It was just another Friday night out in the gay village. We’d reached “Shot o’clock” and were hitting the Sambuca and ogling hot Latinos as they whipped off their tops and danced with wild abandon. The guy we’d found ourselves chatting to wasn’t doing too badly in the muscle department either – and he knew it: each time he picked up his low-calorie beer he made a point of flexing his biceps. Still, none of us were complaining.
Then everything changed. He banged down his drink and with a look of searing contempt pointed aggressively across the bar at a young, slim guy who was cavorting outrageously to a mashup of Beyonce’s I’m a Single Lady. “Camp queens like that make me sick! They shouldn’t be allowed out.” The barely contained hate and rage in his voice temporarily stunned me, but I collected myself and challenged him: what exactly was his objection? Why should he be so offended by a stranger’s mannerisms? I watched as he mumbled, his macho façade crumbled and then he flounced off, ranting incoherently about “rancid camp queens.”
It had been an unpleasant experience, but not a particularly surprising one. Over the last year, a number of friends have had similar confrontations with “camp-phobia” in bars and clubs. And this is to say nothing of the many profiles on dating sites and hookup apps that demand “no fems” and “straight acting only.” The evidence is clear: there’s an increased lack of acceptance among gay men towards “camp” gay men; indeed, I’d go as far as saying that attitudes are often outright hostile. Why is this happening?
Camp has played a vital role in gay culture, worldwide. It’s part of our heritage, but it’s always had a dodgy reputation. Gay men may love a drag queen, but how many of them would date one? Camp was an important signifier: it marked us out to one another, but simultaneously – and more ominously – it also served as the barometer by which the straight world identified us and marked us out for persecution.
Before the guy in the bar swept off (in what was actually a diva strop that would have put Diana Ross to shame), he spluttered something about camp gay men being an anachronism, adding two words I absolutely loathe: “blend in.” The worldwide march towards equal marriage is rightly celebrated. If straight people can get married, then why shouldn’t gays? But there’s a part of me that has always been ambivalent about gay marriage. Why are we adopting what is essentially a heterosexual power structure? Are we just conforming? And, if so, what do we lose out on?
The increased zeal of the anti-camp brigade is in some ways, I would suggest, a by-product of equal marriage. As we continue to gain the same rights as heterosexuals the gay community risk losing track of the interesting, unique types of behavior that we’ve created to relate to one another. Instead, the pressure’s on to become “straight acting” and “discrete.” Where to begin with what’s wrong with these terms? Well, the little clue in the first is the word “acting” and there’s more than a hint of shame and internalized homophobia about “discrete” hookups. Trust me, I’ve been on plenty.
But another thing we need to look at here is the often incredibly harsh ways that gay men assess themselves and their peers. Sometimes it seems as if we’re following some kind of gay curriculum, to be marked mercilessly by a parade of Abercrombie and Fitch wearing 24-7 sex machines. Too frequently our judgments of one another are based on superficial images and ideas of adhering to tedious, and frankly outdated, forms of masculinity. The irony is that as we desperately try to butch up and pass as straight, we are often hiding our real selves; moreover, we’re rigidly policing ourselves – no lapses into limp wrists or mincing – in much the same way as mainstream society once policed and prosecuted us. How incredibly sad that is.
It’s time for us to re-embrace our individuality. Camp does not equal weakness, but at its best defines something extraordinary and thought-provoking. It celebrates difference, something which can seem like a rude word in today’s gay world. Camp in its real sense means doing something utterly outlandish; something that resonates with real passion. There’s power to be found in this kind of behavior: it’s brave and transformative. Let’s start investing in this and see where it takes us. We can begin by just accepting someone who doesn’t look and act like everyone else on the dance floor.
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