In­side the se­cret gay lan­guage of the Philip­pines

HISKIND - - THE DIARY JULY-SEPT - Words Dean East­mond @dean­vic­torr

A repub­lic of more than 7,500 is­lands, the Philip­pines re­mains one of the world’s most lin­guis­ti­cally di­verse re­gions with both Malaysian and Poly­ne­sian her­itages and the shad­ows of Amer­i­can and Span­ish colonists. Even though English holds the most power glob­ally, Filipinos across the coun­try still speak more than 170 lan­guages, eleven of which are sadly dy­ing. Sward­speak, how­ever, couldn’t be more alive. Though not part of the coun­try’s two of­fi­cial lan­guages (Ta­ga­log and English) or nine­teen aux­il­iary lan­guages, the coded lan­guage has reached na­tional recog­ni­tion as a once se­cret di­alect used by gay men to com­mu­ni­cate, turned witty and twangy lex­i­con seen and heard across main­stream Filipino me­dia. Sward­speak’s ori­gins are as ex­ten­sive as they are com­plex, but by blend­ing English, Ta­ga­log and the names of celebri­ties, brands and ref­er­ences to pop-cul­ture, the fab­rics of the lan­guage were some­how born. Though the cryp­tolect lan­guage got its name in the 70s, it’s be­lieved to have ex­isted decades be­fore this as a way for gay men to ex­clu­sively com­mu­ni­cate be­tween each other with­out the fear of be­ing outed. De­spite re­ports of dis­crim­i­na­tion and hate crimes against LGBT+ in­di­vid­u­als in the coun­try, the Philip­pines is grow­ing more and more tol­er­ant of gay peo­ple ev­ery year, al­low­ing the lan­guage to fil­ter into pop cul­ture and, oddly, boom.

But Sward­speak is far from one of its kind. In the UK, Po­lari was the hid­den lan­guage used by gay men to com­mu­ni­cate their sex­u­al­ity and iden­tity with­out be­ing caught by po­lice or worse, be­fore the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in 1967 and has given us widely used terms like “naff”. In Brazil, Pa­jubá is the se­cret lan­guage of the trans com­mu­nity, used to sub­vert yet re­in­force queer iden­tity. Pa­jubá al­lows trans women to both con­ceal their iden­ti­ties through a hid­den lan­guage, but also use it as a badge iden­tity and hon­our. And in South Africa, two hid­den gay lan­guages ex­ist; one for the white gay com­mu­nity and another for the black gay com­mu­nity.

Po­lari died when it was pop­u­larised. It was no longer a se­cret so put gay men at risk and, with the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity fifty years ago and bet­ter so­cial at­ti­tudes to­wards LGBT+ peo­ple it wasn’t re­ally needed any­more. The pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of Sward­speak, how­ever, couldn’t have re­sulted in a dif­fer­ent re­sponse.

What makes Sward­speak so dif­fer­ent to pre­vi­ous se­cret and cryptic lan­guages that have emerged in the past is its open­ness and pub­lic na­ture. De­spite the treat­ment of gay and bi men in the Philip­pines still not be­ing ideal - with the likes of con­ver­sion ther­apy still be­ing le­gal and 70% of Filipinos strongly dis­agree­ing with same-sex mar­riage in 2015 - Sward­speak is used as an over-the-top comedic form of lan­guage to make com­edy and en­ter­tain­ment out of ho­mo­sex­ual strug­gle and iden­tity. In the same way camp and flamboyant men are made as pre­sen­ters in the UK as a “jester”-like char­ac­ter (Paul O’grady, Gra­ham Nor­ton, Alan Carr, Ry­lan etc.) Sward­speak outs gay men but is also used as a so­cial shield to pro­tect speak­ers by com­ing across as fa­mous/re­al­ity TV stars.

Most Sward­speak terms orig­i­nate from pop­u­lar, celebrity and TV cul­ture, with many a Sward­speak phrase us­ing celebrity’s names to mean some­thing based on the things they were fa­mous for. For ex­am­ple, ‘bara’ in Ta­ga­log means ‘to block’. Be­cause Bar­bara Streisand’s name some­what rhymes with ‘bara’ and be­cause of her diva sta­tus, her name has be­come a cod­i­fied and na­tion­ally recog­nised term mean­ing “to be re­jected bluntly.”

The drama­ti­sa­tions of these ref­er­ences are filled with hu­mour and rem­i­nis­cent of cock­ney slang from the Vic­to­rian era. ‘To trans­form’ your look is to go throw an ‘op­ti­mus prime’ (the lead char­ac­ter from Hol­ly­wood block­buster Trans­form­ers) or to make your­self look from plain to glam­orous is to have a ‘Je­sus Christ Su­per­star’ (re­fer­ring to the res­ur­rec­tion). In the same way Po­lari was rid­dled with eu­phemisms and sex­ual ref­er­ences, Sward­speak sim­i­larly coins terms mainly to dis­cuss sex, at­ti­tude or ap­pear­ance. ‘Mur­riah car­rey’ bru­tally means ‘cheap’ and ‘poc­a­hon­tas’ means ‘pros­ti­tute’. Off the back of Mar­vel hit X-men, Sward­speak has claimed the name of the term to mean “gay man”. Whether this is a com­ment on gay men be­ing out­siders like the mu­tants in the fran­chise or a nod to whether com­ing out as gay con­sid­ers you to be less of a man (and sub­se­quently an ‘ex-man’) is un­known, but it’s clear that Western cul­tures more tol­er­ant to LGBT+ peo­ple are at the core of this lan­guage’s iden­tity.

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