07/31/2015 12:53 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

11 Greatest Sissies of the Screen

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You can try to suppress your inner sissy. You can deepen your voice, straighten your wrist and hide your bangles and baubles at the back of the closet. You can invent rules and punishments to try to scare your inner sissy into submission -- that 's what Philip Dawkins, my guest this week on the podcast The Sewers of Paris, did. You can even claim masc 4 masc on your profile. But you just can't keep a good sissy down. As Philip learned, your inner sissy is going to come out, so you might as well give in.

Who are your favorite sissies from movies, TV and literature? I posed the question to my friends and was delighted by the response.

Back in the early days of film, it was harder for sissies to be overt. Here's Howard Everett Horton, who appears dismayed by female attention but intrigued by a waiter with scones:

But other sissies were unmistakable even in those heavily closeted times. Franklin Pangborn never seemed to hold back:

There's also the unforgivably under-appreciated Frank Nelson, who might not have been gay, exactly, but he certainly flitted around in his scenes with Jack Benny.

And here's Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein, oozing with sinister science, a sort of mad version of All About Eve's George Sanders:

Pink-hued Snagglepuss seems to have had a delicate affect, although so far, no confirmed lovers have come forward.

Of course, there's a rich vein of sissies in The Boys in the Band. Harold is terrifying, but Emery's fey mincing is a sheer delight. And then his fangs come out:

For a whole army of sissies, take a look at the end of Blazing Saddles, when a western brawl literally breaks the fourth wall into a bunch of "sissy maries" doing "The French Mistake" -- a strange throwback to the early days when sissies had to butch it up when the cameras rolled.

Personally, I'm partial to Hollywood Montrose in Mannequin. "I never thought they'd hire anyone stranger than me," he purrs. At the climax of the film, he hoses down an army of security guards, proudly declaring that his favorite things are fighting and kissing boys.

Philip, my "Sewers of Paris" guest, adored Hank Azaria as Agador Spartacus in The Birdcage. It's a controversial depiction, since the actor is straight and he's way over the top. But as it turns out, he was all too aware of how fraught his portrayal might be -- and he agonized over it:

But even more controversial is Jack McFarland from Will and Grace. He's about as flouncy as they come, and a lot of gay men found a touch of homophobia in Sean Hayes' performance, particularly since he wasn't publicly out at the time. Was Jack an offensive clown, or a wry trickster?

But sissies are more than just entertaining -- they can also be life-changing. When I was a nervous queer kid in the suburbs, afraid of my own capacity for mincing, I was desperate for a knight in sparkling armor to rescue me. I needed someone to show me that it's OK to lift your pinky, it's safe to swish. That knight was Steven Stucker, who you probably know as Johnny from Airplane. But if you're looking for a deeper cut, you can catch him in a courtroom scene in Kentucky Fried Movie, where he plays a hysterical stenographer. Even though his appearances were brief, they were a revelation to me. Here was a man who could be funny and confident and unafraid even as his loafers lighten to the point that he's almost walking on the ceiling. At that time, I thought there was nothing worse than a man who isn't masculine. But it was as if Stephen's characters were looking right at me, saying, hey, it's all right kid. Go ahead. Stop holding back. It's so much fun to be a sissy.

But for my favorite Stucker appearance, check out his 1985 appearance on Donahue -- it's on YouTube -- where he talks calmly and honestly about living with AIDS, even as a live audience boos him. Being an effeminate openly gay man in those days was scary enough, but to go on national TV before a hostile audience and tell people that AIDS isn't a death sentence must have taken more courage than most of us can even dream of. In his appearance, Stephen is upbeat and energetic, and as always funny -- "Don't I look fabulous?" he demands. Stephen was fearlessly effete at a time when that was considered shameful, and open about his health when the country was gripped by fear.

When he was in Airplane, he was what I needed to see. When he was on Donahue, he was what the country needed to see.

Society has a tendency to heap shame on the sissy, deriding him as weak or faint of heart. He even faces rejection from other gay men who demand "no femmes." But sissies are brave. They're defiant. And sometimes, they're even heroes.

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