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20 July 2015

What is the female version of a camp gay man? Probably an “ironic lad”

As a new documentary explores the "camp voice" we so often associate with gay men, Eleanor Margolis tries to identify the lesbian equivalent.

By Eleanor Margolis

“Where are you from? Can I detect an accent?” says the woman who’s probing my vagina.

“No… uhh, London. I’m from London,” I say, in an apparently foreign accent, pretending as hard as I can that there aren’t eight inches of medical equipment shoved, unceremoniously, up my holiest of holies.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” she says, jiggling the probe slightly. “I thought maybe I was picking up… Australian?”

“Um. No,” I say, adding, for good measure, the nervous laugh of a person who, spreadeagled on an examination table, has just been mistaken for an Antipodean. 

“Well, there’s your right ovary,” she says, gesturing towards a screen with a thing on it that looks like an early photo of the moon. “That’s all looking fine.”

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I’m having what the meek refer to as “lady troubles”. But, being decidedly un-meek, I prefer to call it “f**ked up minge of doom”. Although, by “minge”, I actually mean my entire reproductive system. But there’s no particularly rude word for that, so “minge” will have to act as an umbrella term for now.

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Anyway, since all’s good with my right ovary, I can direct my full attention to why, in the name of God, I’m coming across as Australian. Do I only sound Australian when I have a foreign object in my vagina? Is this how I cope with uncomfortable situations in general? How often, exactly, do I sound Australian? And, seeing as I’ve never been to Australia, don’t have any Australian friends and haven’t watched an episode of Neighbours in ten years, where is this accent coming from?

Recently, there’s been a lot of hoo-hah about something called the “gay voice”. A new documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, explores the origins and cultural impact of the lisping and sibilant intonations we, more often than not, associate with gay men. But is there a lesbian voice? And, more to the point, is this Australian-sounding vocal hot mess my lesbian voice coming through?

The other day, a friend asked me if there’s a lesbian version of camp. I told her that, I suppose, butch is lesbian camp. Inasmuch as camp men are the most visibly gay, butch women are the most visibly lesbian. And yes, I know several butch women with fairly deep voices. Although they don’t sound particularly Australian.

The “lesbian voice”, if such a thing can be said to exist, is a combination of depth and avoidance, at all costs, of sounding posh. I’m not sure where the lesbian antipathy to sounding like Samantha Cameron came from, but it’s truly palpable. And, as someone who was privately-educated, I am wondering if the Australian thing is the unfortunate result of me trying to dilute my plumminess.

But lesbian camp is also defined by a kind of vernacular, which can make flirting, or recognising that you’re being flirted with, extremely difficult. Only a lesbian, for example, would call someone they’re trying to sleep with “mate”. Or “dude”. Trust me, this genuinely happens all the time and it’s deeply, deeply confusing. Especially when you’re actually in bed with someone who continues to call you “mate”. How you can suddenly go all Jamie Oliver on someone whose tits you’ve just sucked will never be entirely clear to me.

Overall, I’d probably define lesbian camp as “ironic lad”. It’s being able to, in a club situation, nod towards a woman and say (as a friend of mine did once), “I’d nosh her off”, without being a real-life misogynist. All I could do, at the time, was congratulate her for managing to be extremely smutty in Yiddish. Then think to myself: “Oh come on, mate, you’d ‘nosh her off’ then read her a f**king poem.”