In her famous 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" Susan Sontag summed up the camp sensibility as: "Style is everything." According to Sontag, camp is the appreciation of style, any style, as long as it's extreme, over-the-top, and goofily personal. "Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature," she says. As such, it is implicitly anti-judgment.
Sontag also says that since camp values style over substance, it is inherently apolitical. Five minutes at the fifth annual QueerBomb, the all-inclusive, rainbow-colored LGBTQ glitterfest that partied and paraded and camped its way through Austin last weekend, might have convinced her otherwise. Style was, after all, one of the driving forces behind QueerBomb's founding; in 2009, dissatisfaction over what some saw as the Austin Pride festival's sanitized and corporatized version of the LGBTQ community gave rise to the raucous, all-inclusive, dress-code-free alternative. (Pride now takes place in September.) As QueerBomb co-founder and spokesperson Paul Soileau professed from the dais to the crowd assembled for the parade, the event "follows its own rules and regulations ... which are none!"
A charming mantelpiece photo of my husband leading me on a leash, both of us dressed as Weimar-era cabaret performers, reminds me of a time when I was able to keep up with QueerBomb. This year I went early and wore Chico's pants, but found myself no less welcome for my boringness. In fact, the pre-procession party at Pine Street Station was, to my eyes, remarkably family-friendly, unless you consider warm hugs from flocks of bedazzled and bondage-clad butterflies inherently hostile to the ties of kith and kin.
At some point, the Nineties-era dance tunes faded out and gave way to pre-parade speechifying from the pink-chiffon-draped Soileau, wasp-waisted rabble-rouser Althea Trix, and Meg Hargis, co-organizer of the first QueerBomb Dallas celebration, which takes place later this month. All of the speakers touched on the human need to express ourselves and be accepted and loved just as we are, whether or not we are wearing electrical tape over our nipples. Soileau called QueerBomb a place to "love each other, celebrate each other, and allow each other to shine our living rooms into this space."
Apparently I am missing out on some amazing living rooms in this town. From gorgeous queens in towering platform heels to dapper dykes in derbies and mustachios, from rainbow-striped unicorns to antler-helmed stag-men, there was more eye candy on display than eye-Halloween and eye-Easter rolled up in one. Men in ladylike dresses and women in overalls and nothing else drifted through a sea of body-paint, tutus, and Texas-shaped pasties, amid clouds of dust that smelled of hairspray and latex. While plenty of revelers were looking dead sexy, QueerBomb's sexiness always comes off as auxiliary or secondary to me, despite all the bare breasts and bondage gear, a side effect of the wholesale jettisoning of shame and disgust over bodies, faces, and loving behavior. More than just defiance, QueerBomb style is pure, playful joy.
As the sun set over the Austin skyline, the Crystal Queer Revelation choir sang Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" to the rainbow-colored crowd. Although in general I prefer the dance tunes ("This is lesbian music," my party companion whispered in my ear when the ukuleles came out), I couldn't help but catch my breath at the force of the haunting, beautifully harmonized lyrics. "Don't be afraid to let it show," the choir sang, and waves of love poured through a crowd that wasn't, for the moment, afraid of anything.
Style may not literally be everything, but it is among our most visible and accessible forms of self-expression. For those who have fought for the right to exist and express themselves openly in public, and who are still fighting for the right to be and love whomever they want, it is also that rare and lovely thing – a powerful weapon that hurts absolutely no one, and has the power to move a spectator to smiles, or tears. "Camp is a tender feeling," says Sontag. I, as always, am in the pro-camp camp.
Check out the online photo gallery for pictures of free-spirited fashion at QueerBomb 2014. For more information about Dallas' first QueerBomb celebration, which takes place on June 28, go to www.queerbombdallas.org.
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