Folklore is the study of aesthetics and ethics of people with mutual emotional investment in shared intimate identity (a folk or folk group). Folklore is also what members of a folk group say, do, and make, with or without folklorists studying them. When seen in terms of day-to-day living (including special occasions occurring within a normal cycle of a month or year), it is called folklife.
Recognition of Gay folklore and folklife is a fairly recent phenomenon. As a group with whom folklorists have done fieldwork, the LGBTQ folk community goes back to the last decades of the twentieth century, beginning in earnest in the 1970s after the Stonewall Uprising. Evidence of Gay folklife, however, extends to the early 1700s CE. Examples of same-sex romantic-erotic relationships, gender variation, and embodied sexual variation go back even further to 2000 BCE, and have been documented in cultures worldwide. Scholarship on the Gay community suggests that all pre-Stonewall discourse on same-sex orientation, gender diversity, and physiological sexual variants is Gay related. That is, such discourse is relevant in understanding the emergence of contemporary LGBTQ communities as a pan-ethnic folk with its own myths, identities, performances, ethics, aesthetics, texts, and material culture.
Even after the Stonewall Uprising and the Gay Liberation movement, it took years before the Gay community would be accepted as a legitimate folk, although there were some important texts such as anthropologist Esther Newton’s Mother Camp (1972, about drag queens) and poet Judy Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue (1984, concerning Gay folk speech, collective history/myth, and material culture). The idea of creating a recognized group of folklorists studying Lesbians and Gay men was initially discussed by Joseph Goodwin and Judith Levin in 1981, and the first meeting of folklorists interested in such studies was a clandestine gathering the next year. In 1985, the American Folklore Society (AFS) officially recognized a section for Gay folklore of AFS. The first academic book published specifically on Gay folklore, More Man than You’ll Ever Be by Goodwin, was published in 1989, twenty years after Stonewall.
One of the most dramatic moments in the history of LGBTQ folklore studies was the President’s Plenary Address in 1995 by Gerald Davis in Lafayette, Louisiana. In his presentation, “‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’… Dorothy in Neverland,” Davis obliquely came out as a Gay man within the larger context of his identities as an African American, an activist, and a folklorist. Davis was not convinced that the gradual acceptance of LGBTQ folklorists would signal a significant change to a more dynamic AFS:
I do not think the American Folklore Society is in danger of being destroyed, although it does feel to me that we have lost an essential vitality as we have in recent years bartered our passionate, curious spirits for a tempered, highly self-conscious and as yet ill-fitted drive for intellectual acceptance by our sister disciplines… And I doubt there will be any significant structural change in our association as we decide to quietly extend the franchise of full, participatory membership to our queer sisters and brothers. Thank goodness there are no drag queens or diesel dykes among them! Maybe next year.
Nevertheless, the inclusion of Gay folklorists and increase in scholarship concerning LGBTQ folklife have changed folklore studies, at least in terms of opening up opportunities for novel forms of presentation. In 2003, the Qualia conference of Gay folklife began in Columbus, Ohio. Undermining the barriers between folklorist, the folk, performance, and presentation, Qualia was a venue for presentations that incorporate folk performance and creative aesthetic expression. In addition, the 2004 AFS meeting in Salt Lake City featured “Is Salt Lake a Drag?” an evening performance sponsored by the Storytelling Section and the LGBTQ Section. Such an event, listed in the official conference schedule, marked a definitive change from quiet extension of the franchise to more dynamic acceptance and expression within the AFS and throughout folklore studies.
Within the context of folklore studies, Gay folklife must be seen in terms that distinguish LGBTQ folk from other folk groups. Three factors significantly impact the study of Gay folklife: the LGBTQ community is composed of members from every ethnicity, the community has only been visible as a legitimate social entity since 1969, and ethics based on activism are the basis of the better part of Gay folkways. Terms such as “culture” and “tradition,” often seen as primary to the study of a folk, are secondary concepts when looking at the LGBTQ collective, a set of communities that are officially labeled as distinctive, yet interpenetrate with each other in ways that undermine both the notion of one community and the notion of isolated identities and communities. Since the act of framing the LGBTQ community as a legitimate folk is in itself seen by homophobic people as an activist endeavor, attempts to separate Gay folklore from activism risk distorting Gay folkways.
It is possible and at times even advisable not to frame the LGBTQ collective as one Gay community when examining Lesbian separatism and the creation of men-only dance clubs in the days after Stonewall. The inclusion of the Trans community also creates challenges, since not all of those within that collective have same-sex orientation, neither is there consensus on a common name or identity. In addition, the movement within the Intersex community to distinguish itself from the Trans community presents those who subscribe to an inclusive LGBTQ folk group with serious challenges concerning representation as identities multiply, and the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Queer) acronym gains even more letters. The same issue arises with two-spirit, mahu, and other ethnically-situated identities that reflect the need to distinguish those folk groups from the inclusive agenda of the LGBTQ movement, which itself may be seen as enforcing in-group conformity and even neocolonialism.
Nevertheless, one common theme in the history of Gay-related communities, folkways, and icons is pressure for those with same-sex orientation, gender variance, and intersex bodies to disappear, and efforts to erase any vestiges of their existence. Solidarity among the various communities within the LGBTQ collective comes from a long history of shared oppression from which an ethos of inclusion, tolerance, appreciation of diversity, and sense of justice arose. It is for this reason that activism is such a cherished facet of Gay folklife. This is also why LGBTQ folk claim all Gay-related texts, people, and folkways before 1969 as precursors to post-Stonewall Gay collective identity, homophobic discourse as the basis for activist folkways, and spectra of orientations, gender expressions, and bodies that function as distinct or unified according the wishes of the individual.
Gay Folklife as Ethical Subversion of Boundaries
The twin movements of diversity and inclusion within the LGBTQ collective mark Gay folklife as a continuously contested and negotiated frame in which divisions are established, subverted, and renegotiated, often as trends in various folkways. The original activist performance of Gay Liberation marches, for example, was modified into Pride parades to downplay confrontation and promote celebration. In addition, the notion of “pride” itself shifted from an attempt to normalize the public face of the Gay community to an appreciation of difference as community identity went from “gay” to “gay and lesbian” to “LGBTQ” and further iterations that privilege a range of recognized identities.
Even within folkways such as women’s music that were closely related to Lesbian separatist/feminist movements, subversion of what counted as “woman” brought about confrontation and renegotiation of identities with respect to transpeople. Drag queen identities likewise have been subverted by women-born women drag queens who portray men portraying women. The Gay male Circuit, which began with men-only dance spaces, expanded to include all human variations (at least in theory), as did the Leather community and the regal drag of the Imperial Court System. Even the theologies of women-centered spirituality of Dianic Wicca and men-centered Radical Faeries have included recognition of each other’s legitimacy while nevertheless maintaining separatist frames of gendered cosmic reference.
Davis, Gerald L. “‘Somewhere over the Rainbow. . .’: Judy Garland in Neverland.” Journal of American Folklore, 109 (Spring 1996): 115-28.
Goodwin, Joseph P. More Man Than You’ll Ever Be: Gay Folklore and Acculturation in Middle America. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1989.
Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon, 1984.
Long, Kat. The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex and Sin in New York City. Brooklyn, NY: Ig, 2009.
Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979.
Weems, Mickey. “Gay Ritual: Outing, Biking, and Sewing.” Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions. Martha Sims and Martine Stephens, eds. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2005.