Humor is discourse and performance designed to amuse others. Humor is used in entertainment, activism, and as a means for survival. There is historical evidence that as long as homosexual and gender-variant people were considered funny, even if the humor was demeaning, they stood a better chance of not being imprisoned, beaten, or killed.
The most iconic genre of Gay-related humor since the beginning of the twentieth century is drag performance, which can be expressed in a range of styles (drag queen, drag king, skag drag, genderqueer, and a multitude of permutations). Outside of drag, humor in the Gay community takes on the usual performance genres of the Straight world, such as jokes, cartoons, stand-up comedians, comedies, and witty repartee. But the most outstanding performance frame that is distinctly Gay is camp, exaggerated speech and gesture expressed on stage by drag artists, which is also performed by individuals off-stage in the art of dishing, saying scandalous things about oneself and others, and code-switching, the transformation of the performing self by accessing differently-gendered (or enhanced) speech and gesture.
Humor concerning effeminate men and same-sex attraction goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, with little mention in the historical record concerning humor and same-sex relations between women. The main source of amusement was based on the assumed superiority of men over women, and ways in which that basic principle was undermined when a man behaved in unmanly ways. The notion that a man would behave as a woman, and thus demean himself, was considered scandalous and often funny.
Ancient Romans would oscillate between condemning homosexuality and effeminacy among men of the same rank as a social evil, and lampooning them in literature and on stage as a source of humor. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, tensions between condemnation of male homosexuality/effeminacy and laughter at such expressions continued, but with a more pronounced edge, since accusations of such behavior could lead to torture and death if convicted. Same-sex love between women, however, was rarely mentioned in humor or in terms of punishment.
Oppression of non-heteronormal gender/sexual expression has not been uniformly enforced across the world. In China during the seventeenth century, for example, conditions do not appear to be so harsh. The comedic plays and stories of Li Yu in China include stories of men who loved men and women who loved women. Shakespearian comedies also had cross-dressing women and gender subversion (with men playing all of the women’s roles), although the final result would be the re-establishment of heteronormal relationships by the end of his plays.
The earliest expressions of Gay folklife on record include humorous performances. In the early 1700s, molly houses (private establishments in which men would cross-dress, flirt, dance, sing, drink alcohol, and have sex) in England were sites for gender parody and playful language as well as lying-in rituals (mock births) and one-night marriages. Authorities were not amused, however. Molly houses were shut down, their clientele arrested, imprisoned, beaten, pilloried, and executed.
Clues to centuries-old Gay-related humor can be found in African and African-influenced places such as Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Dominican Republic, and Haiti. One example is Haitian Vodou, which has dangerous, humorous, and sexually fluid spirits of the dead known as Guedes. One of them is Guede Nibo, a homosexual dandy who loves purple and is said to have a “cinnamon butthole.” Although it is unclear when these spirits became part of the tradition, classical West African religious traditions have androgynous and homosexual Gods as well as comedy in ritual performance. We can assume same-sex love, gender variance, and humor intersected in these traditions at least as far back as the times (1500s-1800s CE) when West Africans suffered forced migration to the Americas.
The role of humor in Gay-related folk history has changed with the visibility of Gay folk in communities around the world. As Gay people become more visible, humor is an important facet in steps leading to liberation: initially performed in discreet Gay nightclubs in major cities, from nightclubs to the street in protest, from the street to popular entertainment as public awareness shifts in favor of the LGBTQ community, and from entertainment to the courthouses and legislative bodies as LGBTQ populations demand equal rights. In the twenty-first century, social media are accelerating the pace at which these steps are enacted, and humor promotes that acceleration.
Thinly-Closeted Humor: Ladies of Llangollen
In the early eighteenth century, two Irish women of rank fled their homes and settled in Llangollen, Wales. Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, they never married, preferring to live with each other, their maid, and their pets. The Ladies shared the same bed and stayed together for fifty years.
Rather than sharing the fate of those men who were arrested in molly houses a few years earlier, the Ladies of Llangollen became celebrities. European nobility, artists, and other people of importance would stop by their house to see them. The Ladies dressed in a combination of men’s and women’s clothing, were well versed in the arts and current affairs, and were considered sophisticated, highly entertaining hostesses. Accounts of the Ladies portrayed them as a married couple, yet as virgins, using the tension of a same-sex household, elements of cross-dressing, and their own peculiar humor to render them into harmless and amusing eccentrics.
Comedic Nightclub Drag: Bert Savoy and Gladys Bentley
At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, some men who dressed as women began to establish themselves publicly as homosexual men in women’s clothing rather than Straight men pretending to act like women, thus beginning what are now known as drag queens, whose performance often included outrageous and campy humor. The most visible of these early performers was Bert Savoy, who went on to record a comedy album and a cameo appearance in the movie Two Flaming Youths.
By the middle of the twentieth century, women dressing as men for the amusement of an audience were in the public eye. One such artist was jazz singer Gladys Bentley. She and other popular male impersonators performed at Mona’s in San Francisco. Bentley was especially notable for singing popular songs modified with obscene and double-entendre lyrics at Harlem’s Ubangi Club with a chorus of men dressed as women.
Lyrics in Recorded Songs
Humor has been an important part of Gay folk music. Fairy songs in the early twentieth century made fun of effeminate men, and often included the code word “gay,” which was not yet commonly associated with homosexual and gender variant people at that time. These songs could be played in the privacy of one’s home, or for exclusive gatherings of LGBTQ people who could laugh at themselves in the company of other Gay people.
One source of humorous lyrics concerning cross-dressing and same-sex attraction can be found in blues songs, such as “Prove It on Me” by Ma Rainey and “Sissy Man Blues” by Josh White. Neither artist, however, can be said to have been openly Gay.
In the 1960s, Camp Records released an album, The Queen Is in the Closet with songs like “Lil Liza Mike” (a masculine woman who loved women), “Florence of Arabia” (parody of Lawrence of Arabia), and “Good Old Fashioned Bars.” Camp Records also released 45 singles, such as “Homer the Happy Little Homo,” “Stanley the Manly Transvestite,” and “Mixed Nuts.”
Since Stonewall, the tradition of humor in recorded music has been continued in the music of openly-Gay musicians in many genres. Some notable examples in women’s music are “Leaping Lesbians” (1977, Sue Fink and Jocelyn Grippo) and “Ode to a Gym Teacher” (1974, Meg Christian).
Humor in Activism: Daughters of Bilitis
The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), an early and groundbreaking Lesbian rights organization started in 1955, incorporated humor in its activism. Those men who supported the DOB were given the title SOB (“Sons of Bilitis,” a wordplay on “Son Of a Bitch”). When the DOB planned its first convention in San Francisco, it used the word “lesbian” in the event’s title: National Lesbian Convention. The mostly male and semi-closeted Mattachine Society had been invited to attend, but some of its members expressed reluctance to attend something that was so blatantly open about sexual/romantic orientation. According to activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the president of the DOB wrote to the Mattachine Society, telling them that if they dressed and behaved properly, “they surely wouldn’t be taken for lesbians.”
Humorous Activism: Sarria, Stonewall, and the Sisters
A major drag personality at San Francisco’s Black Cat nightclub, José Sarria used humor to create awareness of community among the Gay folk who frequented the bar. Sarria would put on amusing skits in which he would evade police and tell his audience, “United we stand, divided they’ll arrest us one by one.”
When the Stonewall Riots broke out in 1969, one means of hilarious resistance that was used in Greenwich Village where the riots occurred was a chorus line of drag queens (alternative: Gay men, but not necessarily in drag), who were described as taunting riot police by dancing and singing:
We are the Stonewall Girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
In the 1960s, comedians such as the Three Stooges, Milton Berle, and Lucille Ball would cross-dress as part of their performances, as would cartoons such as Bugs Bunny. Two cartoons, Snagglepuss and Chip ‘n’ Dale, featured effeminate male characters. The Stonewall Riots were described by many in the Straight press as a comedic routine in which effeminate men were flouncing themselves at the police. On one hand, portraying the riots as humorous kept them from being taken seriously. On the other hand, humor acted to reduce violent retaliation by authorities. It also framed the protestors as amusing heroes in the manner of cross-dressing comedians and effeminate male cartoon characters.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have continued the tradition of drag activism in San Francisco since Easter Sunday, 1979. Dressing in whiteface and a combination of nun’s habit and drag (often with facial hair), the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence mix activism and camp for various causes, including AIDS awareness. The names they take are similar to drag names in terms of humor and trasgressive innuendo, such as Sister Hysterectoria, Sister Missionary Position, Sister Florence Nightmare, Sister Helen Wheels, Sister Anni Coque l’Doo, and Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch.
Confrontational Street Activism: GAA, Harvey Milk, and ACT UP
Before Stonewall, the usual course for Gay activists was non-humorous, a somber call for equal rights with the presentation of homosexuals as basically the same as anyone else. Gender conformity was expected of all protestors. This changed significantly after Stonewall. Humor has been an important tool for LGBTQ activist groups ever since.
The Gay Activists Alliance would do amusing things in their zaps, sudden disruptions of daily activity in public places. One such zap was a protest in 1970 against Harper’s in New York City for publishing an anti-homosexual article. The GAA set up a table with refreshments and snacks in Harper’s lobby, and activists approached people entering the building, saying, “Hi. I’m a homosexual. We are protesting the Goldstein article. Would you like some coffee?”
Openly-Gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk used humor in his performance of activism for the Gay community. One of his stock lines was, “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you,” lampooning the accusation made by homophobic people that Gay people would try to recruit Straight people, including children, to their lifestyle. Years later, the Lesbian Avengers activist group would take Milk’s slogan and modify it for themselves into “We Recruit.”
ACT UP (AIDS Committee To Unleash Power) used confrontational tactics and zaps in busy sidewalks, businesses, and even churches during the 1980s and 1990s. Although much of what ACT UP did was serious, camp sensibilities sometimes entered into their performances, such as the following chant:
Your gloves don’t match your shoes
They’ll see it in the news
Performance of the Absurd: Panty Picket Protest and Lesbian Rangers
In Toronto on October 28, 2000, activists organized the Pussy Palace Panty Picket Protest in front of the 52 Division police station to protest a raid on a nearby bathhouse that was having a women’s only event called “Pussy Palace.” Protestors brought underwear and waved it at the police, symbolizing the intrusion of male officers in the women’s space while the women were in various stages of undress. Although some of the slogans on posters and in chants were flatly confrontational (such as, “Fuck you, 52”), some were more in keeping with the general mood of hilarity. Protestors chanted, “Keep your hands/Off our panties” and “What do we want? Pussy! When do we want it? Now!” amusing onlookers, the media, and even the police officers.
Winnipeg, Canada has its own pair of artists who perform comedic activism: Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan. In one project called “Lesbian Parks and Services,” Dempsey and Millan dressed as rangers in the Banff National Park, answering questions from tourists and distributing information on “Lesbian Flora and Fauna.” They also developed a program for recruiting Junior Lesbian Rangers, once again lampooning the notion that LGBTQ people actively recruit new members. Dempsey and Millan produced an educational rap video on women’s bodies called “We’re Talking Vulva.”
Television Breakthroughs: Ellen DeGeneres, Jane Lynch, and Xena
A major turning point for LGBTQ people was the success of comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, who had her own comedy show Ellen in the 1990s. DeGeneres came out publicly as Lesbian on her show in 1997, which established her as a Gay icon. That moment is considered so pivotal in Gay folklife that some people describe LGBTQ history before that episode as Before Ellen, and since it, After Ellen. In an interview with newscaster Katie Couric (May 2010), actress Jane Lynch of the Gay-friendly television show Glee discussed the importance of DeGeneres’ public revelation: “I think Ellen coming out was huge and groundbreaking and [things] kind of shifted…There are some people who will never shift, and that’s OK. They’ll probably be dead soon.”
The popularity of the television series, Xena, Warrior Princess during the 1990s among Lesbians was due in part to the underlying tone of humor the characters would evoke as they went about the serious business of saving the world from unruly mythical beings. A classic example of Lesbian camp, Xena featured a female warrior-hero who combined femme and butch aspects, accompanied by Gabrielle, an assertive but nonetheless more femme sidekick.
Marriage Activism: Wanda Sykes
Comedienne Wanda Sykes, a steadfast supporter of the LGBTQ community, came out as Gay in November 2008. Angry at the repeal of same-sex marriage rights in California on November 4, Sykes, who had married her wife a month earlier in California while same-sex marriage was still legal, went from being a semi-closeted supporter to a full-fledged LGBTQ activist. She then became the first Black woman, the first openly Gay person, and the first LGBTQ activist to be selected as the featured entertainer for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) in May 2009. Her routine at the WHCD, however, avoided LGBTQ issues, including same-sex marriage.
The avoidance of LGBTQ activist humor by Sykes during the WHCD can be seen as a distinction she herself has made (or was requested of her) between her role as a comedienne accepted by mainstream America and her role as a Gay folk activist with mainstream star power. Nevertheless, the fact that she married her wife and had come out as Gay four months before the dinner brought attention to the LGBTQ community and the issue of same-sex marriage. After the WHCD, Sykes continued to use humor to promote the rights of LGBTQ people at rallies and fundraisers.
Social media have produced situational humor concerning miscommunication. Texting mistakes involving messages sent to the wrong party and unintended autocorrect have become a meme category, often involving parents, children, and accidentally coming out:
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Karvoski, Ed Jr. A Funny Time to be Gay: Hilarious Gay and Lesbian Comedy Routines From Trailblazers to Today’s Headliners. New York: Fireside, 1997.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1961.