Honey, Let’s Talk About the Quean's’ English

Louie Crew, lcrew@andromeda.rutgers.edu


© 2011 by Louie Crew   First given as a talk at the Gay Academic Union in Fall 1974.  First published in Gai Saber  1.3 (1978): 240-243 and later reprinted in The Language and Sexuality Reader  edited by Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick.  London:  Routledge, 2006.  56-62.



                        Specialized gay use of English is a very explosive and unpopular subject, rarely treated at all by linguists and only begrudgingly mentioned or demonstrated in most of the gay press. When linguists do discuss it, they usually note only its slang, often lighting on items for their colorfulness and rarity rather than for their pervasiveness in the speech of gays who actually make specialized use of English. Yet conflict over gay specialized language takes much energy in gay experience, both from the users and the avoiders. I dare here to ignite only a few of the gay male parameters of the subject.

All gay mate usage bespeaks a criminal underground, whether the use is the cleverly concealed homosexual allusions that have periodically occurred in centuries of English literature or the cant of the streets. As recently as 1857 gay males were put to death in Great Britain, and homosexual acts are still felonies in thirty-three of the United States.

The incentive to use language uniquely, comes from the natural desire to communicate, to be known as we are and to be understood by others, particularly by others similarly stigmatized and sharing our language. Shared specialized language bonds people, and for gays it can be a way of self-affirmation, a way of rejecting the taboo. Specialized language builds as well as responds to community.

Yet the ubiquitous threat of disclosure as a criminal is the major deterrent to widespread specialized use of language by gays. Of course, people are never jailed for the way they talk, nor can gay language legally mark its users as persons who perform homosexual acts. The penalties for using language in specialized gay ways are more subtle, typically in the social and economic ostracization that can result. Given such penalties, it is not surprising that most gay males do not speak a special language, or at least try to control very carefully the contexts in which they do so.

Survival and anonymity are not the only reasons many gay males avoid or minimize specialized gay uses of language. Some want to escape identification with various gay ghettos where such language is more common fare. Others relish their male privilege and power. Some are fighting accepting the (acts of their own predominately homosexual orientation and view any compromise of nongay language standards as tantamount to becoming that much more what they fear they are.

Distinctive Gay Male Uses of Language?

There is no sexual register of the English language unique to gays. The language has sexual references only in feminine, masculine, and neuter; and sex minus or neuter is equally available to all females and males without regard to sexual orientation.

When gay males use English differently from other males, their differences can take only three directions with regard to sexual registers of English:

A. A greater than average density of items frtxn the male registers of English

B.  A greater than average density of items from the female registers of English

C. Distinctive blends of items from both registers.

The linguistic difference common to all three of these directions is a heightened experience of the choice as choice. For most heterosexual males, male language is perceived by definition as simply the way any one of them speaks, allowing for a range (if narrow) of difference so long as other signals reveal that the genital plumbing is hetero. Most gay males are not allowed the luxury of easy self-acceptance, but face a culture which denies at every level the reality they are facing with the involuntary arousal of their genitals. Long before most gays knowingly meet any other gays we are questioning all aspects of behavior, particutally our linguistic behaviors to discover any other ways we might be different. That very introspection often leads to much greater experimentation with different alternatives from the available sexual registers, and often leads to much greater Precision with any register we adopt. Furthermore, our hetero teachers tell us most readily that gay males are supposed to be effeminate; and thus many gay males either adopt that stereotype or react to it in the extreme by intensifying their male registers of English.

Too often heterosexual outsiders view any gay decision on these matters as mere role-playing; yet for the choosers the alternatives are potentially just as much ways of being as is the hetero practice of matching biological and linguistic gender rather less self-consciously.

The difference between nongay and gay roles is not a difference of authenticity, but a difference in the great degree of stress placed on gay people merely for being, particularly for affirming who we are, by whatever choice.

Gay Male Intensification of the Masculine

Intensified same-gender linguistic choice is at once the most common choice of gay males who decide to speak differently from other males and at the same time the gay male use least noticed by the public, often even by the scholars ostensibly concerned with gay male language. Its utility as vehicle for communication exclusively with the desired audience, especially when nongays are present but unaware, is a major appeal to its users. More essentially, for many gay males the homo- or sameness of sexual attraction is precisely the attraction to and amplification of the gender one is. Nongays routinely ignore the existence of the gay-as-intensified male, perhaps because the gay-as effiminate stereotype is less threatening except when hetros want to talk about “saving our children.” Most hetro males seem never even to hear the exaggeration and the difference, as can be readily demonstrated by taking them to a non-dancing leather bar, one scene where one variety male-intensified language is routine. To the heterosexual unaware of where he is, the scene is just another all-mate setting, unless he happens to notice the hungry eyes.

Male-intensified language is the language of body builders, the football team, and some other male congregations. It represents a glorification of masculinity and power almost in the same self-conscious way that parody can. A fairly unequivocal literary source for such use is gay male pornography, whether the brute vignettes on mens rooms walls or the cheap novels which eschew any delicacy whatsoever. Yet it is no accident that Out, a short-lived NYC gay publication, featured Norman Mailer in drag on the cover of its first issue, or that Hermngwayese to some ears often doth protest its toughness too much. Much macho culture is a gay male camouflage or celebration. Writers such as John Rechy, James Baldwin, and Jean Genet have always recognized these charades, as did Proust with his Albert and Albertine. {.}

Gay Malw Identification with Females

Cross-gender identification may be very slight (and for the closeted, unintentional), as for the gay male whose only departure from the general male standard is a predilection for so as an intensive; or the identification may be fully comprehensive, as for gay males who are female impersonators. Obviously, not even heterosexual males completely avoid at all times any use of language more readily associated with women. Some heterosexual men are female impersonatorsand others are transvestites, particularly in the privacy of their home. Sociologists tell us that only about four percent of the gay male population can be consistently identified as such by clear cross-gender reference. Furthermore, since cross-gender identification is more highly stereotyped as gay, even thosegays who are included thus to identify themselves are greatly pressured not to do so or to restrict the places where they would do so.

The origin of the inclination of some gay males to identify themselves with women is unclear, particularly in terms of whether the inclination is self-willed or involuntarily imposed. Early art and literature demonstrate cross-gender identification to have been around a long time. Greek pottery sometimes depicted older men with exaggerated gestures of delicacy being derided by handsome younger men. Some of the American Indian tribes recognized female-identified men as different and responded by giving them specialized training to be holy men. Some have azued that the celibacy of the Roman priesthood, while not designed to do so, had the valuable effect of giving meaningful development to the talents of persons who might otherwise have been anathema. The official church position was much more hostile, particularly with regard to homosexual practice, and the Levitical text specifically stressed the cross-gender behavior of those men who lie with themselves “as with a woman.

Some whole cultures, such as most of the Arab world, parts of the Orient, and some of the American proletarian culture, as well as same-sex institutions in schools, the military and prisons, have much weaker taboos against concealed homosexual practice, and are particularly lighter in their stigmas for the penetrator as compared with the penetrated. In such settings the penetrator is always male-identified and considered to be still heterosexual, while the penetrated is female-identified and considered to be homosexual. Significantly it is the experience of being penetrated which such a view says makes one a homosexual. In such settings a young male who acknowledges deep involuntary arousal by same-sex stimuli can often resolve much of his ambivalence by adopting the feminine mannerisms culturally prescribed for such persons, such as cross-gender language. In Austin, TX, for example, where blacks are only about 15 percent of the population, black males represent about 50 percent of the female impersonators in the gay bars. Similar figures are available for other cities. Many see this higher incidence of one form of cross-gender identification as an index of the greater tolerance the black culture affords gay males who will meet heterosexual expectations. The black penetrators are similarly rewarded by not being pressured to define themselves as gay at all.

Others have seen cross-gender identification as more intrinsic, less a matter of choice. A recurrent theory about homosexuals, ascribed to in the 19th century and popularized by English gay liberationist Edward Carpenter, has been that the gay male is a woman in a male body,” and that a lesbian is a man in a woman’s body Most such theories are now usually limited to describing a new breed, the transexual, who is so thoroughly identified with the opposite sex as to feel best served by a sex-change physical operation. Most homosexuals appear to be just that, persons attracted to what they perceive as their own sex rather than to what they perceive as their opposite sex. Even those who initially attract men by their cross-gender references report a high incidence of “flip-flop, or as one quean describes it. “There are more and more of those men who do me and lo and behold turn over and expect me to do them.” By the same token, many queans are insisting that they do not have to give up any of their male privileges merely because they are queans.

Some of the uses of cross-gender identification have very clear results for gay males who use them. They can minimize a self-defined heterosexuals fear of being sexually involved on a part-time basis. They can also establish casual, nonsexual registers for gays to relate to each other. Almost never does one hear two lovers using cross-gender references with each other, certainty not in prelude to sexual behavior. Using cross-gender language in response to anothers use of it can fairly well guarantee and understanding of no genital expectations unless the language shifts into another register for at least one of the two.

Cross-gender references (unction effectively as rejections to sexual overtures not welcomed, as in “Sorry, I dont go to bed with a sister” (this from a female-identified gay male) or “I dont like nellie people” (from a masculine-identified gay male to a female-identified gay male).

A more positive and very recurrent use of cross-gender reference is the establishing of supportive bonds of nongenital friendship, as in the telephone opening from one gay male to another: “Hey, girl, give me some dirt!”

The better-known uses of cross-gender references are the more dramatic, vicious ones. Lesbian linguist Julia Stanley has noted the sexism involved in the fact that when such gay males want to hurt one another, they do so by applying all of the verbal opprobrium men have used on women. It is often alleged that there is no “bitch fight comparable to a gay-male bitch fight.

Sometimes a group of gay males talking as women will refer to a male of unidentified sexual orientation as “she” in his presence, in ways that are very indefinite in reference. The use here is to discover whether the person is closeted and gay (often revealed by his protesting too much that he isnt, in response to the game) or that he is a heterosexual outsider. (Heterosexuals rarely even notice what is happening, and if they do, they are typically not threatened, even if scornful.)

Cross-gender references by gay males very often offend women, particularly if they do not know the source of such references in response to the shared heterosexual male oppressor. Feminists resent in such males what they view as the very trivialization of self which they are trying to avoid. Women who are not feminists are likely to consider such males as silly and obnoxious, or in some cases as unfair sexual competition. Many women view the cross-gender language as an insensitive or cruel parody of their own lot in life, particularly since such males can drop the language at any point and walk right back into positions of male privilege and domination.

When heterosexual males detect or think they detect a gay male by cross-gender reference, they see the variation from the language of male peers as a surrender of that male privilege and domination.

From one gay male perspective, cross-gender identification is a gesture of defiance of the hetero culture which defines all males as feminine who do not want sexual intercourse with women. “Im a quean and proud, honey!” is a verbal thrust towards personal freedom, even if not always efficacious. For an isolated gay male audience the statement may have no direct bearing on women. The rub is that women perceive the statement as derogatory. What is bonding and self-assertive in a gay male context is a painful put-down when transported. The choice of whether to use such cross-gender references is a conflict for gay males who want to increase bonds with other gay males already using the cross-gender standard and who also want to increase bonds with lesbians and other women who suffer oppression from the same hetero males. One can hardly resolve the difficulty by speaking one language with one group and another language with the other, particularly when a goal is to bring the two groups closer together. Lesbians report similar conflicts over whether to refuse cooperation with the users and remain ardent separatists or silently to endure continued humiliation.

These conflicts are rich with Irony. For example, there is often more serious sexism in the behavior of gay males who eschew cross-gender language than in the behavior of the gay males who use it. Strict avoidance of cross-gender references often correlates with a clear resentment the non-user has of women, whom he likely sees as a symbol of his only measure of weakness in the masculine culture which he prizes{emru}namely, he has not subdued a woman and begotten a family. By contrast, many of the users of cross-gender language identify themselves as allies of women and are often supportive of measures to end sexism in our society. Privatety they often give much reverence to female figures of strong will, such as Judy Garland, Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Shirley McClain, et at.

Distinctive Blends of Items from Both Registers

Julia Stanley has frequently observed that gays now are working to forge new gay standard (see, e.g., her When We say ‘Out of the closets’.” These efforts yield what I have identified as the third specialized direction for gay usage to take, viz., distinctive blends from both male and female registers. Already such blends are appearing unawares in the public media, as in much that is called the New Yorker style and in much that informs the chatter style of talk shows. Hopefully these blends will minimize sexism with all of the attendent abuses and maximize individual freedom in shared community. Hopefully too it will be less and, less a code language sneaking through because not easily codified and dismissable, and more and more a language of directness and gentle candor.

I personally am particularly concerned that such blends not cancel altogether the cross-gender registers of gay males, as there is increasing pressure from feminists and many gay males to require. Witness the plea of Richard Wood, a Dominican Priest at Loyola, from whom one would perhaps not expect a feminist analysis:

A final talk-trap associated with camp is the use (mainly if not exclusively by males) of cross-gender reference. While it may be superficially just “campy” to refer, for instance, to a man as she,” such inversion are indicative of deeper attitudes, specifically a sexist bias. For feminine pronouns and nicknames are used basically as camp{emru}for comic effect, mild irony and sometimes vicious verbal abuse. But never in anything but a condescending manner. Authentic liberation in the gay world demands the eradication of such degrading panonization of both women and men. (Anoher Kind of Love, Chicago, Thomas More Press, 1977. p. 131)

Fr. Wood’s analysis is simply inaccurate and incomplete. From my own files I can find hundreds of letters from all over the English-speaking world employing cross-gender, references without condescension, comic effect, mild irony, or verbal abuse.

The most poignant of many cases that counter Fr. Woods claims occurred last Thanksgiving at the National Council of Teachers of English when I was the guest of a gay Episcopal priest in Chicago. My host took me when he was summoned to a rescue mission to counsel a very depressed gay wino who was threatening suicide. He had twice before been hauled out of the Chicago river in below freeing weather. On this occasion he was in grief over the recent death of his lover of ten years, another wino wo was a gay American Indian. The two of us arrived dressed in stark contrast to this needy man. There was a long pause on his part and ours, a clear question whether there could be any communication across the obvious boundaries. Then he blinked his eyes at us in Scarlet O’Hara fashion, though from a toothless face, and said coquettishly and tentatively: “Its a tough world for a girl these days.” Without hesitation and with full certainty whereof he spoke, my priest friend replied, “Wre two girls here who know you’re telling the truth!”

Much need of cross-gender identified gay persons will simply not be met if gay people are intimidated out of using a language, however stigmatized, that has a long history of support. No thoughtful feminist would suggest that this needy person was really attacking females and needed to be told first to watch his language.

Much too much prescription about language occurs at too remote a distance from the persons who use language. The OED is filled with reports of words that in origin are opprobrious, but have undergone amelioration. An important fact about human life is that symbols belong to people, not people to symbols; hence our symbols don’t remain fixed, and our language changes. Analysis would be much easier for linguists if cross-gender usage were less complex, but complexity is less fearful than linguistically blind moral purges. For my part, I would rather weigh each use of language on its own merit for real sexism rather than try to purify my mind by cutting out my tongue. For a certainty the minority of gays who use cross-gender references are not going to quit doing so under any kind of prescriptive linguistic force from outside their felt needs, and they are right to suspect the motives of the majority of the more respectability conscious” gay males who would like to minimize identification with them.

There is a clear danger in merely celebrating ourselves in the roles of our oppression rather than tackling the harder task of creating new ways of being. There is a parallel danger in giving up our present way of being completely before we have self-defined alternatives free from the imposition of aliens. Right now it seems that only women and gays are concerned to effect change of any kind. I suspect that until the powerful heteromales enter the dialogue, we will remain voices of the powerless in our several ghettos.

The Homosexual’s Language


One of the main intents of the ethnographic approach to the study of groups, whether cliques or cultures, is to see why that group carves up the world as it does and to analyze the mechanisms used to do so. These mechanisms may he psychological and individual, they may be social and particular to a small part of a larger group, or they may he cultural, typical at some level of all (or as far as we can see, most) members of that group.

In this paper, we interested in the special language or slang of a sexually deviant group and the ways in which it is connected to a homosexual’s view of the world and himself and is influential in his relations with his own group There has been a shift from the many earlier studies of slang which were largely philological in nature to the more recent research which takes slang words and usage to be in various ways indicative of the sociocultural qualities of the group that uses them. We are interested in characterizing language as a message system which is enacted through interpersonal relations; as such, it carries a sociocultural value content which may be analyzed to give indications of meaning” in a wider sense than mere definition. The ethnographic approach used here attempts to outline the ways in which a special language provides a cultural base for the definition and evaluation of sociosexual roles and their performance. To this end, this paper presents some data on a specific slang vocabulary and its characteristics of formation and use in a specific social context.

The vocabulary represents the slang of a homosexual community in a city of the Southwestern United States. The subject community was considered by its members to be stratified roughly into two parts on the basis of relative prestige; the lower status group served as the focus unit and displayed more frequent use of the slang. Some of the social characteristics of this group have been reported on previously (Sonenschein, 1968). During a one and one-half year period of field work (1961{-}1963), the terms were gathered both by asking informants to define and explain the various words and by observation and recording of their usage and meaning in actual interaction events.

The Social Context

Continuing to consider slang as a special language, we can say that the homosexual is in a sense ”bilingual” in that he has the choice of using “Everyday English” or the slang in appropriately defined situations. The definition depends upon whether the individual concerned are homosexual or not and whether the environment is homosexual or not. The vocabulary presented here was used almost entirely in the context of the homosexual group. As members moved in and out of the subculture, their language changed accordingly; most words were not used outside” (especially those in the unique” category; see below). The meaning of the shared” terms became socially reapplied to carry the heterosexual connotations when homosexuals were in this company.

The special language of the homosexual is the language of his special world: its roles, values, and activities. All of this has been implied in other studies of slang but we shall develop this further here. Contrary to views that see slang as a mechanism of “secrecy” or mere linguistic play” (Jesperson, 1946: 137), we see slang as a form of verbal communication and identification between individuals and thus amenable to sociocultural analysis. Therefore, the emphasis to be placed on slang is not that it is indirect and isolative but rather that it is cohesive, consistent, and above all, communicative. It is one of the direct and fundamental mechanisms of special group relations and control.

Processes of Verbal Distinction

Slang is thus the language of specific social contexts and specific types of interpersonal relationships. It is to be noted that slang is also more of a spoken rather than written language and thus has the added dimension of face-to-face verbal interaction which is important to the sociocultural perspective taken here. On this verbal level, we may describe a number of processes that center about the unit of the word itself which help characterize (but not completely define) some of the homosexuals language.

1. Effernnization. Effeminization is often considered to be the outstanding mark of the homosexual; effeminate lisping speech is thought to be naturally expressive of the ultimate nature of homosexuality: women trapped in men’s bodies. The verbal effeminizing process may in fact be a consciously learned form of behavior. Aside from the fact that speech patterns of one sex are resistant to transfer to the other because of the force of gender role definitions (Weinreich, 1953), effeminate behavior in homosexuals is, generally speaking, sporadic, situational, and satirical rather than the result of a consistently maintained self-concept (Simon and Gagnon, 1967; Sonenschein, 1968).

When effeminacy is enacted however, the attempt to emulate female speech patterns may involve the following specific areas: (a) In general, there is an attempt to imitate the verbal sound of female conversation; this involves primarily the copying of inflectional and stress patterns and rarely the stereotyped lisp. This sound pattern may then underline the uses of the words. (b) There may be frequent use of what are popularly seen as feminine adjectives. Words like “darling and “lovely and phrases like “terribly sweet are used to describe people and things of interest. (c) The use of feminine familiars such as “honey and “darling as well as the pronouns “she and “her are used both as terms of address and reference to males. (d) With considerably less frequency, general nouns and other words are feminized with the result of sounding much like baby-talk. Cigarrette” becomes ciggy-boo and “beer becomes “beersy. (e) Related to point (c) above, is the effeminization of masculine names. “Harry becomes “Harriette and “David becomes “Daisey. The designation or acquisition of a role may thus become strongly based in verbal behavior and interaction.

The following processes refer more to the slang words themselves an the way in which they become part of the homosexuals language.

2. Utilization. In this Category, there is a simple and straightforward borrowing of both form and meaning of slang terms as used in other groups. In the subject community, almost all of these were terms that referred to sexual activity and the few that were related to behavior or roles (e.g., “queer, “fairy?) were rarely used.

3. Redirection. Here the form remains but the meaning changes from a heterosexual referent to a homosexual one. An example of a redirected role term is “bitch, meaning a male homosexual with certain unpopular characteristics and style though not necessarily effeminate.

4. Invention. Words are taken and given a new and unique meaning, the use of which in a slang sense is not to be found outside the homosexual circle. These are the most salient words of a slang vocabulary because of their esoteric nature. In the subject community, most were role terms, an example being the word “nelly to mean effeminate.

The Vocabulary

The language of homosexuality is basically the language of social and sexua1 relationships rather than of the sexual act itself. The deviancy of homosexual sexual orientation has been so salient in the past that previous research has ignored two main and very real factors of homosexual life: (1) its social complexity and (2) its relatively unexotic (even unerotic) nature as a total life-style (Simon and Gagnon, 1967). The homosexual’s social relationships and their mechanisms have particularly suffered from this neglect (Sonenschein, 1966, 1968; Simon and Gagnon, 1967). To illustrate this: when, in the subject group, homosexuals talked about sex it was for the most part in the context of who had sex with whom and why that particular relationship might or might not have taken place; it was in other words, talk about sexual partners rather than sexual outlets.

Clearly then, we must take a broader view of sexual behavior. We shall want to look at sex as being more than a mere coupling and friction of genitals and orifices; it is in many important ways what William Simon and John Gagnon call “socially scripted behavior (Gagnon and Simon, 1967). Sex is in fact, a specific form of inter-personal interaction, the meaning of which is defined by the culture or values of particular groups as well as the personal histories and experiences of their members. The eroticism of sex, including homosexual sex, derives in large measure from, the definitional and conceptual components of the subcultural values of such things as attractiveness, availability, and the definition of what constitutes, adequate and exciting sociosexual behavior. Obviously, many of these definitions are carried through the use of language.

Such coceptions were behind the gathering of the vocabulary. By making a gross distinction between terms that reflected a purely sexual versus behavioral interest, it was felt that quantitative support would be given to the qualitative analysis outlined above. The criteria for dividing the descriptive corpus were simple: sex terms” were those that referred to a purely sexual activity, sex organs, and so on (e.g., cock” or brown” [anal intercourse]). Role terms’’ were those that referred to aspects, forms, and patterns of behavior and orientations (e.g., “nelly” or “quean”. As seen in column two of Table 1, what were designated as role terms” emerged much more predominantly in the subject community than those purely sexual items.

An examination of the literature, both popular and professional, revealed a number of other glossaries of homosexual slang. Some were subjected to the analysis used above and are offered for comparison in Table 1, but only in a very rough and approximate way for several reasons. Firstly, those who present such glossaries may attempt to cover all homosexual slang; they make no claims to draw from a specific socially defined group of homosexuals. Secondly, they rarely allow for or indicate variance in meaning and definition, socially or geographically. Thirdly, some items may be omitted, especially those words that may have overlapping usage with heterosexuals. Obviously, there is a need for more exactly defined comparative research to provide similar vocabularies. Even so, in our analysis here, the disunction between role and sex terms was upheld in a relatively even way as seen in Table 1.

For further analysis, overall comparison was sought with the heterosexual meanings of the shared terms in the same city. One-half of the total homosexual vocabulary was shared either wholly (“same usage;” e.g , “dike” for lesbian) or in part (“redirected usage;” e.g., “wife” for a partner in an affair). As can be seen in Table 2, both of these kinds of words were predominantly sexual in reference; sex terms amounted to 31% while role terms comprised 19% of the total corpus.


Comparison of General Vocabularies with Subject Cominunity

Content                 Legman Subject   Cory       Strait      Guild

                                (1941)     community           (1963)     (1964)     (1965)

Sex terms               39%         36%         40%         23%         35%

Role terms            61%         64%         60%         77%         65%

(N=+                       (316)       (74)         (89)         (127)       (467


Relation of Homosexual Terms to Heterosexual Usage in Subject community

Content                 Same      Redirected             Unique

Sex Terms              23%         {ensp}8%                {ensp}5%

Role Terms           {ensp}7%                12%         45%

This separation is supported by observational and other ethnographic data from the subject group on two main points. Firstly, the predominant sharing of sexual terms is supported by the homosexual philosophy of sex is sex” no matter with whom. There is, in other words, from the homosexuals view, a common bond of sexuality plus the supposed “latency in “everybody that binds all men together, and the homosexual points out that his orientation is but one of several possible. Secondly however, the minority of the shared role terms reflected the behavioral and value distance (deviance) that did in fact separate the group from the heterosexual society. It is of note that of those terms holding the exact same meaning for heterosexuals in the role category, all in the subject group were derogatory and of relatively infrequent usage; words such as “queer and “fairy were used with no small amount of hostility in situations of conflict. By the use of role terms in certain situations, the boundaries of behavior as based on subcultural values and meanings were clearly and quickly outlined for those in the interaction situations.

Table 2 also indicates the distribution of the “unique terms in the subject group. These were words that were used only in the context of the homosexual group and ones whose meanings were not known outside. Most important to note is the fact that they were all role terms. Many consisted of the various words for queans.” In this case a quean” was only superficially meant as a term for an effeminate homosexual. Being a quean” or a certain kind of quean” (e.g., :drag quean” as one who frequently wears womens clothing) is, as one informant put it, “being queer for something. Certain tastes, orientations, and values within the subculture are thus highlighted by the word and evaluated by the intonation and context of usage.

To further highlight the trends that reflect group influence, on words, the terms in each column of Table 2 were percentaged. The results recorded in Table 3 show that while the terms shared completely with heterosexuals were sexual in nature, the “unique language of homosexuality was a language of roles and relationships. The homosexual roles and orientations were unique and terms were needed to conceptualize them. The language of homosexuality then contains the vocabulary of its interests and behaviors. The less sharing of roles and concepts with the heterosexual community may be closely related to the smaller number of shared terms. In a more general way, it can be suggested that the more behaviorally isolated a homosexual group is from the hetemosexual population, the higher will be the incidnce of uniquely devised role terms.


Internal Shifts of Homosexual Terms in Relations to Heterosexual Usage

Content                 Same      Redirected             Unique

Sex Terms              71%         43%         11%

Role Terms           29%         37%         89%

It can be expected that in larger cities that have more differentiated homosexual subsocieties, the total area vocabulary will be correspondingly larger to cover the wider range of roles and activities. Members of each homosexual subtype will cluster together and have a slang vocabulary specialized in terms relating to the interests of that particular group. In addition, any one individual may have various degrees of knowledge of the terms and usages of groups other than his own.

Speech of Groups within the Subject Community

In addition to the data drawn from the lower status group of the subject community, some data were gathered by interview and observation from the other divisions of the homosexual population in the city. These may be summarized here as follows.

Upper status homosexuals. This group of males comprised the other half of the subject community but they were very isolative and discrete, hence assemblages were carefully arranged to include only a well-defined membership (usually on the basis of sexual participation). Most members were in the higher socioeconomic levels of the city and were more integrated with the heterosexual world.

The use of slang was limited in both quantity and quality. Slang was regarded as rather unsophisticated in the first place but when it was used, it was employed only in exclusively homosexual settings. The active vocabulary was smaller than that of the lower status group although all terms seemed to be known. On the other hand, the higher usage of slang in the lower status group was accompanied by several contrasting characteristics including an openness of homosexuality and more effeminacy, younger members, and a general recency of having entered the homosexual subcultural life.

Marginal homosexuals. Male homosexuals who had little or no group contact or identification, including male prostitutes, (Reiss, 1961) were referred to as “marginal. These people seemed to know most of the vocabulary but active usage was rare and minimal and only in instances of group participation.

Female homosexuals. Lesbians shared only infrequently in male group activities; the homosexual subculture is in fact a male subculture. The females seemed to have little group structure beyond small cliques of their own; there were no lesbian bars in the city. They shared a number of the more common terms (such as “gay and “butch [masculine]) but the word “fluff (a very feminine lesbian) was their only unique term found in use. It was also used by the males.


The use of slang to sensitize one to social structures and cultures is not entirely new. Goffman (1959) uses slang words to name types of roles in interaction situations where they may help summarize for the participants the qualities of those roles. Orrin Klapp (1962) takes slang terms for personality types and suryeys the extent of their commonly recognized characteristics. In much the same way, in the subject homosexual group, role terms became summaries of constellations of sociosexual, behavioral, and attitudinal characteristics, the evaluation of which was a function of the various subgroups (e.g., cliques) and situations (e.g., private versus public behaviors). The flux or turnover of members in the subject community was fairly rapid and adequate guides underlined by some relatively consistent value system were, therefore, needed to quickly characterize the people one met.

Most of the terms used were terms not of address but of reference.

On the other hand, while one may talk about others, he may also talk about himself. It becomes evident that this kind of discourse of roles is also just as importantly a placement of the self in the immediate interaction as well as in the larger social and value systems. The use of role terms allows the allocation of behaviors along the more salient dimensions of interests, such as focal points of sexual likes and dislikes and continua of masculinity and femininity. These categories indicate not only the parameters of social interaction but also social and self-evaluation where individuals may evaluate the bounds of propriety in behaviors through a contrast with their own personal style.

Because the homosexual, like anyone else, must operate within a framework of interpersonal relations to attain some measure of physical and emotional satisfaction, the language he uses reflects a codification of status-role expectations. Enculturation into a community entails the learning of the language and the normative behavior at the same time; one is embodied in the other. The new member is thus shown his behavioral alternatives, or the place in which his present activities put him, and learns to attach to these activities the relative prestige values that come with the terms or phrases. It seems that the degree of universality of homosexual behaviors in the United States can be connected to a basic universality of language meaning and communication (cf. Hertzler’s process of social uniformation;” 1966). Through this linguistic identification, the slang terms do in a very real and important sense reinforce group cohesiveness and reflect the common interests, problems, and needs of the population. When homosexuals travel to a new city, the recognition of the language is usually one of the first modes of social and sexual access{emru}not to mention the personal comfort felt in finding others much like oneself.

Many homosexuals spend some amount of time in a highly yet implicitly structured and codified subculture and thus a minimum level of adherence to common behavioral patterns is expected of all who function within the grpup. The quest for sex and love is an important concern of the homosexual and certainly one of the bases of the structure of the group. Other factors, however, are also important in the maintenance of the homosexual group and the homosexuals life in and out of the subculture. The heart of the cultural system is the value system. Just as “social judgments {.} reach us in the form of words” (Bram, 1955), homosexual slang role terms evaluate as well as designate behaviors. Social judgments then refer not only to the rightness or wrongness of certain acts but to whole patterns of behaviors. Schwartz and Merten (1967) use the phrase status terminology” to point up the fact that the prestige value of these patterns is sharply noted in the language of the group. The placement of the self discussed above then becomes a working-out of a self-concept based on the evaluation of immediate events and situations{emru}evaluations made both by individuals and groups which are communicated through the language. The mediation of values between the slang terms and the application of them by and to individuals in a given social system is a direct reflection of the kind and extent of social support a group gives to the behavior of its members. The congruency of the communication net and the “community of discourse, one which reflects common experiences, allows a homosexual individual to move through his worlds with as little psychological and social friction as possible. Thus the language of a special nature is one of the primary ways in which a group can help pattern and give meaning to the experiences of its members.




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