Text refers to discourse that can be codified, replicated, and shared. It can be written, woven, spoken, sung, drawn in pictures, recorded on film/video, sculpted, dramatized, worn, and danced.
In literature and sexuality studies, text can imply discourse that is static and passive. In folklore, however, text is closely intertwined with performance, and encounter with a text can be a dynamic process in which the text itself performs (as in “Toshi Reagon’s lyrics speak to me” or “What does my outfit say?”). Within Gay culture, there is no clear demarcation between text and folk performance.
Important Texts Before Stonewall
Due to the censure imposed on same-sex romance, homoeroticism, and gender variance with the rise of heteronormalizing cosmologies encompassing Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, communism, fascism, and science, few texts survive from before the eighteenth century that deal with identities and issues important to the LGBTQ community. For the most part, those texts that survived did so by performing in two ways: as texts that condemned homosexuality and gender variance, and as coded texts that could be interpreted as non-heteronormal if the observer knew the proper clues.
Crucial written texts from antiquity include poetry fragments from the sixth-century Greek poet Sappho, whose importance in the eyes of classical Greek writers kept her romantic verses about other women from being erased. The same could be said of homoerotic elements in the Socratic Dialogues, homoerotic Greco-Roman myths, and non-written texts such as the many images of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s young male lover, Antinous. Since these texts pre-dated the rise of Christianity and had the revered patina of antiquity, they were tolerated more so than texts produced after Roman Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the only official religion of the state in the fourth century CE.
Condemnation of homosexuality and gender variance can be traced to stories in Torah that describe the destruction of the city of Sodom after two male angels were threatened with rape, and verses in the Law Code of Moses that condemn men having sex with men, women having sex with women, independent women, and effeminate men. When edited together as one coherent text-performance, many Jews, Christians, and Muslims interpret the stories and verses as prescriptions authorizing homophobic surveillance and strict male-masculine/female-feminine gender enforcement on pain of arrest, incarceration, torture, and death.
Some centuries-old homoerotic poetry produced in Muslim countries has survived because it performed as allegory, comparing the quest for the love of God with forbidden things. Persian ghazals (poetic verse) with such content were doubly protected in that pronouns in Farsi are not gendered, thus allowing controversial verses to perform in ambiguous ways according to the expectations of the reader.
In China, playwrights and authors such as Li Yu produced texts dealing with homosexuality and gender variation. But Confucianist notions of propriety and modesty concerning sexual matters were incentive enough for authors (including Li Yu) to write their more controversial Gay-related works under pseudonyms.
Traditional Hindu discourse on homosexuality is mixed. In general, the official stance condemns homoeroticism and gender variation. But both appear in mythology and sculpture as part of the classical Hindu culture. Even then, Hindu saint-politician Mahatma Gandhi in the mid-twentieth century had to be convinced by poet Rabindranath Tagore not to order his followers to destroy homoerotic sculptures on Hindu temples.
In Meso-American art and writings, non-heteronormal texts have been routinely modified by translators so that their content was no longer deemed offensive, a strategy that was replicated with translations of many Greco-Roman works, Middle Eastern/South-Central Asian Muslim texts, and anthropological texts on peoples from Africa, the Americas, Oceania, Asia, and Europe.
The Creation of a Hidden Canon
Along with more frank translations of classical texts, works by certain authors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to circulate among members of the underground Gay community. Among these were poems by Walt Whitman and Fernando Pessoa, the writings of Oscar Wilde, Colette’s Claudine à l’ècole (“Claudine at School,” 1900), Christa Winsloe’s Das Mädchen Manuela (“The Child Manuela,” re-textualized as the 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform or “Girls in Uniform”), and The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Stage productions such as The Captive (from La Prisonnière by Éduard Bourdet) and The Drag (Mae West) were less successful in gaining circulation – authorities censored scripts and raided performances.
In addition to aesthetic works, a number of texts were generated from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries using the language of scientific discourse by activist-researchers such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld (founder of the Institute for Sexology in Berlin), Alfred Kinsey, and Edith and Havelock Ellis. In addition, societies such as the Daughters of Bilitis and SIR began circulating newsletters, flyers, and publications openly advocating for civil rights for “homophiles,” “inverts,” “homosexuals,” “lesbians,” and “gays,” depending on which terms they used to identify themselves.
Sound recordings with homoerotic and campy lyrics were produced in the early twentieth century and appeared sporadically through the mid-twentieth century. These included a comedic performance by drag queen Bert Savoy, blues and jazz recordings by artists such as Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan, and Josh White, fairy-themed songs by Beatrice Lilly and the Duriam Dance Band in the 1920s and 1930s, and songs recorded in the 1960s under the label of Camp Records (available only by mail).
After Stonewall: The LGBTQ Canon
The production of text after Stonewall increased dramatically as laws against the LGBTQ community were challenged in the courts and in the streets. The story of Stonewall itself became an important myth-text with elements of inclusion, solidarity in the face of oppression, humor, and camp. Production of openly Gay theater blossomed, and filmmaking began in earnest, much of it in the form of documentaries. In the early 1970s, Lesbians began to perform and record songs called “women’s music” with feminist, sensuous, social justice-centered, and LGBTQ liberation lyrics, inspiring Bears (men who are hefty and hairy) to create their own “Bear music” twenty years later.
The AIDS crisis led to the generation of new symbols and performance texts, such as protocols for activism developed by ACT UP (AIDS Committee To Unleash Power) and the silent presence of the AIDS Quilt on displays across the USA. In addition, Queer-bashing was addressed in works such as The Laramie Project (the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard) and the movie Boys Don’t Cry (murder of transman Brandon Teena).
Body as Text
Initially, the concept of “text” was used in academic discourse as the production of static works with dynamic potential, and the body-as-text was often described in terms of a passive surface on which things could be inscribed. But the body-transformative technologies (hormonal treatments and surgeries for sexual reassignment, steroid use in the Circuit community) and performances (drag kings/queens) changed the focus on the body from acted-upon to active agent. Aesthetic manipulation of the codes, symbols, and markers of gender and sexuality has opened up the performance of orientation and gender to novel configurations, such as the persona of adult film star Buck Angel, a muscular, shaved-head, goateed, cigar-smoking man with a vagina.
In addition, traditionally gendered bodies and performances have become texts featuring highly-sensual expressions and codes for ultramasculine and ultrafeminine identities and roles, as in the multiple masculine personas in the Gay men’s Circuit, BDSM macho of Leathersex, and the range of femininities in women’s burlesque, all of which may involve the presentation of the body through dance.
Folklore and Folklife
The role of academia in helping the LGBTQ community gain acceptance in the general community cannot be understated. It is through official discourse, taught in colleges around the world in texts produced in support of Gay folk, that has allowed professional organizations such as the American Folklore Society to have an official section for its LGBTQ and Ally members, which promotes the production of more texts concerning Gay folklife.
Poetry, Myth, Legend, Ballad, Joke, and Storytelling
As a consequence of Gay Liberation, there have been texts describing some of the traditional areas of folklore research, such as poetry, especially as performed on stage as spoken word or slam; myths and legends (including the production of ancestral figures and contemporary moments as well as classical texts), ballads, jokes; and storytelling, featuring narratives dealing with coming out, dying, protesting, marrying and family, et cetera. As the Gay community becomes a legitimate folk in terms of law and custom, much more will come to light in cultures and countries around the world.
The globalization of the Gay Liberation movement, with much of its accompanying folklife originating in the USA and Canada, has carried the imprint of the Canadian-American experience as well as the multiple cultures that contributed to that experience within those two countries. Globally enacted texts carrying the Canadian-American imprint are the basis for further iterations as they are reinterpreted through time and in the various cultural lenses of folk groups around the world. Crucial books, stories, films, activist protocols, songs, dance technologies, and cabaret performances are texts that flow back and forth across borders and through the internet as the global Gay community expands and diversifies.
As new technologies come forth in social media, text takes on different forms. The prevalence of texting, and the accidents that can occur in such communication (sending a text to the wrong person, autocorrect), have generated internet memes of humorous texts, including Gay-themed memes.
Some of the most popular deal with parents, children, and accidentally coming out:
Atkins, Dawn, ed. Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Communities. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 1998.
Edelman, Lee. Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Goldstein, Diane. Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2004.
Goodwin, Joseph P. More man Than You’ll Ever Be: Gay Folklore and Acculturation in Middle America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1989.
Griffin, Gabriele. Who’s Who in Lesbian and Gay Writing. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Sedgwick, Eve Kasofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California, 1990.
Wilton, Tamsin. EnGendering AIDS: Deconstructing Sex, Text, and Epidemic. London: Sage, 1997.