The socio-political landscape of Apartheid South Africa was a challenging one for members of the LGBTQI+ community. Under the former National Party (NP), homosexuality was regarded a criminal activity, punishable by up to several years in prison. Rooted in their inherent fear of racial intermixing, The Apartheid State became increasingly anxious about the transgression of sex and sexuality; these “grey areas” threatened their perceived codes of conduct. Strict rules and regulations were set in place to control the transaction of sex and its public presentation. The Immorality Act of 1969 is one such example. These conservative laws and criminalization of sexuality governed the behaviour of LGBTQI+ people, who were forced into secrecy with regards to their sexuality. It was this oppression and governance of one’s sexual expression that led to the birth of “Gayle”.
Comparable to Britain’s Polari or South Africa’s own Fanakalo, “Gayle” is an argot or pseudo-language that arose in the South African LGBTQI+ community somewhere in the mid-60s. Originally termed “moffietaal”, Gayle’s origins have often been debated, with some suggesting it may have arisen as a prison language. The language was most likely developed within the LGBTQI+ communities of colour, particularly the coloured gay community of District 6, as a way for its members to look out for each other in heterosexual spaces or other public spaces where their safety was at risk. Gayle would later spread to the white LGBTQI+ communities, and continue to be appropriated in various ways in mainstream South African culture.
“Gayle” is a notable example of a secret language. Its primary purpose was to enable open communication within the LGBTQI+ communities and facilitate activities within the community. Functioning as a sort of code, Gayle allowed the LGBTQI+ community to speak openly and freely, without detection in the public eye, during the Apartheid era when the government monitored and censored their activities.
Gayle is characterised as a conglomerate of Afrikaans and English, with its most distinct feature being the use of popular women’s names as code words for activities, which would have otherwise been outlawed if discussed openly. Some popular examples include:
Beaulah- beautiful man/woman
Betty Bangles- police
Cha cha- club
In 2003, Ken Cage published a dictionary of Gayle. However, Cage had failed to include the pioneers of the language in his research. While Gayle is an important part of South African queer culture, it is important to credit its brown, queer originators for developing what became an important tool for the development of South Africa’s LGBTQI+ culture and social rights movement.
In this historical sense, Gayle forms an essential part of the South African LGBTQI+ cultural lexicon. It is a language which fostered a sense of community and safety amongst a group of outsiders trying to survive during the country’s most painful chapter; a moment in time when their very existence was essentially outlawed. Gayle provided a sense of identity, unity and community for LGBTQI+ people, but most importantly it played a major role in the development of South Africa’s LGBTQI+ society and culture.
Underground gatherings, parties and meetings in public spaces were all made possible through this shared coded language, and the LGBTQI+ scene grew significantly. The rise of drag pageants in the Cape Coloured communities and the establishment of safe public spaces for sexual exchanges became easier to arrange and publicize without detection by the Apartheid state. While Gayle is mostly recognised as a language developed and used by gay men and members of the trans community, the language did not exclude lesbians. In fact, Gayle was just as important within the lesbian community as a language of safety, with this community developing their own variation on it known as “Lettytaal”.
The inherently queer nature of Gayle alludes to its origins as social currency. The use of Gayle became a way for the LGBTQI+ community to socialise with each other, a unifying factor within a community of outsiders. Much of the freedom and rights of LGBTQI+ people in South Africa today is due in part to Gayle’s existence. This codified form of communication spread beyond the social scene of the LGBTQI+ community; it also made it possible for gatherings, meetings and the formulation of important political organisations which fought for the constitutional recognition of LGBTQI+ people. Such organisations include GLOW (The Gay and Lesbian Association of Witwatersrand) which was founded by gay rights activist and anti-apartheid leader, Simon Nkoli. GLOW would eventually go on to organise the first ever Pride March in the country.