Part 1: 1960s
Part 2: 1970s
Part 3: 1980s
Part 4: 1990s and 2000s
Collecting decades of bad fag jokes, mincing stereotypes and borderline offensive cartoons may be an almost bafflingly perverse pursuit. Yet, en masse, they constitute a surprisingly sensitive record of changing attitudes to homosexuals over fifty years. If the public have a series of assumptions about gay lifestyles, then they’ve most likely been picked up from sitcoms, films, sketches and stand-ups trying to reflect gay liberation and the developing gay community. Furthermore, topical gags can help pinpoint semi-forgotten events when awareness of homosexuals and gay lifestyles suddenly impinged upon the public consciousness. Positive role models are nice when they can be found, but even when outright bigotry and homophobia are discounted, it’s the constant drip-drip of comic stereotypes which gay men have to live with. Comedy is important as a method of releasing tension about the social taboos surrounding homosexuality. It’s much easier to slip in a little joke about gays than expend all the necessary effort on a sensitive, thoughtful dramatic portrayal of homosexuality that will only upset the bigoted parts of the audience.
Before little gay boys even know they’re gay, they’ve usually been bombarded by the casual hints, sneers, half-understood comments and innuendoes of friends, family, and whatever else can be picked up from films and TV. Almost all of them are encoded in jokes to camouflage discomfort. As a child, avenues of finding out about homosexuality are more restricted. Even if there are documentaries and dramas about homosexuality, parents aren't going to allow their 8 or 9 year old child to watch them. So if homosexuals are seen, it's more likely going to be as fleeting appearances in comedy programmes which all the family watches or in cartoons and comic strips which are lying around. So the first way homosexuals are seen is as a joke. Something to be laughed at. It's not necessarily cruel or vindictive, because everything gets laughed at in these programmes. But since these programmes are watched by everyone, it means everyone sees gay people in the distorting mirror of humour. When at last the boy can put a name on his homosexuality, and then live his life as a gay man, its in the consciousness that their homosexuality is a common joke. So gay men become sensitive to the nature of the laughter about them. Is it mocking? Does it show some degree of acceptance? Does it show them as they feel they really are?
An unbroken heritage of comedy homosexuals can be traced to the the very end of 1950s. Homosexuality, understood as “sodomy” and “buggery”, was then illegal in the UK and US. Official censorship banned allusions to homosexuality from cinema, theatre, TV and radio on both sides of the Atlantic. The Hays Code in America, implemented in 1934, meant every film script had to be cleared before production. The Hays Office, working in tandem with the Legion of Decency, employed a hard line on sexual morality, forbidding all “impure love”, “which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law”. While early 1930s pre-Hays films had delighted in sissies for comic relief, even the word “pansies” was forbidden by the Code for the next thirty years. A few serious plays and films had managed to slip through in the later 1950s. If “Ben Hur”(1959) and “Spartacus” (1960), did more than just hint, then comedies like “Some Like It Hot” and “Pillow Talk” (both 1959) made more than comic insinuations,. A few sophisticated cartoonist and illustrators like Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey managed to sneak in a few subtle gay suggestions at this same time, but otherwise gays were nowhere.
Part 1: 1960s