Gay History 101: October 7, 2015

Bona Togs clothes shop, named with words from the polari sub-language.

Polari , alternatively , Parlary, Palare, Palari, is now referred to as “ The Lost Language of Gay Men.” From Italian parlare, "to talk" is/was a mixture of Romance (Italian or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romani, London slang, rhyming slang, sailor slang used in Britain by actors, circus and fairground showmen, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins, but it can be traced back to at least the nineteenth century and possibly the sixteenth century.

Polari was used in London fish markets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romani. As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers. On one hand, it would be used as a means of cover to allow gay subjects to be discussed aloud without being understood; on the other hand, it was also used by some, particularly the most visibly camp and effeminate, as a further way of asserting their identity.

The Polari term for homosexual, omme poloni, (‘man/woman’) frequently appears in biographies of Oscar Wilde.

Polari begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s. The gay liberationists of the 1970s viewed it as rather degrading and divisive as it was often used to gossip about, or criticize, others, as well as to discuss sexual exploits. In addition, the need for a secret subculture code declined with the legalization of adult homosexual acts in England and Wales in 1967.

Example: As feely ommes...we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth. —taken from Parallel Lives, the memoirs of renowned gay journalist Peter Burton.

Translation: "As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth."

Peter Burton (1945-2011), in a career which began in 1960s and continued for over forty years, British born Burton was at the forefront of gay journalism starting with two of the UK’s first gay magazines (Spartacus and Jeremy), Moving to the Gay News in the 1970s, he became the paper’s literary editor when it famously published the poem “The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name.” This led to the successful prosecution of the paper’s editor, Denis Lemon, for blasphemous libel in a campaign led by Mary Whitehouse. During this time, Burton was also handling press interests for Rod Stewart and the Faces on their U.S. tours, and helping Robin Maugham complete his final books.


After Gay News imploded in 1983, he became the literary and features editor of Gay Times and remained there until 2003. Burton wrote or contributed to over 30 books, including two volume of memoirs, Parallel Lives (Gay Men’s Press, 1985) and Amongst the Aliens: Aspects of a Gay Life (Millivres, 1995), and six anthologies of gay short stories, three of which were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards; the most recent, both by Arcadia Books, were A Casualty of War (2009) and What Love Is (2011).In the last decade of his life he was a regular contributor to the Brighton-based publications 360 and One80, a new gay generation benefiting from his high-quality journalism, and he also contributed regular book reviews for the Daily Express and obituaries for The Independent.

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