You're single. You're female. You've had bad experiences with men in the past. You want to find a quick fix before your friends start tilting their heads on yours shoulders when you complain about it and say "awww", and you hear that there's this new TV show that is offering you the chance to win £25,000 and the opportunity to choose any one of eleven attractive single guys to fall in love with! Too good to be true? Well of course there's a catch. Some of the guys you've got to pick from? Well some of them are pretending to be straight, and are in fact, gay.
That is, in all the concept of the dating gameshow Playing it Straight, returning to E4 after a break on our screens for seven years. I guess the reason why this show is back on our screens again is because the lifestyles between gay and straight men are becoming more and more blurred. Since we all now buy a platter full of hair care and facial products on a daily basis (and occasionally follow the latest developments in Desperate Housewives) it is now harder to tell whether the average joe walking down the street is straight or gay.
And yes, according to the show's first episode, it is harder to tell gay people and straight people apart. The single girl Cara found it very difficult to work it out who amongst the fitties didn't swing her way. Filippo who she singled out as being straight ending up being gay, and Kyle who she suggested was gay ending up telling her that he was straight. The stereotypes are falling apart! The borders are becoming more blurred! Right?
Wrong. As a gay man, I have found it astonishing that this sort of entertainment show is still being commissioned in this day and age.
Let me tell you why.
My experience of coming out at school at 14 was one that I do not look back fondly. I was comfortable with my sexuality from a very young age and I even came out in during a French class, uttering "Je suis homosexuelle" to a close friend whilst learning phrases from a French dictionary (I originally did plan to say that as a joke but could not remember how to say the phrase "Lol I'm joking" in French immediately afterwards, when asked whether what I said was actually true).
What I didn't expect of was the reaction by the 400 or so others in the school who then, by the power of gossip over the next three-and-a-half hours, found out. From that day onwards, until the moment I left secondary school and escaped to Sixth Form, I was constantly bullied. You can guess what it was like. The standard name-calls of "queer" and "batty boy" when a teacher was out of ear shot, the flopping hands in front of my face movement and raising your voice to sound feminine when with a male friend for example. Crossing legs in a different way. 'Flirting' with different guys when I wasn't. You know the drill. The standard.
The thing is, I didn't consider myself to have any of these personality traits. To an extent I still don't. Whenever I act hyperactive, I never considered it to be related to my sexuality. It is totally fine of course if you act in any way different than what is considered to be the "hetero" stereotype of course, but what made me angry and confused for all of those years was the perception that people were having of me. Why were people singling me out and treating me as I am this person I'm not? Am I really that different? Should I act in this way? Is that the way to be socially accepted if I fit this expectation they have of me?
I then had to think extra hard about the way I was acting in front of others at all time, just in case a certain mannerism I had was "found out" to be out of the ordinary. Never talk about gay topics or bring in gay related magazines. Never wear clothing that might be considered to be too loud in case I appear too camp. Downplay my sexuality as much as physically possible, just so I can feel normal and be happy with myself. And what developed instead? Deep self-loathing in who I was and who I 'pretended' to be.
So in the show Playing It Straight what did the presenter, Jameela Jamil, tell the guys in the first episode?: "Some of you have been lying about your sexuality, and it is Cara's job to literally out you on the show. All I can tell you is that you're going to have to put your butchest foot forward, as she is going to be eliminating each one of you that she think is gay throughout the show..."
They have to act butcher. They have to think extra hard about the way they are acting in front of peers and the girl in question, just in case a mannerism they have makes them found out to be out of the ordinary. This seems familiar.
The show comprises of little competitions to help Cara, and of course help the viewer at home of course, decide who the gays amongst them guys are. Dress up competitions (maybe if they like it too much they may be a gay!), one-on-one dates with Cara (maybe if they are a bad kisser they might be playing is straight!), 'cockfights' when the guys wrestle etc etc. You catch my drift.
Of course a guy might not be able wrestle, can't kiss for the life of him and does feel comfortable dressing up in something that you would find in Debenhams and might be actually straight... but to the viewer there still seems to be this subtle message that these stereotypes exist and it is still possible, heck even recommended, to go and identify these subtle differences between gay and straight people throughout the show as a sort of game. Heck, you can even join in for fun on Twitter: "I don't think straight men use the word 'divine'", a Twitter user wrote yesterday. "I think the pastey posh one is also a gay" wrote another.
And what was it like for the people bullying me throughout my early teenage years? A game. A game where they could boast and taunt and celebrate every time I acted supposedly camp in front of them, the prize for me feeling confused and upset. A game that forced me to change who I was, just in case I was singled out and accused of being 'different' than everybody else.
Thanks Playing it Straight. Thanks for helping me remember how the game worked.
Playing It Straight E4. Mondays. 9pm.
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