Let's Go Camping
By Dan Saniski
Illustration by Jeremy Sorese
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Oppression brews strange tea. It brews alienation, faulty coping strategies, and self-medication, which slyly, slowly, and warmly transforms into self-destruction. Gay men lived outsider existences for so long, only recently experiencing ever-increasing assimilation. Being shut out from the common rules, culture, and expectations in life for so long generated a great sensibility in its wake: camp.
In her seminal 1964 essay, Susan Sontag sketched the borders of camp: “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” It makes the everyday world into a topsy-turvy version of itself. Though not for the camp-maker – for him the world is already ridiculous; he seeks to show others his perspective. It’s not a quiet perspective, either. Everything about camp is loud and colorful; it holds a mirror up to you while screaming “isn’t this just so absurd!?” The volume, colors, and delights seek to distract, of course, from the deathly serious point. Camp provides shelter to the deviant and the transgressor who, because he experiences profound marginalization, cannot just say things, but must cloak them in masks to ensure you might stop for a moment and listen.
As many of us shift into increasingly accepting spaces, camp seems threatened by assimilation. Without being entirely shut out from culture, the stakes don’t seem as high, and the need to point out its absurdity lessens. Many of our lives have become less painfully arbitrary, but they are still arbitrary, and the world is still heteronormative. Gay culture will continue even as assimilation occurs, and camp remains a potent tool to question the processes of not only acceptance, but oppression and its aggressions.
The march towards queer acceptance still produces wonderful, paradoxical experiences. Thanks to far quieter reactions to gay presences in straight spaces and always-on social apps in our pockets, many gays are leaving the comfortable, if problematic, womb of gay bars, clubs, and other all-gay spaces and beating trails across the heteronormative landscape. It feels like a great weight has been lifted (and one has been for many) but the straight world continues to be lined with microaggressions, subtle insults or demeaning implications (Think: “I don’t see skin color; I’m colorblind and you’re just a normal person,” implying that you’re “normal” in spite of your skin color, or “Oh, so you’re gay-married,” instead of just married). It’s so easy to get angry or act out against the endless series of jabs, but camp provides another way to call attention to and critique these acts.
This world of microagressions is so subtle that it’s almost hard to notice. Indeed, the “micro” part implies that you’re not supposed to see it. It simply is, insidiously climbing into your head and whispering insecurities. We experience and play out our own aggressions each day, when we don’t notice our privileges and the aggressors are so kind as to remind us. There are many and varied types of privileges: race, class, gender, and sexuality among them. Microaggressions seek to guard the status quo. As author Jodi Picoult gracefully put it, “...there is a subtle difference between tolerance and acceptance. It’s the distance between moving into the cul-de-sac and having your next door neighbor trust you to keep an eye on her preschool daughter for a few minutes while she runs out to the post office. It’s the chasm between being invited to a colleague’s wedding with your same-sex partner and being able to slow-dance without the other guests whispering.”
The road to acceptance, even in the face of assimilation, is long and full of whispers, raised eyebrows, and sideways glances. One of the more problematic (to the powerful and privileged) parts of queerness is that it, for lack of a better term, queers norms. One can’t go and point out every single microagression across the span of the day without becoming terribly miserable. People also get really offended when you call them out and will probably tell you “stop being so sensitive,” or try to explain that they mean well. There must be a way to address rudeness without directly being rude, and there is: camp. Camp serves back those glances and eyebrows, but loudly queers them, wrapping them in a noisy artifice which says: “everything I am saying right now is a big lie exposing the truth.”
Everyone is serving some sort of “realness,” a presentation of themselves they want accepted, whether it is a class, gender, or sexual face they put forward and hope no one notices that there is no such thing as realness. All presentations of self are false –our various faces we put out in society, hoping to pass in one or many ways. Having been either slightly or dramatically outcast, we gain the sense that the rules we violate, causing us to fail at passing our various presentations, are all arbitrary, but presented as real and immutable. Social life is a great hoax and that’s ok – it’s like that for everyone. Camp presumes to be so obviously artificial that it critiques any nearby realness. Camping generates a space of complete and obvious falseness: by amplifying the lies, we can see the truth hidden behind them. Camp is crucial to surviving against seeming acceptance fraught with quiet perils. By amplifying the lies we internalize and aggress at others, we can finally see them. Camp makes the micro macro, if only momentarily.
The importance of camp seems lost amongst gay men who have internalized the messages of their oppressors: men who “don’t like feminine guys” or think themselves superior for serving up butch realness, which is just as posed and studied as the high-haired queens they dislike. Camp exposes your personal hoaxes. The loud, screaming, flagrant violations of expectations created by camp threaten core components of people who mistake self-presentation for who they are. In other words, the more people rely on their realness and their hoaxes, the more they are threatened by camp.
Those uncomfortably exposed by camp do not and cannot see that their presentations are just as false – they simply believe the lies, but camp can free them from norms. Not just gender norms, but all norms, because camp lies at the border between transgression and assimilation, in the interstitial space between the two. This partly explains camp’s endurance. The border between butch and camp has long been contested ground in gay culture and will continue to be so. The clones of the 1970s gave way to the str8-acting men and now to the gaybros – the dominant culture of pro-masculinity enthusiasts fighting as hard as they can to forget that the oppressor’s message, “gay men are failed men,” is a lie. As larger numbers of us live assimilated lives, camp is more important than ever, because we will always be outside the dominant norms, and it’s so easy for so many to serve butch realness, without realizing there is no “realness” to be had other than authenticity.
Tastefully exposing life’s absurdity takes practice, of course. Consider this anecdote from Christopher Isherwood, the English writer responsible for the book, which later became Cabaret. In his memoir Lost Years, Isherwood explains what happens to his friend Alec, to whom he tried to explain camp’s nuances. Isherwood writes: “Alec ended by deciding that camp is any kind of irresponsible unmotivated behavior.” Not long after, Isherwood and a friend went to Alec’s for lunch, where, “they found that Alex had prepared for their arrival by throwing all the garden chairs into the pool, where they were floating. ‘It’s a camp!’ Alec explained, obviously pleased with himself, like a proud pupil expecting praise.”
Getting past one’s personal lawn chair phase requires one realization: if we are all serving real- ness, all presentations are part of a great hoax, and if we can see them across the spectrum of daily life, then any choice of what is the appropriate face for any given situation is effectively arbitrary. They were assigned long ago and everyone forgot when and why, but we still wear them. Pointing out this oddity well requires obvious artifice and style. Without making the presentation big enough, it just seems like a ham-fisted and even more awkward earnestness, rather than subversive critique.
Drag queens, of course, have always known this. Their art form plays at this very nuance. A camp queen points out how ridiculous they are, women are, men are, and society is in general by serving up huge realness (through falseness). They accomplish this by looking not quite like a man nor quite like a woman, but somewhere in between, giving them tacit permission to behave in ways that those with solidified cis-masks cannot because our lack of gendered expectations provides permission. In other words, their attempt at serving realness is so obviously false as to provide camp spaces. By providing examples of realness’ many simulacra, we can apply the ideas elsewhere after we realize that masks don’t require makeup and wigs.
Today’s popular culture shows us how to use camp, minus the makeup. Take Mitchell and Cameron from Modern Family, for example. Although living an essentially “normal” white, suburban life, they still queer norms of familial gender roles and parenting. Not surprisingly, their outside presentation, especially Cameron’s, is distinctly camp. Their big and occasionally severe reactions help contrast them with the normative assumptions of the other families. They live on the front lines of the assimilated world, in which gays can be parents and live in the suburbs, but still deal with a continuous stream of misunderstandings and microaggressions, often as a result of their queerness. Mitchell and Cameron resolve these misunderstandings with good humor or such hideously inappropriate humor that we can see comedy in life’s microaggressions, as camp encourages us to do.
To paraphrase Italian fabulist Italo Calvino, we recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are camp, then make them endure, give them space. With our continued queer investigations of increasingly straight spaces, it can be easy to accept all of the arbitrary rules of the realness we serve and forget that, not long ago, those rules included “don’t be gay, because it’s aberrant.”Camp helps to make space for us and call out life’s inappropriate judgments against us, fighting back against the inferno. On a recent episode of RuPaul’s web series, RuPaul Drives, he says, in a discussion with John Waters: “When you understand life’s twisted hoax you go: ‘Oh! Okay! Now we can have some fun.’” They did, and you should too.
Dan Saniski is the author of Ruling with a Sequined Fist: the Gay Handbook. He is a writer, information designer, and investigator of queer experiences, history, and culture.
Jeremy Sorese is an illustrator based out of Brooklyn, NYC. Currently, he is finishing up his first graphic novel, a 440 page science fiction story about romance and energy usage to be published with Nobrow late 2015.