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Breaking the code.

This will come as a shock to some of you, but many years ago there was another Donny and Marie show, nothing like the one that's on now. I was one of the writers. We had ice skaters and confetti and movie parodies in which Marie was Dorothy, Donny was the Scarecrow, and Paul Lynde was the Wicked Witch of the West. He spent all week tormenting the Munchkins by putting their lunch trays on a high shelf. Emmys? Never. But we had a few good years, and then The Incredible Hulk wiped us off the map.

One of the favorite games the writers used to play was getting a suggestive lyric past the ABC censors or, even tougher, the Mormon elders who used to scrutinize every script. (The Osmonds, in case you missed the memo, are devout Mormons who, at least in those days, built their shows around strict church guidelines; to this day, every time I see Orrin Hatch on TV, I think he's waiting for me to hand him script pages.)

I considered it a great personal victory when I got Marie to sing "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and nobody objected. But that was topped mere months later when, in an effort to declare herself a solo artist not always linked to her brother, she opened the show with the Diana Ross hit "I'm Coming Out."

"Oh, doesn't that make ya wanna weep? Marie is coming out," Lynde remarked dryly from the wings. "I knew it was just a matter of time." We shared a laugh, that secret laugh that gay people don't share much anymore.

Coming out is not only a national pastime, but now it's also a national holiday. Back then, of course, people didn't publicly admit they were gay unless they were being led away in handcuffs and couldn't deny it. Even a decade after Stonewall, the phrase coming out didn't have a lot of mainstream circulation. Could you imagine Diana Ross singing a song about it if it did? We had more secret phrases in our closet than we had gaily colored kerchiefs, but they all worked the same way. The phrases told you the lay of the land about a person's sexuality. The kerchief, worn in the right place, told you how to lay him. We were a secret society, damn it, and we had a secret code.

Ground zero was always The Wizard of Oz. Somebody wasn't gay, he was "a friend of Dorothy." Happy souls would tell you he was "festive." Gloomier friends would describe him as being "in the life." Perhaps he "liked show tunes." Queenier types were solemnly described as "a member of the royal order of the lavender."

Whole conversations could be built in code. "Does he play in our band? .... Oh, yes. And, you know, he's in real estate. He's got a big piece of property in the valley." "No kidding. Just looking at him, I knew he was musical. Maybe he'll do that flute solo." And no one else in the elevator knew what you were talking about.

Lesbians had codes of their own, of course. I was doing a benefit at the Metropolitan Opera once, and a noted diva took the stage. One of the sound engineers turned to me and winked, "Break out your scuba gear. It's time to dive."

In the pre-Stonewall days, gay could still mean lighthearted and carefree, so if you saw somebody you thought might be, you could always ask something quasi-innocent like "I'm going to Columbus, Ohio. Are there any gay places there?" The answer got you your answer. Once we coopted the word and used it to label our entire culture, that little conversational ploy fell w-a-a-ay out of fashion.

Amazingly, a whole raft of coded words have found their way into the mainstream. Does anyone ever say something is "in the closet" without smiling? Farmers in Iowa know that "drag" is more than what the tractor does. I've heard straight suburban types refer to other straight suburban types as "drama queens." Modern moms chuckle when their little girls dress as fairies (less so when their little boys do; some habits die hard).

And probably nothing will ever top the legend that is carved across the proscenium of the Goodman Theatre of Chicago: YOU YOURSELF, it tells the audience, MUST SET FIRE TO THE FAGOTS YOU HAVE BROUGHT. Wait a minute, that's not code. That's just English. Wow, a whole other language to explore.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:coded words of gay society
Author:Vilanch, Bruce
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 13, 1998
Words:751
Previous Article:Counterpoint.
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