Into the Camp: A Journey

Words by: Zayan Ismail
Art by: Therese Dias

Much had changed when the world witnessed the closing of the early noughties. It was an era of anticipation for transformation. On the internet, in music, on television: the zeitgeist  of the 2010s ushered in something different — something reminiscent of love, transformation and yearning for tolerance and acceptance. I saw it first on MTV. Gaga, in a bright blue swimsuit and a blond bob singing ‘Poker Face’. The theatrics of ‘Paparazzi’, and then came ‘The Fame’, in which she coins the famous line “obsessively opposed to the typical”. I saw the outlandish outfits, chiffon and latex, shades and long trains — how camp and how strange. I was thoroughly intrigued. With ‘Born This Way’, I began to realise  my uniqueness and accept that it was in many ways, totally okay. 

I was always different, and very much cognisant of the fact that I was existing in a world different than my own internal one. As a child I was imaginative, always drawing, reading, listening and observing my surroundings. I did not fancy football or cars. I loved flowers, gardens and the sea. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Mum’s playlist of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. I enjoyed prancing around the house and garden, picking flowers. In hindsight, I was always aware of my queerness and indifferent to the noise around me. After all, what’s a child with a bob cut and a love for Barbie and Bratz got to do with war and famine in this world? 

Alas, there was always negativity and snarky remarks at school, within family and beyond that for years made me feel a sense of trepidation when talking about my interests or truly exhibiting myself to the world. I was sure about myself, but were they? Almost everyone around me was bland in the binary, plodding along the mundane avenue of life with no vibrancy or colour. There’s so much else going on in this world and yet people choose to belittle others who occupy space in their much-loved identity.  I was keen to move beyond this, to explore different interests that did not fall in line with stereotypical masculinity.

“Why are you always sitting with the girls?” one teacher announced in Grade Three. I honestly did not give her a ‘good enough’ answer. Firstly, it was an odd remark: I felt that it was completely normal and utterly ridiculous of her to ask me  in the first place. I suppose I did not feel welcome or safe with the boys. Of course, in a world where boys are told to adhere to patriarchal and misogynistic standards, one could never feel safe nor loved. It is this insecurity with one’s masculinity that results in violence and harm to others, something that was too foreign to me even at a young age. I did not feel the need to belittle or harm others. I had too much love in me. It didn’t help that this was all happening during adolescence and puberty, when you’re already in the midst of confusion. So misinformed and unaware, unable to navigate this strange society — especially one that does not talk about the intricacies of simply growing up.

Was it me trying to keep away from toxic societal standards that led me to accept myself ? For me, self-acceptance wasn’t so much an awakening but a wonderful journey. It’s one that I am still on right now, and I look forward to going wherever it takes me. From the music that I listen to and the creative avenues I pursue, to the work that I am passionate about — I know how queer and different I feel in all aspects of my life. I have come to fully embrace it all. 

But society, indeed, is marred with discrimination, hate, violence and intolerance towards people who may seem to deviate from the usual crowd. I often find seashells on the beach that are a bit more vibrant and colourful than the rest. Isn’t it interesting, how most people would embrace a peculiar seashell, but never a living, breathing human being? Despite this, when I found friends, family and a community that embraced me, I reached a realisation that all we need is a little bit of love in the world.

The pandemic has taught me one thing: we need more solidarity. It was during lockdown that I truly came into my own gendered identity. For me, it is all about the nuanced embrace of your own masculinity and femininity — to grasp the flux and constant transformation of what it means to be human. To break away from the binary and go beyond what is expected in our societies, based on our socialisation as  young children.

This is, of course, not easy. An awakening does not happen in one day. As I write this, I recall one fine day in pandemic isolation when I finally decided that it was time to let go of all expectations and just be myself. I understood, I knew all along, but it was the people who told me otherwise that made me doubt myself. Indeed, with all that’s happening around the world, I do not have time to waste. The vibrant dawn of coming into myself is happening now, just as each day breaks to a new beginning. 

It is heartening to see our generation break away from dated and archaic moulds. A little bit of tolerance and unconditional love for humanity goes a long way. Heaven knows we need it. With war in Europe reminiscent of spiteful eras past, and continuing subjugation in the Middle East — true liberation and love comes from within acknowledging our own existence whilst occupying the space of acceptance. Let it be a catalyst for positive change. We are here and we are queer!

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