Sunday, 5 August 2012

Polari, the secret gay language

Yesterday I found a link from a tweet that reminded me of one of my favourite presentations from those I used to do at work for LGBT History Month.

It's a piece from the Manchester Evening News (known also as 'MEN', which I rather like) about a new iphone app about Polari:

Polari, as you may well know, was a form of gay slang popular among gay men in the 1950s and 60s. It was important in those dark days, as it allowed gay men to talk to each other, usually about other gay men and their sex lives, without betraying the details to non-Polari speakers. For some reason, speaking Polari seems to encourage a certain campness (well, it does in me!), so I'm guessing it didn't totally hide that you were 'queer'.

As part of my work as the lead of the Rainbow Network (LGBT staff support group) at the Department for Constitutional Affairs (later part of the Ministry of Justice), I and a team of helpers used to run events for staff around the country to celebrate LGBT History Month. Several times I ran a workshop (1-2 hours, depending on the time/place/people) setting Polari in context and teaching a little. I even set them a mock 'GCSE' paper and gave them chance to practice their new language skills.

The workshop was always well received and the older participants sometimes talked about their own experience. When I ran it for Morden Council a few years ago, one of the participants told about a time when he had been crew on the QE2. One of the female passengers liked to dress up to the nines. One of the other waiters whispered behind her back, 'Vada the naff drag on her!' The woman turned to him and said, 'Nish the cackle, dear.' It turned out she'd run several hair salons with many gay men working for her; she knew some Polari. Oops!

Also, interestingly, quite a lot of the younger participants proved to be unaware that homosexuality had been criminalised until 1967 (when it was only partially decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act 1967). They were really shocked, bless them.

I've attached links to some of the material I used and added a few more for interest:-

Updated 16 August 2012:
A piece aimed principally at the American audience.

UPDATED 6 August 2012:
Thanks to my friend Tony Booth, I found a couple of links on YouTube:
Kenneth discusses "Polari" talk on a chat show, then some clips of Julian & Sandy on Wogan in 1987 -
 - Sadly, this link no longer works.
A Julian & Sandy sketch, 'Bona Bookshop' -


The Polari bible:

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