British Association for American Studies


Folklore and Gay Literature: The Making of a Community

This essay is the third in our series, ‘Literature, Visual Imagery and Material Culture in American Studies’. The series seeks to situate literature, visual imagery and material culture at the heart of American studies, and will explore the varying ways in which written and non-written sources have been created, politicised, exploited, and celebrated by the diverse peoples of the United States and beyond. You can find out more information here.

One of the main challenges of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s was fostering a community among gay people. Since they usually had kept their identity a secret due to fear of persecution (and prosecution), and had been socialised into a heterosexual society, they often knew no one who shared their struggles and had no one they could identify with.[1] Without this sense of community, it would have been impossible to achieve any lasting change in terms of the situation of gay people in America — hence the importance of creating it. One of the most important ways of creating such a community, and one I discuss here, was through literature.

This article focuses on two novels, both published in 1978 – Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. They are very similar in the sense that they both focus on the life within gay communities in two cities which were popular destinations for gay people to move to in the 1970s – Dancer is set in New York and Tales in San Francisco.[2] However, this similarity at the same time constitutes the primary difference between the novels, that is in the extent to which they focus on the gay community as opposed to the straight world. Dancer’s characters are almost entirely divorced from the straight world; it does not exist within their discursive or reflective frame of reference. Tales, on the other hand, is about a gay world within a straight one, and its central figures navigate the complex space between the two.

Reed Woodhouse uses Dancer from the Danceas an example of what he calls ‘ghetto fiction’:

literature “by, for, and about gay men.” These were not books, in other words, whose characters “just happened to be gay,” any more than the ghetto was a place whose residents “just happened to be gay.” Its characters (whether truly or mistakenly, comically or disastrously) saw their sexuality as a key to their lives. These books, like the gay ghetto itself, represented the gay world at its furthest point of self-definition, and were an expression of homosexuality at its most concentrated: that is, as nearly as possible without normative reference to the straight world.[3]

While Dancer from the Dance does contain some remarks on the characters’ lives before they move to New York, once they do there is no more mention of anything that would not be connected to life within the gay community. In contrast, Maupin’s novel was never intended to focus solely on the gay population of San Francisco. It was first published in installments in Pacific Sun and later San Francisco Chronicle, which meant that it was addressed to a general audience.[4] In the afterword to the 2007 edition, the author remarks that ‘one of [the editors] even kept an elaborate chart in his office to insure that the homo characters in “Tales” didn’t suddenly outnumber the hetero ones and thereby undermine the natural order of civilization’.[5] Therefore, while Maupin takes as his subject the life in Russian Hill, one of the districts of San Francisco which was especially popular among gay residents, his homosexual characters are not actually the main focus of the novel.

Although distinct in certain ways, both novels, I argue, served as a means of acculturation and identification for gay readers in the 1970s, which was necessary for the tightening of the bonds between gay people and fostering a community. This goal was accomplished through the incorporation into the stories of numerous references to gay folklore. By gay folklore, following the definition offered by Jan Harold Brunvand, I understand ‘all knowledge, understandings, values, attitudes, assumptions, feelings, and beliefs’ about what it means to be gay, and how these are disseminated.[6] Brunvand divides folklore into three main genres: oral, material, and customary.[7] I will therefore show examples of how these three aspects are incorporated into the two novels, and will comment on some similarities and differences in their particular uses and functions.

Oral folklore

The category of oral folklore, according to Brunvand, includes ‘folk speech’, ‘proverbs’ and ‘proverbial sayings’, ‘riddles’, ‘rhymes’, ‘narratives’, ‘folksongs’, ‘ballads’ and ‘music’.[8] My examples are going to reflect the use of ‘folk speech’, which is concerned with ‘dialect and naming’.[9]

The following fragment from Dancer from the Dance is a good example of this folk speech tradition; it presents a conscious adoption of a certain style of speaking in order to achieve a particular goal:

“I’m in my mid-passage, darling,” he said, beginning to talk like a queen so as to demystify himself, so as to destroy the very qualities John Schaeffer had fallen in love with, “I’m menopausal, change of life, hot flashes, you know. Wondering how much longer I can go without hair transplants […] I’ve had it, I’ve been through the mill, I’m a jaded queen.”[10]

Malone starts talking ‘like a queen’, ‘queen’ being a common word used to refer to gay men at that time, especially — though not exclusively — those considered more effeminate. This is not his usual way of speaking, but Malone does not reciprocate his interlocutor’s affections and so capitalizes on his awareness of widespread prejudices against effeminate gays in the 1970s to adopt effeminate speech and present himself as undesirable.[11]

The use of the word ‘queen’ is also an example of a very common strategy of incorporating numerous slang expressions into the novels. This fragment from Tales of the City illustrates this trend:



“Do you think I’m a fag hag?”


“Look at the symptoms. I hang around with you, don’t I? We go boogying at Buzzby’s and The Endup. I’m practically a fixture at The Palms.” She laughed. […] “Hell, Mouse! I hardly know any straight men anymore.”[12]

Here the characters use the expression ‘fag hag’, a derogatoryterm referring to a straight woman who spends too much time with her gay male friends. Its use, however, differs from what we have just seen in the previous fragment. In Dancer, the expression ‘queen’ is used without a definition, while in the second fragment we can see a list of ‘symptoms’, which clearly define the meaning of the expression used. While for today’s foreign reader the names such as Buzzby’s, The Endup and The Palms may not be easily recognisable references, it must be remembered that the novel was first published in San Fransisco’s local newspapers, whose readers surely recognised the names instantly. This suggests that while Holleran incorporates slang expressions for gay people to recognize themselves, Maupin is writing in translation to ensure that these coded references are understood by his straight readers.

Material folklore

As Brunvand explains, material folklore consists of ‘architecture, crafts, arts, costumes, and foods’.[13] Both novels make references to costume. Consider the following fragment from Dancer from the Dance, in which an experienced drag queen named Sutherland explains the visual signs of different gay subcultures to a young man who has just come to New York and joined the gay community:

And he began to explain to the fertilizer heir the various meanings of the outfits going by: the red handkerchief in the left pocket (fist-fucker), or right pocket (fist-fuckee), the yellow handkerchief (piss), the shaved heads, chains and leather, the bare chest with tiny gold rings inserted in the nipples.[14]

This fragment from Tales of the City does something similar in featuring a gay character explaining the details of fashion:

“Why are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Wearing your Levi’s in the shower.”

“Oh…” He laughed, hopping back into the stall. “I’m wire-brushing my basket. See?” He picked up a wire brush from the floor of the stall. “Just the thing for achieving that well-worn shading in just the right places.” Scraping the brush gingerly across the crotch of his jeans, he screwed his face into an expression of mock pain.[15]

While both fragments feature gay characters explaining fashion choices, the difference lies in the targets. In Dancer, we have a gay character who is a mentor to another gay man, a newcomer to the gay community. This suggests that one of the main purposes of Holleran’s novel was to aid in acculturation of those gay people who have not become acquainted with gay culture yet. On the other hand, in Tales of the City, the explanation is aimed at a woman, which aligns with the strategy visible in the use of slang to make the novel understandable for non-gay audiences.

Customary folklore

Finally, customary folklore consists of both verbal and non-verbal elements and includes ‘beliefs and superstitions, folk customs and festivals, folk dances and dramas, gestures and folk games’.[16] Let us first look at an example from Tales of the City:

Michael tried his usual ploy for cheering her up: He read her the classified from the “Trader Dick” section of The Advocate.

“God! Listen to this one! <Clean-cut, straight-looking court reporter, 32, sick to death of bars, baths and bitchiness, seeks a permanent relationship with a real man who’s into white-water rafting classical music and gardening. No fats, fems or dopers, please. I’m sincere. Ron.>”[17]

This fragment describes a way of finding partners by posting ads in magazines. However, in the 1970s, this was hardly an unusual behaviour for gay or straight people. The piece of insider knowledge that is conveyed here is rather the particular source where such ads could be found — a column in the leading gay rights magazine at that time — and the particular style in which the ad is written.

In Dancer from the Dance, we have an example of the narrator sharing some insider knowledge with gay readers who might not have had the experience of attending the baths, but who may want to do so in the future: ‘You had to bite your lip: Laughter was not de rigueurat the Baths. The Baths were serious’.[18]

On the other hand, this fragment from Danceris written with the experienced members of the gay community in mind:

“Fire Island?”said the fertilizer heir.

“Fire Island Pines,” sighed Sutherland. “A strange seaside community where people are considered creative because they design windows at Saks. But don’t worry — it has other things. Wild deer, in the fall, and even wilder beautiful boys at almost any time of the year. You’ll see. I’ll show you the Dangerous Island,” he added.

“Why dangerous?” said his tutee.

“Dangerous because you may lose your heart,” he said, standing up. “Or mind. Or reputation. Or contact lenses,” he said.[19]

 This explanation of what happens on Fire Island is so vague that it in fact tells very little to a person who has never been there. However, for someone who has experienced it, this description may bring back memories and make the reader feel like a part of the in-crowd of frequent visitors to Fire Island.

 Both novels thus feature all genres of folklore as understood by Brunvand. The use of folklore in Dancer in the Dance fosters community among gay people in two ways: first, by acquainting the readers who have just become part of the gay community with its ins and outs, especially through the character of Sutherland, who plays the role of a mentor to all newcomers. Second, the novel allows the more experienced members of the community to recognise themselves in the story’s characters. Tales of the City tries to do the same thing, but it has a different audience because of the circumstances of its publication. It is much more an explanatory text, offering gay life in translation in order to acquaintheterosexual readers with gay culture. Despite these differences in the target audiences and the goals the novels were meant to achieve, they both employ the same strategy of incorporating gay folklore into the stories, an attempt at legitimising the gay community as a separate group with distinct culture.

[1] Joseph Goodwin, ‘Folklore’, in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader’s Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present, ed. by Claude J. Summers (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1995), p. 277.

[2] Gilbert Herdt and Andrew Boxer, ‘Introduction’, in Gay Culture in America: Essays from the Field, ed. by Gilbert Herdt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 9.

[3] Reed Woodhouse, Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), p. 2.

[4] The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, dir. by Jennifer M. Kroot (Dodgeville Films and Tigerlily Pictures LLC, 2017).

[5] Armistead Maupin, ‘A Pleasing Shock of Recognition’, in: Tales of the City (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), p. 6.

[6] Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2nd edn (New York: W.  W. Norton & Company Inc., 1978), p. 2.

[7] Brunvand p. 4-5.

[8] Brunvand p. 4.

[9] Brunvand p. 4.

[10] Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance(New York: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 227.

[11] Esther Newton, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, 2nd edn (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. xiii.

[12] Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City(New York: Harper Collins, 2007), p. 101.

[13] Brunvand p. 5.

[14] Holleran p. 178.

[15] Maupin p. 123.

[16] Brunvand p. 4.

[17] Maupin p. 109.

[18] Holleran p. 153.

[19] Holleran p. 180.