Editor’s Note: The following submission is from Callum Pearce. Have an LGBTQ+ related experience or story to share? Having your article published on this site will automatically enrol you into a raffle to win a $50 Amazon Gift Card. Submit an article today via queerdeermedia.com.
adjective: camp; comparative adjective: camper; superlative adjective: campest
(of a man or his manner) ostentatiously and extravagantly effeminate.
“a heavily made-up and highly camp actor”
deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style.
“the movie seems more camp than shocking or gruesome”
I’ve started with the dictionary definition of camp not so much for what it does say but rather for what it doesn’t. You will notice straight away that it doesn’t say gay, some definitions may say that that style is favoured by some in the gay community but it doesn’t mean gay. The reason I mention that is because I have had many conversations with people and even been disciplined in work for describing things as camp and people insist on telling me that this is me bringing gayness into everything. It’s also one of the reasons that other gay people react badly to those of us who lean more to the camp side as they think we are in some way representing them wrongly. That somehow just by being who we are we are convincing the world that we are the only type of gay, embarrassing and drowning out people who aren’t that way inclined. Camp peoples natural inclination toward theatricality and glamour meant that camp people were seen more on TV and in films. The more effeminate they were the less threatening they were to an audience that had always been told to be scared of us, that we were sick or evil. By the time I was growing up, in England in the eighties, there were loads of known gay comedians that had been and gone and a new lot were coming up, able to be even more themselves because of the path paved by those that went before them.
I have often been told, when I have had problems with homophobic neighbours or been abused or beaten in the street, that I brought it on myself. That by dressing and acting effeminately I was asking for trouble. The implication being that really I deserved what had happened and should try in future to fit in. My gayness or campness had never felt like something I could hide, even as a kid, so it seemed far better for me to be who I was truly and fully. When most of us come out as gay it isn’t because we’d like a bit more drama in our lives, we’d like to make things just that bit harder for ourselves, we don’t do it because we wake up one day and think
“you know I really fancy being disowned by my family and getting treated like crap by ignorant bigots”. We do it because there is no other option, we find it essential to be our true selves. It can feel impossible or unbearable to have to watch your mannerisms and play every sentence through your head before speaking to make sure no clues slip out. So you step out of that closet and other gay people will insist you climb into another one where you hide your campness. Some because they think it reflects badly on them, some because they had their camp phase years ago and grew out of it so they think they can push you to the other side saving you the bother of learning for yourself who you are and others just because they’d quite like to take you home if you weren’t so damned obvious.
I find it pretty hard to remember ever not being a little bit camper than those around me. Physical Education and sport in school was an absolute nightmare. My idea of playing football was standing as far away from the ball as possible hugging myself from the cold and gossiping with the goalie. Tall and skinny and no great fan of cold or pain I looked out of place and felt out of place. I didn’t mind basketball or high jump where my stupid long gangly body actually worked for me, rather than against me as it did in all other sports, also those were played inside not outside in the mud and the cold rain. I was far happier on stage in school plays or drama class Or in English writing stories. Even in the first years of primary school, the only way they could bribe me to behave was to hold the playhouse over my head, a little pretend house set up with boxes full of dressing up clothes and wigs, unconnected phones and plastic pots and pans. Playing dress up performing that was where I was happiest. When I was too old for that they noticed that I loved writing stories and performing them as I read them back so that became the bribe then, if you’re good all week you can read your stories to the other class on Friday. So as far back as I can remember I had a taste for dressing up for performance and for being a little bit camp.
In high school, I started to become more obvious. Playing Julian Clary in a school play we devised for house competitions was probably a rather large clue to my fellow students. Whilst the UK has always done well for camp comedians Julian was something else. With Julian, his homosexuality wasn’t hinted at and sniggered about. It was out in the open from the moment he walked on to the stage. The way he dressed provided the first clue, sparkling with sequins or shiny tight revealing outfits. A stunningly beautiful man made even more gorgeous and glamorous by the fabulously camp outfits and the strong colourful 80’s style make-up. We weren’t being encouraged to laugh behind our hands at the funny feminine gay boy hinting at naughty secrets. Instead, we were invited to laugh along with a dazzling beautiful man who openly declared his homosexuality and dared you to have anything to say about it. Nobody would dare of course as his quick wit and sharp tongue would cut them down instantly. Wearing make-up and declaring his homosexuality didn’t soften him for the audience it made him stronger. It never felt that he wore the makeup as a mask to hide his true self from people, more like war paint or tribal tattoos to make a statement or warn you what was coming. I adored people like him, Quentin Crisp, David Bowie, Adam ant. Gay, straight and bi People straddling the imaginary line between masculine and feminine, proudly owning both sides with neither diluting the other. These were the people that interested me. Carry on films were on TV every week filling my head with double entendres and camp reactions. Bette Midler, Elvira, neither gay but both brilliantly camp, everything I was drawn to had a touch of it even the children’s programs were riddled with camp characters and subtle innuendo, The pink windmill programs, rentaghost, round the bend. All Camp, rebellious, naughty, cheeky, things that suited me perfectly.
I didn’t make much of an attempt to hide who I was in school nor did I think I would be able to if I tried. For the most part, I got away with it. I remember having to have a meeting with the year head after me and my friend Joanne had decided to do tarts and vicars fancy dress for comic relief and I had to have it explained to me that for my own safety and the appropriateness of such attire for a young boy in a Wigan school, it would probably be better to choose another theme and not come to school dressed as a prostitute. Grudgingly I accepted the advice and came instead as a wizard with a lovely long flowing wizards gown, a long dark wig with a white streak and fabulous makeup. Luckily as I said I usually got away with it. If I was bullied for anything in school it was because I was adopted, the campness and general madness actually seemed to help a bit. Whilst I didn’t fit in in sport or other things, I was quite boyish in other ways and generally made people laugh. Winding the more annoying teachers up and playing up to entertain the class or performing in the plays. Plus I never shied away from a fight or a dare. School fights were rarely ever over anything more than seeing who was the toughest and were a largely quite civilised affair for our school. Sometimes you would annoy the wrong person but usually, it would just be to work out the pecking order. Somebody would offer you a fight you would accept then you would both meet with a crowd of your friends for an audience on the market after school and punch each other about a bit until it seemed like somebody was winning or it was broken up. The fact that I never ran away from these or tried to avoid them even when it was obvious I couldn’t win meant that you got a bit of respect from some of the tougher lads, even ended up friends with some after the fighting was over.
As an adult I chose work that fitted in with who I was, hairdressing, acting, street theatre, working in gay bars, clubs, and saunas, working at a holiday camp doing a kids show and face painting and working as a playworker with young people with disabilities. Being a bit camp in these kinds of jobs opened doors for me rather than sealed them shut as it could in other areas. At the holiday camp I only applied to work in a shop but because I was a bit camp and outgoing they insisted I do the face painting and then they created a show around it for the kids where I would get them on stage to paint their parents’ faces. By this point in the UK people couldn’t openly discriminate against people in the workplace due to their sexuality but the jobs I chose and that interested me were jobs where it worked in my favour anyway. Even with attacks and abuse or judgement from other gay people, it was worth it to be myself. It would be dishonest to say I didn’t exaggerate it sometimes to annoy a loudmouthed bigot or amplify it a bit in the clubs and bars but everyone puts on a bit of a show when they leave their house. If we all went around acting the way we do whilst home alone the world would rapidly resemble a really dull zombie film, where the zombies have already taken over and have nothing left to do but mill around looking bored. I always felt that our path to acceptance would be cleared by our visibility and our pride in who we were, not by hiding who we are. I felt genuinely more comfortable in more feminine clothes and a bit of makeup whilst still fully understanding that I was a man. It didn’t occur to me that anybody had the right to tell me what I could or couldn’t wear because I was male nor did it occur to me to tell others how they should dress. I didn’t imagine myself to be a woman or wish to be one I was more than happy as a man, I just found the dress codes quite restrictive. Just look in most shoe shops amazing styles and colours everywhere like Alladin’s cave then you turn to the small dull men’s section usually brown, grey and black clunky big looking things like rows of Cornish pasties at different stages of cooking on a shelf.
At 39 people would say that I’ve grown out of my camp phase or calmed down. This isn’t true my sense of humour and sense of self is still exactly the same. I don’t go out clubbing often anymore so I don’t dress as though I am. With a beard and a beer belly, the crop-tops and high heels don’t work quite so well. Some people can make that look work fabulously but not me, also it isn’t very practical when working in my allotment. So I suppose I’m writing this to people who cringe when they see camp gay people, or feel embarrassed by the famous gays that went before that paved the way for all of us to be who we are openly. I can only speak of my own experiences but we’re not generally putting it on to annoy people, nor are we trying to promote ourselves as the only type of gay or misrepresent other gay people. Just trying to be ourselves as best we can. Some people will be screamingly camp all of their lives some will leave it behind with youth, but camp or butch, outrageous or modest that isn’t the whole of who any of us are.