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The primary functions of folklore in gay and lesbian life and literature have been to aid in acculturation and cohesion and to help in coping with conflict.

The Definition of Folklore

Folklore consists of traditional aspects of culture generally passed on by example or observation rather than in writing--jokes, stories, personal experience narratives, folk speech, songs, customs, various arts and crafts, and numerous other genres.

These traditions serve as a way of organizing, explaining, and interpreting experience. People use folklore to entertain, to express their membership in a group, to show solidarity with their friends, to educate others, and to achieve many other ends.

Authors often incorporate folklore into their works, but seldom in the form of recognizable texts. Rather they rely on such so-called minor genres as folk speech, accurate depictions of cultural groups and events, and such traditional communication strategies as humor and double entendres to add a realistic texture to their writings.


Within the gay and lesbian subculture, one of the primary functions of folklore is to aid in acculturation. No one is brought up to be homosexual; lesbians and gay men must somehow learn to function successfully with other people of their own kind. Folklore helps them in this learning process, aiding in identifying and communicating with other homosexual people, fostering subcultural cohesion, and helping to cope with conflict.

Folk Speech and Coding

The folk speech of lesbians and gay men, a relatively stable and extensive specialized language, is called an argot. Through its use, homosexual people can communicate secretly with one another without conveying their sexual orientation to outsiders.

Authors of lesbian and gay fiction sometimes use coding of this sort. Gertrude Stein, for example, writes in "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" (1922):

   They were regular in being gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, they learned many little things that are things in being gay, they were gay every day, they were regular, they were gay, they were gay the same length of time every day, they were gay, they were quite regularly gay.

As Lillian Faderman observes, "The story is a play on the word 'gay,' which was not yet widely understood to mean homosexual--but those who had become a part of what was by this time a flourishing lesbian subculture would have discerned what Stein meant by her description of Georgine Skeene and Helen Furr."

One must also wonder if Georgine Skeene is code for Gertrude Stein and Helen Furr code for Alice B. Toklas, whom Stein called Pussy.

Other authors have used a sort of open code to alert readers to characters' homosexuality before the characters attain such awareness themselves.

In the openly lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), for example, Radclyffe Hall uses the word queer so frequently that it is almost intrusive: "[Stephen Gordon] was too young to know why the beauty of Morton [her ancestral estate] would bring a lump to her throat. . . . It was a queer feeling." And "She was shy to primness regarding certain subjects, and would actually blush if they happened to be mentioned. This would strike her companions as queer and absurd."

Hall seems to be signaling Stephen's homosexuality to readers well before Stephen herself recognizes her lesbianism. To underscore the effect of such diction, Hall describes Stephen with stereotypes traditionally associated with lesbians. Even as an infant, she has a "masculine" body; Stephen's father gives her a typical boy's name; she is a tomboy; in childhood play, she pretends to be young male heroes; she is athletic; she longs to cut her hair short.

Rita Mae Brown, in Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), like other contemporary authors, uses specifically gay and lesbian terms. For example, she writes, "Carolyn was dropping her beads, all right"; that is, she was revealing her homosexuality.

In Significant Others (1987), Armistead Maupin uses the following phrases in the span of two pages: "She got some major dish out of Bette Midler" (great gossip); "That's cool. I'm a fag hag. I can handle it" (fag hag refers to a straight woman who chooses to spend much of her time with gay men; in this instance, however, the comment was made by a straight man, making it a sign of the closeness of his relationship with a gay character); "This is strictly brotherly. . . . Maybe even sisterly, for all I know" (a description of the relationship of two gay men).

Use of the argot gives the novels a realistic texture that lesbians and gay men can appreciate.

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