I’ve been thinking recently about how different it is for people to come out of the closet these days compared to my own experience in the early 1960s. This quintessential rite of passage is never easy, of course, but young people today do have access to information about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans - from movies and television, from books and the internet - and many will, perhaps, already have friends or peers who self-identify as queer.
It was different for me. When I came out, gay sexuality was still the love that dared not speak its name. In England, where I lived at the time, to be gay was to be labelled a criminal by the state, a sinner by the church and mentally ill by the medical establishment. There were no publicly out gay male or lesbian role models that I could look up to, to give me some positive hope of what my future life as a gay man might look like. It was the same situation in Canada and other English-speaking countries.
So I had to learn what being gay was all about, along with what was acceptable and what was not, from other gay men I met. This, however, had to wait until I’d plucked up the courage to drop into one of the few gay bars that at that time were barely tolerated by the authorities. Eventually, I learned from my peers how to socialize and make friends, how to behave so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself and, most importantly, how to meet other guys for sex or a possible relationship.
One of the things I didn’t expect to have to learn was a new language. But here were other guys in the bars talking about their friends and their daily lives using words I couldn’t understand. But like other gay men of my generation, I quickly learned how to speak like my peers.
What I was hearing and learning was Polari, an argot used by British gay men in the dark and difficult days between the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and the end of the 1960s, when, as in Canada, the U.K. parliament partially decriminalized sex between males. It probably grew out of the theatre world, where many gay people worked, and combined elements of Italian, Occitan (southern French), Romany, Yiddish, American air force slang and Cockney (working-class London) backwards and rhyming slang. It was a way of speaking among gay people so that others would have no idea what you were talking about. This was a necessity in an era when gay men were frequently arrested by the police (“lilly law” in Polari) and subjected to electric shock treatment in a misguided attempt to cure them of their homosexuality.
As linguist Paul Baker has written: “In a world where homosexuality was stigmatized through the institutions of law, medicine and religion, [gay] men needed a way to express themselves without getting caught. Consisting of sixty or so core words, Polari described types of people, their body parts and clothing and evaluated them in terms of their attractiveness and sexual availability. So dropping the odd Polari word into a conversation with a new, handsome acquaintance was one way of working out if they might be interested.
“Polari also acted as a form of initiation into the gay subculture, with older gay men teaching the newbies all of the words and “christening” them with their own camp name - Nathan becomes Nanette. Some Polari words labelled the technicalities of cruising, gay sex and various sexual identities - words mainstream society had not bothered to provide words for (or if they had they were nasty ones); others gave new words to existing concepts.”
In his memoirs, the the gay journalist Peter Burton uses Polari to describe an evening in a gay bar during those difficult years:
“As feely ommes...we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth.”
Translation: “As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our fabulous new clothes, don our shoes and wander into some fabulous little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the fabulous genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth.”
By the time I came out, although Polari was still widely spoken, it was on the decline. It was the 1960s and many of the old stereotypes regarding homosexuality were slowly disappearing. Ironically, Polari burst out of the closet in a popular BBC radio sketch comedy show, Round the Horne, on air from 1964 to 1969. It had a weekly audience of about 15 million people who listened in during a popular Sunday afternoon “family hour”. Broadcast live before a studio audience, it featured an avuncular straight man (in both the sexual and comedic senses of the word), Kenneth Horne, playing himself, who always seemed to be looking for some service or other. He inevitably opened the door of some new retail or service establishment, always called “bona” (meaning fabulous, as in gay, as opposed to “naff”, meaning boring, as in non-gay) this or that - Bona Pets, Bona Books, Bona Caterers, etc. - to be greeted by Julian and Sandy, two out-of-work actors who were trying their hand at a new business venture.
Kenneth Horne: “Hello, is anybody there?”
Julian: “Oh, hello, I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy”
Sandy: Oh, it’s Mr Horne! How bona to vada your dolly eek again. (Translation: How great to see your pretty face again.)
Julian and Sandy, explicitly camp and implicitly gay, were played respectively by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. Gay themselves, they were able to squeeze every ounce of meaning from their use of Polari words and double entendres. In an era when gay people were often portrayed negatively, their humour was very funny and outrageously over-the-top yet it contained no hint of homophobia.
You can hear a clip from a Julian and Sandy sketch at the end of this post. The Polari words used in it are:
- omee (man)
- bona (great, nice)
- vada (to look, to see)
- dolly (pretty, nice, pleasant)
- eek (short for ecaf, backslang for face)
- trolling (walking, cruising for sex)
- bold (daring)
- palone (woman)
- lallies (legs)
- nanti (not, no, nothing, don’t, beware)
- cottage (a public washroom used for sexual encounters)
- fantabulosa (fabulous, wonderful)
While Round the Horne popularized Polari among its non-gay listeners, it inevitably contributed to its demise. After all, when even great aunt Agatha got the jokes and understood the meaning of the coded words, the language lost its raison d’être. But Polari’s real death knell was the advent of the politics of gay liberation. A new generation rejected the ghettoized camp stereotypes of their elders and replaced them with a new esthetic of hyper-masculinity that became epitomized by the clone look affected by many gay men in the 1970s.
While Polari was a particularly British phenomenon, a number of Polari words did cross the Atlantic, the most notable of which is the word “gay” itself. Other words that entered popular North American gay slang, though most Canadians and Americans will probably not recognize their Polari origins, include:
- basket (the bulge of male genitals under clothing)
- butch (masculine)
- camp (effeminate)
- chicken (young man)
- drag (clothes, especially women’s clothes worn by a man)
- fairy (gay man)
- fruit (gay man)
- mince (affected, camp walk)
- queen (gay man, often used deprecatingly)
- trade (sex, sex partner, potential sex partner)
- rough trade (a tough, thuggish or potentially violent sex partner)
Although I miss the camp humour and the sense of special comradeship that Polari provided in my youth, I don’t miss the homophobia that led to it. And I’ve no desire to return to the closeted life that was the lot of almost all gay men and lesbians in those days. Recently, though, I was reminded how easy it is to assume erroneously that this kind of prejudice and discrimination is no longer present in the world today. An recent article in Xtra!, a Canadian gay and lesbian newspaper, described the lives of two gay Liberian refugees living in a camp outside Accra, the Ghanian capital. Paula Stromberg, the author of the article, asked one of the men how guys communicate about sex:
“ ‘Nothing is ever said. When a [bottom man] meets a guy...’ He grabs my hand in a handshake and presses one finger into my palm. Then he switches, pressing his thumb repeatedly on the back of my hand. ‘The top [guy] signal.’ [Such coded communication] is important here. Mistakes can mean lynching, jail or death.”
So let’s continue to make sure that when we in the West wave our rainbow flags and celebrate our queer identities we never forget our less fortunate brothers and sisters in the rest of the world who can only dream of such freedoms.
- Baker, Paul (2002). Polari. The lost language of gay men. London: Routledge.
- Burton, Peter (1985). Parallel lives. London: Gay Men’s Press.
- Stromberg, Paula (2011). A good day in Ghana; gay Liberian refugees survive in West Africa. Xtra! No. 702.
A two-disc CD of sketches from Round the Horne, The Bona World of Julian and Sandy, is available from Amazon.ca and BBCshop.com