Flying Under the Gaydar
If you’re straight and have gay friends, or you’ve watched any gay mainstream television in the past decade, such as Will & Grace or The L Word, you’ve probably picked up on a few of these phrases. Even so, you’re bound to learn a little something in this glimpse at some of the hottest gay buzz words—a mini-lesson that gives a whole new meaning to the word bi-lingual.
Just as two children sometimes make their BFF bond feel unique by speaking in code to keep parents or other peers in the dark, beginning in the mid 20th century, the gay culture launched a lingo all its own. Although our colorful jargon is all in fun today, the roots of Gayspeak were forged in a crucible of serious issues. At a time when homosexuality was considered a criminal act, gays still wanted to find others like themselves, but were threatened by the possibility of blackmail, or imprisonment—or even getting the crap beaten out of them—if their sexuality were to be revealed.
So how was a horny or love-starved queer supposed to hunt for a same-sex friend without mentioning “the love that dare not speak its name”? Create code words, of course. Using unique terms and phrases that only another queer would understand became a way of sending out ‘feelers’. Say the right phrase, get the right reaction, and you knew you had found a buddy (or better yet, a bend over buddy!). A clueless reaction, on the other hand, equated to a flat response on your gaydar. (In fact, “gaydar” is a term created by gay culture that combines the words gay and radar to mean a person’s ability to innately detect whether or not another person is gay just by being in close proximity to him or her).
Now that most heterosexuals are no longer afraid to be in the same room as a gay person, having a secret code is no longer a priority. Like society at large—which is responsible for such timely terms as bromance, hot mess, my boo, MILF, tween, beeotch, and cougar (words I learned from watching way too much reality TV)—these days, gay vernacular is more a byproduct of circumstance than need. While some gay terminology crosses over to the mainstream, there are other terms with which you may not be familiar, including some that are almost universal—words gays use to describe each other or categorize people, buzz words that have become staples of pop culture; and of course a handful of always entertaining euphemisms for sex acts and fetishes.
Early catchphrases that were common coin when gays spoke in code still tend to get thrown around here and there, mostly by old queens (a.k.a.: gay senior citizens). A classic example is ‘a friend of Dorothy,’ which is simply a way of identifying a man in question as gay, because gay men love Judy Garland, and Garland played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Get it?
In 1969, at a New York City gay bar called Stonewall Inn, that deep love led a group of drag queens and gays, grieving over Garland’s death, to rebel when their bar was raided by police—marking the beginning of the gay liberation movement. Eventually, the movement’s strength would lead gays to co-opt terms originally created as hate speech (just as Africa-Americans have reclaimed the infamous ‘N’ word). For gays, ‘faggot’ is one of those words. Dating back to the 1400s, ‘faggots’ were the kindling used to burn heretics, homosexuals and others at the stake. It may also be an extension of the word ‘fag,’ a term applied to younger boys forced to do degrading tasks for upperclassmen in British boys’ schools. In the same way, lesbians have embraced the word ‘dyke’ as empowering. It is derived from the 19th century word ‘dike’, a term for male clothing.
Even the original ‘happy’ definition of ‘gay’ has morphed. In the 17th century, gay referred to men who were reputed playboys, a century later, it defined a promiscuous woman, and yet another century later in the 1900s, it became a synonym for a homosexual. One can actually surmise how the word may have evolved. Playboys are definitely happy (a.k.a.: gay), since they are single and hooking up with as many women as they want. Apply that concept to a woman, and society’s going to assume that means she sleeps with a lot of people, just like a playboy. Take that one step further, combining the two previous meanings, and presumptions about gay men being bachelors and promiscuous lead you to the final, most common definition. However, it is hunky Hollywood heartthrob Cary Grant who has often been credited as bringing the word into common usage—and in reference to homosexuality for the first time in movie history. In a scene in the 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn steals his character’s clothes, so he is forced to don a frilly pink dress. When asked by another character why he’s dressed that way, he smartly replies, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”
Speaking of movies, so much of gay terminology isn’t even sacred to our culture anymore, in part due to popular film. During the ‘Gay ’90s’, at the end of the last millennium, television and cinema mainstreamed much of our dialect. Most people are familiar with the term ‘drag queen,’ and perhaps a little less familiar with but able to deduce the meaning of ‘drag king’ (a woman who dresses like a man, commonly going all-out with mustache or beard). Drag’s flamboyant theatrics are often linked to camp, an over-the-top, politically incorrect and hilarious approach to art and life. The term gained popularity when it was highlighted in an essay by Susan Sontag in The Parisian Review in 1964. No one delivers a campy one-liner like a queen, or effeminate gay man, a term that originates from the 16th century quean, a word used at the time to describe an unpleasant woman.
Drag queens, drag kings, and queens alike have to beware the homophobe, a label, which, sadly, some wear proudly. Used to describe anyone who has a fear or hatred of homosexuality, it is believed to have first been coined by psychologist Dr. George Weinberg in his 1972 book, Society and the Healthy Homosexual. Weinberg’s (a straight) work challenged the then-popular theory that homosexuality was a disease, causing an uproar in the community of American psychologists at the time. Today, the term has come so far as to be turned on its head, and some gays have even been accused of being heterophobes!
A Gay by Any Other Name
Heterophobe isn’t the only label used in the gay community. As if ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ weren’t label enough, we have fun creating even more succinct titles. For instance, a burly, masculine, mature, hairy gay man, often with a beard or mustache, is endearingly referred to as a bear. But wait, there’s more! A hairy African-American man is called a black bear. And a younger hairy man is considered a cub. If a young man has a lean, smooth, hairless body and a rather naïve personality, he’s a completely different animal. In fact, he’s not even an animal at all, he is a twink. Twinks often find themselves enamored by the mature presence of a daddy, a distinguished older gay man who frequently has the same physical traits as a bear, therefore creating the bear daddy. Regardless of the subspecies of bear, the concept first appeared in the 1970s, when gay men began to break effeminate homosexual stereotypes by taking on the clichéd personas of masculine heterosexual men—think the Brawny man on the wrapper of your paper towels.
Lesbians have also been treated to a variety of interesting euphemisms. There are the typical genital-centric names like carpet muncher and muff diver. Here’s a fun one: A lesbian who is what most might consider a serial monogamist because she is constantly in a relationship and quickly moves in with the person with whom she’s in love at the moment, is known as a U-haul. You know, because she’s constantly renting a U-haul to move? And what about those big, scary, manly looking lesbians that the Far Right keeps warning you about? Say hello to the bull dyke or diesel dyke. And what do we call a young and inexperienced lesbian? Why, a baby dyke, of course! While the term dyke usually connotes masculine behavior and traits, another way to more clearly distinguish between manly lesbians and the more ladylike lesbians is to refer to the tough crowd as ‘butch’ and the girlie girls as ‘femme.’
Feeling left out because you’re not gay? Don’t you worry your hetero head. In general, straight people are commonly called breeders, on account of them spawning little Damien Omen children. But we know not all straights are the devil’s parents! Our closest straight allies have names as well. Classically referred to as fag hags, beautiful women who adore and hang out with gay men seem to have taken some offense to the hag part of their label. As a result, an alternate name for such women is fruit fly, because gay men were referred to as fruits in the good old days of Mr. Roper on Three’s Company, and these women buzz around them like flies. Meanwhile, as the minds of straight men around the world continue opening, many are comfortably hanging around with gay men just as much as women. Any smart man knows that where there’s a gay man, there’s usually a gaggle of straight women, plus there’s an added boost to a straight man’s ego as he’s objectified much more by his gay friends than by less aggressive women. We have recently anointed you gay-loving straight hotties as fag stags.
Pop Goes Gay Speak
Just as gays have influenced fashion, music and dance for so long, our witty words have also crept into popular culture. In 1992’s Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone proved that not all lesbians were bull dykes, and before long, feminine lesbians were slapping on as much makeup as a drag queen and being identified as lipstick lesbians. Lesbianism was all the rage. Soon, K.D. Lang, Melissa Etheridge, Ellen DeGeneres, and a host of other famous lesbians were coming out, spawning the term dykon, the lesbian version of a gay icon.
Gay men have also made many contributions to popular culture. Going as far back as 1980, cruising, the act of hunting down a sex partner in seedy locations filled with other horny men, became the title of an Al Pacino movie about sex and murder in a gay bar. A man who cruises incessantly without ever sparking any interest from another man, and often getting on other men’s nerves, is known as a troll. Word sound familiar? Go on any website message board these days and you’ll find plenty of trolls—message-posting nuisances who seem to hang around and have nothing worth adding to a conversation. Thanks to African-American men who identify as being heterosexual, but participate in clandestine same-sex relationships, the term down low has also entered the everyday dialogue. It can simply mean having a sexual relationship behind your wife or girlfriend’s back, however, most people associate the term with gay—which is why it’s surprising that singer R. Kelly recorded a song called “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” several years ago (although, he’d be most likely to be referring to one of his 15-year-old wives).
One of the most visual phrases to join the ranks of favorite nasty words in modern usage is teabagging. The term gained popularity after it was mentioned (and demonstrated) in gay icon John Waters’ film, Pecker. While the mainstream flick showed a more R-rated demonstration in which a stripper drops his G-stringed balls on a bar patron’s forehead, the actual XXX-rated act involves a naked man dipping both of his testicles into the mouth of another man—just like you’d steep a teabag into a hot cup of water to bring out all the flavor.
Having put that image in your head, there’s no better time to get to the very best gay words of all—those involving sex. Whether it’s sexual acts or sexual fetishes, every possible scenario has pretty much been given a nickname.
A real visual comes to mind when we talk about scissors, which is the act of two lesbians spreading their legs and basically locking together at the crotches to stimulate one another. Similarly, although a lot less…uhm…wet, the act of dry humping involves rubbing your penis to orgasm against your partner’s body without actually penetrating—a fun and safe act that can be practiced by gay and straight couples alike.
Also originating in the gay community, but not exclusive to it, is the act of barebacking, or having sex without a condom. Barebacking became a reactionary practice in defiance of what some considered to be hammer-heavy societal pressure to engage in safe sex, and safe sex alone, once the AIDS epidemic began. Many men (gay and straight) argue that sex is more natural and feels better bare because using a condom decreases penile sensitivity. By using the term barebacking, the negative connotations of the term ‘safe sex’ (which suggests that everything else is unsafe sex) are removed. Yes, it’s basically a way to sugar coat a practice so risky that even people such as porn director extraordinaire Chi Chi LaRue have come out fighting to get the message across that barebacking is simply not a smart idea.
Another sex act that anyone can practice is tossing the salad. The phrase seems to have originated in prison situations between two men, but has become more widely used by both gays and straights to describe the act of sexually stimulating someone’s anus with the tongue. Even size queen, although originally connoting a gay man with an affinity for big penises due to the use of the word ‘queen’, has crossed over into mainstream jargon. And a great bisexual moniker is the classic term, switch hitter, which became popular thanks to an adult film of the same name in the 1970s.
Not all sexual terms can be borrowed by the straight community. Top and bottom refer to the positions of same sex lovers who can, in reality, do the same exact thing to each other (a.k.a.: penetrate), but instead, each has a preferred desire, whether it’s being the giver (top) or receiver (bottom). Another common word combo to define these roles is pitcher and catcher. Regardless of which words you choose, you’re usually referring to gay men. Same goes for the act of docking, which is the nigh-remarkable act of two men—one circumcised and one not, touching the heads of their penises together, and then sliding the foreskin of the uncut man all the way up and over the penis of the other man, usually as part of a mutual masturbation ritual. Sounds pretty raunchy, right? Well, we have a name for men who like to get dirty during sex—simply enough, we call them sex pigs. Sex pigs are willing to do things and go to places most people wouldn’t dream of (okay, most would dream of it, just never talk about it or dare to try it). Sex pigs are usually linked to the leather crowd, a subculture (in both the gay and straight communities) of people who fetishize leather/denim/motorcycle gear, or any combination of the three (three great tastes—and smells—that go great together). These people usually have alternative sexual interests, from rough sex to S&M. I’ll spare you technical details of those acts, because that would be way TMI.
And on that note, this excursion into gay slang must come to an end. But if your curiosity is piqued, and you want to become more fluent in gay speak, use the power tool everyone loves to dabble with now and then for satisfaction. And by that, I don’t mean the euphemism for power tool made popular by the title of a 1980s gay porn starring super-hung Jeff Stryker. I’m referring to another word that everyone is familiar with—Google.