How Camp and Gallows Humor Keep Us Alive and Resilient

Humor is both shield and weapon against oppression and even deadly disease.

Posted Jul 12, 2019

Humor has long played a central role in gay men’s resilience. Since the days of subverting the dominant heterosexual culture with “inside” slang—including the word “gay” itself, starting in the 1930s—and inverting traditional gender roles in drag shows, gay men have relied on our sense of humor to help carry us through whatever we need to get through.

As early as the 1920s gay men called their most distinctive cultural style “camp.” Camp humor uses irony and theatricality to mock the artifice of “polite society.” It was an important component of gay men’s resilience in the years before the 1969 Stonewall riots blew open so many closets, and the AIDS epidemic ripped many more closet doors off their hinges. Camp gave gay men a way to express their anger at their marginalization and the loss of their male status that came from being grouped with women. Camp also showed that some gay men recognized the artificiality of social and gender roles.

At a time when gay men had few legal options to assert their equal citizenship and full humanity, camp was a way of fighting back and not allowing others’ victimizing actions and words to make them victims.

Washington, DC psychiatrist Steven J. Wolin, MD, and his wife Sybil Wolin, PhD, are co-directors of Project Resilience, a private organization that consults to schools, clinics, and prevention agencies. The Wolins in their book The Resilient Self observe that it’s hard to feel like a victim when you are laughing about your situation. “When we notice the humor in a situation,” they write, “we are in an observant role. It takes a little bit of psychological distance in order to see the humor in ourselves and our circumstances.”

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Whether laughing so hard we cry, or happy crying, laughter is good for the body, mind, and soul.
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Humor has helped people cope even in the hardest circumstances imaginable. As the late psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, his account of surviving the Nazi concentration camps, “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”

It’s not about escaping something’s awfulness. It is a way of putting a comical spin on something dire and beyond your control as a way to cope better with it. In fact, Freud considered “gallows humor” to be the highest form of coping.

In the early 1990s, gay men living with HIV-AIDS put out a 'zine titled Diseased Pariah News. In one swoop, they seized the stigmatizing language so many attached to HIV and plucked out its stinger by using biting, jagged humor to underscore the point that the people living with HIV-AIDS for whom the publication was intended were as far as they could be from considering themselves anyone's, even the plague's, "victims."

The late comedian Bob Smith knew about gallows humor. Smith was a former member of the Funny Gay Males comedy troupe, the first openly gay comedian to appear on The Tonight Show, and one of the first to get his own half-hour HBO comedy special. He told me in an email interview for my book Stonewall Strong—he couldn’t speak by then because ALS had stolen his voice—that his first comment after his diagnosis was, “Lou Gehrig’s disease? I don’t even like baseball.”

Smith’s first symptoms affected his voice. “I sounded like a drunk when I did standup,” he said. “I opened my sets with humor explaining I wasn’t drunk, but had a neurological problem. I also told my standup friends Eddie [Sarfaty] and Judie Gold that I was going to do a one-man show called ‘I’m Dying Up Here.’" [Dying is a term stand-ups use when they bomb.]

In the years after his diagnosis, Smith wrote three books—most recently, Treehab: Tales from My Natural Wild Life in 2016. The essays cover subjects from his love of nature to his experience with ALS. “As I’ve grown older,” he said, “I’m not afraid to mix the very unfunny with the very funny.” In fact, he said, Treehab may be his funniest book of all.

North Carolina-born, San Francisco-based Sampson McCormick, one of the first and still only few young black LGBT comedians to gain national recognition, described in our interview for Stonewall Strong how he used humor as a way to handle the hard stuff he grew up with—including homelessness and trying to kill himself. It comes with survival. “Where I came from we had roaches,” he said. “We had this and that. We made fun of it and learned how to work with it. That is the reason now I’m able to get through some serious situations.”

Flipping painful or embarrassing situations on their head is the stand-up’s art. It’s also an essential skill for anyone, gay or not, who wants not only to survive their ordeals but to thrive as well.

“Human beings are a lot like cars,” said Sampson, as he bills himself. “When a car is made, it has fog lights, windshield wipers. Sometimes it requires a tune-up or premium gas. That premium gas may be meditation or a therapist. Sometimes you need new windshield wipers. You make those little adjustments. But we are made to get through storms.”

From camp to gallows humor, we gay men know a thing or several about using humor to subvert and curtail the power of people, and even a plague, to hurt us by refusing to let them make us their victims.