Fairy is a term used for effeminate males, men who are romantically attracted to other men, and transwomen. It is applied less frequently to butch females, women romantically attracted to other women, and transmen. “Fairy” can be used as an insult, but members of the LGBTQ community use it in outrageous and humorous folk speech.
Origin of Fairies
Fairies are magical beings found primarily in Western European folklore, although the term has been extended to non-Western European beings. Their name is traced back to fae from Middle English feie (“fate” or “fated to die”) and Old English faege (“accursed”). In modern French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, the word is fée, hada, fada, and fata, respectively.
Although fairies may be called “the Wee Folk,” they come in a range of shapes, sizes, temperaments, and species. They were often feared, so they were sometimes called “the Good Folk” or “Good People” as not to insult them.
What exactly constitutes a fairy may vary. Some people trace them to spirits of the dead, or spirits of nature that are neither human nor angelic. Others consider them angels who were not good enough for Heaven or bad enough for Hell. Those influenced by puritanical Christian discourse may call them demons.
Fairies are fey, that is, possessing supernatural powers, including glamour, the power of illusion. Fairy gold, for example, may seem real when one receives it, but in a short time will return to its original form, most often something monetarily worthless such as leaves, sticks, or rocks. Fairies also entice and kidnap mortals, sometimes making them to join in their dances in Fairyland.
Fairy and Gay
As a derogatory term for homosexual or effeminate men, “fairy” gained popularity in the beginning of the twentieth century. The reasons for this may have to do with the transformation of what was formerly perceived as an unpredictable and potentially malicious supernatural being into a gentle, shy, tiny, gossamer, and (more often than not) feminine sprite who lives in nature and comes out to dance when mortals are not around.
About the same time that “fairy” became code for “homosexual” or “effeminate”, the word “gay” began to take on the same connotations. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, both “fairy” and “gay” were juxtaposed in poetry:
“The Elfin Queen (an Allegory),” William Whiteman Fosdick (1855): “Oh fairies gay! How beautiful are they… We fairies gay, to thee awake our lay… A fairy gay, as beautiful as day… Oh fairy gay! No words could e’er convey…”
“The Phoenix to Mrs. Butts,” William Blake (mid-nineteenth century): “And then I saw a fairy gay…”
“The Elfin Grove,” Brothers Grimm (English translation, 1869): “Fairies gay, trip away…”
“Le tailleur et la fee,” Beranger, French poet (English translation, mid-nineteenth century): “And the fairy’s gay lullaby sung in my ears…”
“My Life,” Anna Cora Mowatt (mid-nineteenth century): “My life is a fairy’s gay dream…”
“To My Hills,” Mabel Thacher Rosemary Washburn (1912): “That was myself, all fairy-gay…”
Pansy Craze and Fairy Songs
By the 1920s, “fairy” and “pansy” were used in popular speech to describe effeminate and homosexual men, while “gay” was still a code-word used within the Gay community that had not yet become synonymous with homosexual and gender-variant people in popular speech. Two fairy-themed songs were released during the pansy craze (a rise in popularity of drag shows and drag balls) in the 1920s and 1930s. These songs were “I Have Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden” in 1924 by Beatrice Lillie (a Straight ally), and “Let’s All Be Fairies” recorded in 1933 by the Durium Dance Band, which invoked the stereotypes of homosexual/effeminate men as weak and nonviolent pansies who love to dance:
Two great big burly boxers
Were engaged to appear in the ring
Said the slosher to the slugger
I won’t hurt you
If you don’t hurt me, old thing
When we’re in the ring tonight
There’s no reason why we should fight
So let’s both be fairies
Tinkle tinkle gnesh gnesh gnesh
Don’t get annoyed if I shove you
You can’t imagine how I love you
We’ll punch flimsy-flamsy
You go out when I say “Dash” [the name of a notorious Gay bar in San Francisco, shut down by authorities in 1908]
[chorus] Ding dong ding dong
Fairy bells are gaily ringing
Ding dong ding dong
Everybody’s gaily singing
dancing ’round the moonbeams
Hear our fairy footsteps
Whoops, there we are
Insult and Camp After Stonewall
“Fairy” continued to mean homosexual/effeminate for men through the latter half of the twentieth century after Stonewall and into the twenty-first century. In the first commercially successful rap song, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, there is a line referring to Superman as less than a real man: “He’s a fairy/I do suppose/Flying through the air/In panty hose.” Camp sensibilities of humor have since taken “fairy” and subverted much of the negativity to the point where Vida Boheme (played by Patrick Swayze), the lead drag queen in the movie, To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), says, “Sometimes it just takes a fairy” when she and two other queens (played by Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo) bring urban glamour and encourage heteronormal romance to a sleepy Midwestern town.
The co-option of the word “fairy” as a positive in-group word for Gays is also reflected in the Fairy Tales Film Festival, held annually since 2003 in Calgary, Canada and sponsored by the Fairy Tales Presentation Society, which took over in 2005.
Radical Faeries and Gay Fairy Tales
Notions associated with the fairies of lore, such as glamour, transformation, dance, magic, etc. are reinterpreted by LGBTQ people who reclaim the word “faerie” and its variations as positive expressions of Queer identity. Noting the ways in which the fairies of legend connected with Gay men, a group called the Radical Faeries was formed in 1979. This group espoused an open definition of “faerie,” definable by the LGBTQ person who adopts it, as well as an equally open forum for spiritual expression. The purpose of the group is to avoid “hetero-imitation,” that is, allowing Straight identity to define Gay identity.
LGBTQ authors have written books to reinterpret fairy tales (which include many stories that do not feature fairies) in terms of queer themes, such as Fairy Tales: Traditional Stories Retold for Gay Men (1995, second volume 1997), King and King (2002), and Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (1997). There has also been a movement in queer literature to reinterpret some of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde in terms of the authors’ same-sex orientation.
Ashliman, D.L. Fairy Lore: A Handbook. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2006.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World. New York: BasicBooks, 1994.
Haase, Donald. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2008.
Malinowski, Sharon et al. Gay and Lesbian Literature. Detroit: St. James, 1998.