Illustration by Martha Rich

In a recent Los Angeles benefit reading of the classic screenplay for Valley of the Dolls, Alec Mapa played Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins on celluloid), Bruce Vilanch was Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), Wilson Cruz played Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), and I was Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward). The audience, composed primarily of gay men, howled for an hour and a half, screaming in collective recognition.

“What is so fucking funny?” I asked myself.

While gay sensibility encompasses everything from Noel and Oscar to Will and Grace, one of the keys to understanding the phenomenon is to appreciate how gay men identify with what is often perceived as female.

“Since there were no gay role models anywhere for my generation,” Charles Busch explains to me, “many of us grew up identifying with a strong woman in an old movie on television — Bette Davis instead of Humphrey Bogart.”

Richard Hochberg, who directed the Dolls reading, says, “Valley of the Dolls came out in 1967. Three years later, The Boys in the Band [the adaptation of Mart Crowley’s landmark play] appeared on the screen. As a young boy I certainly related more to Neely, Anne and Jennifer than I did to any of the self-loathing men in The Boys in the Band.

“Granted, Neely was a drug addict, Jennifer killed herself, and Anne was an uptight New England bitch, but those gals were trying to make something of themselves. They are looking for love and career. They look good while they’re doing it. That’s not too far off from many of the men I know.”

And, incidentally, unlike Crowley’s boys, these girls were not conflicted or guilty about their sexual desires — they knew they wanted dick.

An award-winning, openly gay theater actor and star of television’s Some of My Best Friends, the boyish Mapa remembers a kindergarten photograph as a clue to the career he would one day embrace: “My 5-year-old face was a deliberate pose — lips pursed in a coy smile, head tilted in a fey manner. I was Cindy Brady trapped in the body of a Filipino boy. Of course, the rest of the kindergarten crew called me on the activity carpet: ‘You look like a girl, you pose like a girl.’ Even my father joined in the bashing, saying I looked shoki, the Tagalog pejorative for ‘effeminate.’”

Many gay boys who evolve into gay performers have learned, by necessity, to incorporate their effeminacy into the mix. They artfully reconstruct laughter from a form of derision into a sign of acceptance.

“My way of defusing potentially humiliating situations,” Mapa says, “was to make fun of myself before anyone else could. By letting you know I’m not oblivious to the fact that I’m a big fag makes me just as smart as you — even smarter if I get to the punch line first.”

“I use humor to win people over,” admits Ronnie Larsen, creator of such highly successful, hyperactive gay sex romps as the play Making Porn and the documentary film Shooting Porn. “If acceptance is your goal, entertainment is a wonderful tool.”

His choice to star in The Taming of the Shrew (recently at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood) proves that he understands how tragedy is comedy’s kid sister. “Most actors want to play Hamlet,” he says. “I wanted to play Kate. The play is heartbreaking because she is so desperate to be loved. She’s like all my love-starved friends.”

In Larsen’s Shrew, the female side was integrated with the male, like comedy and tragedy masks. Call it anima instinct. He will attempt to extend the borders of comedy in his next work, Two Dead Clowns, a pair of monologues focusing on serial killer John Wayne Gacy and drag entertainer Divine.

“I’m a clown,” he acknowledges, “and clowns will do anything for a reaction.”

Mark Savage, director of Celebration Theater’s dragged-up hit Pinafore!, also feels the essence of subversive humor lies in clowning. “Clowns are the people who do what you’re not supposed to do,” he explains. “They simply can’t help themselves.”

While gay sensibility laced with distinctive humor has always existed, it has often been deliberately blurred or artfully coded in order to protect the true identity of its creators. Post-Stonewall gay material not only flourished underground, but began insinuating itself into the mainstream, often via heterosexual female performers like Joan Rivers and Bette Midler. While the plague certainly extinguished gay funnies, laughter was an obvious antidote in the aftermath, reviving gay humor in the ’90s. Yet as the new century unfolds, gay entertainers face challenges: To come out or not to come out? To sell out or not to sell out?

For the growing list of gay clowns who choose to be performers, the closet is often not an option because the imprint of being different (read: effeminate, soft, arch) is almost as perceptible as skin color. With few exceptions, these are not leading men; clowns, straight and gay, are usually not conventionally good-looking.

Savage suggests we’re in a period where gay artists are “bringing our trademark gestures and ways of looking at the world to the broader culture. It happened in the ’60s with Jewish humor. Woody Allen exaggerated how Jewish he was to get laughs but also as a non-threatening way of forcing the culture to accept different modes of being. The ’70s and ’80s were about black people doing the same thing — from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy. Now it’s our turn.”

The roads traveled by the openly gay performers I spoke to share much in common. Being uncloseted plays an integral part in the artistic equation. A determined acceptance of self, usually at a very early age, seems to be key.

Busch’s trajectory proves that gay sensibility can thrive in the mainstream without the gay artist losing authenticity. “Everything I’ve written is part of my gay sensibility,” he says, including his Tony-nominated The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, currently on Broadway and due at the Ahmanson next summer. “There’s always a strong female protagonist who’s playing some kind of role and finds herself in conflict about the role she’s playing.”

Before his Broadway success, Busch created female roles for himself that garnered him respect as an off-Broadway theatrical diva with legs (in more ways than one).

While Busch insists that he is “more than my gay sensibility,” he also doesn’t deny that his unique world-view was formed by the time he was 7 years old and remains the wellspring of his creativity. At that time, his mother died, causing him to develop a close relationship with his nanny, Beulah Baker. “I’d do Judy Garland impersonations, and she’d teach me how to do her wigs,” Busch remembers. “Early on, my father exposed me to the grandeur of opera. And [with] watching old movies on television, my artistic sensibility was established — 19th-century romanticism mixed with ’40s movies.”

For decades, the work of such uncensored artists was, by necessity, primarily the preserve of theater. And while many Hollywood leading men remain behind locked closet doors, these dolls are conquering every aspect of the entertainment industry while laughing out loud.

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