Polari

Alright, Nellyarda, this one’s important. It’s all about how we communicate — or, how we did. Today, we’re going to talk about Polari. Polari was a secret, coded slang language (or “cant language”) that was used by gay men (and also, only occasionally, by lesbians) in England up until the late 1960’s. A way to hide who you were and what you were talking about when out and about in public places where it wasn’t legal to be openly gay.

Now, if you’re sitting there wondering who “Nellyarda” is — that’s a good sign you live in a place where these hidden languages aren’t still in use. “Nellyarda” isn’t a person, it’s a verb — it just means “listen.” Fortunately, in much of the world, talking to other gay people about gay things isn’t a crime and you don’t need to speak in code (although we still have a lot of slang that leaves people in mainstream culture scratching their heads. To be honest, sometimes even I scratch my head — what the heck is a “squirrel friend” anyways?) But while we delve into the history of Polari, I want you to keep in mind that there are places in the world today where these coded languages are not history — where they are still used but are still vital to the survival of the underground LGBTQ+ culture there. Bahasa binan is still spoken in Indonesia; in South Africa and Zimbabwe gay English-speakers are probably familiar with Gayle language, while Bantu speakers are using IsiNgqumo. Those are just a couple examples, but there’s a whole lot of these types of languages which people examining queer language (otherwise called “Lavender linguistics“) might want to take a look at. I promise to touch on more of them in the future.

Anyways, back to Polari. The roots of Polari can be traced back to 16th century — to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte — a really old form of professional, kind of vaudevillian theater that originated in Italy. While traveling around Europe, entertainers developed a sort of jargon of their own, which they called “parlyaree” from the Italian word “parlare” meaning “to talk.” Parlyaree expanded a bit, started to get used by sailors — and as it expanded it picked up words from other places — thieves cant, backslang, etc; and other languages from all across Europe too, including Yiddish, French, Shelta, and others. It became popular amongst all of the undesirable parts of society — criminals, Romani travelers, prostitutes….

And, of course, “undesirables” also meant “the gays.” Most likely it was traveling gay entertainers that brought parlyaree to Britain, as a version of parlyaree was commonly used in Punch & Judy puppet shows. Many of the words were innately sarcastic or sexualized in their meanings. Speakers would often pick campy nicknames for themselves, gay men often using names that were effeminate. The language created a cultural attitude that was strong and resilient in the face of brutal abuse and discrimination. Polari was particularly useful for two things: gossip and finding men to hook up with.

Polari, coming full circle, found its way into British entertainment — adopted by the Punch & Judy shows that had brought it to the British Isles to begin with, and — much much later — in the radio comedy series Round the Horne which began airing on March 7, 1965. Round the Horne was wildly popular, and the characters of Julian and Sandy — the two characters who spoke simplified Polari — were especially popular. The good news is that they helped British society become more accepting of homosexuals. That said, gay sex was still a crime and it was certainly not great for the gay community’s safety to have the mainstream culture, including members of law enforcement, hearing their hidden language on the radio each week. This was probably one of the early contributing factors in the decline of Polari. By 1967, anti-sodomy laws in the UK began to be repealed, which meant the necessity of Polari significantly decreased.

A Julian and Sandy sketch from Round the Horne.

By the 1970s, Polari had fallen so out of favor that the gay magazine Lunch called it “ghettoising”. By 2000, when Paul Baker of Lancaster University surveyed 800 gay men, roughly half of them had never even heard of Polari. But Baker was just ahead of a resurgence of interest — a curiosity from both linguistic scholars and from queer people looking at their own history. In 2003, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, collaborating with Tim Greening-Jackson (AKA Sister Matic de Bauchery) created a Polari translation of the Bible. Although it’s available online (see that link in the previous sentence!) a leatherbound copy was displayed in a glass case at John Rylands Library in Manchester. In 2012, that copy was read aloud in the world’s longest reading of the Polari Bible — performed at a Manchester art gallery.

Despite being essentially a dead language, the more recent ties to religion have stirred up a lot of controversy. In 2017, Wescott House — a college that trains priests for the Church of England — held an evensong entirely in Polari, led by trainees from the college. The intent, according to the trainees, was to sort of “queerify” their evening prayer service, to make room within their faith for queer people. That’s a noble intent, but of course not everyone appreciated the way it was done (particularly because in Polari, “the Lord” translates to “the Duchess”) and ultimately the Church of England issued a public apology calling the event “hugely regrettable.”

Although it’s technically considered a dead language, there are some words and phrases that were definitely part of the Polari vocabulary that we still commonly use today — “drag” and “trade” are still part of our popular slang with their meanings virtually unchanged, “zhoosh” meaning “to style”, most recently popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy television series. Polari was a constantly changing language, and as such it’s difficult to research and there’s no complete dictionary of terms anywhere. I think that makes it more important to preserve the words we still know were used — so I am going to try to make a complete dictionary for this site. Stay tuned!

James Barry

Like so many historical figures, James Barry‘s gender identity is kind of a mystery because the language and understanding we have of gender today has really evolved immensely since the 19th century. Nevertheless, I feel pretty confident that James Barry was transgender and not just trying to escape the confines that came with being a woman in Regency era Britain. I’ll justify that as we go through this.

He¬†was the second child born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley in Ireland, though there is very little information about his early life. He was named Margaret Anne Bulkley and lived as a girl until at least age 19. What little information can be found and verified seems to indicate he was born in 1789 — for instance, a letter dated January 14, 1805 states that the young “Miss Bulkley” was fifteen years old at the time. The date of birth is a bit confusing, because there are also sources that indicate he may have been born in 1792, 1795, or 1799. These are probably due to Barry lying about his age through his military career.

There is also some indication that Barry was assaulted as a child, resulting in a pregnancy. The child this produced is theorized to be the youngest Bulkley child, Juliana, who was raised as Barry’s sister.

The Bulkley family had serious financial difficulties — and ultimately they concocted a scheme to produce a better income. “Margaret Anne” adopted the name James Barry and posed as the nephew of the Irish artist James Barry (who was Mary-Ann Bulkley’s brother). Along with his mother (his “aunt” in letters), Barry boarded a ship bound for the University of Edinburgh in 1809. It is from the envelope of one letter from this trip that researchers were able to trace Barry back to his early childhood — the back of the envelope discreetly bore the words “Miss Bulkley, 14 December.” After this point, Barry never permitted anyone to see him change clothes and lived as a man both publicly and privately.

Barry began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Due to his effeminate facial features, many students believed Barry to be a pre-pubescent boy (like, some kind of prodigy, I guess?) and the university even tried to stop him from taking the final exams because they believed he was too young. The Earl of Buchan intervened, and Barry graduated in 1812 and almost immediately enrolled in courses at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’. On July 2, 1813, Barry passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons.

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Not the most flattering portrait that’s ever been painted, is it?

On July 6, 1813 Barry was commissioned as a hospital assistant in the British army. For anyone keeping track, that’s a four day turn around on graduating school and landing a job. Barry was initially stationed at Chelsea, and then sent to Plymouth to serve at the Royal Military Hospital there. He was promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces (which apparently is the medical equivalent of a lieutenant) on December 7 of 1815.

In 1816, Barry was sent to Cape Town, South Africa. Barry’s previous benefactor, the Earl of Buchan, had sent a letter of introduction to the governor Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset. Barry quickly impressed the governor’s family by treating his ailing daughter. Barry was essentially welcomed as a member of the family, and in 1822 Somerset promoted Barry to Colonial Medical Inspector — which was a pretty massive jump in station and in responsibility. Barry spent the next decade significantly improving conditions — especially for slaves, prisoners, prostitutes and the mentally ill. Barry even made a priority out of improving the conditions in hospitals and leper colonies. Barry is notable for being one of the handful of medical professionals at the time who understood that humanitarian conditions — particularly hygiene, diet, and fresh air — were vital to sustain a healthy population and prevent the spread of disease.

Although he used excellent bedside manner with patients, Barry was otherwise outspoken, impatient, brash, and often tactless — particularly when it came to criticizing other people when it came to medical concerns and policies. Not surprisingly, a lot of people did not like Barry because of this but his close friendship with the governor shielded him from consequences. That’s probably a large factor in one major event that took place in 1824: Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset was accused of “buggering” Barry. An investigation and a trial followed.

Now, buggering — which, of course, was the act of homosexual intercourse — was still very illegal in the British Empire and could still carry the death penalty. Nevertheless, nobody even seems to have considered that Barry was biologically female and Barry certainly didn’t offer up this information. This is one reason that I’m convinced that Barry identified as a man — Barry never came forward to save Somerset. Somerset also never revealed anything, even though it’s considered probable that he knew.

Though the case failed to prove any buggering, it proved humiliating for both Somerset and Barry. Barry managed to redeem himself in June of the same year — by performing a Cesarean section (without anesthesia) where both the mother and child lived. This was one of the first times this ever done and was the first time this had been accomplished anywhere in the British Empire or, as far as we know, in Africa. This feat easily secured Barry’s position as the best doctor in the colony.

On November 22, 1827 Barry was promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. The following year, he was assigned a new posting in Mauritius. After only a year there, Barry took a leave because Lord Somerset had fallen in. Barry personally cared for Somerset until his death in 1831, at which point Barry was sent to Jamaica and then, in 1836, to Saint Helena.

Barry’s abrasive personality had not mellowed out over the years, and while stationed at Saint Helena he came into some sort of, let’s say, “gentleman’s disagreement” with another officer that resulted in Barry facing a court martial that ultimately found him not guilty.

In 1840, Barry was promoted to Principal Medical Officer and assigned to the Leeward and Windward Islands of the West Indies. His assignment was to improve the conditions of the soldiers stationed there. This posting was apparently uneventful until Barry contracted yellow fever in 1845 and returned to England on sick leave. After being cleared for duty in 1846, Barry was stationed in Malta where he quickly ruffled feathers by — apparently — sitting in a seat in church that was reserved for clergy. This led to a formal reprimand, but Barry was less concerned with hurt feelings and more concerned with the looming threat of cholera. The disease ultimate did breakout, despite Barry’s efforts, and he was called on to treat it.

Although the cholera epidemic lasted until 1860, Barry’s superiors sent him to Corfu in 1851. On May 16, they promoted him to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. Barry requested to be posted in Crimea, but the request was denied. In turn, Barry requested a leave and traveled to Crimea anyways. While there, Barry had a run-in with Florence Nightingale. The only descriptions I can find of the event come from Nightingale, but it sounds like Barry, on horseback, confronted her about something while she was (I’m guessing) crossing camp either to or from showers because she was basically naked. Whatever transpired, it left Nightingale with a deep dislike of Barry, whom she later described as “the most hardened creature [she] had ever met.”

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James Barry and John Joseph Danson

On September 25, 1857 Barry received a promotion to Inspector General of Hospitals and was posted to Canada. He remained in this post, improving healthcare particularly for the poor, until he was forcibly retired from military service because of age and illness on July 19, 1859. He returned to London, where he lived quietly with only his servant John Joseph Danson (who had been with Barry since his first posting in South Africa) and a poodle named Psyche. Barry died from dysentery on July 25, 1865. Shortly thereafter, Danson disappeared — but is believed to have gone to Jamaica.

Despite having left strict instructions that his body not be examined in any capacity after his death, the truth of Barry’s biological sex was discovered. The physician who had issued the death certificate, Major D. R. McKinnon, had written on the certificate that Barry was a male. Afterwards, a woman — who is believed to have been laying out Barry’s body for burial — discovered Barry was biologically female and showed signs of having given birth at a young age. She attempted to use the secret to blackmail McKinnon. However, Barry had no known surviving family and McKinnon was not especially concerned (stating that he had figured Barry was a “hermaphrodite” but that it was “none of [his] business”), so he shrugged her off. The woman leaked this information to the press. A number of people responded by claiming to have known it all along, and Florence Nightingale responded by writing a scathing letter about how much she didn’t care what he was, she still really didn’t like him.

The British Army, in an effort to save face as women were allowed to be neither officers nor doctors and Barry had been both, sealed all records about Barry for the next hundred years. Isobel Rae, a history, gained access to the records in the 1950’s and ultimately pieced together Barry’s history from before he transitioned.

There’s a lot of discussion regarding whether or not Barry was truly transgender. Some would argue that because he transitioned with the help of his family in order to financially aid his family means it was all an elaborate ruse. Obviously, I’m firmly in the other camp that he was — living as a man even in private, not even breaking from his gender expression to prove a friend innocent of buggery, and trying to maintain that gender identity even in death despite not having any surviving family — to me, that all indicates someone who vehemently identified as a man.