Camp Excess and Queer Histories of Oz: A Review of Robert Reynolds’ From Camp to Queer: Remaking the Australian Homosexual and David Coad’s Gender Trouble Down Under: Australian Masculinities
by David McInnes
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Robert Reynolds’ From Camp to Queer and David Coad’s Gender Trouble Down Under both cast long and searching glances, complete with raised eyebrows, over different parts of Australia’s queer history. Coad takes us on the longer journey, providing an intriguing take on Australian masculinities from our convict past to our queer nineties. Reynolds begins with the sixties, with his focus on gay and lesbian political movements, but finishes also with considerations of queer and its contribution to the discussion of the making and what he describes as the remaking of the Australian Homosexual.
Queer history, inside and outside the academy, deserves the contributions of both these volumes and there is great benefit to be derived from the work of the two authors. These benefits take the form of stories that haven’t been told and stories told differently (in different versions and from different perspectives). There is great benefit provided in the critical and theoretical frames used in discussing both the process of history and the experiences of sex, sexuality and sexual politics in Australia’s history.
Reading these books together, my concerns largely centre on two interrelated questions: what is it that provokes the looking back in each book and how does each look back? What most intrigued me about these books is the way in which the process of looking back queerly and at queer history necessitates a kind of camp excess for both authors. This is a good thing and a bad thing, academically and politically. When one glances back, even at queer history and with the critical and theoretical apparatus available to scholars of gender, sex and sexuality, one’s glance is partial and particular.
David Coad’s research and scholarship is thorough and detailed. More than this, however, the material he considers is engrossing. Legal records, press material, photographs, films and other kinds of source material provide gripping, exhilarating and confronting history. This is even more the case when Coad draws attention to the similarities and disjunctions between the distant and recent history. The discussion of Mark ‘Chopper’ Reid within discussions of bushranger myths is as unsettling as it is deft.
The sheer density of his material is also encouraging — the queering of masculinity has always been part of Australian experience and (this is the encouraging bit) it seems that it always will be. There is much in all of this that warns us against taking masculinity too seriously and/or not seriously enough. Looking into the parts of history where masculinity, in its homosocial figuring, is exceeded and cannot be contained within heteronormative bounds is precisely the kind of glancing that unsettles and encourages.
In discussing the material and what to make of it theoretically and politically, Coad is camp in style, casting critiques as the grand dame, Edna, casts gladioli over her audience. It is when this style substitutes for clarity of argument that I have trouble with the text. This is clearest in the epilogue, where Coad considers the terrifying work of Bly and Biddulph. His analysis that what lies not too far beneath the work of the men’s movement is an essentialism seems spot on to me, but what of more disruptive rather than dismissive ways of dealing with these powerful reproductions of masculine myth? The same kind of effect is produced in discussion of Weir and Williamson’s Gallipoli, where I was left with the sense that only if Archy and Frank had kissed or fucked would there have been any effective disruption to formations of masculinity. As a sixteen year old, I was moved to tears along with most of a suburban theatre audience when Archy was shot at the end of the film. Archy’s still-running, shot-through body closes the film in freeze-frame. We are not handed any neat, easy way out from the anguish and loss experienced within the film’ eroticised male dyad. The challenge not to be impacted by this homoerotic homosociality would have unsettled many in suburban Australia. Is there an assumption about what makes the erotic and what forms its challenge or disruption in Coad’s analysis? Can disruption to heterosexual and safely homosocial masculinity only be produced by ‘penetration’?
Coad seems to step too close, for my comfort, to a notion that there is somewhere outside the power of hegemonic masculinity and that he knows where this is. Is it not these figurings of masculinity that queerness must negotiate, caught in a double bind of longing and desire, alongside submission and oppression? This is a question that moments like the coming out of Ian Roberts (touched on by Coad) raise for the queering of Australian masculinity and is also the kind of question to which we may be left with more ambivalent responses.
It is a difficult, perhaps impossible task to debunk the myths of masculinity so ingrained in our culture over a long historical period, while not reproducing others. On the whole, Coad navigates this problematic well. The camp style and the risk it produces go hand in hand but in this case, coupled with thorough and gripping scholarship, they produce a very valuable queer history.
At the end of the epilogue to From Camp to Queer, Reynolds suggests that ‘queer might help re-address that critical tension in late modern life — how to reconcile creative invention of self with the art of being in common’ (168). Reynolds gazes at Australian homosexuality’s recent political history through a queered and queering fascinator, inflected, distorted and clarified by psychoanalytic, postructuralist and postmodern theory (including queer).
I can take the liberty of understanding queer as a process of disruption afforded by a focus on the iterative (and creative) invention of self, within complex social, political and semiotic orders. As such, queer is woven into the fundamental questions and interrogative techniques Reynolds uses to motivate and to pursue his discussion. He does not establish an armoury of theorists and then approach his material and the moments of history that are his focus with a zealot’s misguided and determining passion. Nor does he dismiss camp, gay liberation or any of the accounts of sexuality, sexual identity and sexual politics provided in the detailed research he interrogates.
These ‘negatives’ are used here to indicate an anticipation one might have of what a queer looking back at this period might do. Reynolds’ work is not only beautifully written (a joy for anyone used to the discursive trial of reading queer theory) but it offers its own (rather than an overriding and singular) perspective on a history so recent that its contentiousness is alive and well, in large part because so are some of its significant protagonists.
One of the key themes in Reynolds' book is taken up by him and others in exchanges surrounding current debates, such as the demise and rebuilding of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Craig Johnston, a key character in From Camp to Queer and in Sydney’s gay history, is one of the interlocutors in that debate. In an article discussing the impact and significance of the Mardi Gras demise, Johnston makes reference to a newspaper article of Reynolds’, in which Reynolds reiterates a discussion about the politics of ‘the self’ that contrasts, Johnston suggests, with a ‘politics focused on social, political and economic structure’. Johnston is working from and toward a Marxist interpretation of both Mardi Gras history and the current debate.
Chapter five is where Reynolds does his job on ‘remaking the self’ as a key aspect of the gay liberation enterprise and it is a good example of the way he navigates gay and lesbian history. Using accounts from those who participated in consciousness raising processes and other techniques informed by humanistic psychology, Reynolds describes how the process of self-discovery and change functioned as a cornerstone of the liberationist process of social change. He critiques and questions these techniques and the relations that they assume and perpetuate between the self and the social, and asks if ‘the confessional and psychotherapeutic cultures of Gay Liberation [were] regressive rather than liberating, a retreat from politics rather than the creation of a brave new world?’ (100). By understanding the enterprise of self-discovery and actualisation as one embedded and produced discursively, and deploying the Foucauldian critique of confession to do so, Reynolds works on the suture of the ‘personal is political’ mantra and unearths the appeal to authenticity and the discourse of failure (rather than renegotiation) active in these processes. The chapter ends with these kinds of comments in response to participants’ anxieties and alienation. Reynolds' research is thorough and in-depth. But it is also contradictory and alive with contention and debate. Reynolds does weave a narrative line through most of this and provide his own theoretical position, while a perspective on the creative social invention of self affords his discussion and interpretation generosity and offers the reader a capacity to engage with various points of view and perspectives. This is not, though, done in ignorance of the social and economic forces that shape and are shaped by how it is possible to be.
From Camp to Queer looks back, but it is more than history. It is a remarkably well-written, well-researched and accessible book that revisits gay oz history with a digested, finely tuned and applied use of theory.
David McInnes is a lecturer in the School of Humanities, University of Western Sydney.
Gender Trouble Down Under: Australian Masculinities, by David Coad was published by Presses Universitaires de Valenciennes in 2002. Robert Reynolds’ From Camp to Queer: Remaking the Australian Homosexual was published by Melbourne University Press, also in 2002.
Craig Johnston, ‘Bursting (Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras) Bubbles – or, When ‘bigger and better’ bites you on the bum,’ Word is Out: Journal for Gay and Lesbian and Queer Liberation, Number 6, March 2003, http//www.wordisout.info/archive/06johnston.pdf.
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