Code involves symbols, behaviors, and words used to convey secret, private, or in-group messages. Codes in dress, embodied movement, and speech have been used in LGBTQ activism, festive performance, song lyrics, and cruising (looking for sexual/romantic partners).
Homophobic Legal Code
Code has also been used outside of Gay-related communities in homophobic legal discourse. In the history of English jurisprudence, for example, homosexuality was considered such a grave offense that the very mention of it was forbidden. Legal language was developed to deal primarily with male homosexuality because female homosexuality was often overlooked in societies where men were considered chronically sexual, while women were seen for the most part as nonsexual by nature, or women were systemically considered unimportant by the society at large.
The crime of homosexuality among men was epitomized in the form of anal sex, which was called buggery (from “Bulgarian”) since the Middle Ages. Another code word was sodomy (from the Biblical city of Sodom, a term used since the early Middle Ages or earlier). Both terms were often used as synonyms. Bugger and sodomite were typically used in reference to homosexual men.
For homosexual women, two words relating to the Greek poet Sappho (sixth century BCE) from the island of Lesbos: Sapphist and lesbian gained currency since at least the early 1700s.
The origins of the words “bugger,” “sodomite,” and “lesbian” refer to places and peoples, thus ascribing a sense of community and citizenship (albeit perverted) to homosexuals. As such, bugger, lesbian, and sodomite imply that homoerotic behaviors are transformative, causing the perpetrator to acquire a different identity, or that such behaviors indicate an essential difference that comes with homosexual acts.
There have been times in the history of Gay-related communities when Gay-related identity could result in grievous harm. A separate lexicon for the increasingly visible yet still stigmatized Gay community developed in urban England during the late 1800s called polari that incorporated words from lingua franca, shelta, rhyme slang, back slang, and cant.
Code used in other English-speaking Gay communities from 1950-1980 includes words such as gay, family, temperamental, sensitive, touched, interesting, brilliant, mixed emotions, playing for the other team, and friend of Dorothy (from “Dorothy,” the main character in the Gay-iconic movie, The Wizard of Oz).
Other codes include a green carnation for men (an accessory attributed to Oscar Wilde) and discussion centered around theatrical works or show tunes. Short hair and masculine or gender-neutral names for women could signify “lesbian,” and casual references to certain publications, such as The Ladder (a Lesbian rights publication), Blue Boy (a homoerotic magazine for men), and pulp fiction novels specifically written for female and male homosexual people could also signify homosexuality.
In the Circuit (large-scale dance events for Gay men and their allies), code for illegal intoxicants uses women’s first names that may vary from region to region. Some popular code names are Gina for GHB, Katie or Kitty for ketamine, Stacy for MDMA or ecstasy, Tina or that bitch for crystal methamphetamine, and Connie for cocaine.
Open In-Group Code
Since Gay Liberation after the Stonewall Riots, a lexicon of symbols and words are used in everyday life to identify Gay people. Many of these symbols are now part of the public domain, such as the pink triangle (after the badge used in Nazi Germany to identify homosexual men in the concentration camps), the Greek letter lambda that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, the labrys or double-headed axe favored by many Lesbians as a symbol for their community, and the rainbow. A single-loop red ribbon in honor of those with AIDS is also a popular symbol that signifies solidarity with the Gay community.
Gay people have taken the code word gay and used it for themselves as an internationally recognized word for the LGBTQ community. In addition, the community of gender-variant, same-sex oriented people and their allies has taken the first letter of its various identities and formed acronyms with them. Although the order and letters may change, the most common identities include Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Transgender/Transsexual/Trans (T or TT), Queer (Q), Questioning (Q), Ally (A), Intersex (I), and ethnoculturally-specific identities such as Two-Spirit (2S) for First Nation and Native American peoples.
Private In-Group Code
Within the Gay community, there is a code used by the general population that includes words such as family (as in, “She/he is family” or Gay), sister (applied to both women and men), Mary (indicating a homosexual man, also known as queen or girl), butch (masculine), femme (feminine) used with women in reference to lipstick lesbians, and often in a negative fashion for men in the “personals” section of publications, as in “No femmes” (not attracted to effeminate men) and nelly or nancy (effeminate, used with men).
In terms of erotic code, words may indicate preference for certain acts, such as bottom (anally or vaginally penetrated), top (penetrator), versatile (both penetrated and penetrator), and vanilla (sexually unadventurous). The Leather community developed the hanky code, which assigns different sexual acts to different colored handkerchiefs carried in a back pocket (blue: anal sex, black: sado-masochism, coral pink: shrimping or toe-sucking). A handkerchief carried in the left pocket indicates a top, and in the right, the wearer is a bottom.
Bears (Gay men who prefer beards, body hair, and bodies that are not necessarily in top physical shape) created the Bear Code, a listing of physical and personality traits given with letters, numbers, plusses, and minuses. This code is expressed in a chain of characteristics, for example: B5F+TW++CMG+K-. This is translated as follows: B5: has full beard, F+: hairy (F for “fur”), T: medium height, W++: hefty, C: cub, M: medium-muscular, G+: likes to be touched (G for “grope”), K-: not kinky.
Ballroom, a folk group composed mostly of urban African American and Latin LGBTQ people organized into houses (non-sanguine familial groups with mothers, fathers, and children or kids) that engage each other in competitive dance, costume, and posing on a runway, has its own distinctive folk speech. Contests determine realness (the ability to dramatically present oneself successfully in a chosen persona), contestants can be chopped (disqualified), or given tens across the board (score high points from judges) if they are fierce (assertive, confident, and spectacular), if they sell it (make a profoundly positive impression), and if they make the audience gag (amaze the audience) because they are snatched (looking good) and cunty (fierce).
Code-switching refers to a change in performance that involves using speech and behaviors of a specific group other than the one that precedes it. For example, if a butch Lesbian sitting with her friends in a restaurant wishes to present herself as a drag queen in the midst of conversation, she may code-switch to camp (hilarious exaggerated performance, often effeminate) by means of a change in vocabulary, pronunciation, facial expression, and gesture.
Gay people tend to value the ability to deftly and convincingly code-switch, possibly because of the necessity to be able to blend in with the rest of society as a means for self-protection against homophobic people. But even as that necessity becomes less important in some Gay-friendly societies, fondness for code-switching remains a hallmark of LGBTQ conversational skills as well as festive performance. Often such code-switching invokes gender codes, as in the performance of drag kings, drag queens, and gender-queer performers who may appear as one identity and then change into another mid-performance. Muscle camp (code-switching from butch to femme by muscular men) is one such form, and is a favorite among members of the Circuit.
Baker, Paul. Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London, Continuum, 2004.
Bérubé, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire. New York: The Free Press, 1990.
Goodwin, Joseph P. More Man than You’ll Ever Be: Gay Folklore and Acculturation in Middle America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1989.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1990.