English Gay Language, Part II [III B]
We may start with two special argots, those of hobos and prisoners. A hundred years ago the hobo subculture was characterized by dyads of an older experienced man and a novice, who may have provided sexual services. For some reason, as yet unexplained the minion was termed a Prushun or Prussian. Hobos also took over the expression gaycat, originally a newcomer to a Western mine or other type of labor situation. This was before the word gay acquired its present meaning, and the usage may have helped in that regard.
Today’s prison lingo shows some precursors in the nineteenth century (e.g. kinshin, a youthful punk, one who plays the passive role in same-sex encounters). Only in the last few decades, though, has the homosexual vocabulary of this large subculture been recorded and studied. Central is the contrast between catchers and pitchers. The pitchers do not regard themselves as gay, and in many instances the catchers do not either. Hooking up is a standard term for forming a couple of this kind, usually cell mates. (The term has recently made its way into the language of collegiate heterosexuals, who use it to denote a relationship that is sexual but devoid of commitment—the heterosexual version of the coarse fuck buddies, gays who have sex together, but without emotional commitment.)
Immigrant communities made their own contribution. Italian Americans contributed finocchio, an edible plant, and Jewish Americans faygeleh (or feygele), little bird (but with an connotative link to fag). More recently, Latinos have contributed maricón.
Four terms--fairy, faggot, gay, queen—deserve special attention.
As regards fairy the connection with the sprites of legend requires little explanation. As early as 1895 there was ostensibly a secret organization known as the Fairies of New York. During the 1950s homophobic literary critics ridiculed a purported “fairy Freudian” school of novelists. Towards the end of the century Harry Hay and his associates created a Radical Faery group (using a slightly different spelling) to combine homosexuality with spirituality.
Faggot has been the object of a misleading etymology, claiming that it derives from a supposed custom of using gay men as kindling in witch burnings. In reality the expression arose from a term of opprobrium applied to women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The clipped form fag has given rise to other unlikely explanations, that it derives from cigarettes, or from menials in British public schools. During the heyday of the gay liberation movement, there was some attempt to reclaim the word, as seen in the Boston journal Fag Rag, but these were of little long-range consequence. Thus we hear of queer studies, but not fag studies.
The word gay has undergone the most adventurous and varied career of any term examined herein. When first borrowed from French in the late middle ages it had the connotation of “merry; particolored” (for the latter, cf. “don we now our gay apparel”). By the seventeenth century it had come to signify something like a playboy or dashing man about town: a “gay blade.” The nineteenth century saw a further metamorphosis, to the sense of a “loose woman, prostitute.” Contrary to the view of some there is no evidence that it referred specifically to male homosexuals in Victorian times. In fact the first attestation of the modern meaning in print stems from as late as 1933. Of course it must have circulated orally earlier than that, but how much earlier is hard to say. For some decades it remained a code word, one that insiders could use without straights catching on. After Stonewall in 1969 there was considerable pressure to use it in preference to “homosexual,” which was regarded as too clinical. Some regarded the change as equivalent to the coeval shift from “Negro” to black. By the end of the twentieth century high school and college students brought about a new turn of the wheel. Now gay was divorced from sex, and (in such circles) meant “boring, nerdy, dorky.”
The term queen is commonly taken to refer to royalty, but in fact may derive from another word with the same sound, quean, a hussy. In any case, like faggot and gay it represents the appropriation of a term originally applied to women. Today the appellation queen strikes most gay men as dated and inappropriate. Still, it functions as a kind of suffix in many compounds, such as rice queen, taco queen, and watch queen.(The last is not someone attracted to particular timepieces, but someone who keeps lookout at a place of group sex activity.)
During the 1920s hustler had a dual connotation: depending on the circumstances it could designate either a female or a male prostitute. Eventually usage decreed the reservation of the term for males; vernacular parlance came to prefer “hooker” for female sex workers. Adaptation of the female term call girl yielded call boy (1942). A young man who is available, but not necessarily a hustler in the formal sense, was called trade. Sixty-nine (also 1920s) once referred to simultaneous cunnilinctus and fellatio (as a heterosexual act); now it means either mutual fellatio or mutual cunnilinctus (both homosexual).
The period after the end of World War II in 1945 was an era of national confidence and rapid expansion of wealth and consumerism. Although many gays found it expedient to remain in the closet enough information is available to sketch a broad panorama of activities, venues, and personality types.
A common behavior, though increasingly less so as time went by was mutual masturbation or plain knitting (according to W. H. Auden, who probably transferred the term from the UK). With the Princeton rub the two partners practice frottage or rubbing, as well as placing the male member intercrurally. (Why that particular university acquired this reputation remains a mystery.)
We turn now to oral sex or fellatio, a term inherited from classical Latin. The distinction between fellator and fellatrix (the latter term now rare) allows one to distinguish which gender is doing the sucking. Of course the term cocksucker is well nigh universal (sometimes used by straights as a general term of opprobrium). The act is designated as a blowjob (sometimes abbreviated BJ). In ads one may refer to French culture, based on a presumed affinity of that nation for the practice. To French, however, is to French kiss, extending the tongue into the other’s mouth. Sixty-nine is mutual fellatio (though in former times it could refer to a similar heterosexual coupling).
Anal activities are also important. The term browning, common in the mid-twentieth century is now obsolete. In everyday usage gays usually call this practice simply fucking, though there is also some usage of buttfuck, and packing fudge (1970s). The anal intruder may be called a backdoor man, or disparagingly a turd burglar (UK). In ads the expression Greek culture may appear, based on the ancient Greek preference. It may be appropriate to distinguish between Greek active (the penetrator) and Greek passive (the receptor). Anilinctus, placing the tongue against and into the other’s rectal opening, is termed rimming. A dangerous practice involves the insertion of the hand, even the whole arm into the other’s rectum: fisting or fistfucking.
Orgies originally took place in private residences, but later in orgy rooms situated in bathhouses. In heterosexual parlance gangbang usually refers to a situation in which a single woman services several males. Gays use the term simply to mean an orgy. A daisy chain is combination of several males having sex. .
Paraphilias include sadomasochism (usually termed S/M), fetishes (as the fascination with military and police uniforms, as well as cowboy hats and boots), and leather paraphernalia. There is also the toe queen or shrimper.
In an age requiring that placed a premium on discretion and even clandestinity, a number of venues developed. The gay bar was the central institution of this period. One went there to drink, hang out, "let one’s hair down," meet friends, and (above all) to make contact with a sexual partner. Originally sexual activity in bars was strictly forbidden, but with the flourishing of the sexual revolution in the 1970s, some bars opened back rooms where a remarkably full range of sexual activities occurred. If they did not make payoffs to the police, or even if they did, gay bars were vulnerable to raids, in which the patrons would be arrested and charged. In small localities everyone, gays and lesbians alike, gathered in the town’s one gay bar. In larger cities lesbians had their own bars. Others developed a special clientele for leather people, as a place to meet hustlers, or for older patrons (the latter were called wrinkle rooms). Bars continued to flourish until the end of the twentieth century, when a marked decline set in as more and more people met over the Internet.
Fancier places of entertainment had drag shows, performances, some professional but most amateurish, by female impersonators.
Many resorted to toilets for easy access to sex, a procedure often fraught with danger because of police surveillance. Such places were known euphemistically as tearooms (or cottages in the UK). Some toilet stalls had openings bored between the stalls, or glory holes, for the insertion of one person’s member to receive oral gratification on the other side.
Certain streets and parks were favored as cruising grounds. In Australian slang such venues are known by the useful term beat.
Over time the gay or lesbian person experienced a number of phases. The first, formerly called the latent phase (a psychiatric term) was when the person did not realize his orientation, though others might, labeling him sissy or her tomboy. Then there was the stage of acknowledgment, sometimes called "coming ut to oneself." Remarkably, some believed that they were the only people in the world who had such feelings. A visit to the public library would offer some information, though tainted by judgmentalism and sometimes simple error.
Eventually the tyro must make contact with others of his kind. Revealing himself to them is the most important phase of the coming-out process. Then the person generally enters the gay world, though shyly and cautiously at first. Some proceed immediately to a more declaratory or provocative stance, flamboyance, accompanied by challenging behavior termed dropping pins or camping up a storm. Some affect makeup, or wear clothing typical of the opposite sex. This may be moderate or full-scale; in the latter case it is called drag. Most gays were not “obvious” or stereotypical, so that some subtlety was required to identify them. Only towards the end of the century did this knack come to be called gaydar.
Subcultures also became noticeable. One was the leather set, usually involved with s/m. Some would seek specialized partners, such as sailors and marines. They were said to have a uniform fetish.
Many, however, felt a need for a stable relationship; they were looking for Mr. Right. All too often, though, one had to settle for “Mr. Right Now.”) Nonetheless, many did form stable dyads, called gay couples. The possibility of gay marriage was broached in the late 1950s, but only towards the end of the century did that cause become a mass movement.
The question of what to term one’s companion in a couple tended to present problems. One could speak of my husband, but this had connotations of asymmetry that were often unwanted. Lover was commonly used, but regarded by some as emphasizing the sexual aspect too much. By the end of the century partner had emerged the winner. This term was also used by heterosexual couples, whether stable and unmarried, or in some cases married. The advantage was that it signaled the equality of the two persons.
Outsiders and newcomers to the scene, tend to think of gays as all one thing. Lesbians rightly object to this, because in many ways they are quite different from gay men. There are still many differences in preference among gay men. Some prefer circumcised partners (cut); the opposite is uncut. Some are quite particular about facial hair, either requiring it or insisting on its absence. A ubiquitous condition, perhaps regrettably so, is the characteristic obsession with the dimensions of one's partner's member (size queens). Those who meet the specifications are termed well-hung. Ethnicity may play a role, with some preferring Asian partners (rice queens), others blacks (chocoholics), and still others Latinos (taco queens). One may also obtain a “twofer,” combining the latter two (a Blatino).
Special subgroups are S/M adepts, clones (affecting flannel shirts and other macho clothing), and bears (burly, hairy men who enjoy each other’s company).
Pedophiles are sexually attracted to children or to adolescents. A tactful term for this preference is intergenerational sex. Among themselves, pedophiles refer to boy lovers. Negatively they may be referred to as chicken hawks. Generally this group is shunned by the gay mainstream.
Lesbians seem to show less variety—or at least it has not been well documented. One contrast is between butch lesbians (perceived as assertive and “mannish”) and fems. The latter may also be known as lipstick lesbians. A variant of the former is the stone butch, who is, initially at least, very unresponsive in bed. Lesbians are perceived as being more malleable in terms of orientation than gay men. Some have had an earlier phase as heterosexuals, in some instances having been dragooned into marriage. Children may accompany such a lesbian. Some may turn away from lesbianism, after an initial period of experimentation. In college these are known as LUGS (lesbians until graduation). The type may also be termed hasbian. Women who have never had sex with a man are known as gold-star lesbians.
With the Christine Jorgensen case in the mid-fifties, transsexualism became a topic of interest. One must distinguish the two types, which came to be known as M2F (or male-to-female) and F2M (female-to-male). Of course many restrict themselves to wearing the dress of the opposite sex (transvestites), without seeking the operation. To be sure, not all cross-dressers are gay; some heterosexual men adopt female garments in order to feel close to women. Others make a point of incongruity. Shemales or chicks with dicks adopt feminine clothing and mannerisms, but have prominent male members
In 1950s America, the combined impact of the depression, World War II, and the Cold War had produced an atmosphere of unparalleled machismo and heterosexism. Those who would hurl wounding epithets had a rich repertoire from which to choose. In addition to such older terms as fairy and faggot, flower terms such as pansy and lily became popular. In official circles anticommunism became a pretext for hunting out “security risks, many of them reputedly “Commie pinko fags.” Not exactly a counterpart to the Comintern, the shadowy Homintern was supposed to function as a homosexual conspiracy.
This hostile proliferation found a response in the mid-century flowering of homosexual vernacular. This rich creativity is documented in Rodgers’ 1972 The Queens Vernacular, which however combines words that enjoyed some popularity with many rare birds, nonce terms. Such ad hoc inventions do demonstrate a remarkable vein of individual creativity. One combining form that circulated widely was –queen as a suffix, sometimes joining ethnic labeling with food metaphors (rice queen, taco queen); queen is a meme that can proliferate almost endlessly. The expression straight for heterosexuals became common, evidently the antonym of bent.
Feminine names continued to be significant. At mid-century Mary was the most common; could be used by men speaking to men as a vocative: “Get you, Mary!”
Harry Hay and some friends began the modern American homosexual movement in Los Angeles in 1950. They created the Mattachine Society. The name refers to a medieval group of jesters). This was soon followed in the Bay Area with the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian group. Bilitis was a lesbian character in poems of Pierre Louys. The early American gay movement tended to eschew the word “homosexual,” favoring homophile instead. The latter, a European import, had the advantage of emphasizing love and affection (philia), instead of sex.
For almost two decades these groups, and several others, labored in relative obscurity. Matters took a quantum leap in 1969, when the Stonewall Rebellion took place in a bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. New groups were formed under a new concept, gay liberation, a rubric influenced by women’s liberation and the national liberation groups in several countries struggling to escape from colonial domination. The word “gay” now came to be overwhelmingly preferred to “homosexual” or “homophile.” A major group centered in New York was the Gay Activists Alliance, which adopted the lambda symbol. Another symbol, taken from the days of Nazi persecution, was the pink triangle. During the seventies a number of aggressive techniques were pioneered, including the zap, an organized disruption of some straight event. At the same time lawyers were working intently for sodomy law reform, a process not completed until after the beginning of the new century. Others succeeded in having the disease concept removed from the official rosters of psychological organizations. At the same time, a new concept, homophobia, was launched. Instead of homosexuals being sick, it was their opponents. Gay radicals went further, denouncing the “hegemony” of heterosexism, the presumption that heteronormativity must be dominant. Gays who declined to agree with the radical analysis were accused of assimilationism, conformity with the beliefs and lifestyle preferences of the host society. These individuals might even be guilty of internalized homophobia.
All these changes engendered a backlash, and opponents began to issue dire warnings of the homosexual agenda.
After working with men in some joint groups, lesbians felt that their interests were not being properly served. This led to a change in terminology, as one began to speak of lesbian and gay liberation (sometimes the formula was abbreviated as lesbigay). The militant phase of the movement showed some fraying of the relations between gay men and lesbian women. On the other hand, some heterosexual women were drawn to associate with gay men. There is really no suitable term for these women; fag hag and gay mascot are clearly disparaging. The archetypal version of the relationship appeared towards the end of the century in the popular television program “Will and Grace.” Sometimes these women serve as beards, the ironic name for a person of the opposite sex who appears in public with a gay man or lesbian, hinting at a straight relationship, and throwing possibly hostile observers off the track.
For their part pedophiles also sought inclusion, but they were generally shunned. They formed their own, very controversial organization, NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association). The issue of intergenerational sex continued to roil discussion, as seen towards the end of the century in the scandal of the Catholic pedophile priests.
During the 1980s the AIDS crisis engendered a number of organizations in response, most dealing with health issues. However, ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) intervened vigorously in the political realm. Those who had acquired the condition were termed PWAs (persons with AIDS). The infected were distinguished from the rest by the terms positive (or poz) and negative—later HIV positive and HIV negative. Health personnel urged the use of condoms. Those who disregarded this advice, and practiced unprotected anal sex, were said to be engaging in barebacking.
The nineties saw some further terminological changes. The queer epithet was in effect dusted off and given a positive import as a new, more inclusive term. Many felt, however, that the q-word had not been successfully detoxified; effectively the adjective was limited to some segments of the movement and to academia. The latter engendered queer studies, though some scholars felt that the subject should be folded into the larger context of gender studies.
Gay studies were slow to take hold in the universities. When they began to do so in the 1980s, it was in many instances in alliance with the postmodernist trend (note the po-mo homos). The result was Queer Studies, characterized by a style of discourse than many found opaque.
The general public perceives gays as leftists or liberals, the latter inseparably joined to the Democratic Party. Studies have shown, however, that about a third of gay and lesbians vote Republican. This factor has found expression in a gay political group known as the Log Cabin Republicans. Some intellectuals have been dubbed the gaycons (an expression modeled on neocon).
Recently, there has been some increased awareness of special usages among African-American gays—sometimes termed gaybonics (after Ebonics). These groups tend to eschew the word gay, preferring to talk about being on the down low (DL). Or they may speak simply of men having sex with men (MSM). Popular music supplies homo-hop, hip-hop performed, promoted, or consumed by gays. The popularity of rap music has led to a certain idealization of “tough” types; hence the request in ads for thugz. A reflection of the current trendiness of “criminal chic,” these sex objects are not real hoods, but simply macho men.
The expression giving attitude means to assume a cocky, defiant, or arrogant manner. This conduct sometimes occurs as part of the mating ritual in gay bars, as those who hold that their looks are superior seek to ward off potential partners deemed inferior, as well as, in some cases, to attract deferential individuals drawn to the presumed macho essence of such behavior. This expression stems mainly from African-American usage. Of similar origin is voguing, meaning to strike campy or exaggerated poses imitating fashion models, especially in a kid of dance.
The politically-driven quest for greater inclusivity has fostered interest in allied issues, especially those of bisexuals and transpeople (the latter concept combined transvestites and transsexuals). Often they were known simply as trannies. This expansion of scope was subsumed under new alphabetical terms, especially LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans), which many felt was too cumbersome. During the nineties a major new issue emerged, gay marriage or same-sex marriage.
After the “quantum leap” of 1969 the American gay movement and its language took the lead throughout the world, especially in English-speaking countries. Nonetheless Britain made some contributions, including the pink pound (less frequently, US pink dollar). At century’s end there was renewed interest in Polari, a British argot. Comprising some 500 words, it is a mixture of Lingua Franca, Italian, Romany, backslang, rhyming slang, and thieves cant. Polari was not originally a gay phenomenon as such, but the property of various marginal circles, especially in London. The gay connection comes from a popular 1960s BBC radio show, “Round the Horne,” in which two obviously gay characters bandied about various words from the repertoire. While a few words, such as bona, good, and omee-palone, effeminate homosexual (literally man-woman), may be used by a few British gays today, Polari does not rank as a major contributor to the homolexis.
Perhaps because homosexuality involves artifice, gay men have long been concerned with the world of entertainment--musicals, theater, and movies. Until recently some gay men identified with female stars, such as Bette Davis and Judy Garland. The latter is commemorated in the expression friend of Dorothy. Since Susan Sontag’s pathfinding 1964 essay, there have been a number of explorations of the concept of camp, proposed as an aesthetic to explain the affinity. Late-twentieth century modernism has sought to carry the discussion further, in terms of such “gender-bending” personalities as Michael Jackson and Elton John.
The 1990s saw the rise of several openly lesbian celebrities, or dykons, such as the singers k. d. lang, Melissa Ethridge, and the comedian Ellen De Generes. Others, active in the worlds of business and government, are termed power lesbians.
There are backlash phenomena. Somewhat slow to become aware of the “problem,” religious and other opponents have risen up in arms, generating terms: special rights and gay agenda. Gays are thought to be conspiring against the interests of society as a whole, instead of simply seeking to be treated fairly, as is generally the case. Sometimes the backlash forces were able to pass repressive legislation. In Britain there has been Clause 28, prohibiting public authorities from doing anything to promote homosexuality. In the US the Clinton administration secured passage of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), in an effort to block the advance of same-sex marriage. On a popular level there was a perceived increased in violence against gays and lesbians: fag bashing, in short (the term arose in Britain in the 1980s, probably based on the analogy of “Paki-bashing”).
Gays and lesbians have long complained about demeaning treatment in the press, and rightly so. Several organizations, notably the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), have intervened with press and media spokespeople to eliminate biased language. Recently, however, these watchdog groups have engaged in linguistic prescriptivism that goes beyond eliminating disparagement, entering the realm of language policing. At their behest the 2006 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, nicknamed “the journalist’s bible,” contains some instructions that border on prohibition Use of “homosexual” is to be restricted in favor of “gay.” “Sexual preference” is to be prohibited, apparently because it implies that sexual orientation is a choice. “Sex change” must be eschewed in favor of “transgender.” It seems that language filtration is still going on, even though the parameters are different.
A thoroughly positive development is the rise of the metrosexuals, individuals who are “straight but not narrow,” and who care for grooming, clothes, fine dining, and interior decoration in ways formerly thought to be gay. Beginning in 2003, the remarkably successful cable television series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” might be termed the metrosexual’s finishing school. In the arts, some prominent heterosexual figures, such as Matthew Barney, appropriated elements of the gay sensibility for their own use. Such borrowings were sometimes derided as faux-gay.
REFS. Paul Baker, Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang, New York, 2002; Wayne R. Dynes, Homolexis: A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality, New York, 1995; Dynes et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 2 vols., New York, 1990; Bruce Rodgers, The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon, San Francisco, 1972.