The speakers of Kaliarda

By: | Post date: 2017-11-15 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Modern Greek

I’ve namechecked Kaliarda, the gay Greek cant, several times on this blog. There is still a dearth of English-language information on Kaliarda; and since this blog is about making Greek linguistics more googlable in English, I’m going to attempt to remedy that. In this post, I’m going to start by giving what information is to hand on the speakers of Kaliarda; I’ll discuss the cant itself in subsequent posts.

The account we have of Kaliarda and its speakers is by Elias Petropoulos, who wrote his account in 1971.1 He made his name researching the underworld of petty criminals and drug users, and the rebetiko music culture that arose from it. His documentation of Kaliarda was part of his mission to document marginal urban subcultures. Having any respect towards the particular subculture of effeminate gay men was not part of his mission, and it’s pretty difficult to read the book without grimacing at the contempt dressed up as compassion in it. If anything, his use of official and often derogatory terminology—“paederasts” (who seem to just be tops), κίναιδοι “catamites”, θηλυπρεπείς “effeminate”, ομοφυλόφιλοι “homosexuals”—obfuscates what classes of people he is actually talking about.

Kaliarda is a cant: “the jargon or argot of a group, often employed to exclude or mislead people outside the group.” In particular, it was the cant of street queans and other effeminate gay men in Athens in the early to middle 20th century. In the aftermath of gay liberation and changes in social attitudes, the need for a secrecy language has attenuated, as it has for other gay cants (such as Italian-based Polari of English). There are emblematically gay linguistic mannerisms in popular culture, promulgated by personalities like Ilias Psinakis (and the eccentric variant that TV presenter Malvina Karali had made her own in the 90s); but the consensus is that Kaliarda as a living cant has died out.

Given that constructions of gender-diverse identities are very different in the West now than they were just a generation ago, it’s worth defining street queans explicitly—the more so as I don’t find an unproblematic headword on Wikipedia to link to.

Street queans (more commonly spelled queens, of course; the quean spelling is a bit of etymological antiquarianism) were socially marginalised gay men who dressed as women and went by female names, and who worked as sex workers. The modern Western category of transgender can be applied to them, but with some risk: modern Western understanding of gender decouples gender identification, gender presentation, and sexuality, and allows all of them to be non-binary. The world street queans worked in was a work in which gender identification, gender presentation, and sexuality were tightly coupled, and binary: being (passive) gay, being a cross-dresser, and being transgender were conflated; and the only way those societies were prepared to make sense of a man being a bottom was by having her put on a dress.

The speakers of Kaliarda were a cohesive social group, who associated with each other, had their own tavernas and beats, were persecuted by the police, and were socially marginalised. They were gay, they were bottoms (and spoke in derogatory terms about tops), and they referred to themselves with feminine terms. Some of them were prostitutes, and some of them we would now refer to as trans women. But while street queans looks like a convenient way to refer to them (with the associated romance of Stonewall), they weren’t all living on the streets; Petropoulos takes some delight in enumerating  former politicians among them. And because of Petropoulos’ lack of detail, it’s hard to tell how many of them cross-dressed, or how often.

The speakers of Kaliarda can’t only have been street queans; but none of the terms ready to hand, like “trans women” or “gay men”, quite work. Certainly not the term they were originally described as by Petropoulos, “catamites”. I’m going to refer to them as “gay” in these posts, because I have to call them something.

For a self-proclaimed folklorist, Petropoulos does not actually capture all that much information about the Kaliarda speakers. This is what he does capture about the speakers, as distinct from the cant:

  • p. 9. Almost all of the 300 semi-legal (straight) brothels of Athens had gay service staff (υπηρέτες “servants”)
  • Cross-dressing gays circulated in beats after midnight, including behind the Athens Hilton, Metaxourgeio, and Colonus.
  • The mainstream slang term for that particular group (which Petropoulos calls πλανόδιοι κίναιδοι “wandering catamites”, and which I’ve termed street queans) was φτωχομπινέδες, “pauper bottoms”.
  • p. 11. “Catamites belong, at least marginally, to the underworld. But the underworld spits them back out. Catamites belong to the underworld in the same way that con artists or paedophiles do. Allowing for exceptions, catamites are a cohesive community. It includes the effeminate who wander through pitch-dark parks at night or who congregate with tops in impoverished entertainment centres, and they all know each other well.”
  • p. 185. Gays had their own tavernas, in which they would order food in kaliarda, with the waiter yelling the order back to the cook in kaliarda.
  • p. 186. Petropoulos gives a long list of nicknames of gays; the professions or other details he occasionally indicates are useful for giving background to the community:
    • Tasia the dziveˈlu (“lesbian?”), Monica, Manolia: killed by ELAS communist partisans
    • Homeria the Stinker (βρώμη) (worked at the Athens Race Track)
    • Haritakena [= Haritakis’ Wife] the Cunt-Bumper (πλακομούνα) (= lesbian: “because he is married”)
    • Julia the Cloth Fence (ανεμόπανα) (worked in a hotel laundry)
    • Georgia the Phlegm Chick (ροχάλω) (hotel cleaner, which included emptying spitoons)
    • Gogo Risen From The Dead (νεκραναστημένη) (had attempted suicide)
    • Jo the Doctress (γιατρίνα) (had been a medical student)
    • Joan of Arc (had burned their house down in a lover’s quarrel)
    • Lamprini the Unspeaking (αμίλητη) (former government minister)
    • Vangelio Who Shat Herself (χεσμένη) (former government minister)
    • Constance the Bike Pump (τρόμπα) (former politician)
    • Taka the Hit Record Chick (πλακοσουξετζού) (works in a record company)
  • p. 187. Gays gossiped, and argued “like women”: rarely coming to blows, and usually limiting themselves to insults and curses, often in Standard Greek for the benefit of bystanders. Petropoulos gives a page of insults, and they are in Kaliarda.
  • p. 188. Gays would make up lyrics to popular songs, and would dance the romaˈno-kiliˈbe to them in their tavernas (a variant of the tsifteteli), to the accompaniment of zills or glasses in their hands
  • p. 189. “Strange though it may seem, mortal hatred separates catamites from tops (κολομπαράδες), as can be seen in certain words of Kaliarda referring to the latter. It is also known that catamites never associate with paederasts. They avoid the word ˈpustis (the Standard Greek derogatory word for bottoms) and its derivatives; the one exception is πουστόμαγκας.”
    • pusˈtomaɡas “tough catamite”. [The mangas was the tough, streetwise criminal of the rebetiko subculture; the term appears to condemn antisocial, mangas-like behaviour among gays, by using the straight mangas’ own terminology against it: you are acting like a mangas, but you are what the mangas themselves would call a faggot (pustis).]
  • p. 190. The one socially accepted open interaction of gays with broader Athenian society was during Carnival (the Sunday before Lent and the Monday at the start of Lent), as part of the koulouma celebrations at the Columns (of Olympian Zeus): a troupe of gays would set up a ɣaitaˈnaki, a maypole dance (itself a longstanding Carnival tradition), until the 1930s. I’ll quote Petropoulos at some length:

    There was a single maypole for all of Athens. It consisted of homosexuals and was accompanied by a rudimentary orchestra: clarinet, trumpet, drum. One man carried the pole and set it up whenever the troupe was to dance. The pole-carrier was dressed as a clown. The dancers were no more than twenty; half dressed in male Spanish costumes, and the other half dressed as cabaret chanteuses, dancing as couples. The costumes were rented.

    The maypole did not stay at the Columns. Starting there it did the rounds of the neighbourhoods and the whole crew, along with the hangers on following, would set up the maypole in every crossroads and alley. Then each dancer would take one of the colourful ribbons hanging from the top of the pole with both hands, and started dancing, until the ribbons were artfully wound around the pole. The ribbons were unwound in the same way. In the meantime the musicians would play allegro pieces (usually a polka for the winding and a mazurka for the unwinding), while various clowns would gather coins in tins, which they drummed with spectacular exaggerated movements. The common people loved the maypole. Everyone gave fifty lepta, one drachma, or two drachma coins. Money rained down from windows, even when times were hard. There was much clever teasing to be heard. The dancers often started singing (they had no tambourines), to a kalamatianos:

    Three sisters were we, three daughters brought up well
    One God took, the other Thanasis took [married]
    The third and best, was picked up by the cop van

    By nightfall, the maypole went around Syntagma, Plaka, and Psiri, and often went down to Peiraeus, ending up late at night in a taverna, where the dancers, musicians and clowns would share their profits. Or, they took their agreed salary if a smalltime businessman had taken charge of the maypole.

    That was what took place with the maypole, which was the only open public event for homosexuals, and which the police occasionally banned. The maypole was only presented in the capital, and occasionally in Thessalonica.


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    M T W T F S S
    1. Πετρόπουλος, Η. 1971. Καλιαρντά. Αθήνα: Δίγαμμα. The 1980 updated edition is available (for now) on

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