I am opening here today with a short read from Larry Mitchell’s iconic The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions, a few personal photos documenting just a few of my own campy experiences and a quote from someone else’s work..
“… Camp itself should almost be defined as a kind of madness, a rip in the fabric of reality
that we need to reclaim in order to defeat the truly inauthentic, cynical, and deeply reactionary camp –
or anti-camp – tendencies of the new world order” Bruce LaBruce from GLR, March-April 2014.
A short definition of camp I found on Wikipedia: “Camp opposes satisfaction and seeks to challenge” seems a very appropriate definition of the gay male act of being “campy”. Camp can be a form of almost spiritual acting out sometimes in private but often as public street theatre that on the surface seems to be just silly. Not that there is anything wrong with being silly. Society could use much more silliness it seems to me.
Though being ‘campy’ is certainly not exclusively the purview of gay men we really have a corner on that market and have and continue to this day to take it to new and challenging heights. I would refer you to watch just a single episode of RuPaul’s Drag Show if you have any doubts that camp is still alive and well. I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge certain Diva’s male and female, past and present who have also mastered the art of camp: Cher, Lady Gaga, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Paul Lynde and Liberace to name just a few.
For many of us gay men the art of camp starts early and often involves dress up. Much to the consternation of my parents I am sure I would on occasion grab a couple bath towels one for my shoulders, cape-like, another around my waist skirt-like and one over my head. I would then pretend to be a nun, Sister Mary-the-something-or-other, and my several siblings and cousins would be my pupils.
Really, where the hell did that behavior come from in a little farm boy in rural Indiana in the 1950’s except from somewhere deep in my budding queer soul? Trust me I was not mimicking any role models or recruiters I was aware of. My juvenile gender-fuck drag appears to have been pretty spontaneous, I had no ‘gay uncles’ to mimic in any fashion that I was aware of. Early TV with the possible exception of Uncle Milty provided only the straightest of heterosexual role models and they were often quite sanitized and asexual. Remember Ricky and Lucy had separate beds!
One of the most powerful components of ‘camp’ involves its often-loving play with gender roles. I really think we are getting in touch with our being ‘other’ and since we usually only have the male and female as culturally defined to draw from and neither really fits we tend to mix them up in an attempt to create something that speaks more directly to us, often with startling success. The often-cruel taunts of ‘tomboy’ or ‘sissy’ really don’t begin to address the reality or do the behaviors justice.
Gender-fuck drag is a classic form of camp, something that has been around a long time and continues to survive today despite the tremendous push towards ‘respectability’ in the LGBT community. This I think sometimes get confused and mixed up even within our community with the powerfully emerging Trans community and their emerging forms of identity. They are very profoundly separate issues. It behooves everyone to appreciate and to be sensitive to the difference in the worlds of transsexual and transvestite and drag queen and gender fuckers and what each very differently involves and implies. There is also a significant amount of cross-pollination between these entities and those realities a bit much to try and get into here. It can be quite the sticky wicket and I would simply refer you to Ellen’s comments at the Academy Awards show she made to Liza Minnelli as an example of the thin ice here one can find yourself venturing onto.
Again I think I can say that much of ‘campy” behavior involves a messing with gender roles as often defined as the appropriate ones by our society. It is one of the most powerful change creating weapons we have in our arsenal in implementing the ‘gay agenda’.