Wikipedia describes camp as “a social, cultural, and aesthetic style and sensibility based on deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality.” It is all those things, and more besides, but it’s difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, we all know camp when we see it.
Camp is effete, it’s garish, it’s hyperbole and exaggeration, it’s shameless, crude, funny, and sexless. Camp appeals to the masses, yet is intrinsically associated with queer men.
Camp derives from the French se camper (“to pose in an exaggerated fashion”), and was first defined in 1909 in the Oxford English Dictionary as: “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals. So as a noun, ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, et cetera.”
Although only officially acknowledged as a phenomenon at the turn of the twentieth century, camp has been a recognizable entity for much longer. One only has to look at the molly houses of seventeenth-century London to find camp alive and well, long before it became mainstream. And it did: it was inescapable on British and American TV through the 1960s and ’70s — it was Mr. Humphries in Are You Being Served?; Lieutenant Gruber in ‘Allo Allo; Shatner’s Kirk and West’s Batman. But it wasn’t just swishy or sexually suspect men who were camp: Charlie’s Angels, Lost in Space, Gilligan’s Island, Thunderbirds, and The Addams Family owe their appeal to their over-the-top campness.
The fact is, the mass-market appetite for camp has been obvious for years. From the high-camp of opera, to the low-camp of TV comedy, its appeal is endless and all-encompassing. Ask most people what they like about camp and they’ll tell you it’s funny, and non-threatening. It’s gay, without the threat of sex. It’s gay-lite.
Many queer critics over the years have tried to distance themselves from camp as a form of expression, deriding those who still cling to it as old-fashioned and even harmful: you don’t have to look far to find criticisms of camp as stereotypical, arguing its frivolity demeans the LGBT community, reducing queerfolk to a cheap punchline.
This does camp a great disservice. For over a century, camp served as the only acceptable signifier of homosexual orientation that could be publicly expressed. Because fundamentally, underneath all that seemingly-innocent patter, camp is all about sex. That’s why it’s so effective. Being camp enabled queer men to transmit their sexual orientation and availability to other men in public without (for the most part) eliciting too much unwanted attention from onlookers. During the period when being queer was illegal, and being found out could lead to violence even more so than today, camp’s apparent harmlessness was a vital defence mechanism against persecution or attack. By appropriating feminine mannerisms, queer men could take advantage of the social stigma against violence towards women in order to protect themselves.
Camp also enables open discussion about sex by hiding behind innuendo and humour. Polari, a slang language used by the queer subculture up through the first half of the twentieth century, took this ability one step further, enabling queer men to say the crudest things in public without their meaning being understood. And because polari seemed funny to an outsider, it even got a spot on a BBC radio comedy, Round the Horne, where it was used extensively by two camp characters, Julian and Sandy.
Camp is easily the most dominant force in gay history in the last 100 years, just because it has always been misunderstood. To marginalise it now is to fail to understand camp’s role in queer history and culture.