Interview: Matt Baume on the death of camp and defining marriage
Matt Baume is an American writer; activist; and commentator on LGBT issues. PinkNews spoke with him about why some gay men identify with female characters; his new book ‘Defining Marriage’; and his podcast which looks at the entertainment that changed the lives of gay men.
PN: You released a video last week called ‘A Salute to Sissies’. The sissy character has largely disappeared from contemporary entertainment. Many gay men find the character type outdated or offensive. What’s your take? Do you see the sissy as more subversive?
MB: Absolutely. I think some gay people have a fear of the sissy because it is something that has been used against us in the same way that the word ‘queer’ has been used, so there’s some resistance to it. It reminds people of the ways they’ve been marginalised. Just like the word ‘queer’, however, it is something that can be reclaimed. It’s something I personally wear with pride. It shows men with feminine tendencies you don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to try to hide that about yourself.
It also highlights a lot of the misogyny in the gay community; this idea that we can’t act like women. That there’s something weak and undesirable about acting like a woman, which is false. Seeing these characters who turn the gender lines into kind of a squiggle, it’s wonderful. It’s great for people who legitimately have that temperament. I consider myself among them.
The dislike of that character sometimes stems from internalised homophobia, a fear of recognising that inner sissy. What’s wonderful about those characters is they give us permission to explore it and to see something of ourselves in them.
There are terrible sissy characters – characters who exist outside LGBT portrayal and people who want to use that character to make fun and diminish that archetype and those people. Those are shameful. Those are terrible. It is not as bad as blackface, but you might call it a ‘light pink face’.
David Halperin cites the decline of things like camp as being based on a perceived assimilation objective by many gay men, in an attempt to prove we are ‘just like everyone else’? Do you agree with this, and if so do you see it as the death of this kind of queer representation in mainstream culture?
I don’t think camp is capable of death. There will always be something gaudy and over-the-top to revel in. You might look at the Transformers movies as being so over-the-top that they approach camp with their ridiculousness. I don’t think much has changed in terms of our appreciation of camp. With all of the queer people I know who appreciate camp, it shows no sign of slowing down.
Gay people have always felt this pressure to assimilate. Going back to the 1960s, it was all about being seen as respectable. Nowadays I’d say it’s more of an integration of gay people into mainstream heterosexual society and culture. I think rather than seeing the death of camp in that case I think we might see the broadening and the bringing of camp to more people. In the same way that ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ brought hair products and fitted shirts to straight people, I think the meterosexualising of straight people might result in an education on camp for people who might not otherwise have gotten it.
Your book is called ‘Defining Marriage’. It examines at the journey towards marriage equality in the US, and it couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time. You use real life examples of LGBT couples who have fought for marriage for decades. What made you want to write the book?
The book has been percolating for many years. I’ve been working so closely with marriage that I’ve encountered tons and tons of great stories about it – so for a long time I was just recording those and had no idea what to do with them.
Now I can reflect back and kind of put them in chronological order and, you know, reflect on how marriage equality evolved over that time. It moved from this joke that nobody took seriously to an impossible dream and then to something that you fought for and then something that some people had that you could win. It’s something that really changed the queer experience. That evolution really closely mirrored my own evolving idea of what marriage was. I’m telling marriage as story through the people that experienced it, and through myself.
Did your work on the book change your own perception of marriage?
Yeah, very much. I felt panic that I didn’t have one, or any kind of civil anything with my partner. I was so focused on the categorisation and the label that it really blinded me to the things that my partner was willing to do for me. We really uprooted our lives. We moved to LA so that I could work on marriage – a cause which he does not care about – and he went along with it because he believes in me and wants to support me. Boy oh boy, when I realised that I thought “Why am I so hung up on this piece of paper?” when what I have is the power behind it. We are defining what marriage is with our actions and we don’t need the label or the word or the paper because we’ve got our relationship and our relationship is the thing that matters.
Is the book’s title a response to the often repeated anti marriage equality line of ‘They are changing the definition of marriage’?
Yes! The book was originally going to be called ‘Redefining Marriage’ but I like ‘Defining Marriage’ better.
Defining marriage is ideally the process that everyone should go through. Everyone should be able to determine what it is for them personally. We always hear the opponents talking about “Oh they’re redefining marriage” as though marriage has been handed to us in a perfect form and we do not have permission to change it. In reality, marriage is something that we made – that we agreed on as a culture. We agreed on the general contours of what marriage can be and individually people can make up the rules of what marriage is themselves.
Something that queer people have had the good fortune to be able to do – through our hardship – at least we had the good fortune to interrogate marriage. It’s something that, like camp, gay people can teach straight people how to do. You don’t have to feel the pressure of “We’ve been together this many years, and the man proposes to the woman”. No, all that stuff is made up and you don’t have to do it.
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Your podcast ‘The Sewers of Paris’ looks at the entertainment that changed the lives of gay men. Why do you think gay men seem to share so many cultural tastes? What’s your take on the idea that certain texts, ‘Mommie Dearest’ and ‘Grey Gardens’, are seen as initiations into gay life?
You know there are some of those touchstones like Judy Garland that people seem to cluster around and share. I think a lot of those touchstones hit the queer experience metaphorically – a woman who suffers or is an outsider or someone who escapes gender normativity; and then there are the more explicit media that teach us how to be gay. ‘Queer as Folk’ was an amazing teaching too – the British one and the American one.
There’s more going on than “Gay men like a certain thing,” because there’s a broad spectrum of queer tastes. There are a lot of gays I know who are just like “Uhh, Judy Garland, no.” Different people like different things.
One thing I really enjoy about the podcast is that it’s debunking the myth of “All gay men like Barbra Streisand”. I’ve got fifty interviews and it is seldom that the same things come up in every episode. A few things like ‘Wicked’ do. If I do not hear another gay man talk about Wicked on the show it’ll be too soon. It just constantly comes up.
In terms of the female gay icon, who are some of yours?
Um, you know we’ve been rewatching ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and it startles me how closely I identify with her. I was raised in a household that really valued more classic media so I did not have a lot of contemporary references growing up, and so her sort of contemporary cultural blindness is something that I share – and also moments when she’s clearly vulnerable and sad and afraid and puts on a brave face and soldiers through. I mean that is something I certainly identify with – her anxiety about being out in the world and on her own. I aspire to that character’s bravery.
I love everybody in ‘The Golden Girls’. I don’t know if I see a lot of myself in them but they are characters who I love and want to spend all of my time with. There are the ones that are just gleeful fun like Elaine Stritch and Faye Dunaway: they are just scenery-chewing, wonderful wicked fun. I don’t think of myself as them, but then again there’s a real pleasure in imagining yourself as the kind of person who can launch into a furious articulate speech and that is a fun thing to dream about.
‘Defining Marriage’ is available on Amazon. There is a free audiobook available as a podcast. ‘The Sewers of Paris’ is available on iTunes, with new episodes released every Thursday. Matt also has a regularly-updated YouTube channel.