The Rise Of The Femme Gay Man

· Updated on May 28, 2018

He’s here, he’s queer, get him a Xanax.

Adam Rippon didn’t just become America’s sweetheart at the Olympics; he skated into the psyche of every little boy who might hate himself for being too girly. By continually using the Winter Games as a platform to talk about how proud he is to be gay and winning over the press time after time with his dazzling personality and zingy one-liners, Adam (yes, I’m calling him by his first name, we’re all family here) has become a queer icon overnight.

And he isn’t alone. Gus Kenworthy was similarly out and proud throughout the Olympics, notably kissing his boyfriend at the finish line. In fact, these have probably been the queerest Winter Games ever but it’s Adam who quickly became the best-known out of all the athletes, and who the world seemed to truly get behind. The significance of seeing so many people root for a flamboyant gay man to succeed cannot be understated.

Richard Lawson wrote a beautiful piece inVanity Fairabout what seeing an openly gay Olympian on TV would have meant to him as a kid, a sentiment which resonated with gay men everywhere, especially those of a generation who can remember being bullied and reviled for those same quirks which make Adam such a delight.

Another gay man currently being celebrated for his campness is Jonathan Van Ness, the hair and grooming expert on Netflix’s Queer Eye. While the thirst follows might have gone to avocado-loving Antoni, it was Jonathan who quickly became the standout cast member and fan fave, thanks to the same mannerisms and non-stop monologuing that made his Gay of Thrones show on Funny or Die such a joy to watch.

Between Adam and Jonathan, the femme gay man is having something of a moment in pop culture right now. Here’s why that matters.

Finding any positive representation in media has always been a tall order for LGBTQ folks, and while it’s perhaps easiest for cis gay men, the characters and public figures we see on-screen tend to be the sexless, straight-acting (whatever that means), “happens to be gay” sort that mentions their orientation just often enough to appease queer viewers while being careful to remain palatable to a straight audience. (Shonda Rhimes is probably the only creator on TV whose gay characters have as much sex and relationship drama as their heterosexual counterparts.)

Along with its loveable cast andrare portrayal of gay friendship, one of the best things about the Queer Eye reboot is how it assumes the audience is totally down and just runs from there. It manages to package nuanced conversations about toxic masculinity into a makeover show format, and Jonathan is the embodiment of that; he is kind and affectionate, showering hapless dudes with compliments and never, ever editing himself for anybody else’s comfort. It feels nothing short of radical to see each episode’s makeover subject respond so warmly to Jonathan because our expectation (shaped by years of TV and real-world experience) is that they would find him “too much.”

This kind of micro-aggression even gets thrown around by well-meaning “allies;” a recent BuzzFeed quiz made an oblique reference to Jonathan’s effervescent personality, saying it “might not be for everybody,” promptingJonathan himself to casually drag BuzzFeed in an Instagram Story.

Of course, Queer Eye isn’t the only rainbow-hued relic from the turn of the millennium to get a revival; Will & Grace recently finished airing a special 10-episode comeback, starring perhaps the campest fictional character of all time, Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes).

“The femme yang to Will’s yin, Jack was about as over-the-top a TV character as existed at the time, and with his primary counterpart,Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker, he provided the show with its campy soul. But Jack was also a very easy target, and one that the show had no trouble making a very frequent ‘butt of the joke,’” writesJoe Reidin a Onion A.V Clubpiece on the sitcom’s lasting impact. “For any show about gay men in a world that is steadily allowing them to exist outside the closet, it’s important to investigate the self-policing that was (and still is) happening regarding butch, ‘masc,’ and femme portrayals.”

That’s not to say Will & Grace never addressed internalized homophobia. In a episode from the show’s first season, Will calls Jack a “fag” and admits to being embarrassed by his friend’s flamboyance. Jack’s response: “I’d rather be a fag than afraid.” That episode aired in 1999. Nearly two decades later, femmephobia and camp-shaming remain an ugly reality in the gay community.

Still, as pantomime-ish as he can often be, Jack is more fleshed out than the gay sidekick who pops up again and again in the movies; usually a two-dimensional caricature designed solely to deliver sassy dialogue or act as a sounding board for the protagonist. And this cliché was, in turn, seen as progress in its own way, considering how gay men have been historically portrayed in cinema. In his book The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo defined the archetype of “The Sissy,” the comic relief who “made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in between.”

The Sissy Villain is an egregious iteration of this stereotype which proved popular in Hollywood, and of which Vincent Price is perhaps the most infamous example.

In Monsters In The Closet: Homosexuality & The Horror Film, Harry M. Benshoff writes: “His oily, slightly effeminate presence and mellifluous voice code him as queer, and in films like The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the House of the Seven Gables (1940), Laura (1944), Shock (1946), and Dragonwyck (1946), he harbored hidden secrets behind locked doors.” The connotation of a soft voice or limp wrist as unmanly and therefore unseemly has permeated pop culture and is used to paint gay men as weak, or predatory, or whatever the narrative requires.

A more recent real-life denigration of the femme man came in February 2017 when noted misogynist, transphobe, and Lindsay Naegle cosplayer Milo Yiannopoulos referred to his own public persona as somehow being above the ilk of effervescent TV personality Ross Mathews. (Ross Mathews currently enjoys a regular judging gig on RuPaul’s Drag Race and recently placed second on Celebrity Big Brother. Milo is schilling vitamins on InfoWars.)

So yes, long story short, the fact that the public has so avidly taken Adam and Jonathan into their hearts is important. It’s not just that the femme gay man is now in on the joke and not the butt of it; he’s actually the one telling the jokes for a change, and he has the crowd hanging off his every word. I can’t even begin to imagine the positive impact this might have on the gay kids out there who have previously been afraid to let their full, wonderful selves shine through.

We have our beautiful, effeminate, gloriously extra poster boys nowan important step towards broader LGBTQ representation. But the fact remains that queer visibility in mainstream media is still overwhelmingly white, male, and cis. Maybe America’s next queer sweetheart could break that mold? As Vito Russo so eloquently put it: “We have cooperated for a very long time in the maintenance of our own invisibility. And now the party is over.”

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