Theater is a broad performance frame that includes drama, song, and dance before an audience. Possibilities of gender and sexual expression in the fantasy world of dramatic performance have marked theater as a haven for marginalized people, and contributed to community building for orientation- and gender-diverse people. Since the 1930s, theater has also been a platform for the presentation of openly Gay themes and advocacy for Gay rights.
As early as ancient Greece (around 500 BCE), same-sex love between men was portrayed on stage in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Same-sex romance of both men and women is a theme for works by the Chinese playwright Li Yu in the seventeenth century CE. For the most part, however, pre-twentieth century examples of overt homoerotic-romantic plays are rare.
Cross-dressing in Japanese and Chinese Theater
Cross-dressing is a theatrical tradition found in East Asia. In classical Chinese opera, all roles were played by men. In Japan, all roles in noh theater were traditionally played by men as well. Kabuki theater in Japan originally allowed both male and female performers. But in the seventeenth century, women were banned from the stage, forcing a new style in which male actors played female characters. Men who specialize in female kabuki roles are known as onnagata.
The Japanese Takarazuka Revue, founded in 1913, produces elaborate plays and musicals in which all the roles are played by women. The Revue is a popular tourist attraction and has a fierce following in Japan as well, primarily among women (its audience is ninety percent female).
Cross-Dressing and the Breeches Role in British Theater
In Shakespeare’s day, women were forbidden to appear on the English stage, so all acting companies consisted entirely of men and boys, a situation which continued until the law was changed in 1660. Shakespeare’s frequent incorporation of cross-dressing and gender confusion in his comedies (Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in Loves Labours Lost, Viola in Twelfth Night, Imogen in Cymbeline) was partly an effort to capitalize on the play of gender identities. Elizabethan audiences were aware that all actors on stage were male, so they could take particular delight in seeing a young man playing a female character, and then playing that character pretending to be a man.
After the ban on women was lifted, a different kind of gender-bending performance became common. This was the breeches role, popular in Restoration theater, in which a female actress plays a male. Scholars disagree on whether this type of role represented female empowerment or exploitation of female sexual charms. Attractive women appeared on stage in tights or close-fitting trousers, as opposed to the long dresses customarily worn by women of that period. Some estimate that almost a quarter dramas produced in London 1660-1700 included a breeches role.
The tradition of cross-dressing for humorous purposes remains alive in British popular theater. Christmas pantomimes, which are generally based on children’s stories such as “Jack and the Beanstalk” or Aladdin and his lamp, incorporate cross-dressing roles that some scholars trace back to the practices of Restoration comedy in which the first boy (the lead male juvenile) is played by a young woman in a tight-fitting breeches costume, and a dame (older female character) is played by an older male actor in women’s clothing.
Breeches Role in European Opera
Breeches roles became popular in European opera as well, in part because of the need for singers with high voices to play the roles of boys and young men after the use of castrati (males whose testicles were removed to keep their voices high) declined by the late eighteenth century. Well-known examples of roles specifically for a breeches part include Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Count Orlofsky in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, and Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Roles originally written for castrati, such as the title role in Händel’s Xerxes, are performed today by either a female singer or a counter-tenor (a male singer who has developed his falsetto voice and can sing in the female range).
Gay Themes in Theater and Gay Theater Companies
Evidence for drag troupes in the United States exists from at least the early twentieth century, although not all the performers were necessarily Gay. The Straight macho actor James Cagney claimed, for instance, that he started his stage career in a drag troupe. Well-known companies include the Jewel Box Revue, founded in Miami in 1939, the Cockettes, who performed in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company in New York.
In the 1930s, some Gay-themed plays tried and failed to go mainstream. Before it was banned, The Captive (a play about homoeroticism between women) was performed on Broadway. Mae West and her performance troupe were arrested for attempting to bring plays that questioned the oppression of Gay men (The Drag and Pleasure Man). Such efforts would have to remain more in the realm of folk theater than on Broadway.
The Off-Off-Broadway theater movement, which began in the 1960s as a response to the commercialization of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater, is a folk movement within the theater community. It serves as a springboard for many Gay people who would go on to success in mainstream theater, including Lanford Wilson and Harvey Fierstein. After the Stonewall Uprising, Gay theater companies were formed, including The Other Side of Silence and The Glines. The latter became famous for producing Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which transferred to Broadway and won a Tony Award. The tradition continues with troupes such as About Face Theater in Chicago and the Theater Offensive in Boston as contemporary sites for LGBTQ-based dramatic productions. The Theater Offensive also sponsors Guerilla Street Theater, which goes to men’s cruising areas to give performances with safer-sex messages.
Lesbian theater began as an important part of the feminist response by women playwrights and directors who faced discrimination based on their gender, regardless of their sexual preference. Early women’s theater companies include At the Foot of the Mountain in Minneapolis and the Lesbian company Split Britches. Ivy Theater in Los Angeles produces plays relevant to the Lesbian experience.
Theater as Gay Church
As many Gays found themselves alienated from mainstream religion, the worlds of theater and film sometimes became the object of spiritual adoration. Esther Newton calls theater “gay anti-church,” but it may be better to call it Gay church, a site for aesthetically based spiritual performance that LGBTQ folk find attractive.
Musical theater in particular occupies a special place in the emotional and spiritual life of many Gay men, and those who succeed in theater often become icons in the Gay community. The funeral of Judy Garland, a beloved star who acted and sang on stage and screen, is often cited as a precipitating event for the Stonewall Uprising.
The Castro Theatre
The Castro Theatre, located in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco (a Gay enclave since World War II), serves as a meeting place for the LGBTQ community as well as a movie theater and performance venue. It was built as mainstream movie theater in 1922, showing first- and second-run movies. In 1976, it was bought by Mel Novikoff and began more adventurous programming, including major retrospectives of Hollywood studios and stars.
Dubbed “the Church of Camp” by Gary Morris, the Castro hosts many film festivals, including the annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and presents a variety of programming, including the Gay Men’s Chorus annual Christmas concert and appearances by film stars as well as a steady diet of new and classic films. Part of the experience of an evening at the Castro is the high degree of audience participation. Screenings and live performances may elicit cheers, boos, catcalls, sing-alongs, and audience members dancing in the aisles.
Theater and Community in Cherry Grove
Theatrical performance, often with a strong camp sensibility, were central to Gay life in communities before Stonewall. This is the case in America’s earliest recorded Gay community, Cherry Grove on Fire Island near Long Island, New York. Theatrical performances in the Community House (which includes a stage, balcony and dressing rooms) continue to form an important part of Grove festive folklife.
Many Gay summer residents before Stonewall worked on Broadway or in Hollywood, but in order to maintain their positions, had to and remain in the closet. This changed once they arrived on Fire Island. Scripted shows and revues were part of the Grove repertoire. The latter typically included parodies of popular Broadway shows and satirical sketches on current news topics as well as drag performances.
Since there are no distinct houses of worship in Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines (a Gay community that grew next to Cherry Grove), community centers/theaters in both towns also function as meeting places for various religious denominations.
Theatrical sensibilities extend to Grove social events as well, where drag and themed costume parties are regular social functions. One of the most popular house party traditions is a Labor Day weekend event in which guests, including women and children, must be in drag.
Theatrical sensibilities are a dominant aesthetic at Circuit parties, weekend-long dance festivals where performance artists regularly perform, and attendees may dramatize their appearance through body art, costumes, and muscular physiques. Although the Circuit community is controversial due to its association with excess, including drug use and unsafe sex, Circuit parties provide a space in which Gay men can perform varieties of masculinity. Some consider the Circuit to be a frame for ritual performance expressing Gay identity, and a setting that fosters experiences of spiritual and sensual ecstasy in which individual identities merge with the collective.
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
When AIDS decimated the Gay male community in the United States in the 1980s, the theater community was particularly hard hit. In 1987, Actors Equity (the professional union for stage actors) founded Equity Fights AIDS, and in 1988, the Producer’s Group founded Broadway Cares. The two groups merged in 1992 to form Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) and have contributed millions of dollars in grants.
BC/EFA sponsors a number of high-profile fundraising events throughout the year that incorporate Gay sensibilities while not only raising money for the cause, but also help reduce the stigma against those who suffer from it. Major events include “Gypsy of the Year” (gypsies are chorus dancers in Broadway shows), a flea market and auction of theater memorabilia, the satirical and X-rated production Broadway Bares, the Easter Bonnet competition, and the annual gala, Nothing Like a Dame, featuring women performers from stage and screen, for The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative.
Cross-Dressing and Sketch Comedy
The theatrical tradition of cross-dressing continues as a staple of sketch comedy. It was a regular element in the stage shows and television programs by the Monty Python troupe from England. Cross-dressing is also an expression of humor in other countries, from Canada’s sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall to American comedians such as the Three Stooges, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Flip Wilson, and Tyler Perry. There are also all-male theatrical troupes in formerly all-male Ivy League universities, such as Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club, in which cross-dressing is a regular part of performance.
Theater as Community Advocacy
As a means for instructing the public about stigmatized identities, theater is used to portray the LGBTQ community in a more favorable light. LGBTQ troupes dedicated to presenting diversity onstage include the Pomo Afro Homos (“Postmodern African American Homosexuals,” San Francisco, 1991-1994) and Split Britches.
Notable plays such as I Am My Own Wife, The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Faith and Dancing, Take Me Out, The Laramie Project, and Surviving the Nian dramatize LGBTQ issues.
This strategy has been extended into folklore studies as well with the production of Revelations: Appalachian Resiliency in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People, written and produced by folklorist Carrie Nobel Kline, and featuring actors who perform monologues that were taken from testimonials gathered by Kline in her research on LGBTQ West Virginians. Authors of The Laramie Project had a similar approach, using interviews with townspeople from Laramie, Wyoming concerning the torture and murder of Gay student Matthew Shepard.
Curtin, Kaier. We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Boston: Alyson, 1987.
De Jongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Morris, Gary. “The Church of Camp: San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.” Bright Lights Film Journal, Vol. 17 (Sept. 1996); http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/17/06_castro.html (accessed January 6, 2008).
Newton, Esther. Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town. Boston: Beacon, 1993.