Inside the secret gay language of the Philippines
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.