By Maya Uppal (she/her)
CW: mentions of homophobia, transphobia and anti-black racism.
Speech is a living organism, a complex mass of words intertwined with meanings so changeable that a single word can have hundreds of implications to millions of different people. Language in itself crawls across the world and shifts into new dialects every couple of miles, even beyond a geographical location, language brushes through sounds / gestures / glances. The goal of speech, the very function of language, is to facilitate human communication; and so we allow it to grow, to shapeshift and to reinvent its form depending on the context of its environment.
Queer dialects have been evolving for centuries and yet they somehow exist outwith the boundaries of acceptable speech – and with this refusal to conform to societies’ sexual norms came the pressing need for a protective, coded language. Afterall, coding language is one of the strongest ways of hiding in plain sight. As we settle ourselves firmly into the twenty-first century, the pressing question of where language will take us next emerges.
Queer language evolved from the language of those suspended between two worlds. Polari and the Handkerchief code are both famous queer ciphers which began as adaptations of mainstream cultural words. Polari hid within the established slang of sailors, carnival workers and the theatre. The Handkerchief code was taken from dance halls and transformed into non-verbal indicator of sexual preference, fetish and even favoured position.
After the decriminalisation of gay sexuality in 1967, queer speech met its first new hurdle – the redundancy of highly complex hidden language due to a strange mainstream acknowledgement (acceptance yet to come). But with this evolution of protective rights queer language remained suspended – the dynamics of queer language are a delicate thing because they exist now between the state of oppressor and the oppressed.
This intersectional identity is observed nowhere better than in the non-black queer community’s appropriation of AAVE (African American Vernacular English), and the widespread acceptance of the derogatory term ‘womxn’. AAVE, like queer-coded language, was born of persecution. It is a dialect grown from damaged roots and utterly inseparable from its community. In opposition to this carefully grown system are TERF (trans exclusionary revolutionary feminists) terms. Womxn is a term designed to exclude trans women from femininity and womanhood via the implication of the ‘x’ chromosome in an identity marker associating gender with biology. The problematic spread of these words and dialects is a rapid one, and one firmly situated in a non-space of its own: the internet.
It is worrying that words like ‘womxn’ have found their way into so many queer spaces, but it also indicates the way the internet continues to push language to evolve. The queer community is an equally malleable place, and tends to often create discourse surrounding these words; we can agree that ‘womxn’ is harmful and so it is being rejected, we can agree that AAVE does not belong to non-black individuals and so for them it should not be adopted. However, there are other linguistic occurrences changing the English language within the 21st century, such as the ever-evolving discourse of normalising queer words. For example, terminology like the use of the word ‘partner’ and the open communication of pronouns indicate that queer language is seeping into the mainstream.
So, what will queer language become? It is an impossible guessing game, but let’s play. Throughout history queer language has centred upon activism, so the future rhetoric of queer activism is currently at a crucially decisive point, dictated by our fastest form of communication – the written speech of our phones / twitter / Instagram / TikTok / whichever platform comes next. One of the pinnacles of queer rhetoric is the establishment of identity markers. As we move into a world where the campaign for queer, especially transgender, rights rages on – queer rhetoric centres more and more on the normalisation and uplifting of queer identities. In many parts of the world, it is now legal to exist as queer, but even in countries where we are lucky enough to have this be the case, we are often held back by violent acts of language. Especially in the legal jargon of parliamentary bills.
Conversion therapy is only recently illegal.
Queer men cannot donate blood for three months after having sex.
Non-binary genders do not exist as legal identities.
Intersex babies are operated on by the NHS.
The Gender Recognition Act’s reformation is long overdue.
The written language of bills / legal jargon / the gatekeeping of academia under ‘professionalism in writing’ / are violent acts of language affecting the queer community every day. Often the only resort for us – now and in the future – is founding our own version of activist language.
But queer language remains a sprawling identity not boxed in by the rules of academia or proper speech. Queer spaces use the internet as a tool for activism and is becoming more entwined within the development of speech on the internet. The subtle grammatical changes, the slang that burns brightly but for a small amount of time. Through pastel pretty Instagram graphics and 15 second videos it’s easy to grab small sections of attention online to argue a point – the problems we face with developing activist language and creating safer pockets for ourselves within language comes from the fact that 15 second videos and word capped tweets rarely allow for nuance.
The future rhetoric of queer activism will be language which infiltrates. It will no longer hide within straight culture, it will be brazenly visible, and through this visibility it will rewrite the systems we understand to be powerful. Queer language has moved beyond secrecy and into the open – we are now – we exist – we are queering language for ourselves.