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Not everything’s tea: Acknowledge the history and context of LGBTQ+ slang

By Ray Michaels, February 11 2019 —

Can a group claim ownership of a language? If so, which group? Is using the slang of another group stealing their culture? 

This is an ongoing debate located at the intersection of sexuality and race. Now, the commercialization of LGBTQ+ culture — specifically, drag culture — and its entrance into mainstream entertainment has brought larger, straighter audiences. And the speed that drag has captivated pop culture has caused much of the language to lose its context and have its history be ignored. 

To start off, let’s get one thing clear — not everything that is said in a sassy or backhanded manner is tea. If you’re going to jump onto the bandwagon and “yas” with the rest of us, learn how to use the lingo correctly and acknowledge where it comes from.

The appearance of expressions like “spill the tea,” “throw shade” and “fierce” in everyday casual discussions, not just with LGBTQ+ groups and spaces, can squarely be attributed to the rising popularity of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Though drag queens, kings and gender-bending acts have been a staple of LGBTQ+ nightlife, drag has historically been stuck on the fringes of entertainment scenes. The odd time drag was featured in a mainstream performance, the entertainment value of the characters was reduced to the novelty of there being a man dressed up as a woman — think Edna Turnblad in Hairspray or Robin Williams’s titular character in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Now, with RuPaul’s Drag Race winning a handful of Emmy’s since 2016 and being picked up by the television network VH1 in 2017, it’s safe to say that drag has entered the mainstream. The show’s viewership has grown exponentially in recent years, with season 10 racking in a total of 1.2 million viewers. The show’s increased popularity has captured a wider audience outside of its traditional LGBTQ+ circles, and for many, it’s their first exposure to drag and its vocabulary.

However, it’s important to acknowledge where many of the roots that form the foundation of contemporary drag come from. Though cities’ scenes will vary in terms of the types of local drag, a lot of what we see in contemporary drag — the voguing, the reading, and the tea spilling — comes from the ball culture of 20th-century Harlem. The counterculture scene that emerged in New York comprised mostly black and Latino LGBTQ+ members ostracized by their families, heterosexual society and even other (whiter) gay communities. Think Paris Is Burning (1990), a documentary that showcased ball culture to mainstream audiences and provided a basic introduction to the scene.

Ball culture grew its own vernacular, which is where several of the phrases that are casually thrown around today originate. Phrases like “read to filth,” “throwing shade,” “serving realness/face/body(ody-ody)/fresh tilapia” or whatever else is on the menu can be traced back to the ballroom scene, and more generally the black GBT community. The creation of this vernacular, Antwaun Sargent describes in the Huffington Post, “allowed black gay men to aptly describe their feelings, and themselves, when the language didn’t exist because gay, black and mainstream culture was keen on not accepting them.” Not recognizing this origin or remaining wilfully ignorant of it is akin to cultural appropriation. 

As a white gay man, the type of oppression that I’ve faced is nothing like what an LGBTQ+ person of colour will face. I recognize the privilege being white and male brings. There’s something deeply uncomfortable about watching a white gay person masquerading around like he’s the very reincarnation of Beyoncé in the flesh, trying to express his “inner black woman.” 

Still, within different social circles, I notice that I change how I talk, both in terms of the words that I use and intonation, based on who is around me. In more casual settings with close friend groups or settings that include more LGBTQ+ members, I’ll ‘sound more gay.’ This is the language a lot of younger gay men have been socialized with, be it from (illegally) streaming early seasons of RuPaul alone in high school underneath the covers of their bed at the lowest volume setting or their first experiences entering the LGBTQ+ community after coming out. 

This contrasts with more traditional or professional settings, where I’ll make a conscious effort to conform. Code-switching describes how marginalized groups adjust how they speak based on which people they are with, either to protect themselves or just fit in.

LGBTQ+ groups having their own slang terms is nothing new. One of the most well-studied slang languages is Polari, which was primarily used within a subculture of gay men in London, England during the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. Though the use of Polari has long since declined, some relics still used today within gay communities exist. “Trade” — a masculine sexual partner who doesn’t portray to be outwardly gay — is probably one of the most recognizable terms still exclusive among LGBTQ+ circles, and even words like “butch” (masculine), “camp” (effeminate), “fruit” (gay man) and “bevvy” (drink) can trace their roots to Polari.

Language develops with a group’s identity. Words can take on different meanings and language forms the foundation of communities. With the Polari-speaking gay men of London, it was a way to identify and communicate with one another during a time where homosexual activity was illegal. Though homosexuality in New York was decriminalized in 1980, members of the ballroom community that had nowhere else to turn to faced with a system of oppression,  the vernacular underpins that culture. 

No shade to my straight friends, but every one of their limp-wristed finger-waving proclamations of “that’s the tea” brings with it a twinge of resentment. The feeling stems from years of self-censorship and internal repression before I started coming out. Constantly monitoring every one of my actions to avoid outwardly projecting, “That kid is gay! A real-life homosexual!” — from the inflection of my voice to how I held my hands at my sides — is mentally exhausting. And to hide that for so many years, only for straight individuals to “yas,” “slay” and “work bitch” around me since it’s the Hot New Trend™, is frustrating.

Still, with the exception of derogatory slurs, gatekeeping who can say what is boring. Let people feel their oats and try out some new phrases. For me, it may just come across a mild annoyance, but I understand why some communities may feel deeper pangs of stolen culture. Be cognizant of where the language originates. 

Stop sounding like a pull-string doll that can only parrot the three phrases you heard on last night’s episode of RuPaul.

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