As I grew up in a small, English market town in the 1970’s, I didn’t encounter much beyond a very traditional norm. Everyone was straight and almost without exception, white. Personal expression seemed a rare thing, and life had a rock-steady predictability.
You could see a little more colour on TV (literally – it was just coming in). There were black and Asian people – and there would be the occasional ‘poof’.
To be a gay male in the media of the 70’s and early 80’s was essentially to be a cartoon. Flouncy gesticulations and ultra-effeminate expressions were how the rest of society recognised the men who were obviously committed to the corruption of heterosexuality .
(Lesbians of course, didn’t exist at all in either popular television or the small town real world. They existed only in male fantasy).
I first encountered real camp in 1980. I’d begun my first job in London – the metropolis itself providing an enormous culture shock. I worked with a man who moved and spoke in a theatrical manner that seemed to me, exhausting in the upkeep. We became immediate friends and he introduced me to a world in which anything seemed possible.
Suddenly, camp wasn’t cartoon at all. On certain nights and at occasional lunches, it was downright normal – and even nuanced. As the straight-acting ‘guest’, I was the minority. I was the social and gender caricature.
I found this parallel universe to be funny, welcoming, generous and endlessly fascinating. I aspired to the liberation of personalities that I saw. I wanted to carry it back with me on the commute home, though never really felt safe enough to do so. It was fine for those I met who lived in gay households and had found employment that didn’t require concession, but for the rest of us, expressing any sign of a compromised sexuality – let alone gender – was completely out of the question.
I try to reflect some of this in ‘Interloper’. Lee wanders through a number of worlds to which she doesn’t really belong – but her gay ‘brothers’ do not for a moment, discriminate. She is with them – and they her. It plays a huge role in helping Lee to develop. It is her place of safety as she unfurls the layers of her own identity and begins to build a life for herself. I based this part of the story very much on my own experiences during the 80’s. If today, it seems a little over-the-top in description, all I can tell you is that, well – it really was all that and more.
If I were still making that same London to Kent commute today, I’d see how much closer the gay and straight lifestyles have become; how they bleed into each other. I’ve known straight men who behave in a gay manner – and of course, I come across gay men who appear entirely straight.
The Larry Grayson / Mr Humphries / Melvyn Hayes TV caricature has been largely consigned to another age. So much so, that they date their respective shows more than perhaps anything else. If none of those names mean anything to you, either because you weren’t in the UK or on the planet at all during that time, then do look them up on online – and marvel at how dated they appear (and not just because of their wardrobes).
Camp had a role to play in moving society to where it is today. Gay got right in Straight’s grille and demanded to have a say in where we were all headed. It injected more colour and vibrancy into a narrow mainstream. And by and large, over time, Straight’s resistance became a shrug.
Camp isn’t instinctive. It is designed behaviour, constructed and created to express, entertain and/or provoke. Once upon a time, it could be worn as a badge of honour. It was a tool. A signal to anyone within earshot that the bearer was ‘out, proud and loud’ – and the world needed just such agents to broaden the rainbow.
Today, I can still find camp entertaining – at least for a while. It doesn’t take long to actually grate a little – but that’s a positive thing; a sign of how much progress has been made.