Toronto
3 min

Gay speak used to mean something

As in 'Oh Mary, get her!'

Some gay kid wandered through the Pride crowds wearing a T-shirt that said, “Define girlfriend” and for a moment I was much relieved. “Thank God,” I thought, “somebody is main-taining the tradition.”

Just days earlier, I was sure the straights had grabbed all the linguistically significant markers. Walking into a bike shop to have my cones tightened, I was a little taken aback when the teenage clerk responded to my “thank you” with a cheery “No worries.” Normally, phrases like “no problem” and “no worries” leave me feeling like a stern English teacher left awash in the overflowing banality of 20th-century culture. Like “I love you” on American sitcoms, “no worries” seems like one of those trite New Age phrases that promises much and delivers nothing.

But for a moment, I thought this kid had it all over me. For a moment I envied him not his youth or his beauty or that placid featureless confidence that seems to come so naturally to straight boys, but his language. He had a place in the social structure — straight, white, middle-class and male — and his language both supported and advertised that fact.

Not so long ago gay people, too, had a language. It wasn’t much. Mostly a lot of “Get her!” and “Who does she think she is?” and “Oh, Mary!” It annoyed as many people as it enamoured, especially those who thought gay men should butch it up a bit. But at least it gave you something to hold onto. Like workouts and dance music and hair gel, it was something you had to learn in order to participate in the culture.

There are still a few faint echoes of the old structures. About a year ago, reports began to surface out of London that an old gay language was being resurrected. Called Polari, it included words like omi, lallies and riah (man, legs, hair). Gay Guide Toronto still carries snippets of it in its regular e-mails, but I haven’t heard anyone using it on the street.

Polari dates from a time when gay men were different, knew it and worked that difference in their favour. These days we don’t want to be different. In the post-liberation world, separate means unequal and we balk at language that suggests inferiority. That’s why we’ve been so insistent on “marriage” as opposed to “civil unions.” The meanings embedded in that simple word are as important as any legal rights that might accrue to it. Settling for anything less than “marriage” would be settling for a psychic second-best.

But it’s not just assimilation that has taken its toll on gay language. In the old days, you picked up gay lingo by watching old movies and memorizing the key zingers (not to mention the antics of the divas who delivered them). “I detest cheap sentiment,” says Bette Davis in All About Eve. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” says Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better,” says Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat.

Movie culture reached out and infiltrated almost every aspect of gay experience. When a character in The Boys In The Band checks out his appearance, he echoes Gloria Swanson in the ultra campy Sunset Boulevard: “I am not ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille. Nor will I be for the next two weeks.” Some of the great classics of gay lit, works like Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, James McCourt’s Time Remaining and Sontag’s “Notes On Camp,” are unimaginable without their movie references. As recently as five years ago, David Rakoff opened his essay collection, Fraud, with a quote from All About Eve.

But these days the movies are a pretty dry linguistic well and pop culture in general hasn’t really taken up the slack. (Go ahead, make my day. Quote me one good line from Brokeback Mountain.) TV shows like Absolutely Fabulous give a low-grade approximation of camp (“Sweetie, darling”) but for the most part we’re stuck with lines that are too ironic to be terribly useful. I don’t know about you but I’ve seldom had occasion to use either, “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time,” or “Take that big dick, you like that big dick, don’t you?”

I’m of two minds about this development. On the one hand, I’m kind of relieved I don’t have to memorize old Bette Davis dialogue. Those “classic” movies aren’t nearly as entertaining as people say. On the other hand, I wonder about the health of a community that can’t generate any decent new slang. We’ve produced a few new words in the past decade or so: twink, top/bottom, muscle queen and circuit party. But the most pervasive of the new words, “partner,” is a snooze, and the most colourful, “bareback,” is essentially a synonym for assisted suicide. If language is identity, what does that say about us?

You can’t coin slang to order and attempts to do so (like Dan Savage’s very funny bid to rename the gucky biproduct of lubricated anal sex after rightwing US senator Rick Santorum) usually fail to find a wider audience. But I wouldn’t mind a colourful new word to brighten my day. It’s way too late in the day to be running down the street, screaming “Girlfriend!”