A subculture comprising openly homosexual men of as many different tastes and interests
as mainstream American culture. Folklorists have published little research on the
traditions of gay men. In addition to conducting fieldwork, people interested in pursuing
gay folklore as a research topic must glean corroborative examples from studies in
history, sociology, cultural anthropology, and other disciplines—like Esther Newton’s
Mother Camp: Female Impersonation in America (1972)—as well as from such works of
gay fiction as Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series (1978–1990).
Despite the risk of overgeneralizing, one can make certain broad statements about gay
men’s folklore. First, the gay subculture shares many of its traditions with White male
culture, not surprising since ethnic groups are represented in the gay subculture in the
same proportions as they appear in the mainstream.
Gay folklore exists in most genres—jokes, narratives, contemporary legends, beliefs,
proverbs, folk speech, customs, costumes, arts and crafts, and so on. (There is also
evidence of a defunct folksong tradition in the sung lines, “God save us nelly queens” and
“Wait ‘til your son turns nelly!”) Distinctions between genres are sometimes difficult to
make when one is studying gay folklore, especially because humor suffuses almost all of
the material. In addition, the gay subculture has developed at least two genres of its
own—drag, or female impersonation, and camp.
Camp, as described in the only book-length study of gay men’s folklore, “is an
attitude, a style of humor, an approach to situations, people, and things…assertively
expressed through exaggeration and inversion, stressing form over content, deflating
pomposity, mocking pretension, and subverting values” (Goodwin 1989:38–39). For
example, in the early 1980s, a folder in the vertical file labeled “Homosexual Drag” at the
internationally renowned Alfred C.Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University contained a flyer announcing the Miss Gay
Philadelphia Drag Ball and several programs for the Vienna Boys Choir. Whoever
slipped the programs into the folder was implying by this camp gesture that the choirboys
were gay and in drag, mocking the presumed sweetness, innocence, and purity that the
public associates with the young singers.
Gay men’s traditions differ from mainstream folklore in several ways—most notably,
where performances occur, the strategies for which the items are used, and the themes
contained in the material. Because homosexuality has for centuries been reviled in
Western societies, gay men have been forced to meet clandestinely. As a result, most gay
men restrict their use of overtly gay traditions to private settings such as gay bars and
parties in people’s homes. Some larger cities have gay neighborhoods in which
performances are more open. Because of its highly esoteric nature and its frequent
reliance on ambiguity, much of the folklore of gay men can function for identification
and communication in nongay settings.
Gay men can use their jokes and other esoteric references to suggest their
homosexuality to one another in public. Gay folklore also functions to help maintain
group cohesion within the subculture and to cope with conflict, both in gay society and between the gay and
straight worlds. The following joking exchange illustrates these functions:
My mother made me a homosexual.
If I get her the yarn, will she make me one, too?
Freudian psychoanalytic theory maintains that homosexuality is caused by a distant father
and a dominant or closebinding mother. These two lines play with that notion, suggesting
also that homosexuality is a status to be desired.
Gay folklore often has sexual overtones. This quatrain can serve as a humorous
cohesive device or as a potential “pick up” line:
Friends may come, and friends may go,
And friends may peter out, you know,
But I’m your friend through thick or thin—
Peter out, or peter in.
In addition, gay men may use their traditions publicly to defy their oppressors and to
express contempt for heterosexual society. Oppressed groups often invert traditions that
their enemies have used against them in this way. Thus, an activist group has assumed the
name Queer Nation. Gay men and lesbians are increasingly demonstrating and chanting,
“We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” The subculture has coopted the hateful word
“queer,” imbued it with pride, and hurled it back in the face of the oppressive
Gay folklore addresses many themes of concern to gay men. In addition to expressing
group membership, defiance, and pride, the traditions express fears, fantasies, friendship,
and much more. The racism and sexism of the straight world are also reflected in gay
men’s folklore. Frequently, the underlying theme is power—either having it or being
subjected to it. Just as sexism and racism—regardless of the sexual orientation of the
person using the material—are expressions of one’s presumed power over someone else,
so inversion is an attempt to reclaim power that oppressors have tried to claim as their
Gay folklore is a rich area for research. In addition to much-needed studies of a
general nature, such topics as the folklore of people with multiple oppressions (being gay
and African American, or deaf and gay, for example), the folklore of AIDS (both esoteric
and exoteric), and the folklore of younger gay men, who have come of age during the
plague years (that is, during the AIDS epidemic), await the attention of folklorists.
Much of the folklore of AIDS, for example, comprises legends and rumors about the
origins and transmission of the HIV virus assumed to cause acquired immune deficiency
syndrome. The various AIDS jokes that circulated widely during the 1980s were
primarily heterosexist jokes aimed at the gay male subculture. (The jokes had a brief
circulation among gay men as well.) An exception is the following:
Do you know what the most difficult thing about having AIDS is?
Trying to convince your mother that you’re part Haitian (Soon after AIDS was “discovered,” the Centers for Disease Control included Haitians
with gay men and intravenous drug users as the primary groups at risk.)
This esoteric joke addresses the anxiety of coming out to one’s family and friends, a
prospect potentially more frightening than enduring a devastating terminal illness.
Such traditions offer insights into the lives and concerns of a substantial segment of
American society. A rich field awaits those willing to venture into it.
Bronski, Michael. 1984. Culture Clash: The Making of a Gay Sensibility. Boston: South End.
Dynes, Wayne. 1990. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. New York: Garland.
Goodwin, Joseph P. 1989. More Man Than You’ll Ever Be: Gay Folklore and Acculturation in
Middle America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Katz, Jonathan Ned. 1976. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. New York:
——. 1983. Gay-Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary. New York: Harper and Row.
Read, Kenneth E. 1980. Other Voices: The Style of a Male Homosexual Tavern. Novato, CA:
Chandler and Sharp.
Rodgers, Bruce. 1972. Gay Talk: A (Sometimes Outrageous) Dictionary of Gay Slang. (Originally
published as The Queen’s Vernacular.) New York: Paragon.