Start of a Decade: “Camp Leaders”

Published in: January-February 2020 issue.


BY INVOKING the word “camp,” I’m taking advantage of the word’s famous ambiguity, which allows me to cover a number of disparate artists under its umbrella. They’re “leaders” in the sense that they represent a kind of camp that flourished in the era before gay liberation, when homosexuality could only be discussed indirectly, if at all, through sly references that the cognoscenti alone might recognize.

         The reason camp is so hard to define is clearly related to the secrecy of its message, the use of innuendo, the need for plausible deniability. To take a case at hand (in an article by Mark Dery), the narrative illustrations of Edward Gorey are full of double entendres that could scan as “gay,” but there’s always a plausibly non-gay interpretation. A figure like Liberace seems more open-and-shut, but at the height of his popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, his glittery outfits and chandeliers were widely seen as aristocratic or atavistic, and he was something of a sex symbol for many women!

         The paradox of camp is exemplified by Liberace, who embodied its signal characteristic: an excessive attention to style, or simply excess; but the message is easily missed. The antics of Little Richard in the ’50s look pretty campy in retrospect, but since he came from that zany world of show biz, who could say? Little Richard and Liberace—discussed along with Johnny Mathis and Johnnie Ray by Andrew Holleran—got away with it by “playing the freak” in a way that disguised their sexuality even while broadcasting it.

         The imperative to disguise one’s true intent can be found in another product of this era: the “physique” periodicals that were widely distributed to gay men (see John Lauritsen’s piece). Here the intent was to show nearly naked men in a way that legitimized activities that were still illegal in most states, so the models were shown wrestling or posing like ancient Greek statues to give them a veneer of “art.” The result was pure camp, a style that’s recognized above all by its artificiality or staginess. The photo on page 26, set at the corner of “42nd St.” and “Cosmo Alley,” provides a ready illustration.

         Once it became possible to talk openly about matters LGBT, the need for a coded language gradually dissipated, and camp took a different form. Quentin Crisp, remembered here by Dimitris Yeros, can serve as a kind of transitional figure who spans both eras. By the time of The Naked Civil Servant (1968), Crisp was already open about his homosexuality, but the book is all about the campy personæ that he adopted in his earlier years to survive in strait-laced England. Crisp kept performing his routine into the ’90s, but by then most people probably thought of him as a drag act. Indeed camp itself has come to be seen as almost synonymous with drag, though surely the style that Susan Sontag elaborated in her classic essay “Notes on Camp” (1964) was once a lot more complicated than that.