Reprinted in The Gay and Lesbian Review: “IN ORDER to gain a new perspective on camp, let us first re-examine some of the precepts of Susan Sontag’s seminal if problematic essay “Notes on Camp,” published in 1964. First and foremost, Sontag points out that camp is a sensibility and, more significantly, a variant of sophistication.
To start things off, and as a prime example of camp that perhaps fits outside of its “normal” definition, let us consider John Cassavetes’ film masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The ultra-campy emcee of the strip joint that Ben Gazzara owns and operates in the film calls himself “Mr. Sophistication.” The role is played by Meade Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, which verges on good gay camp: Geraldine Page’s mannered acting style, especially her performances in films like Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth and Woody Allen’s Interiors, always errs on the side of camp. She also appears in Cassavetes’ brilliant Opening Night, which, I would argue, can be classified as (good straight) camp. Stages and staged performances figure prominently in both films, a particular earmark of camp, but both works also contain Cassavetes’ trademark improvisational, naturalistic, almost documentary style, a tendency that would seem to run against the high artifice and theatricality of classic camp. Therefore one could argue that Cassavetes’ œuvre generally embodies two essential qualities that paradoxically reaffirm and eschew camp, evincing a high sophistication of form that would tend to reinforce the former position.
The essence of camp, according to Sontag, is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration. She points to its esoteric nature, amounting to a private code or a secretly shared badge of identity. Further, she states that “to talk about camp is to therefore betray it,” simultaneously reinforcing and rejecting her own deep connection to the camp sensibility. She goes on to say that “to name a sensibility … requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion,” a remarkable statement considering that her own article on camp can be considered both camp in itself (in its lofty, pretentious pronouncements) and a betrayal of it (in its sympathetic identification). Significantly, Sontag was a lesbian who had a long-term relationship with Annie Liebovitz, a purveyor, in her staged and artificial photography style, of camp, or, more accurately, bad lesbian camp. (Sontag also wrote a rather camp treatise on photography called On Photography (2001).) Sontag identifies camp as “a sensibility that converts the serious into the frivolous” (rendering her article another kind of betrayal by taking camp far too seriously), and as a matter of “taste” that “governs every free (as opposed to rote) human response.” Camp, then, is an existential condition as much as a sensibility: an enormously serious and profound frivolity.
Sontag rightly points out that camp is a certain mode of æstheticism, which is not to say beauty, but a high degree of artifice and stylization. (One could easily argue that the contemporary abandonment of the æsthetic dimension in favor of Realpolitik and mundane, conventional social issues has been disastrous to the gay experience and its formerly highly developed camp sensibility.) But her most crucial betrayal of camp comes in her statement that camp is “neutral to content,” and thereby “disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical.” This is where I most strongly disagree with Sontag’s idea of camp. My perhaps idealized conception is that it is, or was, by its very nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations.
Sontag’s camp manifesto of camp was published fifty years ago, and it’s clear that it is no longer adequate to lump together all styles and modes of camp. Distinctions must be made, and the evolution or devolution of the sensibility, its movement through (accelerated) history, must be taken into consideration. I would go so far as to argue that “camp” has replaced “irony” as the go-to sensibility in popular culture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, I will argue that now, in this moment, the whole goddamn world is camp.
A critic in Harper’s Bazaar once identified irony as “the ideological white noise of the nineties,” a proclamation that always stuck with me. This wasn’t to say that irony no longer operated as a useful device or sensibility, or that it could no longer be used to subtle or witty effect. It simply meant that irony had itself been normalized and generalized into the default sensibility of the entire popular culture, thereby rendering it more difficult to detect and less effective to use unless expressed very carefully and consciously for a particular effect. The net result was that much of the general populace (now roughly equivalent to “pop culture”) had adopted the posture as a given to the extent that people generally lost track of its meaning or purpose: there was a kind of ironic detachment from everything. People started routinely to say the opposite of what they meant, and meant it, failing to understand that their new “sensibility” had become a betrayal of their actual former set of beliefs or tastes, which they even perhaps once held sacred.
So, in a sense, irony became a malaise, a kind of generalized disaffection that infected the dominant culture. I surmise that this is what opened up the floodgates for the rise of camp culture, or rather the corruption and misinterpretation of camp culture—a certain detached artificiality and forced excess which, in the wrong hands, and in its popularization, one might go so far as to call the ideological white noise of the new millennium.
“Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”—― Alexis de Tocqueville
Tyler Curry writes: “In the fight for civil rights, the battles have typically been fought between two parties. Whether it was blacks vs. whites, men vs. women or Meryl Streep vs. actresses everywhere, there never has been a need to identify a third party. And in the tradition of the haves versus the have-nots, the ruling party gets to choose how their opponents are defined.
In the battle for same-sex rights, who was a part of our demographic was decided for us long ago, and we didn’t know we could question it. We were LGBT, and our opponents, the moral majority, knocked us out round after round.
But we are no longer the wimpy kids in the corner, vastly outmatched by our foes. Over the last several decades, we’ve grown to become a worthy opponent and are winning state and federal policy battles. As we continue to progress in the fight for equal rights, it has become apparent that the “T” in LGBT is being neglected as gay men and women continue to take precedence.
By being part of the same-sex acronym, trans individuals are rarely recognized as a unique group that requires its own specific agenda to obtain equality. Instead, they are often considered an obscure and misunderstood subgroup of the gay community.
In the beginning of the gay rights movement, the battle against violence, outright discrimination and blatant intolerance was one that gays, bisexuals and transgender men and women were equally invested in.
But now, the concerns of gay men and lesbians have shifted to such things as marriage equality and employment discrimination. Although transgender men and women also share in these inequalities, they are subjected to many more injustices that fail to gain hardly any mainstream support.
According to a report in the Center for Transgender Equality, trans people experience three times as much police violence as non-transgender people. Trans people are often inappropriately sexualized in the media and are subjected to derogatory comments about their genitalia, which rarely are corrected.
The report also shows that trans people are more likely to be poor and homeless because of their inability to obtain employment and a lack of protection in employment rights.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest percentage of HIV infections occurs among transgender women, yet this statistic is rarely discussed in mainstream media.
The issues of transgender men and women are often brushed to the side as the preoccupations of an overly sensitive group of people. People often justify their intolerance of the trans community while expressing support for same-sex rights.
Just last week, actress Gabourey Sidibe repeatedly used the slur “tranny” while on Arsenio Hall’s show. Sidibe, an outspoken supporter of gay rights, was stunned to find out that the slur was considered offensive, and she quickly apologized for her error.
But then, something interesting happened. Stories published on several media forums, including the Advocate Magazine online and Instinct Magazine online, posed the question of whether we are being too sensitive about a word that is commonly used in the gay community.
Numerous gay men and women then weighed in on whether the trans slur was, in fact, a slur. A large percentage of the commenters agreed that the media and the gay community were being too harsh on the popular TV actress. One commenter even said it could not be considered a negative term if popular shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race used the term in a comedic and even an affectionate way.
These comments are evidence that even the gay community does not understand and are often the cause of discrimination against transgender people. In case you weren’t aware, the drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race are the reason people like Sidibe are clueless about trans slurs. Those drag queens are gay men who continually abuse a term that damages trans people. Just like “that’s so gay” is often meant to be humorous, comically calling someone a “tranny” may garner a few laughs, but it unintentionally demeans a group of people.
When drag queens remove the trappings of their dramatized personas, they become once again a part of the gay rights movement and leave real transgender people to suffer the consequences.
Although the discrimination against trans people by the gay community is unintentional, it is the reason the “T” should be removed from the LGBT. Gay men often use the slur because they believe it’s a part of their collective community vocabulary. Just as we take liberties by using our own gay slurs as we chose, we mistakenly use the slurs aimed at trans people and whose objections are brushed off as political sensitivity.
There is a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, and it can’t be expected that one movement will equally serve both groups. However, gays and transgender individuals both share in the effects of being misunderstood. So, as gay men and women, we don’t fully need to understand being transgender to be able to whole-heartedly support that cause.
The public opinion of same-sex orientation and gay rights has changed drastically over the past several decades. The majority of Americans now support the civil rights of gay men and women, giving our fight for equality some much needed muscle.
Now we have the chance to throw our strength behind a group who continues to be marginalized just as we were not too long ago.
Transgender people still suffer from the bullying, discrimination and injustice from which many gays and lesbians have long since moved on. Now, more than ever, it’s time for the LGB to start championing the “T.”
Homo: this would be a start, but the real achievement would be if the Twelve Tribes would ALL go their separate, but equal, ways!