Before Stonewall UK

Secrets of the gay culture in the early 20th century

Even though untill 1967 gay and bisexual men could be prosecuted for homosexual acts there is evidence that a ‘secret’ gay culture existed in the early part of the 20th century. Here is some great examples.

In order to disguise the gay community’s conversations, a lexicon language was gradually formed. This is a language that forms a bridge between the main language and a fraction group, in this instance it was English and the gay community. This language was necessary for gay men to secretly communicate with each other in a safe manner, which most probably also using it for gossip.

It was called Polari. Its origins came from several other languages including Italian, Romani, London Slang and Cant (a slang thieves used). Later traces of Yiddish slipped into the dialogue, proving its influences came from a range of minority sources in the UK and beyond.

It was used by actors (prominently historically a gay profession) circus performers, prostitutes and sailors, who contributed their own words into the language too. It wasn’t exclusively a gay language, as straight but homo-friendly persons also used the language. Many theater workers used the language, no doubt picking it up from their gay counterparts.

As it began in London and moved mostly into larger cities with ports and / or high populations of such professions and sub-cultures. Some areas of London even had their own dialect of Polari. Once established, it traveled through the UK. Certain words are even used in other parts of the world today, most probably taken there by travelers and sailors. Remembering some of the former British Empire countries, homosexuality was still illegal until much later than the 60s and in other cases sadly still is today.

Although Polari dates back and evolved over centuries, it was most popular between the 1930s and the 1970s.

As it was no longer needed for its original purpose of protection, due to decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967 within most of Britain, it almost died entirely. Before it did, however, many people thought the language was disrespectful, for it was used in idol gossip and talk of sexual activity. It was also thought that to an extent it could easily be translated by others that the user would rather not, due to its then popularity.

In the 1960s places like cafes and hairdressers that traditionally would have homosexual owners, used words from the language for their business names. It has been suggested that it was to make them recognisable as homofriendly establishments. To this day there are still establishments in cities such as London and Brighton, which are known for their high LGBT population with Polari names.

Polari got so popular that even two radio performers in the 1960s had a comedy sketch on their show called Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams). Later it was used in more popular culture too.

In 2010 Cambridge University registered Polari as an endangered language.

There were many bars that were secret or disguised in some way that had a Gay clientèle.
The first gay night spot in London and most probably the world was The Cave of the Golden Calf, it was located off Regent Street in London. It was an underground tavern. It was thought it was also the model for the modern night clubs, gay and straight and was open at the beginning of the 20th century.

Another bar in London that is still in existence today and would have been used by Gay and bisexual men in the late 40s onward, was The Royal Vauxhall Tavern. This bar is most probably one of the most famous gay bars in the UK, in 2015 it became the first ever building to be made a Grade II listed building on the back of its LGBT history. It was built in Victorian times but wasn’t until after the second world war it became a venue that attracted servicemen and gay men alike to its drag performances, in a time when it was still illegal to commit homosexual acts. The bar has always been popular. We know that Freddie Mercury often visited the bar. The urban legend is that Freddie and comedian Kenny Everett sneaked Princess Diana in disguised as a male model. This legend received foundation recently when Everett’s comedy partner Cleo Rocco recalled the night in her autobiography.

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Above – E. M. Forster

One of the better known writers of the first part of the 20th century is E. M. Forster, he wrote secret dairies that are a great significance in understanding how it would have been for gay men in this time period. In these dairies he wrote “Now I am 85 how annoyed I am with society wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal;” This dairy entry was dated in the 1960s. Forster also wrote Maurice, a novel about a gay aristocrat who fell in love with a gardener in the early part of the century. This novel was dated 1918 but wasn’t published untill 18 months after his death, only a few years after decriminalising homosexuality

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Above – Peter Wildeblood

Both Peter Wildeblood and E.M.Forster pointed out that the secret gay culture seemed to be class blind, often both upper and lower classes would mingle with each other.

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Going back further we are aware that in Victorian England the colour green secretly indicated homosexuality and often gay men would wear a green carnation on their lapel, popularised by Oscar Wilde.

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4 thoughts on “Secrets of the gay culture in the early 20th century

  1. Polari is really interesting. I have told my students about it in the past when discussing language. Some words used today in Britain come from Polari (look up ‘naff’ and ‘scarper’). If you go on youtube, you should be able to find some examples of it being spoken. It’s amazing to hear.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you -I’ll do that. I used this site when I discussed it with my classes a few years back. It was really interesting discussing it with students from different language backgrounds, because they were able to recognise there own languages in Polari words. http://chris-d.net/polari/

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