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Tue May 5, 2020, 03:02 PM

The secret gay language you've probably never heard of...

Before homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, the gay community had to be a lot more discreet when it came to finding a partner, or even just gossiping about a friend. But how could you discuss all things homo-leaning right in the face of a police officer? Enter Polari.

Historically, Polari wasn’t just the chosen tongue of the repressed gay community; it was very much a working class language, too. A fast-paced, quick-witted, innuendo-laden mash-up of Italian, Romani, Yiddish and Cockney rhyming slang dating back to the 18th century, it was originally used by travelling performers, carnival workers, the British Merchant Navy and criminals. By the 1930s, most West End luvvies had claimed the dialect as their own, which naturally led to its use in the many secret gay bars around London. Of course, these were all hidden, underground venues with front door peepholes, where dropping some Polari would usually get you in. It wasn’t until as recently as the 1990s that London had its first gay bar with windows you could see into, fact fans.

Featuring stacks of euphemisms, Polari provided gay men a subtle but liberating way of communicating with others for companionship or sex, or just having a bitch about her next door. It may sound fun, and those who spoke it often revelled in such a secret, seemingly light-hearted dialect. But it was also used out of necessity. It was less than fifty years ago in Britain that engaging in homosexual sex, looking a bit 'gay' or falling in love with the wrong person made you a criminal.

There were no legal protections for gay people as there are now... quite the opposite. If a gay person called the police pre-1960s, the officer in question may have arrested that person, focusing on the homosexuality rather than the crime. This is what happened to Alan Turing, the Enigma codebreaker. In 1952, he reported a break-in and was subsequently convicted of gross indecency for being in a relationship with another man. He was given hormone treatment to reduce his libido, which eventually rendered him impotent, and he committed suicide just two years later. Polari was the only way for the gay community to communicate at a time when authorities were actively seeking to arrest and make examples of high profile homosexuals.


I am currently listening to a neat book, Lingo, and I heard a reference to this language. I had never heard of it. Have you? It is rather interesting in that it was a way to communicate in the shadows, of sorts. While the GLBT community has it's own slang, this seems to be a bit different, in that it was a more complex way to communicate without revealing who you were.

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Reply The secret gay language you've probably never heard of... (Original post)
Behind the Aegis May 5 OP
LittlePig-LittlePig May 5 #1
GriffenRamsey May 5 #2
Tree-Hugger May 5 #3

Response to Behind the Aegis (Original post)

Tue May 5, 2020, 04:56 PM

3. I have heard it

It's peppered in pop culture here and there. David Bowie used now and then, most notably in a song on his last album, Blackstar, called "Girl Loves Me." He uses Polari mixed with Burgess' Nadsat (from "Clockwork Orange" for the majority of the song.

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