Polari: The Anti-Language of the Social Periphery

Throughout the twentieth century, queer men were subject to criminalisation and social stigmatisation for expressing their sexuality. However, as Britain entered the 1960s, the traditional heteronormative social structure was changing. Whilst research shows that public opinion was overwhelmingly against homosexuality in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a liberalisation of public opinion after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 (Clements and Field, 2014). The Wolfenden report of 1957 argued that homosexuality in men over the age of 21 was a private matter and therefore, should no longer be a criminal offence (Waites, 2005). Thus, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 legalised private homosexuality acts, enabling the queer community to express their sexuality without legal constraints.

The oppression of the queer community, predominantly males, restricted one’s capacity to communicate and express oneself freely due to the threat of public and legal condemnation. Therefore, to avoid imprisonment, homosexual men and some women, used Polari to navigate through the minefield of strict anti-homosexual laws. The ability of the queer community to communicate without legal interjection licensed a secret society of freedom that was longed for. Polari has been described as a secret language which is a code of communication formulated by marginalised groups to live freely amongst the dominant culture (Baker, 2002). Polari comes from the Italian word parlare, meaning “to speak” (Cox et al., 1994). The essay will outline the rise, necessity, and decline of Polari throughout twentieth-century Britain.

Scholars debate the linguistic status of Polari, due to the lack of research and knowledge about its history. Eric Partridge, a twentieth-century lexicographer, argues that Polari is a slang language of underworld communities, supplying the oppressed with a form of unidentified communication from the dominant community (Partridge, 1971). On the other hand, Quinion (1996) argues that Polari is lexical jargon, as it encompasses syntactic English and therefore is not a constructed language within itself. This is suggestive of the ambiguity and secrecy of Polari, even in contemporary society. The lack of knowledge surrounding it demonstrates the difficulty in penetrating and understanding the secret society that was created through Polari by the queer community. The extreme level of secrecy needed represents the oppression of the queer community and by extension, the importance of Polari as a mode of communication. Therefore, Baker (2002) posits that Polari is an anti-language due to its origins being rooted in the socialisation of society, thus creating a counter reality, whereby marginalised individuals can identify with others. Halliday (1978) further supports the anti-language theory due to its production and utilisation of the ‘social periphery’ created through the use of Polari, thus enabling the creation of a unique social class. This essay identifies Polari as an anti-language, due to its roots in social protest as a form of communication.

Etymologically, Polari creates a community, which is the Greek translation of koinonia, meaning to create something whole through commonality (Depew and Peters, 2001). Halliday (1978) supports this by positing that anti-languages create commonalities between individuals, thus enabling them to identify with others. Mallik (1972) suggests that whilst Polari was primarily used for secrecy, it acted as a “verbal art.” Defining Polari as an art highlights the intricacy, detail and performance of the anti-language. It represents the ambiguity and interpretation that individuals feel when they see and experience art. Polari creates a disparity between the subculture and the dominant culture through its impenetrability and unintelligible nature and thus, enabling some to only meley understand its importance whereas others' experience its full artistry. In contrast, others may experience it, but may never understand its significance. This description is expanded by Cox et al. (1994), who demonstrates that Polari works for inclusion and exclusion, and summarises Polari's functions in the homosexual community as “self-protection, secrecy, and statement of common identity”. Thus, demonstrating Polari’s significance as the key to the new society, whereby queer people could explore their sexual identity without criminalisation.

Although Polari is seen primarily as a form of communication, one could also view Polari as a form of social criticism represented through rhetorical silence. Whilst Malhotra and Rowe (2013) proposed that silence demonstrates the powerlessness of a community and voice represents the valour necessary to achieve liberation, perhaps the rhetorical silence Polari enabled was the queer community’s sovereignty. Polari warranted a secret society that was silent from the restraints of the heteronormative regime and criminalisation. Therefore, the theoretical silence that Polari enabled gave the queer community anonymity to express themselves and seek relationships which they desired. This can be described as simultaneously enabling, through the growing queer community, and disabling through the cause of Polari rooted initially in oppression. Nevertheless, the exclusion of the heteronormative rule illustrates the social criticism that enabled oppressed members of society to thrive (Ackerly, 2000). Therefore, one could argue that Polari symbolises the power of the queer community during the height of their oppression (Bourdieu, 1991).

However, there are historiographical debates as to whether Polari was inclusive or exclusive of female sexual identity. Whilst Halliday (1978) identifies Polari as a ‘verbal art’, Penelope & Wolf (1979) argue that Polari is “sexist and derogatory” towards women and thus, exclusionary of lesbians. As supported by Ackerly (2000), who argues that women are subject to “familial, social, political and economic values, practises and norms that enforce women's silence”. Ackerly further states that disproportionate power within groups restricts equality within conversations and thus creating a disparity between queer males’ liberation and queer females’ liberation. However, one could attribute this to the traditional societal constructs whereby women were predominantly domestic caregivers and men were breadwinners (d’Emilio, 1983). Therefore, men were often in the public sphere, whereas women were in the private sphere. Effectively, this produced a social periphery between men and women, whereby men needed to create a covert language as they were more visible to the world, whereas women would be able to freely communicate in private without sanction.

Throughout The Queen’s Vernacular (Rodgers, 1972), Penelope & Wolf (1979) posit that the feminine pronouns used within Polari were derogatory towards women, though there is no difference in their use from the heterogeneous definition. The feminine pronouns used includes the word ‘queen’, which defined and characterised queer, middle-class men. Queer men were often referred to using feminine pronouns, which fails to attain the desired status of masculinity, which was the contemporary ideal (Heaney, 2017). Moreover, Jones Jr. (2007) advocates that the use of feminine pronouns are a way of denoting beauty, femininity, and it was a way of signalling membership to the queer community. Thus, suggesting that what Penelope and Wolf consider derogatory, could be in fact, be a union of the oppressed under the white heterosexual male, formed through feminine expression.

Rodgers (1972), furthers this narrative through defining Polari as “the street poetry of queens,” denoting queer men with a plethora of labels including ‘queens’ and “women who don’t shave their legs.” Blank et al. (2005) posit the feminine pronouns used against queer men were redefined within Polari as a protest to the society in which they were divorced. By changing the narrative of their homosexual label, queer men were breaking the chains of their heteronormative enslavement and embracing their new identities. Furthermore, research suggests that the use of female pronouns is a reflection upon the “lack of control, naturalness and nastiness” of gender, rather than the female sex itself; thus, denying misogyny. Furthermore, Mereish et al. (2016) identifies that one's identity is multidimensional, and thus, one's sexual identity can be equally as multidimensional. It could therefore be argued that Penelope & Wolf are trivialising gender, through seeing masculinity as a single identity, rather than multiple identities.

However, the use of feminine pronouns was also a parodic way of reidentifying queer men as camp. Camp is a byproduct of queer linguistic behaviour, which translates from the French ‘se camper’ meaning “engage in exaggerative behaviour” (Booth, 1983). Research suggests that from the 1920’s onwards, camp has been used in theatrical argot to connote homosexual men. The connections between camp and homosexuality entered more general use as of 1945 (Kulick, 2000). Jones Jr. (2007) describes ‘gay language’ as a performance, the theatrical nature of communication through camp mannerisms. The understanding of camp identity was popularised by the popular radio sketch, Round the Horne, which ran from 1964 to 1969 and attracted around nine-million listeners every week (Baker, 2002). The sketch included Julian and Sandy, who employed stereotypical camp voices to denote their homosexuality and construct their overall identity, as it was a radio show and thus could not explore other mediums of performance. Furthermore, they went against heteronormative relationships and explored homogeneous relationships, which until 1967 were illegal. However, the popularity of the show fails to correlate with the general census of homophobia at that time. One could argue that camp identity enabled the desexualisation of queer men through the reidentification of funny, feminine, and harmless. Therefore, people would seldom associate camp comedy with homosexuality, thus desexualising queer men through no longer seeing them as a threat to the heteronormative structure.

Although the gender and sexuality system affected men and women, there was a disparity between genders with regards to the persecution of homosexuality. Gleeson, 2010 posits that the heightened homophobia towards homosexual men was due to the overwhelming political antipathy of homosexuality via the maintenance of heterosexual social standards. Thus, men who were homosexual were seen to be deviant of their traditional gender ideology and thus threatened the traditional British masculinity and familial heteronormative roles. Furthermore, the research found through public opinion surveys on homosexuality that the general populous during the early 20th century differed in their views towards homosexual men and lesbians, to which Herek (2004) argues is due to the different psychological organisation of attitudes towards homosexual men. Further supported by Pellegrini (1992), who argues that the social stigmatisation and oppression that lesbians faced was qualitatively different from that of homosexual men. One of the primary arguments enforced throughout politics was that lesbianism was not analogous to male homosexuality. Most notably, Viscount Hailsham (1955), who opposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality, argued that sexual intimacy is absent from lesbian relationships unlike that of homosexual males. Hailsham argued that whereas male homosexuality often results in the feminisation of men, “a Lesbian is never, or at least seldom, other than a woman, and a very feminine woman at that.” Thus, the passivity and socially thought illegitimacy of lesbian intimacy enabled greater freedom in polite society than homosexual men, who were considered insidious. Many politicians saw homosexuality as a crisis to imperialism; constructed through masculinity which homosexuality allegedly eradicated. Therefore, this separated women from the agenda of imperialist doctrine as women were not seen to be determinists of the success of the empire.

Polari acted as a means of communication that renegotiated what it meant to be queer during a time of oppression. Through its utilisation, queer men and women rechoreographed the heteronormativity of society and began to normalise queer identity and culture. Therefore, merely identifying Polari as a colloquialism that is not a language within itself would be an injustice. Polari was the redefinition and survival strategy of an oppressed community; a key, a new collectivist society, an instrument for the restructuring of the queer community. It is evident that whilst queer women were found to use Polari, one could argue that they were segregated from a thriving queer community. However, as aforementioned, lesbianism was never a crime within the UK. So, while women would be subject to social stigmatisation, their love for one another was not deemed a criminal activity. Thus, whilst women would still need Polari to publicly express their sexuality, it can be argued that the majority of Polari users were men who were trying to avoid imprisonment and death.


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