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The Mattachine Society, a "" organization founded in 1950, took its name from the court jester, whose job it was to express political observations and social insights cleverly veiled with acerbic humor, so the king would not grow angry and have him beheaded.

In Western civilization, this has been the traditional posture of homosexual and lesbian commentators on cultural mores. Like other minority groups, gay men and lesbians have had to develop a particular sense of humor among themselves in order to make their marginal social status endurable, and a defensive awareness toward the rest of the world in order to disarm their adversaries with laughter.

The outsider who moves in society but is not an acknowledged part of it has a unique insight to offer, an objective view from the periphery, but there is always the danger of becoming too confident and overstepping the limit, as Oscar Wilde, the greatest wit of them all, learned when he defied his lover's father too boldly and landed in prison, a broken man.

The success of lesbian and gay humor long rested on the fact that the humorist was invisible, at first as a member of an undefined social group, and later as a person with a self-acknowledged but publicly closeted identity.

Much of the social satire of the closeted humorist is suffused with a rage caused by the forced disguise of strong feelings. That anger is the basis of much of the outrageous mockery of society's taste and manners that characterizes the peculiarly gay humor known as camp.

But with the recent opening of the closet door and the emergence of gay men and lesbians as a visible minority group, gay and lesbian humorists have now been able to turn their social satire on themselves and generate laughter at the foibles of the new community as it struggles to define itself and establish its own mores within a wider social tradition.

In different times and places, gay and lesbian humor has necessarily taken different forms. What is uproariously funny in one cultural context may not be even mildly amusing in another. Effective humor relies on the recognition of references to common experience or knowledge against a background of shared values.

For these reasons, it is difficult to pin down a universal definition of gay and lesbian humor. Is it limited to humor by gay men and lesbians about themselves and the society they live in? Can it include the work of nongay or lesbian writers who depict funny gay or lesbian characters and situations without condescension?

Is it material that amuses gay men and lesbians regardless of its source? That is, is it defined by audience response rather than by author's intent? Do gay men and lesbians, transvestites and leatherfolk all find the same things funny, or are there several separate traditions?

Gay Sensibility

Whether it is engendered by visibly or invisibly homosexual writers, the humor we are examining is the product of a quality called "gay sensibility," whose very existence is arguable and which is nearly impossible to define because even within the limits of one era and one culture, there is such a complex diversity of gay and lesbian consciousness based on categorical differences such as ethnicity, age, education, geography, and manners.

Gay sensibility may be the result of a sharpened aesthetic taste intensified by the experience of oppression, or it may be a celebration of the special perspective granted to those who are different from the sexual norm.

At a panel discussion called "Is There a Gay Sensibility, and if so, What Effect Does it Have on the Arts?" Jeff Weinstein gave the most insightful response: "No, there is no such thing as a gay sensibility, and yes, it has an immense impact on the arts."

The Various Guises of Lesbian and Gay Humor

In fiction, poetry and plays, in essays, and more recently, in stand-up comedy routines and cartoons, the literature of lesbian and gay humor appears in various guises, such as the urbane (often snide) epigram, the limerick, the farcical escapade, the exaggerated stereotype, and the social satire.

Its tones range from gentle self-mockery to bitter sarcasm, from ingenious irony to the black humor that allows subjects as grim as bigotry and death to be confronted with apparent insouciance.

Connections to the Larger Society

Frequently, especially in work composed before the late twentieth century, gay and lesbian humor is contained within some larger social and thematic context; that is, it is not about gay lives. The gay or lesbian sensibility may be connected to the larger society by one of several means.

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