The linguistic legacy of Paris is Burning
Yassss kweeen, werq!
The three words you’ve just read will either immediately resonate, or sound utterly alien to you.
If it’s the latter, you’ll feel as if these words are in another language. And in a way, they are. Translated they mean: yes queen, work! It’s an affirmation of a fellow gay person doing something fabulous that you enthusiastically approve of. The corrupted spelling adds chutzpah and flair; in the case of queen, the flamboyant re-spelling reclaims a common insult levelled at camp gay men, transforming it from invective into praise.
These words form the modern version of the gay colloquial vernacular. Less of a language, more of an argot, this latest incarnation is as colourful as the rainbow flag and has been popularised by the mainstreaming of gay culture with shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
It forms part of the gay linguistic legacy that stretches back to the titillating conservative whispers in gin-soaked public houses of priggish 1960s Britain and the earthy underground urban buzz of hardened 1980s Harlem, NYC. As a gay language-lover, it’s a linguistic legacy that I’m both fascinated and obsessed by.
When a sub-culture is marginalised, it gets creative. Polari was arguably the first gay cant, used before homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain. It was a coded lexicon used exclusively to avoid detection by unwanted outsiders. That could’ve been the police, disapproving conservative society, or simply the group on the table next to you that you were bitching about. Its lexicon borrowed from cockney rhyming slang, backslang, Yiddish, Italian, theatre slang, and naval slang.
But, across the Atlantic, two decades after Polari became archaic, another group of gay men had formed their own subculture and a new gay argot flourished. The Vogue Ball culture of Harlem, New York comprised of black gay men and trans women whose race, sexual orientation, and gender identity positioned them firmly on the sidelines of society. Their edgy microcosm remained underground until two events introduced it to the mainstream: Madonna’s Vogue, which directly borrowed from it, and the seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which was recently added to Netflix.
The black gay men and trans women of 1980s Harlem didn’t have the budget of Ru Paul’s Drag Race so they had to get creative with their dance moves and language to stand out as flamboyant.
Many of the phrases you hear now – from Ru Paul to the gay street slang of London’s Soho and New York’s West Village – are borrowed from the Vogue Ball culture, and explained brilliantly in Paris is Burning.
Here are some of those terms inventively coined by my gay black forefathers over three decades ago:
Chanté you stay
Used in Ru Paul’s Drag Race to announce who has won the lip-sync battle, Ru Paul himself credits Paris is Burning for the reference (also used in his hit song, Supermodel). In one scene when people are ‘walking’ in the ball, the host rhythmically chants pigeon-French words to sound chic, such as ‘chanté’.
This was a serious term in the Vogue Ball culture. It denoted the habit of those walking in the balls to imitate, as faithfully as possible, those in real life who were represented by the chosen theme. As explained in the documentary: ‘It isn’t a take-off or satire. The goal is to look as much as possible like your straight counterpart – to make your illusion perfect.’
‘Femme realness’ is described as ‘when [men dressed as women and trans women] are undetectable and can get home with all their clothes and without blood dripping from their back’.
Themes could be quite specific and left-field, and weren’t all about men imitating women in drag. For example, one heart-breaking theme is ‘Executive Realness’ where men dressed up as CEOs, complete with briefcases and suits. ‘Black people have a hard time getting anywhere,’ one contestant remarks. ‘And if they do, they’re probably straight. This is to show my friends – I could be one of those. But just for tonight.’
This is an oxymoronic phrase, which wonderfully reflects the camp toughness of the men living through this time. They may’ve come across effeminate, but they were hardened to the harsh times. It wasn’t all glitz and glam; they had to work to create that for themselves.
In the straight world, a pedestrian, functional activity. In the underground, edgy hum of the Vogue Ball, this meant walking the makeshift catwalk to the admiration or bitter envy of your fellow contestants. It could get ferocious.
The most famous part of the culture, this dance was invented in Harlem and nobody could do it better than the king, Willi Ninja. Madonna was hugely impressed and inspired by it, and her troupe of black and Latino dancers in the early 1990s (all were gay except one) were plucked from the obscurity of the Vogue Ball scene to accompany her on her most famous world tour at the height of her fame, the Blonde Ambition Tour.
It is described by Willi Ninja as fighting through the medium of dance: ‘It’s like taking two knives and cutting each other up through dance [now described as a ‘Vogue off’]. It’s the dance form of shade.’
It has nothing to do with books! It’s the witty, catty art form of the insult. Described as when ‘everyone kikis because you found a flaw and exaggerated it – then you’ve got a good read going’.
Onomatopoeia resembling hyenas, used for when you’re bitching and you want people to know it and laugh along sarcastically.
This is when you let somebody know, unequivocally, that you strongly disapprove of them through ‘giving them an evil [look]’. Described in the documentary as ‘I don’t need to tell you you’re ugly, because you already know’.
A community or team, ready to compete against another team in the Vogue Ball. Each had flamboyant names inspired by Parisian fashion houses, such as House of LaBeija and House of Xtravaganza.
The Mother of the House was often a drag queen or trans woman who was ‘the hardest worker and gets the most respect’. She was also maternal to the kids who’d been chucked out home and ostracised for being gay or trans. These gay people chose their own families.
An affectionate reprimand when someone is being schooled about something they clearly know little about.
The highest of all praise, reserved only for those displaying outstanding amounts of nonchalant fabulousness.
Shouted at contestants encouragingly to get them to try their absolute hardest as they walk in the balls.
Shoplifting for clothes you could never afford but believe you deserve.
Header image: ‘Paris Is Burning’ / Alamy