The not-so-secret LGBT+ languages

“Yass queen”, “fierce” and most recently, “Vanjie” are all examples of memetic slang stemming from LGBT+ pop culture. Like all things, there is nothing new under the sun and gay slang has been prevalent for years around the globe. Linguist William Leap coined the term “lavender linguistics” to refer to the vast field of LGBT+ linguistics, ranging from Polari — the queen’s speech of the United Kingdom — across the globe to bahasa gay of Indonesia, currently under fire from the rise of a right-wing government.

The origins of slang can often be difficult to pin down; doubly so if it’s the slang of historically marginalised groups. Proto-Polari has its roots in travelling communities and occupations in the 18th century. Going even further back, it can be traced to thieves cant, a secret language used by criminals to avoid detection by the authorities.

You start to get the emergence of the underground gay scene, which is illegal, so people are having to identify ways of communicating with each other

Turns of phrase and substitute words that would be used by immigrant workers, travelling merchants, prostitutes and entertainers eventually formed what we would become to be recognised as Polari; the word Polari itself likely coming from the Italian “parlare”, meaning “to speak”. This eventually made its way into the vaudeville and theatre scene. University of Lancaster professor of linguistics Paul Baker, who has written several books on Polari with another on the way, describes how this has become associated with the growing underground gay community.

“You gradually get men who identify as gay working in the theatre and starting to use it for their own purposes. Over the course of the early 20th century there is is an establishment of networks, bars and clubs, and people are starting to go to them as cities are getting larger. You start to get the emergence of the underground gay scene, which is illegal, so people are having to identify ways of communicating with each other.”

Homosexuality was entirely illegal in England and Wales until 1967 — it took Scotland and Northern Ireland until the 1980s to follow suit — making Polari a useful tool to avoid detection by police or any other regressive onlooker. In a time when dating apps were a science fiction fantasy and people had to speak to strangers in person, gay men could drop a Polari phrase or word into casual conversation as a hint to any others who may be under scrutiny and await a similarly surreptitious response.

Order lau your luppers on the strillers bona

Whether Polari is a language or slang, is open to debate. For a lot of the gay community at the time, Polari was just an occasional word or phrase, the meaning of which could be deduced from context. But, entire sentences have and can be formed. Prof Baker gives the example, “Order lau your luppers on the strillers bona,” which translates directly as, “Go, place your fingers on the musical instrument good,” but really means, “Come and play something nice on the piano.”

Older readers might recognise this phrase as one uttered by the irrepressible Kenneth Williams. Williams and Hugh Paddick used that phrase several times as Julian and Sandy, two out of work gay actors on the BBC Radio sketch show Around the Horne. According to one of the show’s writers, Barry Took, the phrase made it on air because no one understood what it meant and everyone was too embarrassed to ask.

Williams and Paddick introducing Polari to a wider audience perhaps jeopardised its utility as a coded language. In one sketch, Julian, employed at a law firm, quips, “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.” It’s an excellent joke but also it’s interesting to note that the show ran from 1965 to 1968, and homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1967. Perhaps, the exhibition of gay culture to a wider audience helped to make the general public more accepting, something we’ve seen again over the past few years with the diversification of arts and culture, and the success of shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye.

Polari has been in decline since the 1970s. One obvious contributing factor is that, with homosexuality now legal and well on its way to being accepted, coded languages aren’t as necessary. However, Prof Baker points to another source of Polari’s decline: America.

Once common words on the UK queer scene like “chick” and “bold” have almost been completely replaced with American synonyms like “twink” and “fierce”

The seventies and eighties saw a boom of gay civil rights and the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement, leading to two things. The first was the rejection of “camp” as a defining characteristic of homosexuality. To an extent, Polari was associated with the theatrical and outlandish stereotype that the LGBT+ community wanted to get away from. Further to that, with the increasing visibility of lesbians and second-wave feminism, camp gay men were seen as mocking women by imitation.

The second is that, while this breaking of a stereotype was occurring, international travel to the US had become cheaper and American culture was being exported through television, cinema and pornography. This provided an American substitute for British campiness, and the Western gay community was introduced to the images of the “castro clone” and the butch, muscular gay man.

If you like this story and want to support more like it, you can buy me a cuppa.

With this image change, came a change of lexicon. Prof Baker notes that once common words on the UK queer scene like “chick” and “bold” have almost been completely replaced with American synonyms like “twink” and “fierce”, as the American LGBT+ scene has become more influential.

Pride in full force ( Tim Schapker)

Broadly speaking, as society has become more liberal and accepting, the need for secret gay parlance has faded. Unfortunately, in Indonesia, we are seeing the opposite happen.

Indonesia has had a historically complex relationship with LGBT+ rights. While there currently are no laws against homosexuality, equally, there are no provisions for protection against discrimination, and gay marriage is not recognised.

Socially, homosexuality is accepted so long as it’s kept behind closed doors, kept discreet and family expectations are met; something Tom Boellstorff, professor of anthropology at the University of California referred to as a “don’t show, don’t tell” policy. Often, men aren’t considered men until they are married, resulting in a lot of gay men and women having heterosexual marriages or being divorced from a previous marriage.

Trans women and non-binary people — or waria, a combination of the words wanita (woman) and pria (man) — are more common and more accepted than priawan, trans men. But overall, trans people are more socially acceptable in Indonesian society than gay people, and they are much more tolerated in the beauty and entertainment industries; Dorce Gomalamad, who Prof Boellstorff describes as “the Indonesian Ellen” (in terms of prominence, not sapphicness), is a trans TV personality who has been popular in Indonesia since the 1980s. Further, trans people are legally recognised by their gender identity after reassignment surgery — though not before, and again, there are no laws to protect them from harassment.

Bahasa gay — listed on Wikipedia as “bahasa binan”, despite b*nan being a derogatory slur for trans men — is less like a secret language and more like an ongoing wordplay game with the LGBT+ community. Speakers substitute phonetically similar words, giving sentences an absurd quality. “I doughnut wanton”, meaning “I don’t want”, Prof Boellstorff explains, is an anglicised example of the method of wordplay that bahasa gay uses.

A bahasa gay phrase or word is meant to make people laugh with its bizarre structure and let them know that wherever they are is a friendly space where their sexuality doesn’t have to be hidden

Obviously, this makes the speaker stand out like a sore thumb, rendering it utterly useless as a discrete code. But, its function is more social than secretive. A bahasa gay phrase or word is meant to make people laugh with its bizarre structure and let them know that wherever they are is a friendly space where their sexuality doesn’t have to be hidden.

However, in the last couple of years, Indonesia’s begrudging tolerance has started to crumble and its government has taken active steps in making the lives of its queer citizens more difficult. From early 2016, the Indonesia government, backed by various religious groups co-opting Indonesia’s 85% Muslim community, have begun a media assault on the LGBT+ community.

Indonesia is currently on the brink of passing a bill to outlaw homosexuality entirely

Prof Boellstorff has written a brief timeline of the events and a call-to-arms for resisting this regression. Some examples of the homophobic policies taken include the barring of gay people from university campuses, denial of UN funding to LGBT+ groups, as well as ­­­classifying homosexuality as a treatable disease and painting it as a threat to general society and children, specifically.

The anti-LGBT+ camp has also utilised the media for its agenda, using the hashtag “#DaruratLGBT” (“LGBT crisis”), banning depictions of “effeminate men” and waria from state TV and blocking gay dating apps and even same-sex emojis from social media and mobile phone carriers.

10 years ago, anti-pornography legislation was passed that has since been used to attack the queer community. Gay bars are being raided and gay men forced to have their pictures taken topless. The pictures are then shared on social media and found to be in breach of the broad-reaching anti-porn laws.

Worse still, Indonesia is currently on the brink of passing a bill to outlaw homosexuality entirely, which in effect could empower far-right Islamic groups to take the law into their own hands. If that happens, what will the future hold for bahasa gay? Will it shift from public, entertaining wordplay to private and clandestine code? Or, will a clamp down on queer culture eradicate it?

As far as Prof Boellstorff is concerned, it’s too soon to say. New slang can arise in individual towns, cities and islands, and is picked up by visitors who then take it home and spread it around in gay bars and local hangouts.

“If Grindr and all gay dating apps are banned and people are forced to the parks, that might lead to a renaissance of bahasa gay, but if the right wing groups come into the parks too and start being them up, then it might not.”

If groups become isolated from one another — both online and in real life — it slows down the spread of language, but if people are determined enough, they will find away to reach out to one another. One problem is that for closeted individuals, it will become much tougher to get into these communities, as they will have no network or methods to do so.

Cultural languages have a camaraderie and community-building function

“I can’t imagine that the crackdown won’t have an effect. That hypothesis is pretty obviously wrong. What will the effect be? That is really hard to say, at this point. What I can say is, historically, these cultural languages, including Polari, show when LGBT+ folks are really marginalised. They aren’t necessarily always secret but they have a camaraderie and community-building function. A reasonable hypothesis is that this could foster the continuing existence and flourishing of bahasa gay.”

What is certain, however, is that language is flexible and resistant. Indonesia is just as influenced by western media as anywhere else and this has informed part of their ideas about LGBT+ culture. The question now, is what role will that influence take?

Polari remains culturally and socially important

While Polari might have fallen away as secret slang, it still remains culturally and socially important. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is an LGBT+ performance-protest charity group who dress as drag nuns. They partake in various marches and performances to raise awareness of the social and political issues in and around the queer community.

They still use Polari in their mock religious ceremonies as a way of infusing LGBT+ culture into traditions that have historically ignored, or worse, persecuted them. In the eighties, they canonised British film-maker, Derek Jarman. Jarman had contracted HIV/AIDS and the government’s response to the AIDS crisis was lacking. The Sisters used a Catholic ceremony to give Jarman his sainthood, using Polari in the ritual.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (Joe Mabel)

In 2003, the Sisters created a Polari version of the King James Bible. “Glory Be to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” is translated as, “Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie and to the Fantabulosa Fairy,” whilst the Bible’s shortest verse, John 11:35’s, “He wept,” becomes, “Josie parnied.”

Remarkably, only last year, a number of trainee priests got into trouble with their superiors after they performed a church ceremony in Polari to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. This demonstrates two things. First, the symbolic strength and status that Polari has, both inside and out of the gay community, and second, that young people — even priests — are more accepting and willing to engage with experiences outside of their own.

Gay slang being adopted by straight people may actually be a clearer sign of acceptance and integration

The priests were admonished for not following Church of England laws but in 2018, they could have equally been accused of cultural appropriation. As gay subcultures become more mainstream, need we to stop for just a moment and ask who, if anyone, these words and phrases belong to.

“It’s a tricky one,” Prof Baker tells The Overtake. “When I look back at Polari, it is itself a very appropriating language in that it took from lots and lots of other cultures and formed the slang of a community. It added those words to its own, so it was already appropriating. I don’t really think that anyone can say they own Polari, as such.”

Despite Polari’s origins, it has certainly become more closely associated with the LGBT+ community than any of the other groups that have and still do use it. Gay slang being adopted by straight people may actually be a clearer sign of acceptance and integration. Prof Boellstorff points out that, “’Throwing shade’ isn’t really gay slang; it’s just slang.”

But, he adds, “It’s about intention.” While it’s hard to say with certainty what is appropriation, rather than appreciation, one group’s slang used in a mocking against that group shows a pretty clear level of animosity.

Polari has found a permanent way to not only survive but to celebrate LGBT+ identities, culture and history. It has shifted from a means of being gay, secretly, to celebrating gaydom, symbolically. Hopefully, in the coming months, bahasa gay will evolve and become a protest parlance, standing in defiance of a hate-filled government and strengthening the gay communities of Indonesia.


Originally published at Republished with the expressed permission of The Overtake.

Journalist, author, comics writer and rambler. I like odd things. Comic found here — Support my writing here

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store