In the last article in this series, the idea that LGBTQ+ rights have had a long and tumultuous history was explored. However, even during times of heavy oppression, the LGBTQ+ community found ways to ensure their safety while still communicating with others in the community with subtle, often nonverbal cues clues. In particular, these cues have been seen in secret codes and clothing styles which, over time, formed the basis of modern gay culture.
Did you know that gay people have created their own language? Polari is a series of slang terms that was made for the LGBTQ+ community in primarily England that allowed them to communicate in secret without fearing oppression. One Polari phrase that has become a staple of LGBTQ+ culture today, is the term ‘drag’. Well several Polari terms have gone out of style, it is a part of our culture that will never be forgotten.
Another part of queer secret code, comes from the beautiful allyship between Judy Garland and the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout history there has always been a strong bond between witty feminists and members of the queer community, both opressed by the catholic church and the patriarchy. Many charismatic, strong, female celebrities over time, like Dolly Parton, have put their allyship on display for all to see. In bars, before the time of stonewall, members of the LGBTQ+ community would find each other and allies through the phrase “are you a friend of Dorothy?” This reference to Judy Garland’s character Dorothy brought many people together in a time when it was needed most. To this day, RuPaul’s Drag Race honors this special bond with a challenge meant as an homage to the phrase. During this challenge many Drag Queens talk about the allies who have made a difference in their life, and address the importance of straight allies.
One of these secret codes dates all the way back to ancient China. Sleeve cutting during the time of the Yuan dynasty in ancient china . In Ancient China it was normal for wealthy men to keep male concubines to show their wealth and status. As the story goes a wealthy lord and his male concubine were sleeping peacefully in their garden. The lord woke up and didn’t want to wake his lover, who was sleeping on his sleeve, so instead he cut his sleeve to move without waking his lover. Not only is this a beautiful story of pure queer love, but it has formed the way that the LGBTQ+ community operates in China. The term sleeve-cutter is still a euphemism for gay lovers in the 21st century, more than 700 years later.
Progressing forward, many of these clothing statements resurfaced in the 1900s with a resurgence in a lot of anti-gay rhetoric. In the 80s, handkerchiefs were used by members of the queer community to show other members that they were availible. A handkerchief in the left back pocket meant that they were more dominant in a relationship (the ‘male’ of a relationship) and a handkerchief in the right side signaled that they were more submissive in a relationship (the ‘female’ of a relationship). The handkerchiefs were also color coded to signify specific relationship preferences. Codes like these continue today with many bisexual teens rolling up their pants, or with simply incorporating the rainbow into everyday clothing.