Q: In The Crown, Queen Elizabeth uses the phrase “a friend of Dorothy” to mean a gay person. Do you know when or where the expression was first used this way? The episode was set in the early 1980s.
A: An early version of the expression showed up in writing in the 1970s, but it had undoubtedly been used before that in speech, where “friend of Dorothy” or “Dorothy’s friend” was a coded way of identifying a man as gay.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the name “Dorothy” here comes from “the heroine of the book The Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, by L. Frank Baum. The film version of the story (1939), with Judy Garland as Dorothy, was a particular favourite amongst some homosexuals.”
That’s the most common (and authoritative) explanation for the source of the expression, but others cite the American writer Dorothy Parker or Dorothy Dean, a socialite who was associated with Andy Warhol and gay New York culture.
The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand, cites a definition of the phrase “Dorothy and Toto” in The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (1972), by Bruce Rodgers: “1. gay boy and his dog 2. dominating effeminate homosexual man with his paid-for escort 3. extended to any male couple whose effeminate partner is in command ‘When’s Dorothy and Toto getting here with the chest of drawers?’ ”
The next two examples in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, treat the expressions “Dorothy’s friend” and “friend of Dorothy” as meaning simply a gay man:
“Dorothy’s friends, the male gay community, from the 50s onwards” (Slanguage of Sex: A Dictionary of Modern Sexual Terms, 1985, by Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw).
“A Somewhere-Over-The-Rainbow Coalition which offers little to the friends of Dorothy because, like the Wizard of Oz, its power is illusory” (Capital Gay, a London magazine, Feb. 12, 1988).
And here’s the entry for “friend of Dorothy” in Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime (2006), by Donald F. Reuter:
“Phrase meaning someone is gay, and rooted in: 1) our fondness for Judy Garland, the iconic entertainer who played Dorothy Gale in the classic film musical The Wizard of Oz with her trio of sexless male buddies; 2) our association to and admiration for sharp-tongued writer Dorothy Parker, whose famed ‘vicious circle’ of pals included gay men; and 3) the need for gay men, during much of the twentieth century, to speak in code (for fear of being found out).”
Getting back to The Crown, in season four, episode seven of the streaming TV series, Princess Margaret’s love interest, Derek (Dazzle) Jennings, says he’s becoming a Roman Catholic priest. When Margaret tells the Queen, this exchange follows:
Elizabeth: That’s the second reason he was never the right man for you.
Margaret: The first being?
Elizabeth: Well, he’s, you know, a friend of Dorothy.
Elizabeth: Famously, yes.