We just stumbled upon this Joan Rivers interview from The Dick Cavett Show. In the interview, which originally aired on Sept. 16, 1969, Rivers reveals that she used to vacation in one of America’s most well-known gay enclaves, Fire Island.
Cavett asks Rivers where she was all summer, as she wasn’t in New York City. “Mainly Fire Island, and I certainly wouldn’t run into you there,” she quips. Cavett responds, “Not under my real name.”
“Only part of Fire Island is … peculiar,” he asks, and she responds without missing a beat, “the part above water.”
“It’s 50% [fairies],” she says (though the word “fairies” is censored), “and 50% families and 50% hairdressers.”
“Unusually graceful gentlemen is the phrase we use here,” Cavett responds to her use of “fairies.”
Watch the Joan Rivers interview from The Dick Cavett Show here:
Gay historian Rictor Norton’s essay “The History of the Word ‘Gay’ and other Queerwords” provides a concise look back at how queer slang has evolved over the years.
The word faggot goes back to 1914, when “faggots” and “fairies” were said to attend “drag balls.” Nels Anderson in The Hobo (1923) said that “Fairies or Fags are men or boys who exploit sex for profit.” The word “fairy” appeared in the 1870s, and was universally understood by the 1890s.
But after Rivers drops her f-bomb, she continues to describe her summer and explain why she loves Fire Island so much.
“It was a nice summer, because I never had to dress up — because nobody cared,” Rivers says. “For a woman, you can relax because everyone’s going like, ‘Look at that.’ For a man it’s a little strange, because you have to be dressed to the nines.”
Cavett explains that he almost bought a house there and that when he went to visit in the winter, “it was eerie and the wind was blowing and whispering in the trees.”
Rivers responds, “What was it whispering — ‘hurry back, Bruce’?”
In this Joan Rivers interview the comedienne goes on to explain why she loves Fire Island, not only because she doesn’t have to dress up due to all the men gawking at each other, but also because it’s so safe.
“It’s lovely and it’s very quiet, and the nice thing — which is really why we went — is that nothing ever happens there. You know, in New York you’re always walking about, ready to be robbed or something. There they have one policeman for all of Fire Island — officer Bruce — and he doesn’t do too much. He just walks around and every once in a while someone you know will run in and say, like, ‘I’ve been attacked, Officer Bruce,’ and they all just giggle a lot and say, ‘What did he look like?’
She answers her own question: “Well, he had flashing black eyes and a little wispy smile.”
The honest and candid manner of this Joan Rivers interview and the way it talks about homosexuality was almost unheard of at the time. Conversations like this didn’t happen in public before the previous summer of 1969, the summer of the Stonewall riots.
Stonewall was of course a turning point for LGBTQ rights, when it slowly became acceptable to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality in public and on TV. That didn’t happen overnight, but Stonewall gave it a big push.
During this Joan Rivers interview, interestingly, the word ‘gay’ is never used — partially because the word wasn’t popular yet.
Norton explains in his essay:
Crucial to the gay explosion was the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in July 1969, and the adoption of the slogans “Gay Power,” “Gay is Good” and “Gay Pride.” GAY was perfect as a short, powerful, arresting image, on posters, on lapel badges, on manifestos.
Gay became a powerful word for organisations, leaflets, newspapers and magazines, publishing collectives, T-shirts. Two New York papers titled GAY and Gay Power were founded in 1969 and quickly achieved a circulation of 25,000 — compared to earlier “homophile” papers that were lucky to reach 200 readers. London’s Gay News was born in 1972.
Gay became the global standard in numerous countries, displacing indigenous terms. For example, in 1972 the kathoeys or transvestite and transgender male prostitutes of Thailand reconceptualized themselves as masculine “gay kings” and effeminate “gay queens.” Queerwords don’t construct identities, but they can widen or narrow the possibilities for expression.
So while some people may be upset that Rivers used the slang word “fairies” to joke about the gay community, the fact that she talked about us at all is a big deal. And it shows the ally she always was to the larger queer community.
We miss you, Joan.
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