“Somewhere over the Rainbow,” officially listed as “Over the Rainbow,” is a ballad performed by actress Judy Garland in the movie The Wizard of Oz. It has been adopted as a Gay anthem in the English-speaking LGBTQ community. The song, movie, and singer have become iconic in Gay culture.
“’Somewhere over the Rainbow’…Dorothy in Neverland” is also the title of the 1995 President’s Plenary Address given by Gerald L. Davis during the annual American Folklore Society (AFS) conference, held that year in Lafayette, Louisiana. Davis proceeded to come out (reveal his identity as a member of the LGBTQ community) in the course of his lecture, a performance that included code-switching between elements of scholarly discourse, LGBTQ folk speech, African American preaching, and camp. As such, his plenary address represents an aesthetic and academic milestone in the folklore of folklorists, and an iconic text for scholars of Gay folklife.
“Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) was published in 1939. It was written to be the theme song for The Wizard of Oz. Portions of the tune were played at the beginning and at different points in the film. The movie version of the song was sung by Judy Garland, the actress/singer who played “Dorothy Gale,” a farm girl who longs for a better world than her life in rural Kansas. Dorothy’s house (with her in it) is lifted by a tornado, transported to the magical land of Oz, and dropped on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing the witch. Dorothy acquires sparkling ruby slippers from the deceased witch. But the Wicked Witch of the West wants the slippers, and threatens to destroy Dorothy to acquire them. Dorothy then goes on a quest (accompanied by a brainless scarecrow, heartless tin man, and cowardly lion) seeking an audience with the Wizard of Oz, who will help her get back home to Kansas. In the end, the ruby slippers take Dorothy back to Kansas after she clicks her heels three times.
The Wizard of Oz became immensely famous, and is considered by some sources to be the most watched movie in history. For years in the USA, it was broadcasted annually in what could best be described as an American folk television event. The song, movie, Judy Garland/Dorothy, and ruby slippers would enter Gay folklife as iconic emblems. In coded Gay folk speech, friend of Dorothy means “Gay,” and the rainbow is an internationally recognized symbol of the LGBTQ community. Gay clubs and establishments, such as Oz in New Orleans and Emerald City in Pensacola, Florida, take their names from the movie. The death of Judy Garland in June 1969 is considered one of the reasons for the Stonewall Uprising in the early hours of June 28, which occurred only hours after her funeral took place.
Some phrases from the movie script have been incorporated into Gay folk speech. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” which was sung by Glinda the Good Witch of the North to little Munchkin people hiding from the Wicked Witch of the West, was adopted by the Gay community to encourage closeted homosexual people and gender nonconformists to reveal themselves publicly. It would be the slogan for a campaign launched by Harvey Milk in 1978 against the Briggs Initiative, a bill that would have banned Gay people (and possibly their supporters) in California from working in public schools. To drop a house on somebody (alternate: drop a chimney) has entered Gay folk speech in reference to getting even with an offensive person. The Circuit party anthem, “Chimney on Her” (with a sample from The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It,” further remixed into “Wanna Drop a House (On That Bitch)”) capitalizes on the phrase.
The Plenary Address
Gerald Davis was a folklorist renowned for his fieldwork on African American sermons, promotion of African American folklore, activism supporting African and African American communities, and sense of humor. For much of his career, Davis was only out to those in the folklorist community who were close to him. But his semi-closeted identity was eloquently (and somewhat scandalously) undermined when he gave the 1995 AFS President’s Plenary Address. The academic presentation included the performance of coming out as Gay, situated in the aggressive and campy style of LGBTQ activism, and delivered within the salvific framework of an African American sermon.
Davis wrote up “‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow…’ Judy Garland in Neverland” for the Journal of American Folklore (JAF 109, 1996). The article includes performance notes and footnotes explaining in-group references from African American, Gay, and African American Gay folklife.
Performing “Somewhere over the Rainbow”
In the course of the article in JAF on the lecture, Davis refers to The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland, Dorothy, and ruby slippers, at the very end likening himself to Dorothy. “I do not have red pumps, but I have burgundy ropers. So I am going to click my heels three times, and —‘poof!’— disappear,” he says, referring to the end of the movie when Dorothy clicks the heels of her ruby slippers three times and returns to Kansas.
The lecture is divided into seven sections. At each transition except for the last one, Davis has performance notes for incorporating the song “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in the following sequence:
Introduction: hum a few bars
End of Section I: hum a few bars
End of Section II: hum and sing a few bars
End of Section III: sing a few bars
End of Section IV: sing a few bars
End of Section V: aggressively whistle a few bars
End of presentation: sing the following lyrics
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
If birds fly over the rainbow
Why, then, oh why can’t …we?
(note: “Somewhere over the Rainbow” includes the lyrics “Somewhere over the rainbow/Skies are blue” and “Birds fly over the rainbow/Why then oh why can’t I”)
As his interspersed performances of the song “Somewhere over the Rainbow” transitions from humming to singing (and at one point, whistling), Davis’ presentation goes from transgressive hate speech (he calls Michel Foucault a faggot) to reflexive and positional. He goes on to criticize the callousness of folklorist Richard Dorson (who he calls “a major presence in our modern disciplinary history”) for telling a nigger joke during a 1969 address to the California Folklore Society. He accuses Dorson of displaying “an arrogance of privilege and an insensitivity” that was especially hurtful, as Davis was the only African American present during that address: “Did Dorson expect me to grin and bear his insult? To act invisible?”
Coming Out, Transgressive Language
Davis purposely provokes discomfort in his audience throughout the speech. By labeling Foucault a faggot (initially similar to Dorson’s inappropriate performance in its rupture of propriety) and then revealing his own homoerotic feelings, Davis aligns himself with Foucault. Nevertheless, he calls Foucault a faggot before declaring his own same-sex orientation. Discomfort is also served in double-entendre racial terms: he talks about honesty and calling “a spade a spade” (spade is European American folk speech for African American, and is considered insulting) at the beginning of the speech, and refers to himself as “decrusted white bread” (white bread is African American folk speech for European American and considered insulting, much in the manner of “cracker”).
Davis discusses rumors about who in popular culture is homosexual, including Michael Jackson. The title, “Dorothy in Neverland” refers to Jackson’s home, Neverland, named after the magical land in Peter Pan, and the conjunction of Dorothy with Neverland is the first of many innuendos Davis makes concerning Jackson’s sexual orientation. Davis goes on to dispel any lingering rumors about his own sexual orientation, and further outs himself and others as marijuana smokers.
Davis makes it clear, however, he does not want to be like Dorson. The speech is designed to force his mostly White, Straight audience to feel what he feels when people talk casually about faggots and dykes and tell nigger jokes in his presence, to experience what he felt when Dorson told a racist joke in 1969, the same year Judy “Dorothy” Garland died, her funeral on June 27, and the Stonewall Uprising on June 28.
When Davis positions himself as Gay (“something I had come to be”), his use of the words “faggot” and “dyke” are examples of code-switching into transgressive and often campy folk speech of Gay activists and drag queens who use homophobic insults thrown against them reflexively and without shame. A drag queen is also expected to read (comment on personal faults) and dish (“dish the dirt,” reveal scandal) on members of the audience. Davis code-switches into scandalous Gay folk speech at least thrice more, describing butch (masculine) undergarments, commenting how readers of Foucault are “rewarded with a well-deserved orgasm” after they cruise (look for sex) his work, and using the term poof (British folk speech for an effeminate and/or homosexual man) in reference to himself as he disappears in a magician’s proverbial cloud of smoke from the gaze of his fellow folklorists.
Each time Davis hums, sings, and whistles “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” he is using an established Gay folk referent, marking himself repeatedly as a “friend of Dorothy.” Further references to Gay African American folk speech, such as kids (LGBTQ people in the club scene), plucked (astonished or scandalized), and snap (finger-snap, used to emphasize a point), mark Davis’ presentation as a bridge between Gay and African American folklife. This bridge was to be the theme of a paper, “Twice Blessed: Being Black and Gay,” a project Davis did not complete in his lifetime.
Address as Sermon
At the beginning of Part II, Davis claims that elements of his speech that appear to be non sequiturs are themselves part of larger themes, which he calls “a rudimentary form” of “a well-structured sermon” (“You may venture a polite, restrained ‘Amen’ if you feel so inclined,” he tells his audience). In addition, it is common for an African American sermon to make references to music. The preacher may incorporate lyrics of songs into the sermon, and even sing portions of a song, as Davis does with “Over the Rainbow.” Like many sermons, Davis’ address is also a scolding. Davis criticizes the “loss of essential vitality” and a state of muted homophobia in the AFS. The community of folklorists, he says, is on track to “quietly extend the franchise of full, participatory membership to our queer sisters and brothers” (implying that Gay scholars are not yet fully accepted). He predicts that membership for LGBTQ people would nonetheless be conditional, saying sarcastically, “’Thank goodness there are no drag queens or diesel dykes among them!’ Maybe next year.”
Davis’ lecture promotes the LGBTQ ethos of inclusion and appreciation of diversity, and extends themes of sexuality and identity beyond the LGBTQ collective to encompass all folklorists of all races, ethnicities, orientations, and gender expressions. By the end of the address, Davis expanded the Gay folk term, family (referring to membership in the Gay community), to mean the community of folklorists, and the rainbow takes on the connotation of diversity, not just in the LGBTQ collective, but all of humanity. Within the context of plenary address-as-sermon, Davis appeals to his peers/family/congregation to open folklore as a discipline in favor of further inclusion and diversity, concluding his performance by singing, “If birds fly over the rainbow/Why, then, oh why can’t… we?”
Davis, Gerald L. “I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know”: A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1985.
Davis, Gerald L. “‘Somewhere over the Rainbow. . .’: Judy Garland in Neverland.” Journal of American Folklore, 109 (Spring 1996): 115-28.
Doty, Alexander. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. New York: Routledge, 2000.