Studying a Not-so-Secret “Secret Code”

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Language, Gender and Sexuality book series (PSLGS)


Martin Duberman and other social historians claim that the “series of riots” that took place at the Stonewall Inn (Manhattan’s West Village) in late June 1969 have become “the emblematic events in modern lesbian and gay history” (Duberman 2002). The emblematic status of those events has also created an emblematic narrative, under whose terms the Stonewall moment dispelled darkness, secrecy and silence and inspired liberation, visibility, public, political engagement. The emblematic narrative also equates language before Stonewall with secret codes, private messages, and in-group argot. This book argues that secrecy and concealment were a small part of the connections linking language and sexuality before Stonewall. And this book uses a Queer Historical Linguistics (QHL) rather than the assumptions of the emblematic narrative to examine what language and sexuality before Stonewall entailed. This chapter introduces the method and theory associated with QHL and demonstrates QHL’s usefulness for studies of language before Stonewall. QHL builds on the idea that queerness is a “mesh of possibilities” (Sedgwick in Tendencies, Duke University Press, Durham, 1993) and a messy formation (Manalansan in Radical History Review 120:94–106, 2014), and refers to practices and subject positions located “on the edges of logics of labor and production …” (Halberstam 2010). QHL depends on an assemblage of data (an archive) gathered through a scavenger methodology (Halberstam in Female Masculinity, Duke University Press, Durham, 1998), and analyzed through the work of close reading (Freeman in Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010; Levine in Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2015), and through the framework of homohistory (Menon in Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film, Palgrave, London, 2008). Unlike in historical studies where “meaning succeeds as replacing itself-as itself- through time” (Edelman in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Duke University Press, Durham, 2004), QHL refuses to “…take the object of queering for granted” (Goldberg and Menon in PMLA 120(5):1608–1617, 2005). Several examples conclude the chapter to illustrate what QHL-oriented inquiry entails.

1.1 Studying Language, Sexuality, History

Studies of language history and the studies exploring the histories of particular languages assume many forms in today’s linguistics research. Studies adding sexuality to those discussions, and then exploring (or theorizing) the connections between language and sexuality in history occur much less frequently, however. Notable exceptions include: Julia Penelope’s Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers’ Tongues (1990), Jeffrey Masten’s Queer Philologies: Sex, Language and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time (2016), Madhavi Menon’s Unhistorical Shakespeare (2008), and Paul Baker’s PolariThe Lost Language of Gay Men (2002). These works use linguistic data to recover a language-based sexual past, and then to trace developments from that past to more recent times. Studies like Horswell (2005), Blackwood (2010), Msibi (2013), and Rudwick (2005) consider how connections between language and sexuality may reorient under the disruptions of colonial rule and other sharply potent historical moments.

The analysis of language which guides these studies is not limited to descriptions of syntactic and phonological structures or semantic and pragmatic processes. “Linguistic” analysis here draws on interests in language developed in cultural studies, literary studies, language and culture studies, as well as in sociolinguistics, socio-pragmatics, and other multidisciplinary fields; the same is often true of historical inquiry, whatever the topic of concern.

This book recognizes the importance of multidisciplinary analyses of language and sexuality in history. But this book explores various moments of connection between language, sexuality, and history before the events at Stonewall In (Late June 1969), and this book proposes that a Queer Historical Linguistics serves as the framework for that exploration.

1.2 Stonewall, “… the Emblematic Event in Modern Lesbian and Gay History”

To begin by clarifying the focus for this discussion: Why assign such importance to the events at Stonewall in 1969, and to the impact of those events on connections between language and sexuality before?

On the evening of June 26, 1969, there was an altercation between police officers and patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a bar on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village. The Stonewall Inn was popular among straight-acting homosexual women and men, by butch men and queens, by dykes and femmes, and by people who might be called trans or gender-queer in today’s parlance. The altercation began in response to a familiar routine of police harassment: The police officers entered the bar looking for so-called suspicious activities. They checked some patrons’ i.d.’s, pushed some patrons into the street and arrested other patrons for “disturbing the peace”. When police officers tried to take the arrested bar patrons away for arraignment, others from the bar fought back in protest: Police harassment at gay bars had happened once too often, and enough was enough! A crowd of same-sex identified, trans and straight allies gathered outside the bar to lend support, as the bar patrons forced the police to retreat into the interior of the bar. While some in the crowd watched, others joined the bar patrons as they took over the street in front of the bar, disrupting traffic and voicing their anger through other means. That night’s activities finally calmed, but the next three nights saw more public demonstrations by queers and allies, and more confrontations with the police.

Stonewall was not the first instance that same-sex and trans subjects had taken public stands against homophobic harassment, discrimination, oppression, and violence. Trans and other homeless youth confronted management and the police at San Francisco’s (CA) Compton Street Café in 1965 on these very issues (Stryker 2008a: 63–66; b), and patrons of the Black Cat, a gay bar in Silver Lake (Los Angeles, CA), joined by members of PRIDE, a newly formed personal-rights advocacy group, used verbal and physical resistance to respond to a police raid on the bar in January 1967 (Faderman and Timmons 2006: 155–158). There had also been other moments of protest, like the picket lines calling for job security and other equal rights for homosexuals in front of the White House (Washington, D.C.) in the mid-1960s (Loughrey 1998: photo insert pg. 9) and protesting the US policy of excluding known homosexuals from active duty in the military (Loughrey 1998: 269).

These are urban examples: Examples of push back in various forms from beyond the metropolis are not so fully documented. Even so, what happened at the Stonewall Inn in late June 1969 has come to be been identified as

the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history. [That event] occupies a central place in the iconography of lesbian and gay awareness [because] it marks the birth of the modern-day gay and lesbian political movement. (Duberman 1993: xvii)

In José Muñoz’s phrasing, besides being “… of course the birth of the modern lesbian and gay movement”, … Stonewall represents “… the initial eruption that led to the formalizing and formatting of gay identities” (2009: 115, reordered). Author and social critic Edmund White, who witnessed the events at Stonewall at firsthand, suggests that language change was part of this emergent “lesbian gay movement” and the “initial eruption of … identities” that it inspired. He explains:

Before 1969 only a small (though courageous and articulate) number of gays had much pride in their homosexuality or a conviction that their predilections were legitimate. The rest of us defined our homosexuality in negative terms and those terms isolated us from one another. (1980: 236)

So when someone in the crowd tried to mobilize those around him by shouting out the phrase “gay power”, everyone laughed.

The notion that gays might become militant after the manner of blacks seemed amusing – first because we gay men were used to thinking of ourselves as too effeminate to protest anything and secondly because most of us did not consider ourselves to be a legitimate minority. (1980: 236)

According, as political and individual impacts of Stonewall begun to unfold, White saw those participating and observing the events

… cast[ing] about for political and linguistic models. Black power, feminism, resistance to the War in Viet Nam and the New Left were all available, and each contributed to the emerging gay style and vocabulary…. (1980: 236)

With that “emerging gay style and vocabulary”, new forms of lesbian/gay related public presence and public assertiveness—gay liberation—began to “spring up across the country”, all of which quickly “transformed attitudes among homosexuals and modified the ways in which they speak” (White 1980: 235, emphasis WL).

Like White, Journalist Steve Thrasher (2012) traces these modifications of language specifically to the changes in visibility—being out of the closet—which the Stonewall moment inspired.

Were it not for a poor, chaotic band who bravely defended the Frist Amendment at Stonewall 43 years ago next week … there would have been no gay rights movement as we know it. The whole premise of being out has been predicated on free expression of once-taboo matters. (Thrasher 2012, emphasis WL)

Gay historian and political activist Eric Marcus agrees:

Before Stonewall, there was no such thing as coming out or being out. The very idea of out, it was ludicrous. People talk about being in and out now, there was no out, there was just in. (Marcus 2009)

Linguist Rusty Barrett argues that there was a sense of coming out preceding the Stonewall moment (2017: 7) and that it was similar to the self-declarations that orient coming out practices in the post-Stonewall era. Barrett’s evidence for this assertion of continuity is the entry for come out in Gershon Legman’s (1941) glossary of homosexual slang, published almost thirty years before Stonewall. But a close reading of that entry shows Legman describing a process whereby the subject “…become[s] more and more exclusively homosexual with experience” (1941: 1161), not a process of increasingly flamboyant declarations to the outside world, as Barrett’s argument assumes. In fact, Legman’s glossary entry noted the overlap between come out and (being) brought out, acknowledging the mentoring that more experienced subjects often gave to those just becoming familiar with the social terrain of sexual transgression. Mentoring continued after Stonewall, but it has been increasingly enhanced (and possibly upstaged) by circulations of information by peers and through electronic and other media. But the point remains, coming out after Stonewall involves forms of self-declarations made outside of the homosexual terrain, rather declarations made to other homosexuals (or by them) as subjects gained greater familiarity within homosexual settings.

1.2.1 “The Right Way to Tell the [Stonewall] Story”...

So how prominent was the Stonewall moment in US lesbian and gay history? Duberman, Muñoz, White, Thrasher, and Marcus treat the Stonewall moment as the point where new practices and new forms of social and personal awareness entered the history of modern sexuality—with new relationships between language and sexuality and new connections between language, sexuality, and history figuring prominently in the entering materials.

But to say (with Duberman) that Stonewall was the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history implies that the Stonewall moment was more than a marker or place-holder within lesbian/gay centered a historical narrative. Emblematic suggests that the events at Stonewall anchor narratives about sexuality and history in at least two ways. First, other events claim place within that narrative in terms of their occurrence either before vs. after Stonewall. Second, the narrative displays events before as a prelude for what happened at Stonewall and displays events afterward as consequence of the Stonewall moment and its (other) outcomes. Following Scott (1991: 775–780), Stonewall’s emblematic status prompts “the right way to tell the [Stonewall] story”, that is, any narrative about the events at Stonewall most affirm Stonewall’s emblematic status in history, whatever else that narrative displays.

The before/after contrast is especially important for discussions of language before Stonewall, as well. As White, Thrasher, and Marcus suggest, once a narrative places Stonewall in the pivotal moment in the narrative, the narrative describes conditions before Stonewall in terms of secrecy, concealment, and taboo and then describes conditions afterward in terms of openly explicit and expressive forms of message display. That is, Stonewall is an emblematic event in lesbian/gay history because of the changes that Stonewall inspired in linguistic practice as well as sexual visibility.

Gay journalist and political activist Mark Segal addressed this point in his description of the significance of the Stonewall moment.

Stonewall represented, absolutely, the first time that the LGBT community successfully fought back and forged an organized movement and community. All of us at Stonewall had one thing in common: the oppression of growing up in a world which demanded our silence about who we were and insisted that we simply accept the punishment that society levied for our choices. That silence ended with Stonewall ….. (cited in Baumann 2019: 125)

Similar to White (1980), Segal associated life before Stonewall with silence and with uncontested oppression. Those conditions “absolutely” ended with the Stonewall moment: LGBT subjects fought back, their actions created organized movement and community, forms of visibility that displaced the less centralized expressions of secrecy and concealment found before.

The current (2019) managers of the Stonewall Inn used the same before/after binary when announcing (Late December 2018) that pop icon Madonna had agreed to promote the bar’s plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall moment in June 2019. Besides naming Madonna as the bar’s “Stonewall Ambassador”, the announcement specified that the anniversary celebration “… mark[ed] the riots that kicked off the modern LGBTQ rights movement” (cited in Towle 2018).

In this advertising as in Segal’s statement, Stonewall marked the moment when a coherent (modern) message about sexuality and politics emerged out of a riot, disorganized, unfocused expressions related to sexuality that were in circulation when the emblematic moment began.1 But here, perhaps more explicitly than in other remarks reviewed in this section, these comments show that before and after were no longer just a binary pairing. Instead, they indexed distant points on a single, linear historical sequence moving to, through, and beyond Duberman’s “emblematic moment in modern LGBT history”. That sequence, and the goal-oriented movement that it commands, now outlines very clearly what “the right way to tell the Stonewall story” should entail. Now, descriptions of conditions before Stonewall anticipate or prelude the changes in linguistic, sexual, and social practice that would eventually occur in the Stonewall moment, just as descriptions of conditions after Stonewall display forms of linguistic, sexual, and social practice that depart noticeably from the non-modernist practices associated with before. In this way, each time the narrative describes movement along the goal-oriented sequence linking before and after, the narrative reconfirms the emblematic status of the Stonewall moment and increases the authority of the linear-based Stonewall-centered narrative.

Attention to language before Stonewall, when examined in terms of a before-to-after linear chronology, enhances the emblematic status of the Stonewall moment.

1.2.2 …Has Ideological Power

“The right way to tell the Stonewall story” has circulated widely in US academic popular culture, especially so during the months surrounding the Stonewall’s fiftieth anniversary. Repeatedly, Stonewall emerges as the single triumphant moment in the USA and often global lesbian/gay history, with no attention paid to any other event that might have been connected to that triumph: Here, as in all such ideologically sanctioned narratives, the political appropriate “meaning” simply “… succeeds as revealing itself as itself over time”, as Edelman observes (2004: 4).

Bravmann (1997), Bronski (2009), Stryker (2008a) and many others have been critical of this presentation of the Stonewall story. Some argue that the narrative ignores political struggles around gender transgression and sexual sameness that preceded the Stonewall moment and thereby celebrates the pervasiveness of the closet. Others argue that the narrative ignores the contributions of persons of color to Stonewall story, thereby ensuring that Stonewall itself was an experience of whiteness.

Such criticism has not damaged the privileged status that the Stonewall story retains in print media, television and cinema, on-line information resources, and popular discourse, or in the commentary that LGBTQ people in the USA share with each other and with outsiders when reflecting on their history. In fact, repeated circulations of this story have increased its authority, even with its shortcomings. This may be because the Stonewall story has long emphasized white participation (only recently has the presence of persons of color been acknowledge in this story-telling) and spontaneity (e.g., Stonewall was a riot, not an organized rebellion). By doing so, the Stonewall story places the Stonewall moment within the political domain that Duggan and others term homonormativity, that is,

… a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption. (Duggan 2003: 50)

Indeed, while the years after Stonewall were filled with lesbian/gay groups pressing demands for economic and social justice, those demands gradually became upstaged by more limited perspectives on inequality and difference. Meanwhile, Stonewall celebrations have become commercially sponsored events that conform closely to the demands of local regulations. The disruptiveness of the Stonewall moment resurfaced in the deliberate disruptions of business-as-usual by ACT UP and QUEER NATION during the first years of the AIDS pandemic, but those disruptions, too, remain a haunting memory. The size of the demonstration—the estimates of the numbers of people who attend—is now the criterion that measures the effectiveness of a Stonewall-related project, not the extent of its political disturbance. And using estimates of size as proof of potency, is a very heteronormative (and very presidential) practice.

Far from being a historical report, “the right way to tell the Stonewall story” has become deeply embedded in “… an obviousness which [listeners] cannot fail to recognize” which then invites listeners to recognize and endorse the narrative’s authority, with responses like “that’s obvious, that’s right, that’s true” (Althusser 1971: 172). Althusser refers to these stances of obviousness as ideology. And as he explains, when listeners respond to ideology’s invitations, listeners have been “hailed” (Althusser’s term, 1971: 174): That is, they are transformed into enthusiastic supporters of the Stonewall narrative who are now willing to discuss LGBTQ history in terms of the Stonewall-centered framework and the homonormative references that this historical framework displays.

No wonder that discussions of language and sexuality before Stonewall (like those reviewed in Sect. 1.12) so often anticipated the coming emergence of public political fluency by linking language use before to the margins and the shadows, or otherwise describing it in terms of taboo’d speech, silence, or secret code. And as some descriptions suggest, this was a language use with negative potency, confining speakers to restricted spaces, limiting their senses of potential, of outreach and community, until the emblematic movement moved before along the orderly pathway toward afterward.

1.3 Other Descriptions of Language Before Stonewall

But alongside these ideologically obedient narratives, there are descriptions of language and sexuality before Stonewall (and of other aspects of life before the Stonewall moment) that do not fully conform to “the right way to tell the Stonewall story”. Some of these descriptions were written before Stonewall and before the obligations of the Stonewall narrative were imposed. These descriptions discuss linguistic practices in terms of other than taboo, silence, and secrecy. They also do not discuss linguistic practices related to same-sex attractions and practices and identities in terms of neatly defined, sharply bounded categories.

Other descriptions were created after Stonewall but were based on the speaker’s recollection of language use and other experiences before. These recollections are often oriented in terms of “the right way to tell the Stonewall story”, although some recollections also hint at linguistic practices that displace the Stonewall narrative’s assumptions about secrecy and concealment. Those hints suggest what language before Stonewall might have contained, if before were viewed as more than a prelude to the Stonewall moment.

1.4 Endorsing, Then Displacing the “Secret”-ness of Code

Here are some descriptions of language before Stonewall that acknowledge assumptions of linguistic disguise and concealment, but still do not fully conform to the “right way to tell the Stonewall story”. The first example (Rosanoff 1927) is pre-Stonewall in origin. The remaining examples (Davis 1973; Dynes 2007) are based on recollections.

1.4.1 Rosanoff’s (1927) “Special Slang Expressions”

The discussion of homosexual language use which Dr. Aaron Rosanoff3 included in the sixth edition of the Manual of Psychiatry (1927) appears at first reading to be a description of language and sexuality before Stonewall whose details are consistent with the Stonewall story’s narrow image of life—and language—before.

Rosanoff observed that the “dread of detection, social ostracism, blackmail, economic ruin, and legal prosecution” led homosexuals to create “an attitude of reserve, aloofness and mistrust” as well as “… a clannishness among themselves…”. As a result, “a heterosexual person cannot really break into their inner circles…” (1927: 203). As Rosanoff explains, “the clannishness of homosexuals has led to the development of special slang expressions among them”, including terms like temperamental or queer (a homosexual person), turk, wolf, jocker (an active sodomist), punk, lamb, queen, bitch or prushun (a passive sodomist), and trade (an active homosexual preferring irrumation) (Rosanoff 1927: 204).

Before focusing on these “special slang expressions” associated with homosexual “clannishness”, Rosanoff noted that homosexual “speech” often shows

an effeminacy of intonation and construction, … stagey and affected gestures, pronunciation, choice of words and general style [as well as] a formalism, reserve, and labored refinement in their conversation …. (Rosanoff 1927: 202)

“Intimate acquaintanceship” begins with “ambiguous, suggestive remarks” which eventually “reveal a fondness for most obscene expressions, salacious stories and the like” (Rosanoff 1927: 202). So besides the linguistic barriers separating insiders from outsiders, there are linguistic markers distinguishing the social practices of the group from the social practices of interpersonal intimacy.

But the group itself was not a homogeneous formation, Rosanoff reports. These users of “special slang” show “considerable social discrimination …[w]ithin their own group, too” including:

those who do no “cruising”, i.e. picking up “friends” at random in the parks or streets, … those who habitually solicit strangers in the manner of prostitutes, …[and] … all those of various degrees of “easy virtue” … [b]etween these extreme classes. (Rosanoff 1927: 203, reordered-WL)

Occupational choices are another marker of social diversity and discrimination, and so is marital status. Clannishness and special slang expressions may have been shared across the group, but Rosanoff’s comments suggest that clannishness and special slang expressions were not necessarily shared identically. The clannishness of “those who do no cruising” was not the clannishness of those who “habitually solicit strangers in the manner of prostitutes”, for example.

However, when sources reviewed Rosanoff’s remarks after Stonewall, Rosanoff’s comments connecting language to social inflections are ignored. Historian Jonathan Katz included Rosanoff’s statement in the Gay/Lesbian Almanac (Katz 1983: 438–440) but said nothing about Rosanoff’s comments on linguistic/social diversity. By Katz’s report, Rosanoff presented “… a special vocabulary suggesting a sub-culture with a fairly developed system of private communication” (Katz 1983: 438), even though privacy was not one of the important descriptors in Rosanoff’s analysis.

Similarly, in their monograph on Language and Sexuality, Cameron and Kulick (2003) use Rosanoff’s remarks about clannishness and special slang expressions (1927: 204), to support their claim that “the idea of a secret homosexual language appears to have been established in the first decades of the twentieth century” (2003: 79). Rosanoff did not refer to a secret language. He referred to the “special slang expressions” associated with the diverse expressions of “reserve, aloofness, and mistrust” …” and “clannishness” in homosexual life. Submerging these practices within a single language oriented around secrecy (or a single subculture, as Katz proposed), flattens Rosanoff’s discussions of social diversity and inequality even if it endorses “the right way to tell the story” about language before Stonewall.

1.4.2 Dr. Alice Hamilton Remembers “Unimportant” Issues at Hull House

These differing assumptions about language before Stonewall could also occur at the same time, as shown in the following discussion exploring language use at Hull House, the settlement house run by Jane Adams in Chicago during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fifty years later, Historian Allan Davis was writing a book about Jane Adams and her pioneering work in refugee resettlement and social reform (Davis 1973). Davis arranged to interview Dr. Alice Hamilton, now (in the 1960s) the last living member of the Hull House staff, hoping that Dr. Hamilton could provide information about the specifics of the Hull House program.

At one point in the interview, Davis asked Dr. Hamilton to talk about the women who worked with Ms. Adams at Hull House and then asked Dr. Hamilton to address the rumors of a lesbian presence among the Hull House staff. Davis’s question reflected the Stonewall story’s assumptions that women’s sexual desires and identities before Stonewall were ambiguous formations and often concealed, and he could gain access to this information only from someone who had in-group access to secret knowledge.

But Dr. Hamilton did not respond to this question in terms of the Stonewall story’s assumptions about concealment and in-group boundaries. She first told Davis that he had raised an issue that was not worth discussing. If women at Hull House had had female-centered attractions, those attractions have been (in her words) “unconscious” and therefore “unimportant” to the Hull House community. Moreover, the fact that Davis would ask such a question indicated the separation between Davis’ generation (post-Stonewall) and her own (cited in Davis 1973: 306 fn 345).

Initial refusal, followed by references to female-centered desire as “unconscious” and therefore “unimportant” to the group as a whole, followed by a comment about the distance between their generations were not the responses to his question that Davis expected to receive. But Dr. Hamilton’s comments addressed the issue that Davis’s question raised, if her comments were read on face-value: Women at Hull House shared emotional, affective, ties but considered the details to be relevant to personal, intimate settings, but not relevant to the interests of public discourse—not even relevant to the public discourse at Hull House, This stance left room for women who wanted to explore female intimacy to do so, knowing that their actions would not become a focus for public discussion. Davis, oriented around the Stonewall story’s assumptions of precisely concealed identities, expected a yes/no answer to his question and was dissatisfied by the seemingly evasive reply that he received. Still, this exchange confirms, that reply successfully deferred public speculation about Hull House staff women’s sexual agency.

1.4.3 Wayne Dynes Discusses a Secret Language in a Sealed Book

In some examples, a speaker (often a researcher) reconstructed memories of language use before under the guidance of “the right way to tell the story”. Alongside the reference to concealment and implied anticipations of Stonewall-centered transformation, traces of additional memories remain, some of which raise questions about the properties which the comments have foregrounded.

Hence in 2007, linguist Wayne Dynes described “…[t]he argot used by homosexuals fifty years ago”, (e.g. in the 1950s) as pretty much a “secret language”. He continued:

As I well recall, those of us in the know could even use the word “gay” without outsiders catching on. If by chance they did suspect, one could always cover oneself by simply saying that they misunderstood. A “gay person” was light-hearted and fun-loving–that was all there was to it …. (Dynes 2007: n.p.)

But there was more at stake here than lexical or stylistic differences, Dynes suggested. “To outsiders, ‘our’ language was a sealed book” (2007: n.p.) providing the in-group (“those of us in the know”) protection and safety while keeping outsiders at safe distance.

Dynes’ references to secret language and sealed book duplicated the Stonewall story’s argument that the Stonewall moment replaced silence and concealment with visibility, open discussion, and liberation. But Dynes, much more precisely than Rosanoff, connected secret language and sealed book to those of us in the know, underscoring the idea that this linguistic usage was a form of esoteric knowledge, withdrawn from general circulation, concealed from the public gaze, part of the building blocks of homosexual clannishness.

Rosanoff (1927) had also recognized homosexual clannishness but had implied that clannishness assumed differing forms as further inflected by social diversity. Dynes makes no such references to diversity. The clannishness he cited is the clannishness he “well recall[s]” from his own experience, which leaves without comment the texture of language use within other domains of same-sex-related social diversity.

Descriptions of language use outside of domains of privilege (some of which will be reviewed in the following sections of this chapter) show that connections between language and sexuality circulated widely and openly before Stonewall, not just in the margins and shadows of the public gaze. Those domains of circulation included: radio and television broadcast, cinema, musical theater and other stage performances, vinyl recordings, magazines, novels and other print media—including publications that were written especially for a same-sex interested readership. Same-sex desiring (and intrigued) subjects learned how to use this language by being attentive to these sources, as examples in Chapter  4 will explain. And because these sources were public, some outsiders became proficient listeners and sometimes speakers, as well. That group included members of the local police force, especially the men who served as decoys when bars and cruising sites were placed under police surveillance. That group also included heterosexual friends of homosexual women and men, the actors and actresses who played homosexuals on the stage or in the cinema, and the writers who told stories about homosexual life in the public media.

The evidence from external documentation does not matter, if Dynes’ description of language before is to coincide with the “right way to tell the Stonewall story”. But Dynes admits that outsiders might react to (“suspect”) the details of the secret language when they heard it, so the “sealed book” was not entirely “sealed” on every occasion, and clannishness was not always a reliable disguise. When reading Dynes closely, what first appears to be an example supporting the Stonewall narrative becomes a statement proclaiming the opposite stance: the public circulations of linguistic practice, not concealment, anchored many elements of language use before Stonewall, with language use also connected to site of social diversity, and linguistic practices expressed through visible messaging, not (just) as secret languages or sealed books.

1.5 Rejecting References to “Secret Code”

Here are some additional descriptions of language use before Stonewall where details reject references to secret code, offering instead entirely different images of connections between language and sexuality.

1.5.1 Joan Nestle Describes a Meaningful “Woman-Made Mist

Even though references to private language and silence often invoke gendered stereotypes about the language use of women (Lakoff 1975), descriptions of same-sex desiring women’s language use before Stonewall often discussed forms of linguistic practice that unfolded outside of the domain of spoken language. Included here were instances of “not talking about it” (e.g., women’s sexual sameness) directly while affirming “it” through metaphor, analogy and other verbal imagery, or indirectly, through references to marital status, housing arrangements, wardrobe choices, other bodily adornment, and vocational commitments (Baker 1939; Bullough and Bullough 1977; Kennedy 1996; Vicinus 1994).

Similarly, Joan Nestle recognized the importance of the spoken word and the intimate verbal conversation at the Sea Colony, “a working-class lesbian bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village” (Nestle 1987a: 26). But for Nestle, “the lesbian air” of the Sea Colony, along with the “woman-made mist”, the “pressure of bodies” and its other affective-related features were more important features in her description than were the verbal dynamics of the site.

We needed the lesbian air of the Sea Colony to breathe the life we could not breathe anywhere else, those of us who wanted to see women dance, make love, wear shirts and pants. Here and in other bars like this one we found each other and the space to be a sexually powerful butch-femme community. (Nestle 1987a: 26)

And Nestle remembers how she could

… peer into the smoke-filled room, feel the pressure of bodies, look for the wanted face to float up out of the haze into the light, the tumult of recognition. (1987a: 26)

Sometimes, Nestle admits, a bar patron might offer a verbal welcome to a stranger: “I wondered how long it would take you to come here”. But the spoken word and its speaker quickly “retreat[ed] into the woman-made mist” (1987a: 26) leaving the verbally welcomed stranger to experience the bar through its circulations of richly tactile, aromatic, and visually fluid messaging.

Unspoken messages remained even in the context of the bathroom line, which Nestle considered to be “the most searing reminder of our colonized world”, but [later] realized that it “stands for all the pain and glory of my time” (1987a: 27). As Nestle explains, “because we were labeled deviants, our bathroom habits had to be watched”. In charge of surveillance was “a short, square, handsome butch woman” who allowed only one woman at a time into the stall and carefully allocated a few sheets of toilet paper to each customer when she entered. “Thus the toilet line was born, a twisting horizon of lesbian women waiting for permission to urinate, to shit” (1987a: 26).

The women at the Sea Colony resented the bathroom line and its regulations, but they developed “a line act” in response to these demands and the butch woman who embodied them. And during the “line act”, spoken language replaced the women-made mist: “we joked, we cruised, we made special please to allow hot-and-heavy lovers to go in together…”, Nestle recalls. Still, even as their verbal pleas met the butch woman’s silence resistance, Nestle “stood, a femme, loving the women on either side of me… my comrades, for their style, the power of their stance” (1987a: 27). Words did not preempt affect rather the need for words enhanced it:

Buried deep in our endurance was our fury. That line was practice and theory fused into one… Every time I took the fistful of toilet paper, I swore eventual liberation. It would be, however, liberation with a memory. (Nestle 1987a: 27)

1.5.2 The Language Use of Queers and Fairies

The database for George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1994) included same-sex interested men’s narratives from before and as well as recollections of life before which some men produced at later time. Both sets of comment note that self-identified as queers developed a “variety of strategies …for negotiating their ways on the streets during the first decades of the 20th century”, one of which was a secret code (Chauncey 1994: 167). These men recognized that there were “… risks involved in asserting a visible presence in the streets [and] chose not to challenge the conventions of heterosexual society so directly”. With strategies like the secret code, queers were able “… to recognize one another without drawing the attention of the uninitiated, [thereby remaining] …hidden from the dominant culture but not from each other” (Chauncey 1994: 167).

The queers’ “secret code” resembles the “clannishness” associated with the “special slang language” that depicted in Rosanoff’s (1927) description of language before Stonewall. But just as Rosanoff mentioned other subjects and implied forms of practice, Chauncey describes the language use of New York’s fairies, men

… boldly announced their sexual interests and created a visible gay presence by speaking, carrying themselves and dressing in styles that the dominant culture associated with fairies. … [E]ven though [doing so] could result in harassment from onlookers, … [f]airies used codes that were intelligible to straights as well as gays, such as flashy dress and an effeminate demeanor …. (Chauncey 1994: 167, reordered)

Unlike the queers, fairies showed little interest in disguising their same-sex identities, desires, or attractions. By Chauncey’s analysis, while queers actively tried to remain “… hidden from the dominant culture” though not hidden from each other, fairies declared themselves as themselves “to straights as well as gays” by drawing on forms of self-reference that would be easily understood by spectators regardless of their sexual interests.

But the connections between language and sexuality in gay New York were not defined entirely by a queer vs. fairy binary, however. Chauncey notes that sexually related social and linguistic practices circulating freely throughout the commercial, residential, and public (the parks, the subway,) spaces extending from the Village and the Bowery to Harlem (the African American residential area located north of Manhattan’s 125th street). Given their already-distinct locations within the city’s sexual geography, queers and fairies were already familiar with the demands of social and spatial boundary crossing. Traveling distances to find queer/fairy-friendly sites was certainly familiar for queers and fairies (e.g., Chauncey 1994: 36), and so were the diverse (class, racial, ethnic, linguistic as well as gender and sexual/erotic) backgrounds of the other customers who frequented those locations.

Chauncey’s discussion shows something else about the language use of queers and fairies before Stonewall. The queers’ “secret code” and the fairies’ linguistic flamboyance came to reflect the outcomes of the language contact and linguistic accumulation that occurred at such locations, when queers and fairies were in conversation (or other intimate exchange) with customers from other social and linguistic backgrounds. Note that language contact in such instances produced linguistic accumulations between languages and also between dialects or sociolects of the same language. For example, Anderson (1921: 3–15) reports that hobos often spent the winter in rooming houses in large US cities, taking work where ever they could find it. These neighborhoods were also the sites for bars and taverns frequented by (male and female) sex workers and same-sex desiring men, a component of US urban sexual history that will benefit from closer scrutiny (Johnson 2008: 314–316). For the moment, glossaries prepared, by Rosanoff (1927), Legman (1941), and Swasarnt-Nerf (1949) include terminology used by homosexuals that also appear in glossaries of hobo and tramp vocabulary (Irwin 1931) and other publications describing of underground slang.4 Apparently, wintertime created opportunities for mutual language learning between hobos and other sexual subjects, and those opportunities need to be included in the scrutiny that Johnson proposes.

1.5.3 The Language Dynamics of Camp

In some discussions, a prominent form of language use, and of homosexual-related expressive culture in general before Stonewall, is identified with the generic term camp. This term identifies messages about transgressive sexuality and other unconventional topics, when given bold expression, exaggeration, provocative imagery, and unrestrained creativity—so much so that the details of presentation assume more significance within the speech event than does the message itself. More than exaggerated, flamboyant, or excessive content, camp identifies a process of exaggeration, flamboyance, and excess which, in most instances has a performative effect on speakers and spectators: Camp, a form of doing, creates forms of being.

Here, Meyer explains, lies the close connection between camp and various expressions of queer identity.

In the sense that queer identity is performative, it is by the deployment of specific signifying codes that social visibility is produced. Because the function of Camp … is the production of queer social visibility, the relationship between Camp and queer identity can be posited. (2004: 5)

Legman’s (1941) homosexual glossary also contains an entry for camp, and the wording of the entry suggests that something similar to Meyer’s understanding of camp may have been in circulation before Stonewall:

*camp. To speak, act or in any way attract or attempt to attract attention, especially if noisily, flamboyantly, bizarrely, or in any other way calculated to announce, express or burlesque one’s own homosexuality or that of any other person. As a noun, camp refers to such flamboyance or bizarrerie [sic] of speech or action or to a person displaying it. The verbal noun camping is very common; it should be noticed that camping is largely a practice of male homosexuals and not very common among Lesbians. Adjective: campy. (Legman 1941: 1159–1160)

When an asterisk preceding an entry in Legman’s glossary, the asterisk indicated (1941: 1155) that the term—in this case, *camp—was used “exclusively by homosexuals”.5 Here, the entry adds that camp was used primarily by male homosexuals; Meyer’s definition is not gender-restricted. Otherwise, the two definitions are quite similar: Legman highlights camp’s playfulness and creativity and hints at camp’s usefulness in expressing various “…attempt[s] to attract attention, especially if noisily, flamboyantly, bizarrely” (1941: 1160), just as Meyer connects camp to “social visibility” as well as “identity”.

Camp’s associations with flamboyance, bizzarerie, and other forms of flamboyant visibility were not accidental, however. Recognizing the restrictions on visibility that often confronted same-sex desiring subjects before Stonewall. Bergman argues that camp was “… an outgrowth of the particular historical and cultural environment in which gay artists and readers had to function”, in that “camp [gave] gay people a larger space in which to move” once they became “…loosened from the restraints of the dominant society” (Bergman 1993: 103). Further, gay people’s use of camp also loosened the dominant society’s restraints, ensuring that gay people could move into the larger spaces that their use camp was also creating. Hence for Bergman, camp’s performative messaging enabled a critique of normative style and must be examined as political language and not solely as aesthetic expression.6

Mother Camp, Esther Newton’s (1972) classic study of female impersonators working in drag clubs during the 1950s and 1960s US Midwest, contains several examples showing how the language of camp could draw on visibility and flamboyance to create political critique. For instance, one of the female impersonators that Newton interviewed noted that “homosexuality is a way of life that is against all ways of life, including nature’s”, and that “no one is more aware of it than the homosexual”. Anticipating Butler’s distinction between doing and being (1990: 25, 33), the speaker explained that “the camp” is the homosexual who “accepts his role as a homosexual and flaunts his homosexuality” (1972: 110). The speaker then described what acts of “flaunting” might entail.

The speaker’s comments illustrate the three general characteristics that Newton associates with camp.
  • Incongruity: For Newton, camp is based on incongruous juxtapositions, things that ordinarily do not occur together suddenly appearing together (1972: 106). These are not random occurrences. For example, camp marks the (social, sexual) distance between the camp and the audience as well as the close ties that connect them as performer and spectators (Newton 1972: 108). Thus, the speaker told Newton:

    • A camp “…may be in a business suit; she doesn’t have to be dressed outlandishly” in order to declare her “emotional freedom” while walking down the street …. She’ll walk down the street and she’ll see you and she’ll say, “Hi Mary, how are you?” right there in the busiest part of town… (Newton 1972: 110, reordered).

  • Theatricality: Camp is about appearance, form and “playing a role”, Newton explains (1972: 107). But Newton’s comments also show that camp requires an audience and must maintain spectatorship. Language use is important to all areas of theatricality, but is especially helpful in maintaining spectatorship. So the speaker observed:

    • “A camp … starts entertaining a group of people at a bar around her”. And if “… somebody smarts off at her … she gives ‘em a very flip answer” … A camp queen has to think faster than other queens. That makes her camp. She’s got to have an answer to anything that’s put to her…” (Newton 1972: 110).

  • Humor: Even when puzzled by the behavior, audiences usually view camp as humorous and entertaining more so than threatening (Newton 1972: 109). The speaker noted:

    • “Even at work, the people figure that she’s a camp. They don’t know what to call her. But they hire her because she’s a good kid, keeps the office laughing” … “[Meanwhile] the homosexual coworkers insist: “Oh you’ve got to know George, she’s a camp” (Newton 1972: 110).

Described in these terms, practices of camp were public as well as private formations. And as flamboyant, dramatic, locally incongruent actions, these practices became difficult for insiders and for “squares” to ignore. Moreover, the language of camp was not limited to the usage of camp figures, alone. Spectators heard the usage and repeated it when telling others about these moments of theatricality. Camp figures and their language became linguistic models for radio, motion picture and television broadcast, and other pathways for circulation as well. The language of camp may have been rich in references to sexual and gender transgression, as Meyer and Legman both affirm, but the language of camp was in no sense organized as secret code nor did it circulate in the format of a sealed book.

The language of camp could be found in many locations before Stonewall—in Broadway musicals, opera and other stage productions, in radio broadcasts and motion pictures, in commercial advertising for commodities and leisure travel, and political posters and other nationalist propaganda, especially during wartime. Some of these examples of camp usages and related content will be discussed elsewhere in this chapter or in subsequent chapters.

1.5.4 Language and Sexuality in Print Media

The language of camp joined other varieties of language before Stonewall in circulating widely, and often quite openly, in several forms of print media. There were fiction and nonfiction hardback and (later) paperback books whose characters and storylines address women’s and men’s interests in sexual sameness (see Sect.  4.6). There were also commercial publications like the Hobby Directory, a magazine where men posted comments and exchanged ideas about their interests in arts, crafts similar projects, in some instances broadening the meaning of “hobby” to include additional types of recreational interests (see below). There were publications with articles devoted to bodybuilding and physical culture like Your Physique (later named Muscle Builder), along with publications like Male Figure and Physique Pictorial that featured male models wearing posing straps, while they strained their arm, back and leg muscles in “beefcake” poses or displaying various exercise and bulk-up techniques.

Language before Stonewall also circulated in print media that were prepared and circulated privately, like Vice Versa and The Ladder, typewritten magazines that appeared after World War II and spoke particularly to the interests of same-sex identified women; the monthly publications of the Mattachine Society and the One Institute, whose members advocated for the acceptance of homosexuals within the social mainstream; and the multilithed PRIDE newsletter, first prepared in Los Angeles in the 1960s that expanded in content and circulation, to become the nationally circulated, commercial gay/lesbian news publication, The Advocate (Streitmatter 1995: 87–88).

Language before Stonewall also appeared in mainstream print media, that is, newspapers and magazines that published stories (seemingly) addressing the interests of a general readership. These stories responded to the public’s (often genuine) curiosity about nonconforming gender, sex, and sexuality. The stories also framed their arguments in terms of perversion, public indecency and other criminal activity, or by citing metaphors about uncontrolled, untamed animal lust (see, e.g., F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover’s remarks about “wild beasts” in Sect.  3.5.1). These stories added to public discourse about “homosexuality” which, in turn, prompted new forms of linguistic practice from those who were targeted by this broader discussion.

1.5.5 Print Media: The Hobby Directory

The Hobby Directory was available for purchase in hobby and crafts stores nation-wide during the late 1940s and the 1950s. As Meeker (2006: 23–26) explains, The Hobby Directory provided “men and boys” with “a forum to contact each other to correspond about their ‘hobbies’ and to form a shared bond” (Meeker 2006: 23).

One such entry from the magazine’s June 1948 issue was posted by a 57-year-old single college-educated writer who indicated interests in “camping, nature study, cave exploring, short story writing and collecting of foreign money”. Those preliminary interests established, the writer continued:

I especially like friends among cowboys, sheepherders, miners, lumberjacks, ranch hands, sailors, and ‘guys who wear levis, cords, leather jackets with pep in their step and a sparkle in their eyes. (cited in Meeker 2006: 24)

The language of this entry did not rely “special slang vocabulary” or any other type of coded messaging. A reader of The Hobby Directory who was not interested in “cowboys, lumberjacks, [and] guys who wear levis” could easily overlook what others might find to be statements with explicit appeal. Readers who discovered familiar interests may have responded to the writer; contact information was provided. Or, they may have simply gained some personal satisfaction by realizing that they were not the only readers of the Hobby Directory who shared such interests and desires.

1.5.6 Print Media: The Ladder

The recollections and other evidence described in Faderman (1991: 149, 179–180), Meeker (2006: 86–99), and Streitmatter (1995: 22–23) show that The Ladder was a very different example of printed media. The Ladder was a project of the newly founded (1955) Daughters of Bilitis, a “social and discussion club for gay women” (Streitmatter 1995: 22). The goal of The Ladder was to provide an alternative to gay activist publications (One, the Mattachine Review) that often ignored issues of concern to same-sex desiring women. In fact, as African American author Lorraine Hansberry explained in a letter to the editors of The Ladder:

Women, like other oppressed groups of one kind or another, have particularly had to pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment that the second-class status imposed on us for centuries. Thus, I feel that The Ladder is a fine step in a rewarding direction. (Hansberry 1957: 26)

Unlike the Hobby Directory, The Ladder was not marketed through commercial venues. Each issue was shared with friends of the editors and mailed to women who had expressed interest in receiving the publication. As more women learned about the magazine, they, too, wrote to the editors and asked to be put on the mailing list. Other women, concerned that receiving The Ladder through the US mail might make them vulnerable to surveillance, borrowed copies of the publication from women willing to share their copies with friends. Through one means or another, and judging by the home town locations cited in the letters to the editors published in each issue, The Ladder circulated far beyond its city of origin (San Francisco, CA), reaching women in the US Midwest, the Southwest and Southeast, and as well as the east and west coasts.

Women also gained access to the publication through the social events that came to be called “Ladder parties”. These were events where women gathered in someone’s home to listen as someone read aloud from the latest issue of the publication, and then used the follow-up discussion to socialize, renew friendships, and make new friends. Labeling these parties as secret activities or moments of closed group elitism ignores completely the support that these events gave to women’s solidarity-building and language/sexual socialization. In fact, The Ladder parties and the one-on-one networking helped women disrupt the negative images of “the lesbian” which they encountered in their everyday settings, while making friends, renewing acquaintances, enjoying the company of women who shared similar interests, dreams, and desires.

The content of each issue of The Ladder addressed both of these goals.7 Articles were written in an accessible text, not in abstract or overly erudite academic jargon. The letters to the editors included in each issue usually commended The Ladder for moving discussions about women’s oppression into a new and rewarding direction (Hansbury, above). Some letters also raised issues specific to the life experiences of same-sex desiring women, and sometimes the editors responded to the writer’s concerns. These were affirming statements, especially so for the (female) reader whose contacts with women sharing similar desires was ordinarily limited.

But explicit blueprints for advice could also be found in the short stories and poems which were included in each issue. The short stories described real-world situations which readers of The Ladder would likely recognize: the awkwardness shaping the first conversation between two women with similar sexual and other personal interests (Berkeley 1959: 8–12); the encounter with the well-meaning landlady who brings her favorite casserole to the female couple renting her upstairs apartment when she learns that the couple are hosting an at-home event, only to discovers that there only women-couples, and no men, attending the party (Damox 1959: 4–6); the difficult tensions at Christmas, when families expect each member of the couple to come back home for the holidays, while the couple wants to remain together in what is now their home (Martin 1958: 4–9).

The poems published in The Ladder often displayed affect-centered descriptions of public events or private experiences, for example:

How could I know

The melody was somber for so long.

That I remembered no other,

So when it changed,

How could I know at first,

It was my heart.

(Strayer 1959: 14)

The description resembles Nestle’s depictions of linguistic practices circulating in the “woman-made mist” at the Sea Colony (1987a; Sect. 1.5.1) or to Dr. Hamilton’s description of the “unimportant issues” at Hull House (Davis 1973; Sect. 1.4.2). The imagery, the word choices, the metaphors, and the appeal to analogy invite the reader’s reflections on desire and heartbreak without limiting object of desire or specifying the details of distress or the gender or sexual desires of the intended reader. But, as The Ladder’s editors explained, the poems, like the stories which they also published each month, allowed readers to think about women-centered sexuality without relying on the reference-dependent descriptions like that found in the Hobby Directory’s forum.

Here, for example, are the editors’ comments introducing the Christmas story (Martin 1958: 4–9) summarized above:

The following story by Del Martin is reprinted from the December 1956 issue of THE LADDER. The reason for rerunning the story is not for its particular literary merit, as the author will attest. But it is typical of the situation many Lesbians find themselves in at Holiday time – and after all, it is A CHRISTMAS STORY. (Martin 1958: 4)

That is, the story described what readers were to consider a “typical” linguistic/social “situation”, and it showed how two women struggled to address that situation as a committed couple. The story offered women-centered linguistic models to guide women’s responses should the same situation appear within their holiday experience. The story confirmed that women were not bound to mainstream-based linguistic expectations and were free to search out their own ways of talking, however, unfamiliar that search might initially appear. These reassurances were not to be found in mainstream, media.

1.5.7 Language and Sexuality in Mainstream Media: Christine Jorgensen and Washington Confidential

Indications of language and sexuality also circulated in print media sources that were widely accessible to the mainstream public as well as those sources directed at readers with more specialized interests. One example of these mainstream circulations, and their impact of US public discourse, is the media coverage surrounding the Christine Jorgensen’s “sex change” in the early 1950s.

“Sex change” is a crude way to express the issues here. Ms. Jorgensen’s decision to go public with her transition made the technologies of bodily and social transformation into topics of public discourse throughout the USA during the 1950s. Besides being interviewed for newspaper and magazine stories, Ms. Jorgensen appeared on radio and television programs, and she toured nationally in her own night club act, bringing the outcomes of transition, and often the experiences surrounding it, into commercial venues throughout the country.

Born male-bodied, Jorgensen described to life story to reporters as a “lonely personal quest”, an experience of “emotions, wishes and fantasies invisible to others” which was finally resolved through the interventions of modern medical science (Meyerowitz 2002: 53). Through that intervention, Ms. Jorgensen argued that she was now a woman and her hope was to live her life according to the mid-century US expectations of American womanhood. By doing so, Ms. Jorgensen also hoped to demonstrate that public voices should not ridicule those like herself who expressed provocative longings for embodiment or related desires (Meyerowitz 2002: 51–53).

Judging by the letters that members of the public sent to Ms. Jorgensen, Ms. Jorgensen’s life story resonated closely with the lives of others struggling with similar “emotions, wishes and fantasies invisible to others”. Also typical of those letters was the sentiments sent from a writer in upstate New York: “May God bless you for your courage so that others may more clearly understand our problem” (cited in Stryker 2008a: 48–49).

But the general public also responded enthusiastically to the media stories about Ms. Jorgensen’s life experience. In fact,

[i]n a year [1952– WL] when hydrogen bombs were being tested in the Pacific, war was raging in Korea, England crowned a new queen, and Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine, Jorgensen was the most written about topic in the media. (Stryker 2008a: 47)

In fact, media reporting on Christine Jorgensen helped to place the idea of “sex change” into the national conversation about gender, sex, sexuality, and individual right. But Congressional and other Federal authorities were having a similar conversation during the 1950s, as they explored the postwar tensions between national loyalty and communist subversion. In this conversation non-confirming gender, sex and sexuality were evidence of subversion, since the idea that someone would change their sex suggested the likely acceptance of other forms of instability, as well. Moreover, the idea that a person’s sex could be changed showed that a conforming sex’d subject could still be vulnerable to the seductive advances of others. Hence F.B.I. Director Hoover’s references to “wild beasts … roaming the cities”, discussed in Sect.  3.5.1.

The Congressional debates were dutifully reported in mainstream print media. As a result, while mainstream media sources praised Christine Jorgensen for her courage, mainstream media also showed disdain for what Ms. Jorgensen represented. And the mainstream media providing language through which praise and disdain could each be expressed.

But even when print media was filled with disdain for sexual transgression, that content could still be useful for those seeking information about same-sex related linguistic and social practices before Stonewall. One such example is described here; Chapter  4 contains a more detailed discussion of the reading process which this example illustrates.

In one of the interviews cited in Loughrey (1998: 198), William B. Kelly described key events in his personal life, while growing up in a small town in southeastern Missouri during the 1950s. While his home town did not have visible gay scene, the local library had a copy of a tell-all, expose about the nation’s capital, Washington Confidential (Lait and Mortimer 1951). Kelly found Lait and Mortimer’s book and read its remarks about urban sexual geography with great interest. The book described Washington, D.C. as “the dizziest – and … the dirtiest – community in America” (1951: ix) and supported this claim, in part, by offering detailed remarks about the “large number of fags” to be found in the “garden of pansies” that was the nation’s capital (1951: 90–98). The book identified Lafayette Square as a popular D.C. cruising site, indicating the areas within the Square where men were likely to gather, and describing what men did when they visited those areas to show that they hoped to meet up with other men.

When Kelly was sixteen years old, he won the local spelling bee competition and was invited to travel with his family to Washington, D.C. so he could participate in the national spelling bee. Once Kelly and his family arrived at their D.C. hotel, Kelly found a reason to leave his family and go off on his own, and he promptly headed for Lafayette Square. He carried with him a copy of a physical culture magazine, one of the linguistic tokens that marked a man’s interest in men, he had inferred from reading Lait and Mortimer’s book. At sixteen years old, Kelly didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but (as he explained to Loughrey) he knew that following the forms of linguistic practice outlined in that book would give him the chance to find answers to that question. And, he added, “I wasn’t taking any chances of being misunderstood” (cited in Loughrey 1998: 198).

Kelly may have been a 16-year-old boy from beyond the metropolis, and this time frame may have been 1951. But by his report, he understood that linguistic practice was an important element in public representation of sexual sameness. His source of knowledge was a book that he found at on the shelf at his public library, a source that accessible to anyone in his home town who had a library card even if the source was openly hostile to homosexual presence in the nation’s capital.

1.5.8 (Not so) Secret Codes in Public Circulation

What may be the most telling refutation of the secret code argument are the examples of language use before Stonewall where so-called secret codes, or taboo’d usage, or silences appeared in public settings, without disguise, and as part of ongoing discussions of sexuality and other themes. The language use associated with women’s softball games—with team play and spectatorship—was one such example, as explained in Chapter  4. The connections between language and sexuality in Harlemese, the vernacular African American usage in Harlem during the early years of the twentieth century (Thurman 1929), was another example, as reviewed in Chapter  5. Both examples show visibilities of sexual messages and language learning opportunities which contradict the images of secrecy and other in-group elite usage on which the “right way to tell the Stonewall story” so often thrives.

As far as women’s ball-playing is concerned, women’s linguistic practices related to sexuality on the ball field or in the bleachers included: forms of vestment and embodiment; uses of place; posture, eye contact and other nonverbal messaging; as well as spoken language in several forms. These practices differed in relation to age, urban/rural location, specifics of residence, and racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. However, those differences did not pose barriers to friendship-building on the ball field or in the bleachers (Cahn 2003). And in areas of the USA where there were no women-friendly bars or similar commercial sites, these linguistic practices ensured that softball games became valuable locations for women-centered socializing (Zipter 1988).

As far as Harlemese is concerned, this was an accumulation of linguistic practices that resonated throughout everyday experiences in Harlem as well as throughout Harlem’s sites where sexual sameness was on display, including sites where outsiders and Harlem residents explored sexual sameness together. It was the local vernacular, but it was not part of the language skills of the group that W.E.B. Dubois called “the talented tenth” (1903)—at least, not officially so. In fact, members of the privileged elite with vernacular ties—homosexual linked vernacular ties, specifically—sat silently as others in the “talented tenth” debated how language and sexual sameness mediated access to the mountain pathway to Canaan (Dubois’ metaphor for racial uplift). To quote Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Bruce Nugent:

Homosexuality has always been a dirty word. I cannot remember in my seventy some years the time when it wasn’t a dirty thing. The dirtiness about it was the flaunting of it. And I use “flaunting” advisedly. Because there is a difference between flaunting it and just not trying to keep it hidden. So, if one met the amenities of polite society, who’s going to question what your impolitenesses were? (cited in Wirth 2003: 21)

Language before Stonewall, already a socially inflected formation as other descriptions explained, diversified additionally in Harlem’s terrain. And while some speakers negotiated their place on the mountain pathway, others refused that placement. The conditions of linguistic superdiversity (Blommaert and Rampton 2011) that combined, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, affluence and advantage, residence, as well as standard English and Harlemese linguistic practices marked the speaker’s acceptance or refusal, or mediation within those options.

1.6 Language and Sexuality Before Stonewall as a “Mesh of Possibilities”

The examples reviewed in Sects. 1.31.5 indicate only some of the ways of describing language before Stonewall. There are many ways to tell this story. Some are heavy laden with the ideological baggage surrounding neatly defined, linear chronology, and descriptions of language and sexuality moving from secrecy and silence, through the emblematic Stonewall moment, and into visibility and public practice. Others are organized around different temporal references. It might be possible to determine which of these narratives, or which of the associated ideologies, offers the best version of linguistic history in this case, or which one of any two narratives offers the preferable historical statement. Trying to find criteria that will identify the most acceptable narrative may be appealing, but more interesting questions need to be explored, including: Why have multiple explanations for these connections between language, sexuality, and Stonewall-related history emerged in the first place.

Eve Sedgwick faced a similar issue when thinking about “… [the] number and difference of the dimensions that ‘sexual identity’ is supposed to organize into a seamless and univocal whole” (1993: 8). Then Sedgwick wondered, what happens if some element of that “number and difference” are excluded from that “seamless and univocal whole”. And Sedgwick answers; what results is

… [an] open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning … [whose details] aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically. (Sedgwick 1993: 8)

Such an “open mesh of possibilities” is “one of the things that queer can refer to” (1993: 8), Sedgwick explains. The queer status of such “possibilities” derives from its outside location, its exclusion from the category, and its irregularity and messiness in the face of the “seamless, univocal…” and otherwise systematically defined whole.

An “open mesh of possibilities” may also associate with queerness within spatial and temporal as well as social practices. For example, J. Halberstam has suggested that

… all kinds of people will and do opt to live outside of reproductive and familial time as well as on the edges of logics of labor and production, and […] outside the logic of capital accumulation[.] …

Halberstam adds:

Perhaps such people could be called queer subjects in terms of the ways they live (deliberately, accidentally, or of necessity) during the hours that others sleep and, in the spaces, (physical, metaphysical, and economic) that others have abandoned, and in terms of the way they might work in the domains that others assign to privacy and family. Finally, …, for some queer subjects, time and space are limned by risks they are willing to take [.]…. (2005b: 10)

Similarly, Martin Manalansan refers to the “mess, clutter, and muddled entanglements” that constitute “…the ‘stuff’ of queerness, historical memory, aberrant desires and the archive” (2014: 17).

And noting that there are “far more possibilities for living than time as measurement would lead us to believe” (2012: 137), Carolyn Dinshaw proposes that the

forms of desirous, embodied being that are out of sync with the ordinary linear measurements of everyday life [or] engage heterogeneous temporalities that precipitate out of time altogether… [could be considered] … queer by their particular engagements with time”. (2012: 4, emphasis WL)

Many examples discussed in this chapter have described sexuality—as well as language use connected to sexuality—in terms of a “mesh of possibilities” rather than static and stable categories: Nestle’s discussion of the woman-made mist at the Sea Colony, Kelly’s remarks about the language of cruising learned from reading Washington Confidential, the office workers’ references to their (camp-acting) colleague who is just more fun Nugent’s remarks about impolitenesses. Moreover, as shown in Rosanoff’s depiction of “special slang language”, and Dr. Hamilton’s description of women-centered attraction at Hull House, even examples used to display “the right way to tell the story” could contain evidence of sexuality-related linguistic messiness and out of sync display.

Importantly, these examples do not cite the same forms of linguistic practice in every instance. But as in Sedgwick’s discussion, those examples suggest that connections between language and sexuality before Stonewall could be considered “one of the things that queer can refer to” (Sedgwick 1993: 8) if the messiness of language and sexuality in everyday life was foregrounded, and not submerged beneath the seamless appearance of neatness. If so, perspectives from queer theory might offer entry points for studying language before Stonewall without mandating that historical linguistic descriptions focus on movement from secret code to public language and on similar goal-oriented, sequences.

1.6.1 Studying Language Before Stonewall as Homohistory

Suppose, then, that language before Stonewall is “one of the things that queer can refer to” (Sedgwick 1993: 8) and language use before Stonewall is described as a messy formation, some on the edge of normative logics and entwined with out-of-sync temporal measurements and spatial measures as well. Then, and continuing Sedgwick’s argument, instead of being oriented around totalizing categories and their details, discussions of language before Stonewall “… can’t be made to signify monolithically” (Sedgwick 1993: 8, edited-WL). Instead, they must be attentive to the linguistic and social reflections and refractions (Vološinov 1973: 22) implicated within this mesh of [linguistic] possibilities.

Madhavi Menon speaks directly to this point, when urging that queer historical inquiry in all forms must resist being corralled into “heterotemporal camps” that celebrate a “fantasy of sexual coherence”. For Menon, the inquiry must resist any unquestioned acceptance of gender binaries, heteromasculine authority, the naturalness of the heterosexual desire, bonding, family unity, and so on. Such fantasies are “always already homophobic in its valorization of fixed difference at the expense of queer sameness”, Menon explains (2008: 1, 2, reordered).

As an alternative to these hetero-historical fantasies, and following arguments in Goldberg and Menon (2005: 1616),8 Menon (2008) proposes the usefulness of homohistory as a framework for guiding sexuality in history. Homohistory is a mode of queer inquiry that

rejects the historicist investment in a progressive chronology according to which the stable present becomes the point from which to map an unstable past. (Menon 2008: 3)

The “historicist investment” to which Menon refers includes the right way to tell the Stonewall, story and can be described as follows: Point-to-point, linear historical chronologies assume that the historical events under discussion have an endpoint, a focus, or a goal (in this case, the Stonewall moment). So descriptions begin with that goal and then orient the discussions of individual events in terms relevant to the goal. As a result, Edelman explains, “… [historical] meaning succeeds as revealing itself, as itself, through time” (Edelman 2004: 4), while events which do not support the emerging historical revelation are excluded from the chronology and its trajectory of meaning—and are thereby excluded from “history”.

Such acts of evaluation and exclusion are entirely unsatisfactory under the terms of a homohistory-oriented inquiry. Homohistory argues that “the haphazard time of desire” will always resist the “final legibility” proposed by conventional discussions of history (Menon 2008: 3). Instead, homohistory must be explored unhistorically, rejecting historical stances like those displayed in Dynes (2007) and White (1980) and in commentaries like Cameron and Kulick (2003), sources that “privilege difference over similarity” and “regard the past as wholly other” when compared with the more familiar conditions in recent time (Goldberg and Menon 2005: 1616).

But homohistory also rejects uncritical attempts to “…assimilate the past to a present assumed to be identical to itself” (Goldberg and Menon 2005: 1616) while ignoring conditions that made social and linguistic practices significant within each time period. Hence Davis’s assumptions of lesbian universalism (1973) and Barrett’s ahistorical discussion of coming out (Sect.  2.2) as already explored. And there is the following comment from Joe Mantello, who directed the well-received 2018 Broadway revival of Matt Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band (1968). Explaining to news reporter Jesse Green (2018) why he sees pre-Stonewall gay drama as relevant to gay life in today’s world, Mantello proposed that there is no difference between “Oh Mary, don’t ask” and “Yaass Kween”. For Mantello, a form of verbal punctuation popular in some varieties of white gay men’s English before Stonewall is identical to a form of verbal punctuation with origins in the language of Black drag queens, that now circulates widely through television and cinema broadcasts. In Mantello’s reflections as in Davis’ and Barrett’s, temporality is suspended and contrasts in material conditions are disregarded, in order to emphasize equalities of function and to propose similarities.

Complicating this argument further, while popular beliefs (or established ideologies) may identify certain events as watershed moments in history, homohistory would never claim “… to know the definitive difference between the past and the present” (Goldberg and Menon 2005: 1609). Homohistory “tak[es] the question of methodology more seriously” (Menon 2008: 3), asking how knowledge about queerness in history is constructed once “determinate sexual and chronological differences” have been suspended (Goldberg and Menon 2005: 1609). Hence instead of erasing subjects by proposing broadly inclusive historical trajectories, homohistory is concerned with findings ways to

… expand[…] the possibilities of the nonhetero, with all its connotations of sameness, similarity, proximity and anachronism”. (Goldberg and Menon 2005: 1609)

“Expand” in this case includes being attentive to the “points of resistance” and “other possibilities for… living historically” that the nonhetero raise in reaction to the demands of heteronormative sexuality (Freeman 2010: xxii)—linguistic demands included.

1.6.2 Introducing Queer Linguistics

These remarks about homohistory suggest its usefulness for studies of language before Stonewall as well as other modes of queer-related, language-centered social/historical inquiry. But to adapt homohistory to studies of language before Stonewall requires an understanding of language and sexuality that is sympathetic to possibilities, messiness, and out-of-sync temporalities but also an understanding that resists demands for regularity, ordered explanation, and compliance with normative narratives.

Queer theory provides that orientation, as just explained. And so does queer linguistics which, when matched with homohistory and other studies of queer temporality, produces what will be called here queer historical linguistics.

Queer linguistics is a relatively recent approach to the study of language and sexuality and an equally recent addition to queer theory.9 As is true elsewhere in queer inquiry, queer linguistics draws on a range of disciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to the study of language and sexuality, to build language-oriented studies of, e.g., “desire, subjectivity, identity, relationality, ethics and norms” (Giffney 2009: 2). Queer linguistics explores relationships between language and sexuality as expressed in text, that is, situated, bounded moments of language use; and in discourse, which, following Fairclough (2003) refers to ways of representing the world that are related dialectically to other aspects of social life and orient how specific texts address specific topics within the linguistic moment. Regulatory practices of ideology (Althusser 1971) figure prominently in these representations. Language is broadly defined, for purposes of such inquiry, including spoken, written, signed, painted, inscribed, gestured, movement-based, or other expressive formats, all of which “actualize or situate meaning potential” (Halliday 1978: 109) for speakers and audiences in specific settings.

But the scope of queer linguistics is not limited to critical discussions of language use in terms of textual practice and process and their attendant discourses. Queer linguistics admits with Sedgwick (1990: 3) that sexuality occupies a privileged place in systems of knowledge and power in Western culture. And while agreeing with homohistory’s insistence that queer inquiry cannot “privilege difference over similarity” (Goldberg and Menon 2005: 1616), queer linguistics also recognizes that “sexuality is not extraneous to other modes of difference” (Eng et al. 2005: 1) and that studies of language and sexuality must address the regulatory practices through which all forms of difference are constructed, sanctioned, and contested.

For these reasons, while concerned with linguistic practices that indicate or conceal sexual meanings, queer linguistics also “reconceptualizes the dominant discourses which shape gender and sexual identities”, in order to “question [the] normalized practices” through which those identities are understood. This includes “… those [normalized practices] that can be identified in academic research” (Motschenbacher 2010: 11).

A useful starting point in queer linguistics inquiry is to recognize that “text is choice” (Halliday 1978: 110), to explore the textual details and affiliated meanings as given, and then to consider textual meanings that might have been displayed under similar or alternative circumstances, e.g., what would have been the focus of the “situated meaning potential” if voices associated with the textual margin had gained more prominence, if textual meanings had been assigned different priority, or if social context had been differently inflected?

Equally important are the what if questions that probe how messages about sexuality might have been expressed had textual formats not relied on explicit wording but remained “unsaid and unseen” (Vicinus 1994) or remained “on the edge of semantic availability” (Williams 1977: 134) and expressed only through affective formats. In such instances (e.g., Nestle’s description of the Sea Colony, Dr. Hamilton’s reference to women at Hull House), textual meaning becomes even more dependent on overhearing and other forms of audience reception, evidence for which is never fully represented in written documents or other physical records.

1.7 Introducing Queer Historical Linguistics

Queer linguistics regularly encounters such gaps in its database, given the mesh of possibilities, the messiness and the out-of-sync temporalities associated with language and sexuality in all areas of queer experience. Addressing these conditions is especially important for studies of language and sexuality in history along the lines termed queer historical linguistics (Leap 2020), the orientation to studies of language, sexuality, and history guiding discussion throughout this book.10

Succinctly defined, queer historical linguistics (hereafter QHL) considers relationships between language and the possibilities, messiness, and out-of-sync temporalities of sexuality in settings other than the immediate historical moment. QHL does not ignore the present and uses devices like metaphor, analogy, and anachronism to establish similarities and differences between present and past. But the interests of QHL are not contained within “… the dominant arrangements of time and history” (Freeman 2010: xi) that ordinarily draw connections between present and past. Instead, QHL is particularly interested in how

… nonsequential forms of time … can … fold [speaking] subjects into structures of belonging and duration that may be invisible to the historicist eye. (Freeman 2010: xi)

QHL recognizes that these “structures of belonging and duration” may be reflected in textual form or practice, and that texts themselves may become sites which make “nonsequential forms of time” accessible to historical inquiry. In some instances, referring to texts as examples of language use in the past assigns a stable temporal location to the text, even though the messiness of location and its impact on textual meaning and formation may not yet be resolved. Under such conditions, reference to language use before is preferable, taking full advantage of the ambiguity of the temporal adverb before (see Sect. 1.7.4).

1.7.1 Queer Historical Linguistics: Not “Cruising the Linguistic Graveyard”

Adapting a metaphor from Isaac Julien’s film, Looking for Langston (1989), QHL is not interested in “cruising the [linguistic] graveyard”, collecting and comparing samples of sexual language from earlier times, while ignoring the speakers who used those linguistic practices in everyday life. Biographic trajectories (Blommaert and Rampton 2011) and materials conditions surrounding and shaping language use are central to the interests of QHL inquiry, as the comments about language and sexuality in early twentieth-century Harlem (Sect. 1.5.8) have already suggested.

Thus, QHL works with certain expectations about the availability of data which, sad to report, are not always initially confirmed. A scavenger methodology (Halberstam 1998: 13) guides QHL’s efforts to construct an archive11 and then to work through the information in the texts which the archive contains (see Sect. 1.7.5).

1.7.2 Queer Historical Linguistics: Close Reading

QHL uses a close reading of text to locate evidence of sexual nonconformity, transgression and resistance, as well as sexual normativity, evidence of language use through which sexual transgression and sexual normativity were expressed, and evidence showing how materials conditions shaped experiences of transgression and normativity and the language use related to them. Close reading is especially helpful in locating and interpreting “the odd detail, the unintelligible, the resistant moment … which resists any easy translation into the present” (Freeman 2010: xvi).

QHL does not use close reading simply as a discovery procedure. QHL is interested in how textual materials provide evidence of language and sexuality in history, or in Sedgwick’s phrasing, what a textually based “mesh of possibilities” related to language and sexuality in history might display. Caroline Levine makes a similar reference, when she uses the affordances of the textual form to answer questions like

How can form do so many different, even contradictory things? How can it be both political and aesthetic, both containing and plural, both situated and potable? (Levine 2015: 6)

Levine continues:

To capture the complex operations of social and literary forms, I borrow the concept of affordance from design theory. Affordance … describe[s] the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs. (Levine 2015: 6, referencing Gibson 1977)

Under this definition, affordance includes uses and actions not yet anticipated, as well as those whose potential or latency has already been acknowledged.

… Rather than asking what artists intend or what specific forms do, we can ask instead what potentialities lie latent – though not always obvious – in aesthetic and social arrangements. (Levine 2015: 8)

Applying Levine’s argument to QHL’s interest in studying language, sexuality, and history as queerness, one property of the queer “mesh of possibilities” would be textual affordances, in this case, the uses or actions—the messages or meanings connecting language and sexuality—through which speakers (writers, signers, artists, dancers, performers, etc.) and audiences or spectators align a particular text aligned with indications of queerness. Close reading combines the study of the linguistic/social cues in text as proposed in critical discourse analysis with the interpretations of textual developed in critical literary studies, so that QHL can work within and beyond the text to construct its understandings of language, sexuality and history.

The goal of such inquiry is not to reduce the historical text to a linear narrative or to limit discussion to the psycho-structural dimensions of specific features of textual content (e.g., the narrator as hero or Christ figure). The point is to determine whether processual evidence and affordances provide insights into language and sexuality in history, and if so, what insights those indications provide.

As in other areas of homohistory studies, close reading acknowledges that gaps, errors, and inconsistencies often appear in textual references; thus, close reading invites the analysis to take features of text seriously even when they do not immediately make sense (Johnson 1985: 140). This point is especially useful when exploring the messiness associated with representations of queerness in text. As Freeman explains, besides “fixating on that which resists easy translation into present tense terms”, close reading means

… to linger, to dally, to take pleasure in tarrying, and to hold out that these activities can allow us to look both long and hard at the norm. (Freeman 2010: xvi–xvii)

Freeman’s interests in disclosing normative regulations also discourage close reading from adopting an apolitical/ahistorical perspective on textual practice. Evidence of normative regulation creates further motivations for nuanced inquiry, or as Freeman explains: “close reading is a way into history, not a way out of it” (2010: xxvii).

1.7.3 Queer Historical Linguistics: Partially Indebted to Historical Linguistics

Queer historical linguistics enjoys an uneasy relationship with the fields of historical linguistics, historical sociolinguistics, and historical socio-pragmatics.

Peter Trudgill could be paraphrasing the interests of QHL when he describes historical sociolinguistics’ concerns with individual “tales of detection” based on

… the belief that great explanatory power in finding the solution to linguistic mysteries is to be derived from the study of vowels, consonants and grammatical constructions in combination with the study of micro and macro-level social factors and historical events. (Trudgill 2010: xii)

Pursuing these tales of detection and the linguistic mysteries they raise requires asking and answering questions similar to those posed during a queer-centered what-if inquiry (Sect.  2.3.1):

Why is this language or dialect like it is? How did it get to be like that? Why does it have these linguistic characteristics and not others? (Trudgill 2010: xiii)

QHL could also adopt Culpepper’s statement of the research interests of historical socio-pragmatics as

… either synchronic, describing and tracing how language use shaped and is shaped by context at a point in time in the past, or diachronic, describing and tracing how overtime shifts in language use shape context, shifts in context shape language use and/or shifts occur in the relationships between language and context. (Culpepper 2011: 4)

But QHL would part ways with Culpepper’s broader description of historical socio-pragmatics’ research focus

… language use in its situational context and how those situational contexts engender norms which speakers engage or exploit for pragmatic purposes. (Culpepper 2011: 4)

QHL is concerned with speakers and forms of linguistic practices that transgress situational norms and are made vulnerably by those norms. Referring to transgression and vulnerability as instances of “engage[ment]” trivializes speaker linguistic experience and implies a narrative of progress (or upward mobility) that is inconsistent with the lived experiences of sexual sameness before Stonewall. Likewise, some speakers found ways to “exploit” linguistic norms in spite of their own transgressive status—Chauncey’s (1994) queers fall in this category, as do those who maintained the appearance of politeness in Harlem, under Nugent’s description (cited in Wirth 2003; Sect. 1.5.8). But as we will see, others were exploited by those norms, and their skills in linguistic pragmatics could not overcome hierarchies of, e.g., language and embodiment, language and residence, or language and gender-choice. And historical linguistics projects that use those hierarchies to organize and interpret their linguistic data often erase the marginal presence from data set. The same is true when historical linguistics projects orient around assumptions of “linear trajectory, stability and regularity of change” (Janda and Joseph 2003: 83) or proposals about language change that “…might qualify as ‘laws’ across space, culture and time” (Bergs 2012: 89).

For example, QHL cannot assume (e.g., Labov’s gender paradox—2001: 261–293) that the categories female and male distinguish modes of being that correspond to fundamental linguistic universals, regardless of space or time. A historical linguistics based on such an assumption leave no room to consider the linguistic histories of those who refuse to be placed within the paradoxical binary because their understanding of gender and sexuality are defined by possibilities, messiness, or other “modes of difference” (Eng et al. 2005; Giffney 2009).

Similarly, QHL cannot endorse the position of the uniformity principle, e.g., unless we can establish specific conditions of difference, “there is no reason for claiming that language did not vary in the same patterned ways in the past as it has been observed to do today” (Romain 1988: 122–123). Here, even more than in studies addressing paradoxes, claims of uniformity assume that the “… the definitive difference[s] between the past and the present” (Goldberg and Menon 2005: 1609) have already been identified.

1.7.4 Queer Historical Linguistics: Not Taking the Object of Queering for Granted; Definitions

Understandably, when studies of language and sexuality in history embrace the uniformity principle, they end up favoring heterosexual, heteronormative interests. Nothing in theory or method prompts the analysis to consider the presence of marginal, transgressive, or subversive historical subjects—or their linguistic practices. And if the inquiry does not commit to considering alternative conditions in other forms, the inquiry easily endorses dominant gender/sexual ideology (“the right way to tell the story”) and takes the object of inquiry for granted.

But Goldberg and Menon insist that a queer-oriented historical inquiry cannot take the object of queering for granted (2005: 1616) and the same constraint applies for QHL-based studies of language and sexuality in history.

This means that a queer-oriented historical linguistics requires an understanding of language that acknowledges the “open mesh of possibilities” and “messiness”, and “out-of-sync” temporal locations that characterize queer experience and matches the “… diverse, often conflicting set of interdisciplinary approaches to desire, subjectivity, identity, relationality, ethics and norms” that Giffney associates with queer inquiry, generally (2009: 2). Thus, understanding of language includes, but cannot be limited to, oral communication. Verbal conversations and spoken narratives are forms of language, but so are the narratives and conversations included in (written) autobiographies, short stories, novels, plays (dramas and comedies) magazine articles and other print media, song lyrics and music performance and other forms of verbal, vocal, signed, written, and visualized practice. Language also includes messages expressed through spatial placements, through gestural, posture and movement, through clothing, hairstyle, accessories and adornments, through assumptions surrounding skin color or other features of embodiment. Contextual cues are including in language and so are the haunting memories of precedent and the anticipations of aftermath and other forms of affective message, even if those details remain “on the edge of semantic availability” (Williams 1977: 134) and are not explicitly marked within the text.

To some readers, this inventory is needlessly cumbersome, blurring as it does the subject matter of linguistics, performance studies, semiotics, semantic analysis, language and culture studies and critical theory while leaving specific properties of language unacknowledged.

But QHL does not agree that discussions of language are somehow shortchanged if they are guided by an understanding of linguistic possibilities. As Raymond Williams reminds us, “a definition of language is always, explicitly or implicitly, a definition of human beings in the world” (1977: 21). Further, he adds, “the biological faculty of language” and the individual and social aspects of “language development” work dialectically to constitute a “practical consciousness”, that is “ … an articulation of this active and changing experience: a dynamic and articulated social presence in the world” (1977: 37–38, 43–44). A definition of language must be broadly cast, if it is to sketch out how human beings construct practical consciousness as part of lived experience—especially under circumstances (potentially) associated with queerness.

Similarly, QHL works with an understanding of sexuality that includes erotic desires and practices but also extends far beyond those formations to include longings, yearnings, attractions, and fantasies that inspire sexual preference and object choice and are in turn inspired by them. At the same time, QHL cannot limit sexuality to interiorized terrains. Sexuality is expressed through, and thereby grounded within, material conditions. That is, economic, social, and ideological conditions ensure that desires, fantasies, preferences, and choices intersect with structures of hierarchy and exclusion, and with the practices (normative and transgressive) that regulate and diversify those intersections and also sanction or condemn them (Leap 2016: 177–180). Again, Eng and colleagues (2005: 1) make this point succinctly: “sexuality is not extraneous to other modes of difference”.

Just as language is not intended to be a tightly bounded reference in QHL this discussion, neither is sexuality. And as examples throughout the following chapters will demonstrate, rather than naming in advance the sexual stances that the inquiry will discover, it is more helpful to think of sexuality as that mesh of possibilities through which subjects show their endorsement of and/or talk back to demands of the relevant gender norms. Here and in the following chapters, talk back is a place-holder for practices like disidentification and refusal, see Sect.  3.2.

Accordingly, and except in instances where evidence has already established specific claims to erotic stance background (e.g., gay sexuality, dyke language, etc.) terms related to language and sexuality appear in the following chapters (as they did in this introduction) largely without additional references to speaker-identity or intended object choice. In most cases, contextual details suggest the relevant possibilities, but to name them in advance could predetermine outcomes that should remain fluid and messy as the discussion unfolds. Readers are free to determine the associations they find to be appropriate for when such terms occur, mindful of this caveat.

As elsewhere in queer inquiry, QHL does not define history in terms of goal-oriented linear movement or by citing assumed affiliations between the present and the past. Following Freeman (2010: xi), QHL distinguishes between studies of temporality and studies of chronology and works enthusiastically within a temporal, not a chronological framework.

Temporality studies begin by recognizing that the past is not a unified formation, as Menon’s depiction of homohistory has explained. Hence QHL orients its interests in language, sexuality, and history by recasting the temporal and spatial preposition/adverb before into a temporal/spatial noun. In this way, before indicates conditions that occurred at point(s) preceding those in more recent times, but before does not assume that conditions before therefore were antecedent, precedent, or prologue for the conditions appearing elsewhere. In QHL, before indicates a temporal location, but before does not establish a linear historical chronology or sketch out social or moral prophecy.

Similarly, QHL does not find solace in visions of utopia, expectations of happiness or, in the other extreme, in the residue of shame, or the allure of the death drive, all of which have oriented some discussions of queer history. Instead, QHL wants to establish “new forms of affiliation with the past” which may “defamiliarize[e] the present” (Traub 2013: 26), while indicating “ways of thinking … [and] “possibilities of living that work against dominant arrangements of time” (Freeman 2010: xi, xxii).

1.7.5 Queer Historical Linguistics: Engaging the Archive Through a Scavenger Methodology

Freeman reminds us that the “close reading” of information about details embedded within queer temporality often “… resists any easy translation into the present” (2010: xvi). That resistance was at the center of the misunderstandings between Davis and Dr. Hamilton when discussing women’s sexuality at Hull House. To that end, QHL’s studies of language, sexuality, and history need to draw on textual and temporal information culled from a variety of sources, ensuring that a given use language of language before Stonewall can be examined through multiple perspectives.

This is why the examples cited throughout these chapters come from so many different sources, e.g., diaries, personal correspondence, biographies, life story narratives, newspaper articles, police records, court transcripts, song lyrics, short stories, novels, plays, movie scripts, as well as academic and journalistic studies of language before.

What Halberstam calls a “scavenger methodology” (1998: 13) proves to be a helpful orientation for assembling and organizing linguistic materials from such diverse backgrounds. More than just being attentive to materials from different backgrounds, a scavenger methodology “…uses different methods to collect and produce information on subjects deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human behavior” (Halberstam 1998: 13). QHL is specifically interested in information related to the linguistic practices of excluded subjects whose voices are often not directly attested in text because of the subjects’ excluded status. A scavenger methodology is helpful to this end in that it assembles fragments of reference, memory, and affective tracings from different subjects and different communities, so that voices can be disclosed through comparison, contrast, analogy, anachronism, and similar processes of textual inquiry.

The aggregate of materials that a scavenger methodology brings together can be termed an archive: An assemblage of distinctive, often overlapping and competing, data sources offering insights into normative and transgressive practices (material, ideological) associated with specific temporal and spatial settings. In this case, these data sources pertain to connections between language and sexuality although their details extend far beyond that topic as well. Data sources within an archive may assume multiple formats, just as the archive itself addresses multiple functions. Hence, Halberstam describes the archive addressing the brutal 1993 murder of trans subject Brandon Teena in Falls City NB as “simultaneously a resource, a productive narrative, a set of representations, a history, a memorial, and a time capsule” (2005a: 23).

Local communities house their own understandings of normative and transgressive practices within their own archives and depending on which resources are mobilized and how they are mobilized, scavenger methodologies do not always approximate those understandings through the archived materials that they assemble (Stone and Cantrell 2015: 6; Stryker 2008b). However, certain forms of data maintain connections across different types of archives, whatever their origins: life story narratives, valuable for QHL research, are also valuable resources within community settings. Even so, inconsistencies across archives may initially create obstacles to the work of close reading and other forms of analysis. Even so, as oral historian Alessandro Portelli reminds us, these inconsistencies are also a useful source of information. Examined carefully they “… lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings” (1993: 2).

1.7.6 “Making Archival Research Queer”

Portelli is not asking researchers to accept linguistic error, invention, and myth uncritically, but to determine the social and temporal conditions under which error, invention, and myth emerge, and then to trace the regulatory practices that either assign value such statements or push their messages into the social and historical margins. To that end, the archives’ mesh of possibilities provides QHL with data sets diverse enough to “render visible” other messages that are otherwise “… obscured from normalizing frames of reference”. All of these tasks help “make […] LGBT archival research queer” (Stone and Cantrell 2015: 9), but they also ensure (in the present case) that studies of language and sexuality before examine how queerness is expressed in linguistic terms, and do not take the object of queering for granted.

1.8 About This Project

Language Before Stonewall: Language, Sexuality, History addresses two goals: First, this book discusses aspects of language and sexuality before Stonewall, showing that language use did not only take the form of a secret code or sealed book, then exploring the many other forms and practices which language and sexuality before did assume. Second, this book shows how a queer historical linguistics provides a helpful framework for building this discussion and for theorizing the insights about language, sexuality, and history that the discussion discloses.

This book is a product of my interests in language, sexuality, and history that have developed, l expanded, and refocused continually over a ten-year period of research and writing (2009–2019). Work on this book began in 2009 after I completed a paper which explored, in general terms, how globalization was affecting the language use of gay-identified men in the USA (Leap 2008). The book brings together my interests in language and sexuality, “gay” language and globalization, and in queer discourse analysis, affect studies, pornographic desire, and other topics in queer linguistics explored in the several papers that I published during this ten-year writing period.

But this book also addresses interest that is more personal and in basis, too. I was not at Stonewall in June 1969, but I lived through its immediate aftermath once I moved to Washington, D.C. in August 1970. I watched as Stonewall-inspired politics and practices begin to alter segments of D.C.’s lesbian/gay terrain. And I heard D.C. residents (white, Black, gay, straight) talk about the appealing and the unwanted alterations. These were fascinating discussions, and they also rekindled my interests in gay life (and same-sex experience more broadly), as I knew of it while growing up in Tallahassee Florida (where I lived during the 1950s through the mid-1960s) and while living in Dallas TX in the late 1960s while in graduate school. Frankly, of much greater interest to me during the years before and after Stonewall were the mobilizations against the war in Vietnam and local struggles to secure racial and economic justice. Coming to D.C. in 1970, I confronted an ongoing, often heated debate: Was the struggle for lesbian/gay rights a political movement with its own agenda or of one part of a larger and more inclusive movement for political and social change.

Echoes of that debate haunt the interplay of language, sexuality, and history of interest to this book, and, in some sense, those echoes haunt this book’s discussion of those interests, as well. So my goal here is not just to explore words and phrases, but to examine specific moments of language use (words and phrases, implied meanings, gesture, spatial practice, vestment, and the like—the full sense of language described in Sect. 1.7.4) and to consider how language use created moments of linguistic and sexual transgression as well as moments of linguistic and social compliance before Stonewall.

Implementing this project has required a substantial database—a substantial archive, assembled through the scavenger methodology in the sense just described. When discussing this project in public forums, I am always asked how I determine which materials collected through the scavenger methodology are to be included to the archive and what criteria guide those decisions for inclusion. Truthfully, I am guided by the advice that linguistic anthropologist Dell Hymes once offered in a public address: use everything there is to use. If there are examples, anecdotes and commentaries having to do with language, sexuality, and history before Stonewall, they will be included in the archive. Portelli’s caveat about “truth” (Sect. 1.7.5) applies here.

The time frame for the archive assembled for this project is broadly inclusive, with some materials commenting on language and sexuality from the early eighteenth century, and some materials dating from 1969. The time frame for this book’s discussion of before is more focused: with few exceptions, before applies to moments of connection between language and sexuality occurring between the start of the twentieth century and the late 1960s.

The time frame is not accidental. My colleagues Heiko Motschembacher and David Peterson are pursuing comparable research on language, sexuality, and history relevant to settings prior to the twentieth century. Their work lets me focus in more detail on twentieth-century data, and much of the linguistic information assembled through the scavenger methodology understandably falls within that time period.

My focus is also on connections between language, sexuality, and history in US locations, exclusively. The discussion excludes references to language use before Stonewall in Great Britain, Canada, South Africa, India, Australia, or other locations where English dominated national or local language resources during the first 60 years of the twentieth century.

This US-specific focus is deliberate.

For one thing, the Stonewall moment had substantial impact within the US settings. To propose otherwise, to assume that the Stonewall moment was the primary social force leading to the formations of Gayle (South Africa), Polari (Great Britain), swardspeak (the Philippines), bahasa gay (Indonesia), or yaren harka (Nigeria)—all of which provide “definitions of [same-sex desiring, sexual marginal] human beings in the world” and indicate how they express “an active and ever-changing practical consciousness” (paraphrasing Williams, above). Such an assumption is an act of narrative imperialism. It denies human beings in the world the right to place their own stories about language and sexuality within their own history, by claiming that only an outsider/US-based linguistic history could inspire such linguistic practices, and perhaps these sexual practices as well. Moreover, such an assumption ignores time depth: Many of the linguistic practices were in place long before the Stonewall moment and showed very little impact from globalizing Stonewall influences.

Admittedly, a discussion how Stonewall ideologies reshaped language, sexuality, and history within these contexts would be an entirely worthwhile project, as Provencher shows in his discussions of coming out narratives and related features in queer French (2007) and in queer Maghrebi French (2017), and as I overviewed in a preliminary fashion in Leap (2008, 2010). Additional inquiry along these lines cannot be pursued here because of limits of space. Moreover, even when working only within a US context, much material related to US experiences before Stonewall has had to be removed from the final versions of these chapters or to be presented in a deeply compressed format. These exclusions and compressions are deeply regretted.

1.9 Queer Historical Linguistics: Four Examples

Queer historical linguistics is best explained when its details are applied to particular moments of connection between language and sexuality before Stonewall.

To conclude this chapter, here are several examples of connections between language and sexuality before Stonewall. Each example displays a particular category of data found within the project archive: personal narrative (Example 1.8.1), observations of language use (Example 1.8.22), dictionary entries (Example 1.8.3), and court records describing an arrest at a cruising site (Example 1/8/44).

1.9.1 Dr. Josephine Baker Upstages Workplace Surveillance

As demonstrated throughout her autobiography (Baker 1939), Dr. S. Josephine Baker had to contend with hostility of her male colleagues throughout her professional career. A medical doctor by training, Dr. Baker became the first woman to serve as Assistant Commissioner of Health for New York City (appointed 1907) and to serve as director of New York City’s Bureau of Child Hygiene (appointed 1908).

Shortly after opening a private medical practice with her housemate, a woman Dr. Baker met while in medical school and also a medical doctor, Dr. Baker began her associations with the City’s Health Commission. First, she worked as a City Medical Inspector in Hell’s Kitchen, identifying babies with illnesses and finding ways to work with mothers and families to ensure the babies’ well-being. She visited the tenement houses in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen to check on sanitary conditions and to assess the health of mothers and babies, and to recommend more effective healthcare practices. The immigrant families in these tenement houses came from cultural traditions where women were healthcare providers. So, Dr. Baker’s efforts at home health intervention met less resistance and more acceptance than did the efforts of her male colleagues. But women’s fashionable “trailing street-sweeping skirts” (Baker 1939: 59) and frilly blouses made for difficult movement through the tenement’s narrow stairwells, hallways, and cramped apartments, especially in the searing summer heat (Baker 1939: 57–59).

Dr. Baker found a workable alternative to current fashion in a most unlikely place: the signature vestment and embodiment of the Gibson Girl: An hourglass silhouette and an S-shaped posture created by a tightly corseted waistline. Originally intended to counter the public presentation of the independent woman, the Gibson Girl style accentuated feminine charm through a format that closely resembled what Dr. Baker (and, soon, other independent women) found functionally fashionable: The Gibson Girl style replaced the traditional woman’s blouse and its frilly sleeves with a shirtwaist and jacket, then replaced the jacket with something resembling a man’s suit coat while streamlining the width of the skirt and the length of its train. The resulting vestment may have been male-appearing to some viewers, but it made it much easier for Dr. Baker to move up and down the stairs of the tenement houses, to travel through their hallways, and to walk in and out of their cramped apartments, as she worked her way from one building to the next in Hell’s Kitchen.

Dr. Baker’s reports on these home visits exposed health-related conditions and service needs that her male colleagues had neglected to document. Her reports also led her male colleagues to accuse her of not being a team player and to add that, because she was a woman, she never would be part of the team. Dr. Baker’s male colleagues began various forms of surveillance, hoping to find shortcomings in her work and other evidence that she was out-of-place in the all-male office environment. While her male colleagues remained Medical Inspectors, Dr. Baker was promoted to Assistant Health Commissioner and then Head of the Bureau of Child Hygiene. This made her now-former colleagues were even more distressed; none of them wanted to be supervised by a woman or assigned to projects which a woman had designed.

Dr. Baker was aware of her colleagues’ personal reactions to her public performance and her professional success, and she determined: “If I was to be the only woman executive in the New York City Department of Health, I badly needed protective coloring” (Baker 1939: 64). But once again, the Gibson Girl-based languages of embodiment and vestment offered a solution. Gibson Girl attire relied on shirtwaists and a male-style suit coat instead of frilly blouses and puffy-sleeved jackets. Pushing that style even further (an example of disidentification as discussed below), Dr. Baker purchased men’s shirtwaists and dress shirts, and men’s four-in-hand ties, combining them with men’s suit coats and slacks tailored to her figure and a matching hairstyle. As a result, Dr. Baker found that she

… could so dress that when a masculine colleague of mine looked around the office in a rather critical state of mind, no feminine furbelows would catch his eye and give him an excuse to become irritated by the presence of a women where, according to him, a woman had not a right to be. (Baker 1939: 64)

Changes in her spoken and written language practice were also part of Dr. Baker’s plan to divert the male gaze from these “feminine furbelows”. For example, Dr. Baker reported, “they” [specific source unstated] suggested that the letterhead on her office stationary read Dr. S. J. Baker, to disguise the fact that the author of a given message was “a woman in a respectable post” (1939: 64). Dr. Baker’s stationary retained this usage throughout her tenure at the Health Commission (Baker 1939: 64).

Apparently, these efforts at distraction were successful, judging by incidents like the following, reported in Dr. Baker’s autobiography.

A (male) barber brought a token of appreciation to the Health Commission’s office in hopes of gaining a favorable ruling on his petition for a commercial license. The item was an item of personal use intended for Dr. Baker, an elaborately painted shaving mug, with Dr. S. J. Baker inscribed in gilded letters around the sides (Baker 1939: 95–96). While a shaving mug would have been a curious present, had the barber understood that Dr. S. J. Baker was a female-bodied subject. It was entirely appropriate gift if the barber assumed that Dr. S. J. Baker was male-bodied. The evidence the barber had to that end was the fact that Dr. S.J. Baker occupied what was traditionally identified as a male-centered public profession, and, the masculine-appearing abbreviation of the commissioner’s name on the professional stationary.

In a second incident, Dr. Baker was in conversation with one of her office colleagues, Dr. Alonzo Blauvelt, someone with whom Dr. Baker spoke on a daily basis. On the day in question,

… Dr. Alonzo Blauvelt started complaining to me about the appointment of some women doctors as medical inspectors. Women were all right in their way, he told me aggrievedly, but there was no getting around the fact that they were not trained to work in groups; they had no sense of cooperation, no idea how to get the most out of their subordinates, no ability to take responsibility. I listened awhile, and then my sense of humor got the best of me. I laughed and said, “No wait, a minute, doctor. What kind of creature do you think you are talking to now?” His jaw dropped, and he blushed purple. “Good Lord”, he said, “I’d entirely forgotten that you were a woman”. (Baker 1939: 66)

By referring to herself as a “… kind of creature”, rather than asserting that she was a woman, Dr. Baker deflected what could have been an even more awkward moment for Dr. Blauvelt. Labeling herself a creature shows that Dr. Baker knew that her problematic status in the workplace was not been fully resolved. However, Dr. Baker used that problematic status to her own advantage, turning its meaning inside out so that her irregularity (her creature, not female identity) supported her status as a female-colleague, instead of compromising it. Pêcheux (1982: 158–159) refers to such a linguistic practice as an act of disidentification (see Sect.  3.2); language before Stonewall is filled with instances where speakers neither support nor contest linguistic practices that, as here, potentially threaten verbal and social damage.

Dr. Baker’s decision to disguise her feminine furbelows beneath the clothing style/embodiments of a male-bodied professional likely benefitted her own career path in the New York City Commission of Public Health But Dr. Baker also became so closely identified with the shirtwaist, four-in-hand tie, sport coat slacks, and man’s haircut that her office mates could not image her in anything other than masculine attire. That Dr. Baker was not married and shared a house with another woman may have encouraged this limited imagining. And so did the fact that Dr. Baker and her female housemate were members of Manhattan’s Heterodoxy Club, “a group of feminists who met regularly in Greenwich Village” (Nestle 1987b: 109). Nestle’s comments cite a letter, dated January 10, 1927, showing negative audience reaction when a guest speaker at a Club meeting defined “the perfect feminist” as “a woman happily married with children”; some members of the Heterodoxy Club did not submerge feminist practices beneath heteronormative lifestyles.

So when the Head Commissioner hosted a formal tea for his entire staff at one of Manhattan’s finest hotels, many of the office workers who would have ordinarily shunned such an invitation eagerly looked forward to the event. They wanted to see whether Dr. Baker would come dressed in her shirtwaist and other forms of feminine furbelows concealments. She did not; she wore a stylish, if conservative black dress. But just as others brought their (heterosexual) spouses, so Dr. Baker brought with her the woman with whom she shared her home. Whether this had any impact on her public image in the office did not seem to matter to Dr. Baker. What mattered instead was the quality of her work, and she sustained a high level of performance throughout her career in the Office of Public Health as an advocate on behalf of expanded healthcare services for mothers and children, especially in Manhattan’s low income, non-English-speaking, tenement housing neighborhoods.

For our purposes, what matters is Dr. Baker’s mobilization of linguistic practices, broadly defined, as she claimed place within the professional setting as an early twentieth-century independent woman. Judging by the discussions offered by Esther Newton (1984) and others, independent women combined vestment, embodiment, mobility, as well as carefully weighted conversational turn-taking to maintain an upper hand in setting otherwise hostile to women’s presence and women’s authority. We can also talk about Dr. Baker’s willingness to distinguish a public and a private self-representation, again through spoken language, vestment, and embodiment. And while the autobiography only hints at the complex dynamics that shaped that distinction, for certain, this was not women’s language dictated by the whims of patriarchal rule.

1.9.2 Exploring the Meaning of Fish Queen

During the first decades of the twentieth century, faculty and students at the University of Chicago Department of Sociology carried out a series of studies of urban studies, using Chicago’s diverse ethnic and racial and cultural neighborhoods as the sites for their inquiries. Some of these studies involved interviews with same-sex identified men and women who described their daily experiences as urban subjects living on the racial, ethnic, sexual, and (other) social margins. While reviewing research reports from these projects that are housed in the archives at the University of Chicago Library, Chad Heap identified an unpublished “Glossary of Homosexual terms” which some of the students compiled from their interview data. The glossary “provide[s] significant insight into the process of social differentiation within the city’s gay world”, Heap reports (2003: 474).

One of the terms which Heap cites from that glossary is fish queen, which the glossary defines as “one who practices fellatio on women” (2003: 474). The Chicago glossary contained other terms using the frame < ____ queen > to indicate the object of desire associated with a particular category of male homosexual; drag queen, dinge queen, head queen, (rough) trade queen. Perhaps fish queen aligned with those terms to indicate another object of male same-sex desire and, thereby, define (doing is being) a particular category of male homosexual/queen. But if so, what did the categories fish (queen) and (fish) queen entail, and how did their collocation clarify the glossary’s definition of fish queen?

In other reports of homosexual language before Stonewall, fish was a derogatory term used by male homosexuals to refer to women. Hence fish queen could indicate a same-sex desiring male whose object of desire was women. That is, the term identifies a gay man who frequented the company of women, and, knowing that women could help protect his public image, preferred women’s company to that of men, even if these practices ran contrary to the usual stance that homosexual men adopted toward women. Hence the choice of fish, instead of a less derogatory term, for the chosen companion.

This is the definition for fish queen indicated in Swasarnt-Nerf’s Gayese-English Dictionary (1949: 9). The Gayese Dictionary defines fish-queen in terms of a homosexual male’s preferences for women’s company. However, the definition began with the following statement: “Properly, a cunt-sucker” (1949: 9), an act that seems improbable for a homosexual man since his preferred erotic practices were usually not female-identified. Perhaps fish queen referred to a bisexual man, someone who pursued erotic relationships with other men but also enjoyed genital-focus erotic relationships with women. Or perhaps fish queen referred to a heterosexual male, whose female-centered, oral erotic desire is being described with homosexual sarcasm, or with the caustic ridicule often encouraged under the language of camp.

In Legman’s “language of homosexuality” (1941), the treatment of fish queen is equally “messy” and contradictory. Legman entry for this term defines fish queen as
  • “A man who enjoys cunnilinctus, or a homosexual (or heterosexual) male who practices it for pay.”

Adding that
  • “The term is quite derogatory, and in the case of a homosexual male, is sometimes contracted to fish.”

Legman “do[es] not wholly understand the organization of this line of prostitution… or why it is necessary for [women] to pay [men] for their sexual pleasure”. He notes that “the term queen … was current only among, and in reference to, homosexuals, [and only] later applied to heterosexual cunnilinctors”. But Legman added that “given the common distaste among homosexual men for women and their vulvar odor, [it is] hard to understand how homosexual men could become professional cunnilinctors” (1941: 1165). Indeed, it is especially “hard to understand” how such usage would apply, when the point of Legman’s analysis was to demonstrate how responsible homosexuality evidenced connections to sexual citizenship: note again, the article’s full title: The language of homosexuality: An American Glossary; see further discussion of this point in Sect.  5.5.1.

Legman’s discussion assumes that the object of desire in fish queen is female and negative in its meaning, since fish reportedly had female-centered, misogynist associations in 1930–1940 homosexual discourse.12 But in all other affordances of the < ___ queen > frame, the object of desire has been male. So what if the fish in fish queen were also male? That is, what if the object of the desire identified through this phrasing displayed a male-bodied figure, whatever the female-appearance of vestment, embodiment, or other detail?

Under this arrangement, the term fish queen identified a same-sex desiring male who was attracted to the public company and to private intimacy with male-bodied, female presenting subjects—that is, cross-dressing men, gender-fluid, male-bodied subjects, or male-to-female identifying trans subjects. Not all same-sex desiring men valued or respected these subjects, however, and certainly mainstream society viewed them with skepticism and distaste; conflicting references to the sissy man in the lyrics of the Harlem Blues and similar musical styles demonstrate this point repeatedly. Hence, the misogynist meanings associated with fish in other settings of homosexual discourse applied to the object of desire in fish queen, through analogy, metaphor, or other means.

But several insights still follow, if we refuse to take for granted the object of queering (fish queen) in this example and the messiness of reference which surrounds it. The range of same-sex desiring subjects associated with language of sexuality documented by University of Chicago’s Urban Sociologists’ dictionary has now expanded. And so has the linguistic evidence which validates the presence of gender-nonconforming, as well as sexually non-confirming, male-bodied subjects in the 1930s Chicago. The pejorative labeling offers concrete evidence of the time depth of trans-phobia in US urban society. Acknowledging the trans subject is also concrete evidence that trans subjects and homosexuals were together, in “community”, in 1930s Chicago, interacting closely enough for researchers and other outsiders to consider them as sharing “the same” language.

1.9.3 “ … [A] Strange Slang Among Some of These Human Misfits”

The next example first appeared in an article describing the “Degenerates of Greenwich Village” (author unknown 1936) excepts from which were subsequently published in Duberman (1986: 132–134). The author of this article self-identified as a resident of New York City and as explained below, was presumably male and heterosexual. Hence the use of the he pronoun in the following paragraphs.

In the article, the author recounts the changes in New York City, and specifically in Greenwich Village, that he noticed since returning to the city after a two-year absence. He cites the presence of persons with abnormal sex habits who flaunt their traits in the Village, women as well as men. He mentions several locations which these men and women frequent, and notes how wide-eyed school girls and boys from elsewhere in the city gape at the unbelievable sight as they stroll through the Village. Then the author observes:

There is a wide-spread use of a strange slang among some of these human misfits. Once I heard one say: “That queen over there is camping for jam”. I was puzzled. Investigation showed that neither royalty, the wide-open spaces, nor the household delicacy were involved. The statement meant that a ringleader (queen) of a group of homosexuals was making a play (exhibition-camping) for a young boy (jam-virgin). (cited in Duberman 1986: 133)

The author reports that he became puzzled when he could not match what he thought were familiar words and phrases with locally identifiable references. Thus, the author described the language use as a strange slang, consistent with his reference to the speakers as human misfits. Both phrases impose a status of backwardness (Love 2008: 5–6) to their referents. At the same time, the author’s unfamiliarity with these “backward” linguistic practices and their speaking subjects lends evidence of the author’s heterosexual status.

Cameron and Kulick include this example as part of their evidence showing that “the idea of a secret homosexual language appears to have been established in the first decade of the twentieth century” (2003: 79, emphasis WL). But such an argument “takes the object of queering for granted”, in Goldberg and Menon’s phrasing. The author did not refer to the “strange slang” as “secret”, “homosexual” or “language”. Cameron and Kulick inferred secrecy from the author’s comment that he was “puzzled” by the “strange slang” because none of the words corresponded to objects in the immediate speaking context.

But a close reading of the author’s commentary suggests that the author was not deeply puzzled, and that the slang, while initially strange, was not entirely beyond the author’s linguistic reach.

For one thing, while the author may not have understood the speaker’s semantic references, the author recognized the meaning of the speaker’s use of the spatial references (the place deixis) indicated by over there. The author knew where to look to find the references being described, even if he could not identify the “…royalty, nor wide open spaces, nor the household delicacy…” once he located the indicated space.

More importantly, perhaps, the author was able to obtain a word-by-word paraphrase of the speaker’s statement from some source, and while the author did not identify the source in his published comments, he felt enough confidence in what he learned to present the paraphrase, without defensive or qualified commentary, at the end of the example. Moreover, the author reported that the strange slang enjoyed a wide-spread usage, which suggests that he was aware that multiple sources of information about this “strange slang” were in circulation. Apparently, the author’s status as an outsider did not prevent his gaining access to this information.

Still, while the author’s linguistic encounter in this example was not restricted by barriers of secrecy, the author’s paraphrase of the strangle slang shows that he relied as much on his own overhearing (Bubel 2008; Sect.  4.2) as on information provided to him by others; or, that others revealed part but not all of the relevant details of meaning, as would have been expected under the order of discourse for linguistic discretion (see Sect.  2.4). Either way, while the author gained a translation and felt about doing so, the translation itself was in some sense still incomplete.

For example, dictionaries and other sources from the 1930s confirm that jam was more than a reference to youth and virginity. Jam along with related terms like jam session and jammin’ indicated an object with spontaneous, unpredictable dimensions. If the queen was camping for jam, the queen was seeking to attract the attention of men whose sexuality and/or responses to sexual propositions coincided with uncertainty, risk, or danger, e.g., gender-ambiguous males, rough trade, straight men, as well as the ephebic youth indicated in the author’s translation. Camping for jam would indicate that the queen was a sexual predator only if the unpredictable object of desire looked and acted much older than he really was.

Contrary to the reference suggested by the phrase “strange slang”, this anecdote does not display a listener being shut out of information otherwise shared with others during the linguistic encounter. These comments show a third type of relationship between the author and the message circulating around him. Here, initially confused, the author found ways to learn enough about the message to assume that he understood it. This practice is called discretion in the following chapters; discretion is key to the discussion of language before Stonewall throughout this book.

1.9.4 “I Thought You Were My Friend” (with an Introduction to Spectral Haunting)

The following example took place in front of a Turkish bathhouse on Manhattan’s lower East Side, on March 21, 1958. The details of this event were subsequently reported in the trial documents related to New York v. Feliciano [10 Misc. 2d 836. 1958] and those documents provide the source materials and quotations used in the following discussions. The direct quotations included below are cited in the form presented in court records.

At approximately 2 a.m. on March 21, 1958, Benito Feliciano, an older man, met up with Joseph Cury, a man in his 20s, on the front steps of the bathhouse. After several minutes of intensive conversation, Feliciano invited Cury to his apartment, reportedly promising to offer him refreshment and “to do anything for [Cury] that he wanted”. Cury asked him to explain and Feliciano did so, punctuating his verbal remarks with an intimate gesture: He reportedly “placed his right hand on [Cury’s] covered private parts and said “I’ll give you ___ [exact language is omitted because of its obscenity]”.

Cury then revealed that he was a police officer and arrested Feliciano on charges of disorderly conduct in violation of section 722, subdivision 8 of [New York State] Penal Law: “with an intend to provoke a breach the peace and under circumstances whereby a breach of the peace might be occasioned”, Feliciano was “loitering with the intent of committing a lewd or indecent act”. Other police officers stepped out of the shadows to take Feliciano to the station house for booking and processing. Apparently, Feliciano had fallen right into the spiderweb of an elaborate stake-out.

Curiously, however, Feliciano’s did not react to the police surveillance and his arrest with anger or rage; there were no screams of police entrapment, invasions of privacy, or police brutality. According to his testimony at trial and the testimony of the arresting officer (Cury), Feliciano was startled by the arrest but then appeared disappointed and a bit betrayed. And as he was being led away, Feliciano looked back at Cury and said: “I thought you were my friend”.

What was the particular appeal of this response, instead of anger, rage or some other verbalized invective? What did friend mean in this context of cruising, public sex, and surveillance?

Rosanoff (1927: 202) cited friend as the intended object of desire when “cruising … at random in the parks or streets”. But Feliciano’s understanding of friend extended beyond a randomly located sense of desire. Paralleling Freccero’s discussion of queer spectrality (2006: 69–104), Feliciano’s turned to haunting memories of his previous visits to the area in front of the bathhouse to find favorable meanings of “friend”-ship, and he let those meanings guide his actions when he met Cury at the same location.

These haunting images of friendship were formed within settings of regulatory surveillance, especially during years after World War II (Sect.  4.7.2). Law enforcement agencies were closely watching US homosexuals and the sites that they frequented, hoping to find evidence of un-American activity. Police stake-outs and stings operations at public venues, and jump-raids on bars, restaurants, and other commercial venues were common occurrences at that time and those events were reported in detail in local and national newspapers.

Like other same-sex desiring men in the 1950s, Feliciano was aware that practices of surveillance were taking at cruising sites like the one he was visiting. But, as was also true for other men, other considerations diverted his attention from the threats to his personal safety that these practices posed.

One such consideration was the allure of the lower Manhattan location which endured in his memory. Feliciano and Cury met in front of a well-known men’s bathhouse, so the site was already marked as a meeting place for men with same-sex erotic interests. At 2 a.m., this would be an ideal meeting place for men who had not been successful finding partners inside the bathhouse or elsewhere, especially so, men like Feliciano, who were in the older age brackets and, perhaps, less desirable in other ways. The late-night time frame suggests that Feliciano remembered previous occasions when he was more successful making “friends” at this location at such an hour—hence the incentive to try again.

To make up for what he could not display through embodiment, Feliciano turned to spoken language. Both men’s descriptions of their conversation at the site indicate that Feliciano doing almost all the talking—the hinting, the suggesting, the offering, the inviting, while Cury remained almost entirely silent throughout the exchange. Ironically, as Ted Wallace explains (cited in Beemyn 1997: 197; Sect.  2.8.1), nonverbal and the visual communication did as much as speaking to build the case for “friendship” between two strangers at a cruising site before Stonewall; spoken language itself was to be used succinctly. Apparently, Feliciano had become skilled in violating these restrictions on spoken language use and he pursued these violations deliberately, because of his interests in making new friends.

To return to the evening in question: When Feliciano began to speak with the youngman (Cury) in front of the bathhouse, the youngman became responsive to Feliciano’s remarks, indicating (through formats not specified) his willingness to come back to Feliciano’s apartment for “refreshment” and possibly for other things. The youngman’s responses revived Feliciano’s memories of previous encounters as did the fact that the conversation with the youngman (however one-sided it may have been) lasted for several minutes, recalling seductive conversations and of the seductiveness of the speaker(s) which had also taken place at the sites.

Cury certainly provided a suitable source for reviving memories, judging by the information in the court transcript. As was the case for surveillance projects in other urban locations, Cury had been chosen for this assignment because of his boyish good looks. He was probably not same-sex inclined himself, and he may not have been fluent in the language of street cruising. But Cury knew enough about the expectations of that usage to present himself as someone with the appropriate linguistic skills, and certainly he knew enough not terminate the conversation when Feliciano extended the invitation to retire to his apartment for “refreshment”.

Under these circumstances, Feliciano’s comment as he was being led away to the squad was not naïve, overly romanticized or out of context. Given his memories of the sites and of encounters and their aftermath that haunted those memories, Feliciano had every reason to think that this cute, attentive, responsive youngman would be his “friend”. That is, if he suspected there might have been a risk of arrest at this site, he refused to accept the possibility of risk and its consequences seriously. That the youngman turned out to be an undercover policeman created a moment of frustrated, now impossible desire and, perhaps, self-blame. And the melancholic lament that underlies Feliciano’s remark reflects that frustration. But Feliciano could not blame Cury for the misleading guidance extended by his own memories; Feliciano could only blame himself: I thought that you were my friend.

1.10 The Chapters in Overview

This chapter has argued that there are ways to describe language before Stonewall—the orientation provided by QHL, specifically—that do not depend on “the right way to tell the Stonewall story” or on the assumptions of secrecy, inequality, and vulnerability that the emblematic narrative assigns to sexual sameness. This chapter introduces the method and theory associated with queer historical linguistics (QHL) and demonstrates QHL’s usefulness for studies of language before Stonewall. QHL builds on the idea that about queerness is a “mesh of possibilities” (Sedgwick 1993), a messy formation (Manalansan 2014), and refers to practices and subject positions located “on the edges of logics of labor and production …” (Halberstam 2005b: 10). QHL depends on an assemblage of data (an archive) gathered through a scavenger methodology (Halberstam 1998) and analyzed through the work of close reading (Freeman 2010; Levine 2015), and through the framework of homohistory (Menon 2008). Unlike in historical studies where “meaning succeeds as replacing itself-as itself- through time” (Edelman 2004), QHL refuses to “…take the object of queering for granted” (Goldberg and Menon 2005).

Chapters  2 and  3 consider two forms of linguistic practice that did repeatedly orient language use before Stonewall: discretion and surveillance.

Discretion (Chapter  2) is a linguistic practice in which the speaker reveals some information about (in this case) sexuality and related themes, but also withholds additional details from the audience. Those who “understand” the discussion to make the appropriate inferences, draw analogies, or otherwise make associations between was presented and what could also have been said. Those less familiar with these affordances (Levine 2015) understand the message as presented; they are not denied access to meaning as usually happens with the exclusive phrasings of a secret code. Either way, audiences’ members participate inclusively, if not entirely uniformly, in the linguistic moment.

Surveillance (Chapter  3) refers to practices of watch-keeping activities, that are designed to assemble knowledge which can be used for purposes of making decisions about those being targeted for surveillance. Recent work in feminist theory (Dubrofsky and Magnet 2015) adds that surveillance creates knowledge as well as assembles it. Both sense of surveillance was found in the surveillance practices directed at same-sex desiring subjects (and subjects who investigators assume to be same-sex desiring) before Stonewall.

This chapter discusses three examples of such practices: The audience surveillance of the US-Mexican borderland bolerista Chelo Silva; police surveillance of men cruising other men in a downtown Washington, D.C. movie theater; military surveillance of the psycho-sexual fitness for service of same-sex desiring draftees during World War II and the linguistic practices that enabled these subjects’ respondes to surveillance during military induction; these subjects may have been targeted for surveillance, but they were not stripped of (linguistic) agency.

Chapter  4 examines how people learned practices of discretion, responses to surveillance and other linguistic practices expressing messages about sexual sameness before Stonewall. Direct mentoring was helpful, and so was overhearing (Bubel 2008), instances where the learner gained new information while observing, as a third-party observing language use between others. Print resources were helpful, whether dedicated to homosexual interests or written for a general audience and open to a sexualized reading. Enlistment in the US military and women’s softball playing, and spectatorship created contexts locations that encouraged language learning through immersion and through translanguaging, incorporating new knowledge about sexual language into their existing linguistic knowledge base, producing a flexible accumulation (Leap 2003) of linguistic practices related to sexual sameness. Multiple language learning encounters, and equally multiple outcomes—what Provencher (2017) calls a “confluence of scripts”—are associated with these language learning experiences. Chapter  4 explores some of the circumstances under which these “flexible scripts” were created.

Chapter  5 traces evidence for the circulations of these “flexible scripts” before Stonewall, noting how these forms of linguistic practice expressed sexual references within geographic, racial, ethnic and other social boundaries, as well as across them. The chapter reviews evidence of these forms of superdiversity (Blommaert and Rampton 2011) displayed in the entries in several dictionaries and wordlists related to language before Stonewall, tracing the regulatory assumptions (the ideologies) that guided what linguistic materials, and what linguistic sources, would be included—and excluded—from those displays. Different social varieties of US English and different languages other than English (LOTE) are considered here.

Chapter  5 then turns to real-life example of superdiversity and its consequences: the accumulations of language and sexuality that circulated variously in early twentieth-century Harlem. At that time, this area of New York City reportedly had the largest greatest concentration of African Americans per square mile in the world (Johnson 1930). Harlemese, Harlem’s everyday vernacular, had its sexual (and homosexual) varieties, too, but all forms of Harlemese were very different from the English usage expected from the elite group—the “Talented Tenth” (Dubois 1903)—who were to lead African American people up the mountain path to the new Canaan. And the comments of proponents of “Talented tenth” were very clear: speakers of Harlemese, and (homo)sexual Harlemese in specific, were not welcome on the leadership team and would be expelled if they did. Meanwhile, other studies praised Harlemese for demonstrating the artistic skills of the “Negro furthest down” (in Zora Neale Hurston’s phrasing, 1938). The definition of opportunity was not depended on assimilation in this argument, but it ensured that linguistic practices embodied conflicts over race and class, opportunity and sexuality in the 1920s Harlem. The legacies of that conflict still haunt discussions of Harlemese today.

Chapter  6 concludes the books’ discussion, arguing that—as a primary point, Language Before Stonewall showed multiple ways to confirm the presence of a language of queerness before Stonewall, a presence that cannot be fully contained within “the right way to tell the story” about the Stonewall moment. Disrupting the privileged narrative and the Stonewall excesses that this narrative promotes is one of the tasks that queer historical linguistics must address, as QHL works to describe the details of linguistic practice before.


  1. 1.

    In US English, a riot identifies actions that appear randomly and spontaneously, and always as a group formation: One person does not riot, people do. And riot is never planned: Riot happens. Moreover, riots are never activities that address constructive goals: People riot against something, they do not riot in favor of something. All of these features make riots an undeveloped, almost primitive form of political practice, all the more so when compared to the organized, ordered, and goal-oriented activities associated with modern civil/social rights movements.

  2. 2.

    This notation identifies the section by indicating its order of appearance within the given chapter. Thus, Sect. 1.1 indicates the opening section in this chapter. Section  3.5.1 indicates the first subsection within Sect.  3.5 of Chapter  3. Section  4.5.3 indicates the third subsection within Sect.  4.5 of Chapter  4, and so on.

  3. 3.

    This Manual began as Rosanoff’s translation of a textbook by the French psychiatrist J. Rogues de Fursac. As Rosanoff prepared new editions of the translated text, he also added examples from his own clinical practice. By the 6th edition (1927), Rosanoff assumed sole authorship of the Manual. Rosanoff’s discussion is seemingly progressive in some of his suggestions. He recommended against therapeutic attempts to “change” homosexuals or legal proposals to criminalize their behavior (the endangerment of children, excepted.) But Rosanoff was also a proponent of eugenics (deliberate interventions to ensure racial purity). Leaving homosexual subjects uninterrupted was also an endorsement of homosexual genocide.

  4. 4.

    Legman may have incorporated terminology from these sources, but his glossary drew heavily on an unpublished dictionary prepared by Thomas Painter, who use male homosexual prostitutes and their friends as his primary source of information (Minton 2002: 38–40, 46–47).

  5. 5.

    Indeed, Hayes (1984: 39) argues that the term camp is one of only two terms in gay language that is uniquely gay. (The other term is the closet.)

  6. 6.

    Bergman’s comments respond to Sontag’s (1964) claim that camp emerges from permissive and liberated, utopian social conditions, not from conditions of social and political struggle. Sontag also associates camp with a secret code and with the actions of a privileged elite, attributes which Meyer’s and Bergman’s commentary and Legman’s definition would not support. Newton’s example (below) opposes that component of Sontag’s claims, as well.

  7. 7.

    These remarks on the short stories and poems are based on my unpublished analysis of copies of The Ladder housed in the Stonewall National Archives at the Stonewall Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale FL. My thanks to Paul Fasana, chief archivist, for providing access to this collection. My colleague Joeva Rock made a preliminary review of copies of The Ladder at the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Harmel Gay and Lesbian Center; her comments helped to direct my inquiry and I remain grateful for her support.

  8. 8.

    Goldberg and Menon (2005) use homohistory as an alternative term for unhistoricism, Menon occasionally uses unhistoricism, but primarily uses homohistory. I follow Menon’s preference for terminology in this section although, as these comments show, unhistoricism’s disruption of conventional assumptions about history also apply here.

  9. 9.

    Sources indicating recent directions in queer linguistics include: Baker (2008), Barrett (2018), Cashman (2018), Jones (2012), Leap (2012, 2015, 2016), Levon and Mendes (2016), Milani and Lazar (2017), Motschenbacher (2010, 2011, 2018), Sauntson (2018), and Yoong (2018).

  10. 10.

    Sources in related fields addressing the interests of queer historical linguistics include: Doan (2013), Menon (2008), Masten (2016), Pakuła (2019), and Vider (2013). These sources usually do not refer to QHL in their analyses, however.

  11. 11.

    Archive in this usage refers to the aggregate of project-related stories, anecdotes conversations, memories, and other language-centered, sexuality-based textual data.

  12. 12.

    In some domains of current (2019–2020) LGBTQ usage, fish expresses a positive evaluation of, e.g., a drag queens realness. The negative, misogynist associations indicated in Legman’s comments are not part of this usage (Nikki Lane, p.c., Chris van der Stouwe, p.c.). Had a similar positive message been in circulation in the 1930s, Legman’s commentary might have been phrased differently, unless his source did not gather information from drag queens. Sadly, we have no evidence of positive messages associated with fish/fish queen in the 1930s urban USA.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies ProgramFlorida Atlantic UniversityBoca RatonUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyAmerican UniversityWashington, D.C.USA

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