We speak to the authors of a new book written in the subversive language to learn about its place in queer history, and, potentially, its future too
Last summer marked 50 years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, a landmark ruling which decriminalised homosexuality in the UK. In this relatively progressive year of 2018, fully understanding the extreme social stigmatisation and police persecution which reigned at that time is difficult. The threat of being outed was so dangerous that a secret language, Polari, emerged in order to help queer men speak freely of their desires and to identify other members of their community while in public.
Combining Italian and other Romance languages with Romani and London slang, Polari is a linguistic hodge-podge – noted for its camp, theatrical tendencies. Although queer women may have used the language, it is mostly associated with queer men and drag queens. Existing aurally, it was passed from queer person to queer person as an initiation into LGBTQ+ culture. Now, most likely due to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, it has nearly ceased to exist. Unlike other ‘dead’ languages once spoken in the west – such as Latin and Ancient Greek – no official surveys of the language or dictionaries exist in Polari due to its intrinsically subversive nature. As times goes on, it may be lost forever. Despite teetering on the edge of extinction, recent efforts have been made to revive Polari, for example, the release of a short film in Polari in 2015, entitled Putting on the Dish.
“Polari played a major role for gay people during the oppressive decades of the early 20th century” – Dr. Justin Bengry
So why the renewed interest in Polari? Surely, queer individuals in the UK would want to forget a time when their forebears were denied the basic right to love – or shag – whoever they wanted? To find out more, Dazed spoke to Dr. Justin Bengry, the head of Goldsmiths University’s MA in Queer History and an established authority in the field of Queer Studies. As he explains, Polari is a testament to the resilience of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalised groups, and an important reminder to not take today’s freedoms for granted. “Polari allowed queer men to communicate and find each other when they couldn't do so openly – when it was too dangerous for others to know that they loved and desired other men. This creative use of language, slang, and wordplay demonstrates how innovative marginalised groups can be, and just how rich our histories are. But it must also remind us just how fraught life could be for queer men in the past.”
While it’s important to respect the past and be conscious of contemporary privileges, it’s also worth considering what a language like Polari could offer for Britain’s queer individuals now. This, at least, is something which George Reiner and Penny Burkett, both 23, considered in the creation of their new book cruising for lavs, written predominantly in Polari. Raising questions about belonging, and how the queer experience varies across rural and urban settings, cruising for lavs explores ongoing LGBTQ+ issues through a historically queer language. Launching on the 27th of September, at London’s queer bar, Dalston Superstore, all proceeds from the publication will go to the charity Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants.
Reiner has long been a fan of Polari, coming to it via an insatiable interest in Romance languages, and as “as a queer person who came across it on my various searches online”. Burkett was made aware of the language through Reiner, a classmate on her Fine Art and History of Art course, when she presented a piece of artwork examining the word ‘fishy’ during a crit. Intrigued by queer linguistics and the use of ‘fishy’ as part of an essentialist discourse of femininity within drag, she was not aware of its roots in Polari until Reiner informed her – sparking a conversation about the language in front of their peers, as well as an enduring mutual interest in exploring the language’s possibilities in contemporary use. After securing funding from Goldsmiths University (where they both studied) for an extracurricular academic project, Reiner and Burkett began a period of intense research. As Burkett describes it: “We started out with a bunch of questions, like “what does it mean to take an oral language and write it down on paper?” and “where do we get our words from?”.
At the end of their research project, Reiner and Burkett were still looking for answers to some of their initial questions, but they decided early on that they would rather write a book in the language, than about it. As Reiner explains: “We were wondering what it was like to write in Polari, to find another way of experiencing this issue without the problematics of trying to objectively say ‘this is what it is’ and without us being kind of gatekeepers of that knowledge.” Speaking the language amongst themselves and recording versions of these conversations in cruising for lavs has allowed Burkett and Reiner to think about the benefits of renewing the language. As Reiner says: “With the dematerialisation of queer bodies through dating apps and the gradual disappearance of queer physical spaces like gay bars or gay clubs, the revival of a language like Polari offers the possibility of an alternate queer linguistic space.” This notion of a queer linguistic space, in lieu of a secure physical one, has long been an attraction of Polari. As Dr. Paul Baker, a professor at Lancaster University and acknowledged Polari specialist puts it: “Polari played a major role for gay people during the oppressive decades of the early 20th century. As well as enabling them to identify and reach out to one another, it allowed them to communicate in public, creating a kind of linguistic ‘safe space’.”
In this sense, Polari is like Swardspeak, a queer argot currently spoken in the Philippines. Given that the Philippines is one of the more LGBTQ+ friendly countries in Asia, the use of Swardspeak is about survival, but also about creating a separate queer subculture. What Polari may not have in common with Swardspeak, however, is that it comes from a moment in UK history which is renowned for its misogyny and racism and reflects this in racist and misogynistic words. As Burkett points out, their engagement about Polari was also a process of critiquing the language through a contemporary lens. “Does Polari represent the myriad of ways to be queer? Put simply, no, it doesn’t. However, we wanted to see if it was possible to take this language which was predominantly a white, cis, man’s gay language and stretch this linguistic space to see if it could make room for the both of us.”
Due to language’s open-ended nature, a representational Polari is surely a possibility, even if it’s a distant one. The real question is whether the individuals who Polari traditionally excludes – people of colour and women – will want to participate in recuperating a language which has alternately shunned and ridiculed them. Even if Polari does eventually fade from use, its legacy will live on in the ways that it has filtered into mainstream British English – with words such as ‘naff’, ‘muck’, ‘bevvy’, and ‘blowjob’ all tracing their origins from Polari. Without straight, cis society even realising, Britain’s historic underground community has shaped the language we all speak today.
cruising for lavs launches on Thursday 27 September 2018 at Dalston Superstore, more information here