Camp, butch, and the quest for authenticity

Mambaonline | 11 October 2013

When I came out, neither of my brothers seemed surprised. They hadn’t expected it, they said, but it made sense and explained all kinds of things. I found that strange, because no one in my family is the kind of rugby-watching macho oke that our medievally patriarchal nation holds up as the standard of masculinity.

My one brother studied drama at university, and I have never seen sport playing on my other brother’s TV, either. They can braai, but they can whip up a pretty mean smoked salmon and caviar amuse-bouche, too. I didn’t think I was all that different.

And yet, clearly something was ‘a bit gay’. I was teased for being a fag from the moment I arrived at boarding school until the day I fled back to the safety of Jozi to finish school. And that was before I even camped up. After coming out, I dialled up the gay to such levels I want to crawl under the couch in shame when I think about it now. I wore shirts so tight and small they were one rib’s width away from being crop-tops, I called boys ‘guuurl’ and I pouted my lips in clubs. And all the while, I felt like I was dying inside.

Being a ‘screaming queen’ felt utterly inauthentic to me, and yet I couldn’t help myself. It was so completely freeing to be able to be gay after the oppression of boarding school that I binged on camp. And within two years, I felt almost as trapped and misunderstood as I had felt in the closet. I went to go study overseas, largely to escape the life I had started to build for myself and the character I had become.

In the UK there was a whole new brand of gay that I hadn’t known before; slightly punk, full of attitude, unashamedly gay but not even a little bit camp. It’s how most of the guys that I met acted, and it certainly felt more comfortable for me. Instead of air kisses, there was cockiness and instead of ABBA, deep house tunes in underground clubs.

I developed grand theories while I ‘normalised’ at university: that being camp is a phase that we all go through after coming out, as a rebellion against our patriarchal society. That the more oppressive and patriarchal our family and culture, the more effeminate we become. That being camp is an early phase in the gay liberation movement – a phase which is about being loud and proud and giving a giant middle finger to society – but that societies that have no homophobia have no need for campness, either.

Gay people in less patriarchal societies, I told myself, have no need to prove that they are human beings or that they don’t need approval by straight people, because their worth and their approval is never in question. They are happier in themselves, and are free to be ‘ordinary’ guy-next-door gays. It also makes them more comfortable being overtly sexual, whereas there is something almost asexual about being camp. It’s a safe caricature for family TV – the eccentric uncle who has everyone in stitches of laughter, not the blunt, assertive gay guy who sits next to you on the bus smelling like sex and poppers.

In that interpretation, being camp is a sign of insecurity and being hurt. And that is actually quite a homophobic view to hold.

I have recently met very camp guys who were perfectly happy and confident in themselves. They were funny and sharp, but not bitchy and vicious. It made me realise just how anti-camp I have been for the past ten years. I’ve nipped friendships in the bud and abandoned dates because guys were camp and I assumed that meant they were fake, or could not accept themselves. But who am I to be the arbiter of what is authentic and what is not? Just because I feel like a fraud being a diva doesn’t mean others are.

It’s bizarre how much we read into ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. As gay people we are often the first to subvert or rage against gender roles, and yet we perpetuate them. If a straight guy acts a little effeminate we assume he’s gay and hasn’t admitted it to himself. Why can we not accept that some straight guys may be in touch with their emotions and still not want it up the bum? We inadvertently contribute to the idea that anything other than hyper-jock masculinity is gay, and that gay means camp.

That stops straight guys exploring other aspects of their personality and becoming more rounded people. And it stops us becoming more rounded people, too.

The gay community is diverse, and neither camp guys nor ‘straight-acting’ guys are more representative or more authentic. Likewise, straight guys are diverse. And those who dress well, are good friends to their sisters and have good friends who are gay are not any ‘less manly’ and we should stop thinking and telling them they are.

The quest to be straight-acting is as stifling as the need to find a voice through being camp. Ultimately, every preconceived identity is a trap. Gender and masculinity are structures of power, not nature. None of us are so one-dimensional that we can be summed up in a ‘type’. I have moments when I’m happy talking with ‘the boys’ at a braai and moments – particularly when I’m drunk – of clutching my metaphoric pearls and shrieking with laughter. We shift how we behave depending on our moods and the group of people we are with.

The trick in life, I think, is to be true to ourselves wherever we lie on the spectrum, and to feel secure enough in our friendships and our lives to dip into other modes of being if, when and how we want to, and not when society dictates. It’s damn hard to get it right for ourselves, and perhaps even harder to love others when they do the same.

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