Rainbow Rant: Notes on ‘Notes on “Camp”’

When it comes to Susan Sontag’s landmark essay, camp will have its revenge

Joy Ellison
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: Billy Porter attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775333959 ORIG FILE ID: 1147407968

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these things is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of "Camp.” -Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” 1964

One can no longer talk about camp without talking about the Met Gala, which is, perhaps, where it all went wrong.

The theme of the 2019 Met Gala was camp, specifically Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Attendees were instructed to attend the event in fashion inspired by Sontag’s treatise. The result was a confused and confusing night of ecstasy and travesty in which the glitterati displayed its collective complete misunderstanding of camp culture. 

Like the divas that camp loves, I am not over it. 

Some Met Gala attendees, like Billy Porter, knew camp as intimately as a lover. But most did not. It wasn’t their fault. In fact, I can’t blame them at all, because Sontag’s essay, notable for its deft prose, is notably bad at defining camp. 

Sontag writes: “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.” Likewise, it is shameful to write a stiff and earnest critique of a landmark piece of cultural criticism. One is guaranteed to produce an inferior piece of analysis. But not all battles are chosen; in fact, queerness is marked by a lack of choice in one’s fights. So here are my own humble jottings on camp — and Sontag’s treachery against it. 

1. Sontag describes camp as “esoteric,” calling it a “private code.” “To speak about Camp is therefore to betray it,” she wrote. Sontag and I are in agreement. Betrayals, however, come in different types. Some can be excused as necessary, like explaining queer culture to straight people. Others enact harms that are difficult to forgive. To paint camp as ineffable to the point of intelligibility is one such perfidy. 

2. “To camp is a mode of seduction,” Sontag wrote, “one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders.” Again, I agree. But who are the insiders and who are the outsiders? Sontag is unwilling to respond to that question directly, though she clearly knows the answer. I will say it plainly: Camp is a queer and trans mode. Camp is for and by us and camp is always on the run.

3. Sontag attempts to define camp by means of example and counterexample. One must have sympathy for this strategy because what else is there? Sontag’s examples, however, make little sense and I’m not certain she means for them to. In citing as camp Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, the Enquirer and “certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards,” she seems to be willfully obscure. Her other examples have not aged well. So, allow me to clarify the meaning of camp through my own list:

  • Lil Nas X is camp.
  • “But I’m a Cheerleader” is camp. 
  • Dolly Parton and Lizzo are camp icons, canonized by our community.
  • The original version of John Water’s musical “Hairspray” is camp; the 2007 remake, with its earnest white saviorism, is not. 
  • “The Matrix Resurrections” is camp in intention, though less so in style
  • Bernie Sanders is camp, especially in his mittens and mask. Pete Buttigieg is not and never will be. 

4. Camp’s means are artifice, exaggeration and sincerity stretched to the point of irony. But what is its end? Sontag claims it has none. “It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized – or at least apolitical,” she wrote. This is the point at which Sontag forces my hand. Such sacrilege demands a response.

5. Camp is a form of resistance to heterosexism, according to Esther Newton. In her classic ethnography “Mother Camp,” Newton called it “an open declaration, even celebration, of homosexuality.” Theorist José Muñoz expressed a similar sentiment when he analyzed the camp performance of queer people of color, calling their work a means of “managing and negotiating historical trauma and systemic violence.” Queer and trans people know that Sontag’s take on camp is a minority view and perhaps, because she wrote in the homophobic 1960s, not even her actual position. In choosing her work as a theme, the Met Gala played itself. 

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

6. Camp has history, the key events of which I will sketch now. That history is specific and political, no matter what Sontag might claim.

7. Camp was born in many places: the slums of London, the bars of the Weimar Republic and the balls thrown by Black queer and trans people in Harlem, Chicago, St. Louis and D.C. It was during World War II, however, when camp went mainstream. For the first time, the U.S. Army decided to screen enrollees for homosexuality, leading thousands of people to ask themselves, in sotto voce, if that label might apply to them. Thrust into sex-segregated, homosocial environments, many found it did. 

Into this powder keg of its own creation, the Army added more fuel. Soldiers were recruited to entertain their fellow enlisted men in Army-sponsored drag shows. Thus, a vocabulary of camp was refined, as gay men learned how to use the stage to tell private jokes to each other without tipping a hand to their straight counterparts.

Homosexuality was still, of course, grounds for discharge. Gay GIs had to learn to defend themselves in psychiatrist offices, discharge hearing rooms, hospital wards and even the “queer stockades.” Those who found themselves in military prisons used camp as a survival and resistance strategy, acting the queen to keep each other’s spirits high. 

“I was getting madder and madder and gayer and gayer,” veteran Woodie Wilson said, describing his camp antics inside a South Carolina stockage. His swish and swagger saved lives. 

8. There is no individual person more responsible for camp as we know it today than José Sarria. Called the Nightingale of Montgomery Street, Sarria was a Latino gay man who headlined the San Francisco bar the Black Cat as a drag queen in the 1950s. In outlandish outfits of his own creation, he performed parodies of operas. In his version of “Carmen,” the titular character cruised Union Square for love while dodging the vice squad. Sarria used drag to dramatize the political issues facing gay people and create community.

“There’s nothing wrong with being gay — the crime is getting caught,” Sarria proclaimed. In 1961, he became the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the United States when he ran for San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He did not win, but he insured that the gay vote would never again be ignored in the Bay area. 

Tell me again, Sontag, how camp is apolitical.

9. A local example of camp from one Columbus trans-feminine queen: In the 1970s, Tiffany Cartier founded a local trans organization and fought the good fight in our city until she could not fight any longer. After months of organizing meetings, fundraisers and a protest she called a “camp-in,” she had enough:

“I will miss all the lovely people of Columbus but this disgusting two-bit provincial village is too overpowering for me to continue to beat my rhinestones against a brick wall," Cartier said. "I've gone through many changes in Columbus since I came out last October and have seen Columbus go through a few, too. Unfortunately, I have grown more than Columbus has and feel very stifled by the Archie Bunker mentality that pervades this city. Without any ties, I am lucky enough to be able to escape and foolish enough to try. New York won't be paradise, but it won't be the hell of Columbus, either.”

Thus, a true diva left us, while some of her rhinestones were still intact. 

Cartier teaches us that camp, among other things, is an expression of grievance. Camp will have its revenge. 

10. Camp has a patron saint: Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson. Johnson has become most famous for her activism, but her camp performances, both on stage and in the street, made her an effective organizer. When she sang as a part of the Hot Peaches, it wasn’t her voice that the audiences loved. Quite the contrary. Johnson was not a good singer. You could say that she was so bad she was good, and that would explain her camp appeal. But her friends said it was her love for the queer and trans people who came to see her that made her a star. Camp is, fundamentally, an act of self-love. Camp claims queer and trans lives as lovable, even when we are not loved by anyone else. Even when we are poor. Even when we are excessive and stereotypical. Hell, camp says we are lovable because of our poverty, our excess and our proximity to stereotypes. 

11. Thus, the campiest thing I can do is offer Susan Sontag forgiveness. Thank you for your essay, you magnificent mess.