Rainbow Plaque 15 – Celebrating ‘Polari’

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Rainbow Plaque 15 - Celebrating 'Polari'

Rainbow Plaque number 15 on our newly established Rainbow Plaque Trail around Leeds city centre celebrates the LGBT+ community’s use of ‘Polari’, a secret vocabulary used to avoid arousing suspicion at a time when being gay was a criminal offence. The plaque is situated at the entrance to the City Varieties Music Hall and Theatre due to the popular use of Polari slang among actors and travelling performers. This secret language is said to have originated within the LGBT+ community when many people working within the theatrical industry during the late 19th and early 20th century were concerned about hiding their sexual identity from undercover policemen and others who may have reported them to the authorities. Polari slang was comprised of a mixture of Italian, Romani, London rhyming slang and even some terms adopted from the sailor-speak used by the British Navy. Despite its rather obscure origins, Polari slang has endured to this day and has even been adopted into mainstream dialogue – words such as ‘bevvy’ (drink) and ‘naff’ (awful) are original Polari terms.

Homosexuality was a crime in the United Kingdom up until 1967 and so for many decades Polari was relied upon to maintain social relationships within the gay community without risk of arrest. As the Rainbow Plaque says the use of Polari continued into the 1970s when, although homosexuality had been made legal, there was still somewhat of a social stigma surrounding the gay community. Having a Rainbow Plaque to commemorate the use of Polari by the marginalised gay community helps to highlight the lengths that people had to go to in order to avoid being prosecuted for their sexual identity.

The Polari plaque is perhaps the most central of the entire trail, featuring on the front of the City Varieties at the corner between the Headrow and Briggate. It is the final plaque on the walking tour around Leeds’ LGBT+ landmarks and highlights the city’s recognition of a community that was, for so long, excluded by mainstream society. As significant as it is, the Polari plaque is just one of fifteen newly erected Rainbow Plaques around the centre of Leeds celebrating the LGBT+ community, and the rest can be found on the Rainbow Plaque Trail guide map which can be downloaded here.