Last week, the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour ran an item on the American documentary film Do I Sound Gay? The film explores what’s popularly known as ‘the gay voice’, a way of speaking that identifies a man as gay (though not all gay men have it, and some men who do sound gay are actually straight). The Woman’s Hour feature ranged more widely over the subject of gay language, including a lengthy discussion of Polari. But it was all about the boys–until, towards the end of the item, the presenter broached the inevitable question: do lesbians also have a language of their own?
The short answer is no: there isn’t a lesbian equivalent of the gay voice, or a lesbian argot comparable to Polari. But since this blog does not do short answers, let’s consider the question–and what’s behind it–more closely.
Questions of the form ‘what is the lesbian analogue of X?’, where X is something gay men do, are usually asked with good intentions–most often the idea is to counter the tendency for discussions of gay culture to centre on the male variety, thus erasing or marginalizing the contribution of lesbians. But the way the question is framed introduces another kind of male bias. It treats gay male culture as prototypical, assuming that lesbian culture must be a copy or a mirror image, rather than something that needs to be considered on its own terms.
What this overlooks is that a group’s culture is a product of its history, and gay men and lesbians do not have identical histories. Though there were certainly experiences they shared, their lives were also affected by gender difference and inequality. How that may have influenced their ways of using language is an interesting, though also complicated, question.
The non-existence of a lesbian language was noticed and discussed as long ago as 1941, when Gershon Legman, a folklorist with a particular interest in sexual matters, published ‘The language of homosexuality: an American glossary’. As Legman acknowledged, what was documented in this list of more than 300 slang expressions (which appeared, somewhat incongruously, in a weighty tome summarizing the current state of medical and scientific knowledge about homosexuals) was an almost exclusively male vocabulary. ‘Very noticeable’, he wrote, ‘is the seeming absence of almost any but outsiders’ slang in relation to female homosexuality’. He proceeded to speculate on the reasons for this absence:
The tradition of gentlemanly restraint among Lesbians stifles the flamboyance and conversational cynicism in sexual matters that slang coinage requires; and what little direct mention of sexual practice there is among female homosexuals is usually either gruffly brusque and vague, or else romantically euphemistic.
But restrain yourself, gentlemen, there’s more:
Concomitantly, Lesbianism in America—and perhaps elsewhere—seems in a large measure factitious: a faddish vice among the intelligentsia, a good avenue of entry in the theatre, and most of all, a safe resource for timid women and demi-vierges, an erotic outlet for the psychosexually traumatised daughters of tyrannous fathers and a despairing retreat for the wives and ex-wives of clumsy, brutal or ineffectual lovers.
So, most so-called lesbians were only pretending, and the rest were either too restrained or too romantic to be capable of coining slang terms.
It’s tempting to dismiss Legman as just an arrogant sexist jerk. But if we put what he says alongside the work of later historians, it becomes easier to understand what actual characteristics of gay and lesbian cultures in the 1930s and 40s might have led him to pursue this line of argument.
One difference between lesbians and gay men was that lesbians were less likely to be arrested and imprisoned for engaging in illegal sexual acts. The riskiness of sex between men may have been a factor influencing the ‘language of homosexuality’, since it intensified the desire for secrecy and in-group solidarity. Legman remarked that lesbians had less sense of ‘criminality, let alone criminal community…two attitudes of mind which seem particularly conducive to the manufacture of slang’.
In other ways, though, gender inequality made life harder for lesbians. It was harder, economically and socially, for women to live independently of men, and to inhabit public space without male protection. This suggests an alternative explanation of why lesbians did not develop an extensive in-group vocabulary or a widely-used argot like Polari. As the lesbian feminist linguist Julia Penelope once put it,
Lesbians have been socially and historically invisible in our society and isolated from one another as a consequence, and have never had a cohesive community in which a lesbian aesthetic could have developed.
In their history of the working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis point out that in the 1940s and 50s what we would now call the ‘lesbian community’ was not perceived as a unified group whose members shared a single identity. Rather, ‘butch’ and ‘fem’ were regarded as distinct identities: they were associated with different ways of behaving, and in the case of fems, though there were exceptions, with a less permanent commitment to the lesbian life. When Legman talked about ‘factitious’ lesbians it was probably fems he had in mind. .
By contrast, when he talked about ‘gentlemanly restraint’ he was probably thinking more of butches. Kennedy and Davis show that butches, who were more visible as gay women because of their overt gender non-conformity, faced a different set of risks from those that confronted gay men. Butches attracted hostility not only as sexual ‘deviants’, but also as women who claimed certain male prerogatives. Kennedy and Davis think this may be why they did not display the kind of wit and flair that were features of gay men’s linguistic performance. Butches’ survival depended on acting and talking tough, so their style needed to be blunter and more assertive.
But I don’t think we can take it for granted that lesbians never created in-group vocabularies or other distinctive ways of speaking. Whenever the record seems to show that women haven’t done something, the question always has to be asked: is that because women really didn’t do it, or is it just because history did not preserve the evidence?
That question did occur to Legman: he acknowledged that there might have been something for him to find if he’d been able to look in the right places:
I have been assured that the situation is quite different in prisons, and that a fairly extensive Lesbian argot is likely to be found there. I have not had the opportunity to find out.
Later research would bear out this prediction. In 1966, the social scientist Rose Giallombardo published Society of Women , a study of a women’s prison in which she reproduced a number of the letters exchanged by inmates involved in romantic relationships. These suggested that a lesbian argot did, indeed, exist, and offered a glimpse (though only a glimpse, since language wasn’t the author’s main interest) of what it might have looked like.
Women’s prisons are not the only locations where this kind of evidence might have been found. Slang typically flourishes in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘total institutions’ (e.g. prisons, asylums, boarding schools, religious orders, the armed forces), and many institutions of this type have historically been sex-segregated. All-female total institutions (like girls’ boarding schools, women’s colleges and the women’s armed services, as well as prisons and reformatories) would have been good places to look for lesbian slang in the pre-feminist, pre-Stonewall era. But they weren’t readily accessible to male researchers. Legman’s methods had an inbuilt male bias: as well as reading pornography, he spent time hanging out in burlesque theatres and what he described as ‘the grimier shit-houses around Broadway’ (toilet wall graffiti was one source of slang and vulgar terms, and some toilets were also ‘tea rooms’, places where men had sex.)
By the time lesbian researchers came on the scene, the linguistic situation was changing. The advent of the women’s and gay liberation movements at the end of the 1960s produced divisions between those gay men and lesbians who saw sexuality as a political issue, and those who remained resolutely unpoliticized. While the second group continued to use the traditional slang in the traditional way, the first denounced it as reactionary and oppressive. As Julia Penelope argued in 1974:
Too much of the lexicon of gay slang is given over to a preoccupation with sexual objectification and social stratification… Insofar as gay slang reflects and encourages the value system of a racist, patriarchal culture, those gays who use it are engaging in self-oppression. …although gay slang is the vocabulary of those who are themselves outcasts from the straight culture, it also binds us to the same value system that makes us outcasts.
Penelope noted that the gay community’s political awakening had not led to the wholesale abandonment of traditional slang terms, but rather to a shift in their meaning. ‘Certain terms…have ceased to be used with sexual meanings and have, instead, taken on new, political meanings’. The pejorative words ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’, for instance, were reclaimed as positive identity labels. For activists, the term ‘gay’ itself now denoted ‘a state of political awareness in which one no longer needs the narrowly-defined sex stereotypes as bases for identity’.
These new meanings, however, were not accepted by everyone. Many self-styled homosexual men who remained outside the movement (and often firmly inside the closet) thought ‘gay’ was ‘trivializing and inane’. Meanwhile, some lesbians rejected the label ‘gay’ because their primary allegiance was to feminism. In the new nomenclature of sexual identity politics,
A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.
Today if you Google ‘lesbian slang’ you get more than half a million hits. I can’t say I looked through all of them, but many of the top ones turned out to be variations on the same two wordlists. Commentators continued to wonder why lesbians lag behind gay men. A piece posted in September 2015 with the title ‘11 lesbian slang words we wish existed’ began:
IDK if you’ve noticed, but the gays have completely monopolized the gay slang world. They have words for everything. Otters?! Pups?! Twinks! Where are our words!!!??!
That question has a long history, but maybe it’s time to move on. If we only ever talk about what lesbians’ language isn’t, we’ll never understand what it is.
An extract from Legman’s glossary is reprinted in The Language and Sexuality Reader, which I co-edited with Don Kulick. This post draws on other research and writing which Don and I did together, and I thank him for his contribution–though he isn’t responsible for the views I’ve expressed here.