify with the gay stereotype,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“I’m not a flamboyant character, I don’t have a lisp, I had no interest in fashion growing up, I’m not into musicals, I can’t dance and I’m too bashful for singing or acting on stage. I thought to myself, ‘how could I be gay?’.
“It seems obvious now, but if it had been clear to me that there are plenty of other gay people out there who don’t identify with the stereotype, then perhaps I wouldn’t have struggled with it for as long as I did.”
For How, the stereotype is so ingrained in society that people often assume he’s straight, unless he explicitly says otherwise.
“It’s a challenge when meeting new people in the workplace, since discussing my attraction to men doesn’t come up all that naturally in conversation to me, but I don’t want to have to make coming out a big statement either,” he says.
He describes his sexuality as the “invisible elephant in the room”, which he struggles to share with others.
Horwood says it’s not unusual for gay men who contradict the prevalent stereotype to experience extra hurdles when coming out.
“We hear from young people that we work with that sometimes after coming out, their friends joke that they ‘aren’t gay enough,’” he says.
“Friends can’t understand that they’re gay because they don’t fit into that criteria we pin on gay people.”
He even claims that the expectation all gay men will act a certain way can sometimes create a “self-fulfilment” prophecy.
“When you’re growing up and you’re in school, if you only see really set representations of what gay is, you kind of think that’s how you have to grow up and that’s what you have to become,” he says.
In contrast, some gay men rebel against these expectations when struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.
Alex Kohnert, 24, from Aberdeen, feels his hobbies and interests may have been influenced by stereotypes.
“I used to be into acting and musical theatre and things like that. The more I grew up and realised that those were things people perceived to be effeminate, the more I moved away from them and didn’t do those kinds of activities,” he says.
As he got older he started playing football and is still a big sports fan today, but he wonders how much of this is learned behaviour, rather than natural passion.
“How much of that stuff did I pick to keep myself free from discrimination or harassment when I was younger and how much do I actually like those things?” he asks. “That’s a difficult one to process.”
We consume more than nine hours of media – such as watching television or browsing the internet – every day and for many gay men, the entertainment industry is at the heart of the problem.
How says: “I think there’s a tendency for fictional gay characters to be defined by their sexuality rather than it being just a part of who they are.
“You know, the ‘gay kid’ or ‘the gay couple in the neighbourhood’ you see in movies.”
Horwood agrees that this one-dimensional portrayal of gay men – which often focusses on struggles like bullying – can make younger gay men “feel like there’s not a happy ending for them”.
He points out that stereotypes of gay men are “very rarely intersectional”, meaning they do not encompass other identities that are often repressed by society, such as certain races, classes or disabilities.
“It’s very rare that you see gay BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity] characters, gay characters who have a disability or gay characters of faith,” he says.
“Of course gay men do exist across all landscapes – gay people go to places of worship, they play sports, they come from all different places. But to not see yourself reflected in the media can be ostracising.”
James Besanvalle, 25, experienced this isolation growing up in a religious community in Sydney, where homosexuality was only ever discussed in a negative light.
He attended Catholic school and was “brought up to believe that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”.
He didn’t fully realise he was gay until the age of 18, after seeing men he could relate to for the first time at the Sydney Mardi Gras.
Now, Besanvall lives in London and acknowledges that in many ways he personifies the “effeminate” gay stereotype, but this comes with its own difficulties.
“People have told me from quite a young age that I ‘sound gay’ – and that’s something that has stuck with me until this day,” he says.
“Even though now I’m quite proud and happy about where I am in life, I still have these moments when I’m talking to someone new and I wonder if I sound gay. There’s still this nagging voice in my head.
“Or if I wear a shirt that my boyfriend has bought me with a unicorn on it, I’m usually quite good at embracing that, but I still have this nagging feeling, wondering what people are going to think: ‘Am I dressing too gay? Am I sounding too gay?’”
Of course, the way we perceive gender stereotypes as a whole continues to influence how we perceive gay men. Just as Kohnert was dissuaded from singing as a child, Besanvalle was told boys shouldn’t play with dolls.
“I have memories of my parents’ priest in primary school coming up to me and asking why I wasn’t playing football with the other guys or why I was playing dolls with my kindergarten buddy,” he says.
“And that stuff lasts, that stuff has an effect on you and it definitely shaped who I was.”
Thankfully, things are slowly but surely starting to change.
Campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys continue to fight gender stereotyping, showing no toy is gender specific, or a pre-determining factor of sexuality.
The media has also recently pulled its socks up by bringing a wider variation of gay characters into the limelight.
Horwood points out that the interconnecting Channel 4 shows ‘Cucumber’, ‘Banana’ and ‘Tofu’ did “a really good job of portraying gay lifestyle without sensationalising it”.
Meanwhile HuffPost UK’s Loud And Proud series highlighted that we’ve come a long way since Barry and Colin’s kiss on ‘EastEnders’ in 1987, where national newspapers ran headlines including the words ‘scum’ and ‘poofters’.
The series pointed out that while scenes involving gay characters were once considered shocking, there’s now a whole dating show dedicated to pairing up gay men.
What’s perhaps even better, is that shows like Channel 4’s ‘First Dates’ now include homosexual and heterosexual couples side by side.
On top of that, current and former athletes are helping defeat the stereotype that gay men don’t like sports. Among them are former rugby star Gareth Thomas and England cricketer Steven Davies, who have both openly spoken about their sexuality and encouraged others to do the same.
Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign is hoping to extend the progress further, by inviting players to wear brightly-coloured shoe laces in support for LGBT+ players and fans.
But with 72% of football fans saying they’ve heard homophobic abuse while watching a game, we can’t just rely on celebrities to end damaging stereotypes around being gay.
Horwood believes the key to spreading a diverse view of gay men and stamping out homophobia is having visible gay role models from all walks of life.
That means creating a world in which a gay banker feels like he can tell colleagues about his last date, or a builder doesn’t have to hide his sexuality on a construction site.
For this to happen, we need to be mindful of the language we use to describe gay men in everyday life, cut out homophobic slurs and educate the next generation about what it really means to be gay.
Being gay has absolutely nothing to do with your looks or interests – sexuality is simply about the gender of the person you are attracted to.
As How says: “Not all gay men fit the stereotype, and indeed there are men that might appear to fit the gay stereotype who are actually straight.
“The sooner we put an end to some of the stereotypes around being gay, the sooner we reach a point where being gay is considered normal, as it rightly should be.”
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.