Homophobic Language: Part II

When I wrote last Friday’s post on homophobic language I said, “The words gay (used in a demeaning fashion), fag, sissy, fairy, queer, faggot can do psychological damage to a young person especially when used in a degrading way.” Roderick, a reader of this blog, and always such a sweet darling, asked, “Joe, interesting that you don’t even mention the term “queer.” Is it or is it not homophobic?” I pointed out that I had mentioned it; however, it was a brief comment. So, I thought perhaps I should do another post on derogatory gay euphemisms. They have been used in movies, by politicians, religious leaders, and everyday people. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Below are some terms I feel are important to address.

The first term is gay when used in a demeaning fashion. It is interesting how that word came to mean homosexual. It appears to have its origins around the 12th century in England derived from the Old French word ‘gai’, which in turn was probably derived from a Germanic word though that isn’t completely known.  The word’s original meaning meant something “joyful”, “carefree”, “full of mirth”, or “bright and showy.” However, around the early part of the 17th century, the word began to be associated with immorality. Fast-forward to the 19th century, and the word referred to a woman who was a prostitute or a gay man who slept with a lot of women (ironically enough) often prostitutes. 

However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the word’s meaning began to change. In its sexual definition, a gay man no longer meant a man who had sex with a lot of women, but now referred to men who had sex with other men. By 1955, the word officially acquired the added definition of homosexual male. The 1938 movie, Bringing Up Baby, was the first film to use the word gay to mean homosexual.  In one scene, Cary Grant ends up having to wear a lady’s feathery robe. When another character asks why he is wearing that he responds with an ad-libbed line, “Because I just went gay.”  At the time, mainstream audiences didn’t get the reference, so the line was popularly thought to have meant, “I just decided to be carefree.” Whether Grant meant gay as in homosexual or gay as in carefree is up for debate, but rumors about Grant’s sexuality have always been around especially when it pertained to his relationship with Randolph Scott.

Queer is a word particularly traumatic for me. I don’t like hearing it, and I don’t use it. Some people classify queer as a sexuality different from gay especially in the term genderqueer another word for non-binary. Merriam-Webster defines “queer” as a “sometimes disparaging & offensive” term for same-sex attraction. Some LGBTQ+ activists began to reclaim the word as a deliberately provocative and politically radical alternative to the more assimilationist branches of the LGBTQ+ community. Even with that usage, I still find it offensive because of personal experiences. As I said in Friday’s post, “When the gay community normalizes these words, they don’t know the traumatic affect it can have on someone younger.” When it comes to the word queer, I find it homophobic, and it causes a great deal of discomfort. However, others in the LGBTQ+ community don’t see it that way as long as it’s within the LGBTQ+ community or in academic usage such as queer studies. I guess it is up to which side of the fence you fall. 

My daddy always told me not to be a sissy. I hate the word. I think we all know this, but it deserves repeating: sissy (derived from sister), also sissy baby, sissy boy, sissy man, sissy pants, etc., is a pejorative term for a boy or man who is not traditionally masculine and shows possible signs of fragility. Sissy implies a lack of courage, strength, athleticism, coordination, testosterone, male libido, and stoic calm all of which have traditionally been associated with masculinity and considered important to the male role in Western society. A man might also be considered a sissy for being interested in traditionally feminine hobbies or employment (e.g., fashion), displaying effeminate behavior (e.g., using hair products, displaying limp wrists), being unathletic, being homosexual. By the 1930s, the most damning insult was to be called a sissy; the word was widely used by American football coaches and sports writers to disparage rival teams, and to encourage ferocious player behavior. Good students were taunted as sissies, and clothing styles associated with higher social classes were demeaned as sissified. 

Fairy denotes not only homosexuality but effeminacy. It has been used when speaking of gay men for over 100 years. One example of its use was from the Roaring Twenties. On a Friday night in February 1926, a crowd of some 1,500 packed the Renaissance Casino in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood for the 58th Masquerade and Civil ball of Hamilton Lodge. The New York Age reported nearly half of those attending appeared to be “men of the class generally known as ‘fairies,’ and many Bohemians from the Greenwich Village section who [….] in their gorgeous evening gowns, wigs, and powdered faces were hard to distinguish from many of the women.” For the most part, fairy has been stripped of its power by the Radical Faerie movement and new-era queers. On a side note, Faerie Camp Destiny, the Radical Faerie sanctuary in New England, began in the town where I currently live though it has since moved. (It is now in southern Vermont.) Radical Faeries have always been a special group in the gay hippie sanctuary of Vermont.

While growing up, I heard other phrases from my mother.  She would describe gay men as having “sugar in their shorts,” that they were “light in the loafers,” or the ever-popular “queer as a $3 bill.” Because of my mother’s derisive use of these phrases, I particularly hate them. Though I don’t remember my mother using it, “limp-wristed” was another common phrase. Holding your hand up and flipping your wrist down so it looks limp has been a code I’ve known for most of my life to mean gay. Southerners have always enjoyed using colorful language to disparage people. Sodomite was well-known in the South during the 19th century. Though it is the place where LGBTQ+ people have the least rights and respect, a Williams Institute study looking at LGBTQ+ demographics across the United States found that the South had the largest LGBTQ+ population of all other regions in America. With an LGBTQ+ population of 3,868,000, the South surpassed every other region in its makeup of the 11,343,000 Americans—roughly 4.5 percent – that “identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.” Eventually, the South will have to wake up and start treating their own people better.

Before ‘’gay’’ became common and accepted parlance, the world had many other unofficial names for men who liked men. Some names were self-created by the gay community, and others were thrust, often cruelly, upon gay, bi, and queer men. Following are a few terms used in the past some of which are thankfully becoming obsolete while others are being reclaimed by the gay community. Mary is a mostly innocuous term from the middle 20th century used among gay and bi men. It was first mentioned in the early 1900s and has been reclaimed by the gay community. An example is Hamburger Mary’s Bar & Grille, a gay-themed and LGBT-friendly burger restaurant chain started in San Francisco in 1972. The eateries are often in gay neighborhoods and are intended to represent stereotypical gay culture through humorously named menu items, flamboyant décor with many of their locations hosting drag shows on weekends.

Nancy boy is based on a vaudeville term. The ‘nance,’ was a gay burlesque character from the 1930s who created laughs as he pranced about the stage creating campy scenes and sketches of gay life. The ‘nance’ character put on an outrageous show and was popular with audiences. In the late 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, fearful of how the lurid burlesque shows would make his city look in the upcoming World’s Fair of 1939, cracked down on burlesque houses. Part of LaGuardia’s anger was aimed at the ‘nance’ whom critics said created audiences of lusty gay men having sex in the dark balconies of the burlesque emporiums. It was an outrage, the Mayor said, and police began swooping down on burlesque shows closing many and forcing others to drop the ‘nance’ act or greatly curb it. The term has always been used to mock gay men and today is still used in a derogatory fashion.

Flowers have a long association with the LGBTQ community. The American “Pansy Craze” of almost 100 years ago cemented the use of that flower’s name as a slang term for gay men. During the Pansy Craze of 1930–1933, drag queens, known as “pansy performers”, experienced a surge in underground popularity especially in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Oscar Wilde earlier turned the green carnation into a symbol for gay men in England by wearing one in his lapel. Violets were associated with Sappho herself, and the calamuswith Walt Whitman. A pre-Stonewall gay bar at the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street was called The Flower Pot. While we don’t know whether “lavender” refers to the color or the herb, either way, the word seems to have been used in connection with gay men since the 1920s. It’s now used interchangeably with “rainbow” to mean “LGBTQ+” at events like Lavender Graduations, and the annual Lavender Law Conference of the LGBT Bar Association.

While we are on the subject of plants, a “fruit” is another euphemism for a gay man. I don’t think “fruit” has been reclaimed. It still gets under my skin. It’s a word used to laugh at us. When I first came out in graduate school, one of my professors walked up to me at a bar gathering of the History Department and drunkenly said, “Congratulations, I hear you are a fruit.” I was horrified. It was an inappropriate thing to say to a student. He was a very rude man from Canada, a historian of Latin America. Canadians don’t tend to be so rude at least I’ve never found them to be. However, it’s what I’d expect from a Latin America historian. Sorry if you are one, hopefully this doesn’t pertain to you, but I have always found them not to be the nicest of people. When it comes to historians, we all have our own quirks associated with our disciplines; medievalist are always a strange bunch of people, military historians tend to be rivet counters (obsessing on minutiae of their particular interest, especially military and technology history), oral historians tend to be the most liberal and social justice-minded. I could go on, but I will likely offend someone if I haven’t already. Besides, I’m off topic.

I know this list is only the tip of the iceberg. I stayed with American euphemisms and derogatory terms. I did not delve into words and phrases for the rest of the LGBTQ+ spectrum.  Lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, non-binary, etc., have derogatory terms directed at them. I also didn’t discuss the more subtle and not so subtle terms used in politics for gay-baiting such as fussy, hysterical, San Francisco, wine drinker, lifestyle, etc. Then there is the rest of the world who have their own terms; the list goes on and on and on. While terms are being reclaimed by some in the LGBTQ+ community, I cannot stress this enough: many of them will continue to be hurtful to other members of the community. Childhood and family trauma live with a person their entire lives. It is forever. When you grow up hearing words and phrases used derogatorily and directed at yourself, it is almost impossible to reclaim them and use them for your own empowerment. 

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

One response to “Homophobic Language: Part II

  • Stan Beal

    I don’t comment very often but I do read and enjoy your Blog immensely.

    Having grown up in a small town (two traffic lights) in Texas in the 70’s I heard the words queer, fag and faggot enough to last a lifetime. I do not use the words at all. I don’t say anything when I hear other gay folks use them but my friends know I don’t like hearing them.

    Thanks for all the hard work you put into the Blog.

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