Notes on Anti-Gay Camp

For comedy I turn to Christian bigots, but they have let me down of late. At a time when videos of anti-gay preachers routinely reach viral status, gay commentators are cannily recasting such right-wing footage amid mashups, most of which make clear the comedic aspects of certain anti-gay utterances.

The popularity of the word "poop" among bigoted preachers, and the willingness of these preachers to reduce gay eroticism to defecation, makes for an easy laugh. What's lost, I think, is the lilting way in which an older type of right-winger would offer more bizarre, almost completely unaccountable connections between gay sex and general cultural deviancy, calling for the censorship of children's television shows by shouting (as did a frocked fellow on the local station of my rural youth), that "Tinky Winky Teletubby is trying to turn my little Carl into a queer!" In other words, what's missing from the current crop, what today's anti-gay preachers, with their infantile depictions of "poo-poo pansies," fail to provide, is camp.

Jerry Falwell, for one, had an excellent (if unconscious) grasp of camp. (Compare the basso profondo tones in which he, drenched in sweat, would scream, "I see gay in a Teletubby!" with any of Patty Duke's operatically anti-gay remarks from Valley of the Dolls, and you will find that the differences are scarcely even academic.) I am trying to make a twofold case: Firstly, I want to suggest that the increasing infantilism of anti-gay religious leaders, their rapidly intensifying reliance on words like "poop" and "Depends" in discussing the ills and evils of homosexuality, represents the collective clutching at straws of a cultural sector facing official opposition (in the form of both the president's spoken endorsement of gay marriage and the seeming inevitability of certain, associated civil-rights victories); and secondly, I want to encourage a specific (but not entirely unrelated) reevaluation of camp, the kind of camp that eclipses in pleasurability (but that is also more politically dangerous than) the self-infantilizing gestures of the shit set.

It was, in fact, only after reading Huffington Post coverage of a preacher's recent, shit-centric speech against gay marriage and pride parades, and only after learning of this speech's capacity to call to mind a seemingly endless array of YouTube videos in which a similarly bigoted preacher is cast as an object of laughter, that I began to think about camp and its connection to anti-gay religiosity.

But what, exactly, is camp? It is, of course, a commonly debated category whose significance owes everything to the degree of difficulty in deciphering it. You know it, though, when you see it, and even before that naughty curiosity about your older brothers' bodies solidifies into a non-incestuous homosexuality. My childhood friend, with whom I developed into a consciously-camp-appreciating queer, used to ask me why we liked certain words ("Patricia" and its diminutives "Pat," "Patty," "Trish," "Tricia") and phrases (Faye Dunaway's "Barbara, please!", the Mommie Dearest command we far preferred to the more familiar "no wire hangers!" because Dunaway uttered it as if it were one word, "Barbaraplease," bespeaking her vexed mental state). In the seventh grade, at a screening of Oliver Stone's inane opus about the 37th president, the phrase "Mrs. Patricia Nixon" was enough to make us choke with laughter.

Pure camp was for us the connections among one word and a wide variety of cultural expressions, from Joan Allen's arduous intensity ("I'm Pat, the president's wife") to Julia Sweeney's cheeky exploration of apparent asexuality and the neutrality of a single name ("It's Pat! It's me -- but who is that?"). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, "Pat" was phonetically pleasing. One letter away from "pap," whose associated smear made us smirk almost as often (and possibly because the camp-conscious Naked Gun films had co-opted the phrase for their villain, Mr. Pahpshmir), "Pat" was as fun a three-letter word as we could find.

But why focus on such youthful silliness? Because it's a reminder that the best kind of camp is, as Susan Sontag once suggested, the kind that creeps up on you, that's viewer-activated, that makes absolutely no sense. It's Falwell's impossibly earnest Teletubby-as-agent-of-evil speech, not some fifth-rate preacher's "poop." References to shit are just stupid; criminalizing a Teletubby is camp.

My friend's son, who's only 10, recently told me that he's "obsessed" with the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras. When I asked him to elaborate, he said without hesitation that he loves not the little girls, proto-whorey though they may be, but the mothers who orchestrate their actions. "They know how to take charge and reign," he said.

"Reign?" I asked. "Like a queen?"

"Like a king," the kid replied. 

Why he cites the mothers, and in such a gender-upending way, makes me wonder about camp and the accusation, so beloved of religious bigots, that one can identify the seeds of homosexuality and "crush 'em like cockroaches," in the recently uttered words of North Carolina Pastor Sean Harris. My friend's son does not don dresses, an action that in Harris' conception suggests an early, paradoxically pre-sexual allegiance to "the gay lifestyle," and he doesn't like dolls, but he does declare that the TLC moms are "delicious."

My desire is not to discard our culture's tendency to trace the signs of a rising queer consciousness; after all, outing can be fun. What I want, from the entertainingly anti-gay likes of Pastor Harris and company, is a bit of sophistication, a sense that dolls and dresses are not the harbingers of male homosexuality that our forefathers felt they were, that a camp aesthetic can be found on cable television and transformed through a 10-year-old's speech into something greater, something grandly gender-bending and glorious. For good measure, I would also like these anti-gay Christians to behave campily themselves, because a poop joke just isn't going to cut it. What ever happened to Haggard?

And why, for that matter, is quality camp more pleasurable than childlike references to poop? Because it's stranger, and because (elitism alert!) it requires a certain degree of cultural smarts to decipher, as I have already suggested. But it is precisely this indecipherability that renders camp politically dangerous.

When, in the 1958 film The Goddess, camp icon Patty Duke, at the age of 11, told her pet cat, "Kitty, I got promoted today," the line registered as outrageous and quickly became a camp classic, beloved of drag queens and denizens of underground gay bars. It was the film's signature line. It was also, however, a reflection of its sexist politics. A veiled Marilyn Monroe biopic written by Paddy Chayefsky, The Goddess viewed Duke's character (who would mature into the film's Monroe stand-in, played by Kim Stanley) as a victim first of ambition and then of loneliness. Who wants to listen to a Tracy Flick type? Not even a kitty, claimed The Goddess.

I am not claiming that gay men laughed at that line at the expense of registering the sexism that surrounded and produced it. I do, however, hope that the resistant practices of today's gays will generate politicized criticism as well as laughs, which, of course, is why I lament the sudden preponderance of poop as a point of reference in anti-gay speeches. It's too easy to laugh at these speeches; they require little more than direct quotation. By contrast, camp requires context, and context creates meaning.

I might miss Falwell's gothic dramatics, but I don't miss the culture that created them. If widening support for LGBT rights means that we're left with preachers who, out of utter helplessness, end up prattling about poo-poo, then I suppose I'll have to accept that, and even see it as a good thing. After all, I'll always have Patty.