In her biweekly column for Document, McKenzie Wark reflects on the queer crowds of the Island, the Beach, and the Campout
Summer is the time to seek out situations where one can be publicly, flagrantly gay. Situations where the styles and talents of gay life can be put to work and play. There’s always the club and the rave, but it’s good to be outdoors, in the sun, for something other than a protest or a rally.
Over the summer, Jenny and I got to experience three such situations: the Island, the Beach, and the Campout. The Island isn’t for us; we prefer the Beach. On both, you will see some fabulous bodies, mostly belonging to cis gay men. Those on the Beach are made by the gym; those on the Island are made by personal trainers. The Island is expensive and it’s hard to get there. We only went once.
A friend had comp tickets to BOFFO, a performance art festival that takes place on the shore of the Island. I’d never been before, or even heard of it. This was its ninth year. Curated by Tavia Nyong’o and Buffy, it offered a day of performances interspersed with dancing in the sand. Tall flags marked out space, flanked by tents to keep the sun at bay.
I won’t attempt to review it, as I took an edible. Only 5mg, but even that is enough to tie elaborate knots in my realities. Just to say that the day brought together so many favorite things: hanging with Jenny and with friends, the beach, queer people, performance, and dancing.
The crowd was mostly gorgeous cis gay men in speedos, frolicking. I have an abstract appreciation for all that. I tried being a gay man. I failed at it—three times. It’s not a bad milieu in which to be a lesbian trans woman, which is to say invisible. I have my guard up in so many public situations. Not here.
“On the Island, on the Beach, and especially at Campout, a glimpse of another situation for another life… It’s not utopia, but it’s not nothing.”
There were a few other trans women, but I suspect we were mostly at BOFFO on comp tickets. As it should be, frankly. We’re one of the other paths through a body’s sex and sexuality for those randomly assigned male at birth. Our entire lives end up being a work of art. Many of my sisters can’t get legal jobs, and spend what they can make just becoming themselves. Every gay space should honor the girls who actually came out into womanhood.
Goth Jafar played a brief set. There are queers who love House and there are queers who love Techno. One can appreciate both, of course, but Techno really moves me. Something about the added intensity. Dancing to it on sand has its challenges. I worked out a little rhythm to push the sand back under my feet, so I didn’t end up buried up to my ankles. It was hot, so we took breaks, paddling in the waves.
I prefer the Beach to the Island, although the Beach, too, is a bit of a hike. Needless to say, New York’s gay beach is one of the least accessible, but it’s public and you can get there on the bus. There’s a democracy to it that I like. Jenny and I pitched our umbrella and—relaxed. The queens to our left offered to share their snacks with us, while those to the right played Kylie’s “Padam Padam” over and over. We read our books. Jenny, the new Brandon Taylor, while I read Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Sometimes you can make-believe the whole world is different versions of people like us.
This summer was my first time at Campout. It’s a long drive from New York. Hard to imagine anywhere closer where two thousand queers could gather in peace. Jenny and I pitched our little tent and went for a walk. Campout turns into a four-day gay village, a constructed situation lit with winking fairy lights.
One of the many pleasures of Campout is observing the different dance floor situations, from Ballroom’s focus on the performer, to the social hubbub of a gay high tea. And also some occasional collisions. When Brooklyn DJ Lychee played an opening set, the ketamine queers were there for it, with that spooky, spacey, dissociated dance style. I watched two molly queens try to get into it, not find it convivial, drift off.
“Many of my sisters can’t get legal jobs, and spend what they can make just becoming themselves. Every gay space should honor the girls who actually came out into womanhood.”
Four days is a long time across which to get high and dance. Campout might not be good for those who struggle to self-regulate. The energy palpably flagged by the last day. For many, for me, this was all good. That deep calm that comes from physical and emotional exhaustion. On shrooms, I feel like the whole world is reaching out to embrace me. I got emotional about Jenny, about my kids, about trees.
I filled many pages of my little notebook with trippy musings. When I did my scheduled talk about my book Raving, I mentioned that I’d been getting high and writing, and some wag asked me to read from the notebook. Fortunately, the line I picked at random wasn’t too embarrassing. Something about the writing from “deep solitude” not having any more value than the writing which comes from dense conviviality. I was thinking about Nietzsche, who wanted to be a dancing philosopher, but alone. He turned up his nose at the more “barbarian” delights of Dionysian intoxication and sexuality.
The note I wish I’d read was about childhood. As I re-read it now, I still think it’s right. To be queer or trans is often to have fucked-up things happen in childhood. To have been harshly policed out of whatever inclinations one had about one’s sex or sexuality. The other side of it is that queerness can be about returning to the childhood’s better lessons—about how to play, how to be a body in the sun, the sky, the trees.
In Freud, all that has to be left behind, repressed. So that one can become a man, or a woman, in the image of the same-sex parent, attracted to someone to take the place of the other-sex parent, to replace them, reproduce with them, on and on. All one’s other impulses will find unconscious outlets. We’re all then supposed to be more or less neurotic subjects, bowing down before the patriarchal order. Well, fuck that.
On the Island, on the Beach, and especially at Campout, a glimpse of another situation for another life. It isn’t utopia. As soon as I left Campout, got cell service again, and checked my phone, I was inundated with gossip about various dramas. Which will work themselves out, as these things do. It’s not utopia, but it’s not nothing, these constructed situations. Why merely be discontent with this civilization, when it is failing anyway? In the margins, we create something else. Another situation for another life.