I often spend empty moments of my day browsing the Columbia Confessions Facebook page to be either entertained or moved by my peers’ anonymous comments. After reading a post about a party hosted by Camp Kesem at the Sigma Nu fraternity house, which was a fundraiser for children whose parents suffer from cancer, I was neither. Here’s why.
The party itself was for a great cause. However, as the author wrote, the theme was “camp,” an idea that is simply inappropriate based on fraternities’ queerphobic reputation and general anxieties towards spaces not deemed safe for us.
To illustrate, camp as a concept is often studied and publicized in terms of fashion and theater without regard to its queer origins and development as a specifically queer culture, notably in Susan Sontag’s writings. However, a lot of that study ignores the queer eye, as fashion designers inherently take aspects of camp culture and incorporate them into their fashion, in the same way that they take patterns and styles from other cultures and rebrand them as modern. Understanding this and recent popularizations of the concept (for example, at the Met Gala) reveals that straight, cisgender people have now assumed that camp is a common thing that they just didn’t notice rather than a relentlessly attacked form of expression only recently brought up from the underground through the overall increasing commonness of queer folk and culture in media.
This, coupled with fraternities’ tendencies to be queerphobic, as well as the dangers that this kind of toxic masculinity poses to queer people, make fraternities a place queer people often do not feel welcome. Cisgender, heterosexual people holding a camp-themed party at a frat essentially presents a barricade to queer people from participating in their own culture.
After I commented in support of this narrative, various students retorted by explaining that camp is not purely a queer art form, suggesting that this wasn’t appropriation but a celebration, and arguing that queer people were projecting their fears onto innocent straight, cisgender people. They also suggested that everyone should be able to partake in camp culture, citing Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.”
While I do believe that camp should be open to everyone, Susan Sontag “studied homosexuals” and separated the origins of camp from queer people. She also wrote prior to camp’s increasing queerphobic oppression and its evolution through underground ball culture, particularly under trans people of color. Intertwined with embattled queer history, camp hasn’t entered mainstream media until recently and doesn’t belong in an inaccessible environment where its culture and people have historically not been welcome.
Throughout my conversations under the Columbia Confessions post, I maintained that Camp Kesem and most of the fraternity members likely had no ill intentions and simply lacked foresight. This was later confirmed in a personal message from one of the organizers, who apologized and discussed resources to make future parties more queer-friendly. Aside from this, I feel that most of the people responding to my comments simply refused to understand the depth of history fraternities have with the queer community and didn’t want to make the effort to learn. In my eyes, there was an utter lack of accountability here, and I think one comment summed it up nicely:
“Everyone is an ally until an actual queer person tells them they’re wrong.” The statement has a nice ring to it—it seems like almost no one cared enough to admit their ignorance and learn more about queer culture in response to the criticism. Of course, this isn’t to attack all straight, cisgender people, but rather the various institutions like fraternities that perpetuate this kind of ignorance and still actively oppress queer communities.
Joseph Lynch is a junior in Columbia College studying visual arts. If you would like to contact him, please reach out at email@example.com.
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