Bring Back Poor Taste

Since you’re old, I’m sure you remember reading, amid the tales of hometown heroes and gynecology, the monthly essay in Reader’s Digest magazine entitled “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” By the time I could read, I understood that humor provided relief from the insanity and cruelty of the world. This was mainly due to my mother, easily the funniest person alive. Unfortunately, though, her humor was mainly sarcasm that could also hurt like hell whether intended or not. Imagine that – a mother who at once terrifies her son and teaches him to laugh.

Most people knew that although I was a skinny bookworm with no eye-hand coordination, I had a tongue sharp enough to draw blood. Few openly acknowledged it, although my favorite high school teacher did tell me that the faculty voted me the “wittiest” member of my senior class even when my classmates picked someone else.  When I found out who my classmates selected, I said, “That’s sad. He’s too nice to be really funny.”

So, you can probably understand that, despite years of self-loathing due to my appetite for male flesh, actually coming out was a huge victory for me. Before Pride became something heartfelt, we had camp. I fear that most post-Millennials have no understanding of camp, which basically celebrates the awful by glamorizing it. Drag queens are the longtime priests of camp. There is much to say about camp, but one thing is definitely true: it employs irony, which is related to (but not equal to) sarcasm. I realized when I began my exploration of gay culture that I had been born with a second language. (For the definitive essay on the topic, read Susan Sontag’s 1964 rant, “Notes on Camp.”)

One of the great things about camp (and irony and sarcasm) is that its tastelessness does not tolerate historical manners and conventions. My question is how we preserve gay slang – camp – while ugly cancel culture flourishes. I mean, I can feel what I’m writing here being thrown against the wall because such a question deprecates the norms of so-called political correctness. American culture is so polarized now that you can’t question anything without automatically taking a side. I found the brouhaha over former Harvard president Claudine Gay’s stammering about antisemitism ridiculous, just as I did the national vapors over comedian Matt Rife’s misogynistic hiccups. That doesn’t mean I’m an antisemitic women-hater. It means that, like most Americans, my brain is a shit storm of competing beliefs with familial and broad cultural sources. Laughter forms a bridge – a frequently temporary one until we can build something woo-woo like consensus or tolerance without shaming.

It is through humor, especially of the camp variety, that gay people made their lives tolerable when the culture simply wasn’t going to share the goods with us. Although I’ve heard many gay people argue otherwise, the appropriation of iconic masculine imagery by gay men in the ’70s (and beyond) was as campy as the high Hollywood fashion of drag queens. One of my favorite local memories is of a man who frequently visited the Eagle dressed in the tight 501 Levi’s and T-shirt of the so-called Castro Clone. He was fuckin’ hot, but he was also wrapped in hilarity because he always carried a tambourine which he pounded when he stepped onto the dance floor. I once saw him in a spontaneous showdown with Baton Bob.

It is telling that many gay people didn’t embrace the far reaches of camp sensibility. They didn’t want drag queens and leather boys to participate in Pride parades. They didn’t want anyone representing them who wasn’t part of their own twisted normality. Even the Human Rights Campaign long supported a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that excluded trans people. Just a few days ago I found myself in an argument about whether risqué behavior should be allowed during Pride celebrations because, you know, thousands of heterosexuals glide Midtown sidewalks with their children in strollers. The innocent, vulnerable children!

So, Happy New Year, y’all. Please join me in helping to bring back humor that celebrates the tasteless and thereby demands progress. There is utterly no progress when language is seriously censored.

Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a former psychotherapist who now practices life coaching with clients who need to learn to become more vulgar versions of themselves., 404-518-4415.