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What’s The Future Of Gay Slang?

a shipping container with the word "slay" spray painted on it

For generations the LGBTQ+ community has found unique ways to communicate. For better or worse, that language is becoming mainstream.

In 2011, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 3 saw need enough to include definitions for slang terms like “fishy” across the bottom of the screen. Watching this season for the first time in 2018, I almost burst out laughing. The thought that a viewer wouldn’t know what “fishy” meant seemed absurd.  But that’s what Drag Race, and other touchstones of queer culture, do: introduce its viewers to a slew of slang terms that quickly become ubiquitous. In 2016, Bernie Sanders accused the DNC of throwing shade, and the phrase “Yass, queen” has permeated from Broad City gifs to Target merchandise. Queer slang has never been more visible in, and interactive with, mainstream Western culture.

Slang used in gay and queer spaces, while yet to be officially named, is considered an “anti-language”—the vernacular used by an “anti-society,” or a marginalized group within a society. Anti-languages generally aren’t full languages of their own, but “provide… a new and different reality in which [members] can construct and portray alternative (i.e., non-normative) identities without fear of censure or reproach” (Levon, 2010).

Queer anti-language in particular is hard to pin down, because slang terms are generally learned from exposure to queer communities, rather than being inherent to them (like a native language). But what we’re here to talk about is when an anti-language like this comes into contact with the mainstream it initially branched away from. Let’s watch the sauce, shall we?

It May Die Out

If you’ve ever looked into the history of queer vernacular English, you’ve probably stumbled across Polari. It was a British vernacular used by performers, thieves, people of color, and, in particular, gay men. It’s also the darling of Lavender linguistics, as one of the best-known instances of queer anti-language. Adapting words from romance languages, Yiddish, and London slang, certain phrases could signal your place in an anti-society, while straight people who overheard you would remain none the wiser.

Polari was necessary because being openly gay was a crime. But the rising homophile movement of post-WWII British civil rights exerted pressure on queer people to abandon identifiably gay characteristics like the use of Polari. Homosexual sex between men was decriminalized in 1967, ostensibly removing the need for covert language among gay men. (So often a chance at legal recognition comes with increasingly conservative politics—what of arguments to segregate trans people from the queer community after the legalization of same-sex marriage?) But the final blow came with the radio show Round the Home, where millions of listeners were treated to an education in Polari that evaporated both the vernacular’s secrecy, and the use of Polari itself.

Anti-languages like Polari fulfill two purposes: creating a community of people in the know, and keeping out people who threaten that community. Once the threat wanes, so does its use, though Polari echoes in both queer spaces (“trade,” for example, was one of its gifts dating back to the 1600s) and beyond (in words like “scarper” and “naff”). Given that shows like Drag Race and Queer Eye are being renewed into infinity, however, the likelihood of this slang dying out altogether is “nada to vada.”

Anti-languages like Polari fulfill two purposes: creating a community of people in the know, and keeping out people who threaten that community. Click To Tweet

Its Meanings May Change

As a niche vernacular becomes accessible to more people, its definitions tend to the general. Where “trade” under Polari meant “sex,” I first encountered it to mean “a straight-presenting man who may have (possibly paid) sex with a man or with a trans woman.” The associations with “macho” presentation were on display in the Drag Race’s Trade challenge (where we learned that some of these girls simply do not know the meaning of the word). A drag queen would seem to be the antithesis of all that is trade, yet during the same season Kameron Michaels is identified as “the trade of Season 10.” All of these meanings have to do with sex, and often with masculinity, but the flexibility for a single syllable to indicate anything from “the sexual act” to “an attractive man” indicates that the ongoing process of meaning expansion. More people are exposed to queer slang means more meaning expansion.

On the other hand, the interaction of queer slang with mainstream English may multiply the meanings available to them both. As Milani (2015) found, when an anti-language (in this case, Tsotsitaal, associated mainly with black South Africans) is exposed to the mainstream, their coexistence can yield new and “highly hybridized linguistic combinations” that didn’t previously exist, or weren’t previously possible. (Think of how “realness,” handed down from ballroom queens of yore, can now be comprehensibly appended to just about any word) Just like connections via the internet have engendered a proliferation of queer slang and in-jokes, the bigger the number of people using the language, the more different uses of it there will be.

Sometimes, an anti-language becomes so absorbed by a mainstream one that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Just like (probably British) people use “scarper” and “naff,” unaware of their origins in Polari, the incorporation of queer slang terms into mainstream English language obscures their origins. Even innocuous terms like “hot” and “hunk” came to us via the Harlem club scene—the ordinariness of a word seemingly inverse to our familiarity with its history.

In Indonesia, this phenomenon is occurring without the corresponding visibility of queer folk that we see in the West. There is limited understanding or presence of queer people in mainstream Indonesian society, possibly as a result of the lack of legal protection for them and anti-LGBT+ rhetoric among politicians and religious conservatives.

However, a vernacular known as bahasa gay is much more widely known, especially in Indonesian popular culture (Boellstorff, 2004). This is partly attributed to television personality Debby Sahertian, who gave the public an education in the anti-language when she published Kamus Bahasa Gaul, a dictionary of terms that doesn’t hide their roots in bahasa gay. On the one hand, it’s said that she once apologized to queer Indonesians for popularising bahasa gay and destroying the secrecy of the anti-language. On the other, it means that queer people’s uses of language aren’t a potentially dangerous give-away, because they’re common linguistic currency.

The phenomenon of queer anti-languages being ‘outed’ via the media is hardly unique. As soon as Drag Race ceased to define its own terms, the internet stepped in for anyone out of the loop. In the Philippines, the incredibly complex vernacular known as Swardspeak gained wider recognition after a series of instructional videos by (straight-identifying) YouTuber Wil Dasovich. Queer slang has never been better-documented, or more accessible, though whether it will keep in touch with its roots remains to be seen.

As soon as Drag Race ceased to define its own terms, the internet stepped in for anyone out of the loop. Click To Tweet

It Will Probably (Continue To) Be Used To Sell Us Stuff

It’s an ancient cliché that the entertainment industry is especially influenced by queer culture, and it follows that its slang would become the media’s lingua franca. In the Philippines, it’s almost a requirement that people working in entertainment be versed in Swardspeak (Hart & Hart, 1990). Drag Race incorporated the slang of queer nightclubs because that’s where its contestants work. Performers from Katy Perry, to Morrissey, to David Bowie have woven queer slang terms into their work—it was inevitable that the language of the people working in entertainment would bleed into what they produce. Especially with the new forum of social media, like Dasovich’s instructional videos, slang is able to move faster and further than ever before.

This exposure has its perks. Drag queens, once reviled as everything undesirable about gay men, have risen to a point of cultural reverence—and they’re making a mint off of it. Queer media (independent and non-) is able to attract bigger audiences and more lucrative advertisers—can you imagine Nanette or them existing in the days of Drag Race’s infamous season 1 filter? But corporations and non-LGBTQIA+ individuals, too, want a piece of the pink dollar, and speaking the right language is a proven way to get it. Enter the Target shirts.

Being absorbed into the mainstream means being brought into everything Western society represents—including capitalism. When queer slang’s associations shift from the queer simply to the fashionable, those in the know (and those who stand to gain) suddenly and infinitely expand, and as any linguist will tell you, the changes that come with this will be almost impossible to hinder. But don’t mourn what may or may not be lost to history—enjoy this unprecedented chance to write (and speak) it.