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Gay Euphemism

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Living on my own. Bit of a crusty old bachelor. Actually, in the papers, that always means gay, doesn’t it?
Mr. Frost, The Graveyard Book

An issue related to homosexuality in the past has been to avoid directly using words such as "gay," "lesbian" and "homosexual." Common euphemisms have included "plays for the other team," "that way," and in some contexts "spinster"/"Old Maid" and "Confirmed Bachelor."

This has been more of an issue in the past due to societal changes regarding the acceptance of homosexuality, but still does pop up from time to time in contemporary works. Tends to be especially prevalent in period pieces set before the 20th century and in fantasy settings; in the latter's case, it's implied that these words just don't exist, and in the former's case, it might be an attempt at realism since homosexuality was quite taboo until recently (if not downright illegal). Use of these can sometimes result in an Unintentional Period Piece, as works produced when such terms were taboo to say can show the work's age.

Sometimes the euphemism is part of, or gives rise to, an extended metaphor used to delicately explain the person's sexuality to another (can edge into Metaphorgotten if the recipient isn't quite sure what's actually being discussed).

A Sub-Trope of Unusual Euphemism. Relates to Never Say "Die" which is about avoiding direct references to death. See also Sexual Euphemism, Deadly Euphemism and Go to the Euphemism for other specific euphemisms.


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    Comic Books 
  • In Runaways, Karolina is very obviously into her teammate Nico and later confessed to liking girls when the Skrull prince Xavin demanded her hand in marriage, but the series repeatedly refused to actually use the word "gay" to describe her orientation until Joss Whedon took over. Curiously, Brian K. Vaughan had no problems having Chase use the word "gay" as a pejorative on several occasions.
  • Watchmen the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolitan is referred euphemistically in Sally's letter to his husband, referring to "playing rough with boys" and the two "bickering like a married couple".

    Comic Strips 
  • In Bloom County, Steve Dallas's mother is coming to grips with the staggering realization that Liberace was gay:
    Steve's Mom: Stevie... you're saying that Liberace "walked on the other side of the fence"?
    Steve: So to speak, Ma.
    Steve's Mom: And many of my other romantic musical heroes "go up the down staircase"?
    Steve: In so many words.
    Steve's Mom (pointing at an unspecified record album) Even he "putts from the rough"?
    Steve: Hole in one, Ma.

  • In his show Monster, Dylan Moran jokes that he didn't know about gay people while growing up because his family employed unusual and baffling euphemisms including "still picking up twigs in the springtime", "one of Yul Brynner's hairdressers", and "likes his toast done on three sides".

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Remember the Titans: When Petey tries to explain to the girls ogling Sunshine that he's gay:
    Petey: I don't want to be the one to break y'alls hearts, but Sunshine's from California.
    Girl: Yeah, a California dreamboat.
    Petey: No. Sunshine is from California. He's a Californian.
  • In Slither, Mayor Jack Macready asks a deputy if his coworker Margaret is available. The deputy tells him not to bother because Margaret "packs a boxed lunch".
  • In the notorious deleted scene in Spartacus, in which Crassus heavily (and rather lasciviously) hints at his interests in conversation with his unfortunate slave Antoninus:
    Crassus: Do you eat oysters?
    Antoninus: When I have them, master.
    Crassus: Do you eat snails?
    Antoninus: No, master.
    Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral, and the eating of snails to be immoral?
    Antoninus: No, master.
    Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn't it?
    Antoninus: Yes, master.
    Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals, hmm?
    Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.
    Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. (Beat) My taste includes both snails and oysters.
  • Anne's line in Gentleman's Agreement: "Tell me, why is it that every man who seems attractive these days is either married or barred on a technicality?"
  • Played with in Clueless: Cher and Dionne are discussing the prospect of a relationship between Cher and her crush. Murray wants to know which guy they're talking about, and responds thus once Cher tells him:
    Murray: Yo, look. Are you bitches blind or something? Your man Christian is a cake-boy.
    Cher & Dionne: A what?
    Murray: He's a disco-dancing, Oscar-Wilde-reading, Streisand-ticket-holding friend of Dorothy, know what I'm saying?
    Cher: Uh-uh. No way.
    Murray: He's gay.

  • The Puppet Masters. Mary, a very attractive female agent, mentions how the men she encountered chose to Ignore the Fanservice as proof that they were being controlled by aliens. The US President points out that they could have been "harem guards".
  • Temeraire: The closeted Captain Granby tells a confidant in the seventh book that he is an "invert". Justified since the series is set in The Napoleonic Wars, before the word "homosexuality" was coined or "gay" gained its modern-day meaning. "Invert" was a real term for a gay person, though it wasn't commonly used as such until later in the 19th Century either.
  • Heralds of Valdemar does use the word "asexual" for Tarma, but when it comes to gay characters as a fantasy series it sometimes uses "fey" and sometimes slang that was introduced in the Last Herald-Mage Trilogy - "shaych", a compressed Tayledras loanword. It's still pretty clear, to a Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp" degree, that these words actually refer to gay people, especially in the Herald-Mage trilogy as its hero Vanyel is gay and wrestles with it.
    • After finding out that two of her female instructors are in love, Talia nods and says there are plenty of "special friends" among the Holderkin where she was born and raised. When mercenaries take merc lovers they call their partners "shieldmates", whereas platonic partners are "shieldbrothers" and "shieldsisters"; when Tarma explains this she's discussing a man who'd been reminiscing about a pretty, silly man he'd had and used that term.
  • Vorkosigan Saga: Miles claims his father is “immune to women” in The Vor Game. It’s not actually true, Aral is bisexual, but the accusation fits the persona Miles is trying to project.
  • Illuminatus!: in two paragraphs pages apart, we learn the the Vice President of the United States had accidentally went on a blind date with the literature critic of Confrontation who had placed a personals ad for "men interested in Greek culture", only for the vice president to show up eager to talk about the military dictatorship in Greece.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Played for all its worth with Lieutenant Gruber in 'Allo 'Allo!. He is "one of them" rather than "one of us", according to René, the object of his unrequited affection.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Faith (disguised as Buffy) is surprised to see Willow dating Tara and says, "Ah, Will doesn't drive a stick shift anymore, huh?"
  • Dance Academy: When Sammy is talking to his friend Kat about his first crush on a guy, they pick some Line-of-Sight euphemisms to talk about it because using the real words is more than Sammy can handle at the moment.
    Sammy: For the first time in my life, I finally get a mate whose a guy friend who I can hang out with. And then I... I get... I get these...
    Kat: Struggling for clarity right now.
    Sammy: I'm trying to say "feelings", but it's too weird.
    Kat: Right. Ugly word. Let's call them... "muffins". And I'm glad we're finally talking about this.
    Sammy: Ok, so, you know how I get these muffins when I'm around...
    Kat: Christian? Let's call him... "Mouse Ears".
    Sammy: Right. Mouse Ears. You know, before I started getting these muffins, I... I thought I knew exactly who I was. And now I can't stop thinking it means that I'm a... well...
    Kat: A labrador?
    Sammy: What?
    Kat: Friendly, cuddly, bouncy labrador?
    Sammy: [sarcastic] You're right. I'm so glad we're talking about this.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In the episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp", Donna meets Roger Curbishley, a handsome aristocrat from the 1920s, and seems quite taken by him. However, it soon becomes clear that Roger only has eyes for his family's footman, prompting Donna to mutter:
      Donna: Typical. All the decent men are on the other bus.
    • In the episode "Evolution of the Daleks", Martha is complaining about the Doctor's lack of interest in her to Tallulah, leading Tallulah to believe that the Doctor is "into musical theatre".
  • In Downton Abbey, Mrs. Patmore calls Thomas "not a ladies' man" and "a troubled soul" in an attempt to explain to Daisy that she's barking up the Incompatible Orientation tree. Naive Daisy misses every euphemism, and Mrs. Patmore, unable to just come out and say it, gives up.
    Mrs. Patmore: He's not the boy for you, and you're not the girl for him!
  • Fellow Travelers: When Miss Addison sees Tim Laughlin for the first time, she assumes he's gay and says to Mary Johnson, "Hmm, he seems very artistic."
  • Interview with the Vampire (2022):
    • "...After the Phantoms of Your Former Self"
      • The homophobic Florence has inferred that her son Louis is in a Transparent Closet with Lestat, and she derides the latter's style while barely tolerating his presence.
        Louis: You remember Lestat.
        Lestat: Madame de Pointe du Lac, all the kindness for the invitation.
        Florence: I don't remember inviting him, but please, take your overdressed self and have a fine time.
      • She's also judgemental about Louis' appearance.
        Florence: (in her mind) Look at his nails. He's getting his fingernails done. And the glasses? Some fashion certain men like him do. Lord. (sighs out loud)
  • In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge alludes to Shy Baldwin's homosexuality during a performance by referring to his "Judy Garland shoes". As it's 1960, Shy — the singer Midge is opening for — is very much in the closet; Midge's remark is subtle and it seems to go down well with the audience (she was riffing on his flamboyance), but Shy's manager Reggie decides to fire her from the tour as a result. Garland was known for her LGBT Fanbase back in the day, to the point that “friend of Dorothy” was a standard Gay Euphemism, making the joke in question about as transparent as a crack about Ellen Degeneres today.
  • In M*A*S*H, "one of those" is the go-to euphemism during The Korean War. It's used by the Politically Incorrect Villains Frank Burns and Colonel Flagg, which should tell you what the writers think of the phrase.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: In "Biggles Dictates a Letter," Biggles' secretary questions the sexual orientation of his comrade Algy, this after Biggles accused the secretary of being akin to a hooker:
    Secretary: I am not a courtesan.
    Biggles: Oh, oh, courtesan. Oh, aren't we grand? Harlot's not good enough for us, eh? Paramour, concubine, fille de joie, that's what we are not. Well, you listen to me, my fine fellow. You are a bit of tail, that's what you are.
    Secretary: I am not, you demented fictional character.
    Biggles: Algy says you are. He says you're no better than you should be.
    Secretary: And how would Algy know?
    Biggles: And just what did you mean by that? Are you calling my old fictional comrade-in-arms a fairy?
    Secretary: Fairy! Poof isn't good enough for Algy, is it? He's got to be a bleeding fairy! Mincing old RAF queen!
  • Poirot: In "Death on the Nile", Tim Allerton answers Rosalie's flirting by quietly telling her she's "barking up the wrong tree". Justified as discretion and euphemism would have been necessary in that time period.
  • Played straight, then comically averted in the Saturday Night Live skit "I Took a Gay Guy to Prom":
    Old Woman: The year was 1927. And I was scheduled to attend the Rhode Island Fruling Cotillion with a one Mr. Skip Swerengen. And I remember my mother called me aside, and said, "Dear, that boy of yours has one hand on the maypole." And I said, "Mother, whatever do you mean?" And she said, "That young man buzzes with the fruit flies." And I said, "What do you mean?" "He buggers men," she said. I didn’t know what that meant, and finally she yelled, "He has sex with men!" But it still wasn’t clear, "He’s gay! He’s homosexual! He doesn’t like women!" And I didn’t get it. And as it turned out, I had a very severe learning disability. But mother was right, that boy was homosexual. And that boy was Robert Mitchum.''
  • In Schitt's Creek, after Stevie and David hook up, she's a bit confused about his sexual orientation, and obliquely brings the subject up as they shop for wine:
    Stevie: So, just to be clear, um, I'm a red wine drinker.
    David: That's fine.
    Stevie: Okay, cool. I only drink red wine. And up until last night, I was under the impression that you, too, only drank red wine... but I guess I was wrong?
    David: ...I see where you're going with this. Um, I do drink red wine... but I also drink white wine. And I've been known to sample the occasional rosé. And a couple summers back I tried a merlot that used to be a chardonnay, which got a bit complicated.
    Stevie: Oh... so you're just really open to all wines.
    David: I like the wine and not the label. Does that make sense?
    Stevie: Yes, it does.
  • In the pilot episode of White Collar, Peter tries to explain to Neil that Diana is gay and not reciprocating his flirting.
    Neal: [about Diana] Harmless flirting. It's like a dance.
    Peter: No, there is no dance. You're not even on her dance card. No dancing for you.
    Neal: Um...she digs the hat.
    Peter: Um...she'd rather be wearing the hat.
  • The Wire: After Kima demonstrates her skills as an investigator while working with Jimmy McNulty and Bubbles, Bubbles notices the way Jimmy is looking at Kima, and sets him straight.
    Bubbles: Are you a dog McNutty? Cos you're barking up the wrong pussy.

  • Lil Nas X's "MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)" alludes to the romantic subject's gayness with the line "If Eve ain't in your garden".
    I'm not fazed, only here to sin
    If Eve ain't in your garden, you know that you can

  • She Kills Monsters: When the in-game Tilly reveals that the real Tilly was gay, she phrases it thusly:
    Tilly: […] I'd venture to guess that maybe the author of this world was into wearing tanktops and The Indigo Girls.

  • Parodied in an episode of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, in which one businessman describes a potential employee of another using a variety of unlikely phrases like "in his farmyard the geese are all swans" and "he parts his hair in the middle", but when he gets the reply "Oh, I see. He's homosexual" replies with a baffled "Is he? I wasn't suggesting there was no bell on his bicycle." The second businessman never figures out what he was trying to say.

  • Gunnerkrigg Court: When Paz mistakenly thinks that Kat is flirting with her, she stammers that "I'm not... like that...", which takes Kat a moment to understand her meaning. (It later turns out she is ... like that, and so is Kat.)
  • El Goonish Shive: When Tedd learns Ashley asked Elliot out after learning about his Gender Bender issues, and possibly because of them, he asks Elliot if she swings both ways, which Elliot doesn't understand. Then he asks if she likes apples and oranges, and Elliot says he doesn't know her fruit preferences. Eventually Tedd just flat out says it:
    Tedd: Bisexual. Is she bisexual.
    Elliot: Oh! I dunno. Maybe?

    Web Original 
  • Discussed in this reddit post (which may be based on a tumblr post) showing some off-brand cereals. Tell me "marshmallow mateys", "honey nut scooters", "tootie fruities", and "roasted minispooners" don't sound like gay euphemisms.

    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy: A Cutaway Gag in "Peter's Def Jam" is about an Italian-American man trying to describe his gay brother during a family reunion without upsetting his mother, using euphemisms like "up to the knuckle", "creative", and "a backwards mechanic".
  • Bender from Futurama has no problem using the word "gay", but he's quite happy to talk about it using euphemisms and double entendre. In "Love's Labors Lost in Space", after Leela turns down a date with a sentient cloud of pure energy, Bender suggests that he probably comes from "a dimension that's big on musical theatre."
  • Maybe implied: Foghorn Leghorn tries to woo Miss Prissy by trying to act like a dad to her little prodigy Egghead. He tries to get Egghead into baseball, but when Egghead says he never played baseball before:
    Foghorn: (to us) There's somethin', I say there's somethin' a little "Eeeuggh!" (makes a squicky face) about a boy that ain't never played baseball before.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Homer's Phobia", Marge says that she suspects John's flamboyancy is because he "prefers the company of men". Homer doesn't get it, so Marge has to pull a Euphemism Buster on herself and say, "John is ho–mo–sexual!".
  • While South Park usually has no problem saying "gay" in both a pejorative sense (though not as frequently in the later seasons) and just to describe gay people, this has been used in the show.
    • In "Tonsil Trouble," Cartman gets HIV and deliberately infects Kyle through a needle. When they venture out to find the cure and Kyle tells the clerk that Cartman gave him AIDS, the clerk asks if the boys are "like that" while sticking his left finger in and out of his right fist. Later in the episode, an announcer makes the same mistake and refers to Kyle and Cartman as "lovers."
    • Played with in "Trapped in the Closet," due to Executive Meddling where the show was not allowed to call Tom Cruise gay. Instead, they set up a metaphor where Cruise gets literally trapped in a closet and refuses to come out. This metaphor continues in "200," where the boys fight with Cruise over whether he's a "fudgepacker"... because he's literally working at a candy factory packing fudge into a box.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants: Played with in "Something Smells". When people start avoiding Spongebob due to his bad breath, he erroneously concludes that they are acting this way because of his appearance. To overcome his insecurities, Spongebob starts yelling that he is "ugly and proud", prompting Squidward to sardonically ask if that's what he calls "it".
  • A metaphorical variant in the Steven Universe episode. Ruby and Sapphire's permanent fusion as Garnet is used throughout the series as a homosexuality allegory, and Homeworld Gems will sometimes use derogatory expressions in place of calling Garnet a fusion, such as Jasper calling her a "shameless display" and Peridot mocking Garnet by saying, "She's not even fighting, she's just...[bangs her fists together] you know!"

    Real Life 
  • Invoked by George Takei by lending his name as an Unusual Euphemism to students and teachers (regardless of whether they're LGBTQ or not) in Tennessee to get around the state's "Don't Say Gay" bill (which, since it was his own name he used as a substitute, certainly didn't hurt from a self-promotion standpoint):
    George Takei: A bill recently approved by a Tennessee Senate committee would prohibit teachers in that state from discussing homosexuality in the classroom. The so-called "Don't Say Gay" law is premised on the misguided belief that by not talking about gay people, they can simply make us disappear. I'm here to tell Tennessee and all LGBT youth and teachers who would be affected by this law that I'm here for you. In fact, I am lending my name to the cause; anytime you need to say the word "gay", you can simply say "Takei".
    For example, you could safely proclaim that you are a supporter of Takei marriage. If you're in a more festive mood, you can march in a Takei pride parade. Even homophobic slurs don't seem as hurtful if someone says "That is soooo Takei!", and around the holidays, you can sing "Don we now our Takei apparel!".
  • In Ancient China, homosexual men were often referred to as "cut-sleeve" in reference to a tale from the Han Dynasty in which Emperor Ai of Han was awoken due to urgent business, but not wanting to wake his lover Dong Xian, who was resting his head on Emperor Ai's sleeve, cut the sleeve off so that he may continue sleeping.
  • A 1950s U.S. term for a gay man is "light in the loafers" or "light in his loafers" ("loafers" are shoes which don't have laces or fasteners and are slipped onto the feet).
  • A "friend of Dorothy", used in Britain, has multiple levels of meaning: Judy Garland's status as an icon of adoration for gay men, All Gays Love Theater, and this bit of Have a Gay Old Time from Road to Oz:
    Polychrome: You have queer friends, Dorothy.
    Dorothy: The queerness doesn't matter, so long as they're friends.
This led to a bit of hilarity as the Literal-Minded Naval Investigative Service in Chicago believed that this "Dorothy" was an actual woman at the center of a massive ring of gay military personnel, and subsequently tried to track her down for questioning in the '80s.
  • "He never married" and "confirmed bachelor" were often used in British obituaries during the mid- to late twentieth century as a way of hinting that the deceased was gay. The fact that it was just as often used in a literal, non-coded way made it easier to allude to queer people's identities without outright outing them posthumously.
  • During The New '10s, various celebrity gossip articles drew mockery for referring to women showing physical affection to each other as mere "gal pals" — even when discussing openly lesbian and bisexual women. This has led some sapphic women to use the phrase "gal pals" (sometimes "live-in gal pals" in reference to a Daily Mail article about Kristen Stewart and her then-girlfriend Alicia Cargile) as a less ambiguous reference to women in love with each other, in turn leading to the creation of a number of other tongue-in-cheek euphemisms in the same vein such as "Twitter mutuals" and "roommates" (the latter of which stems from a popular Vine video and grew in popularity as a way to riff on scholarly erasure of LGBT+ history).