I was never a YAS QUEEN sort of member of the LGBTQIA+ family but a recent change on my favorite show that I love to hate (RuPaul’s Drag Race) gave me pause. RuPaul, Mother of the All, recently started spelling the word “look” stylized as “lewk”. Now, Drag Race has for a while stylized words differently. There’s the Werq the World Tour and of course Ms. Stacey Lane Matthews’ famous “henny” but the changes that have come are new, startling and worth discussing considering that I am your favorite queer feminist postmodernist formalist.
Now, there is a reason that queer people around the world have their own language: safety. For those who are not aware that it recently has really only been acceptable to be queer in America (in some places) since the Stonewall Riots (which was lead by two trans women of color). Queer people in America have their own language to help find other people like you and to protect against those who do not understand or wish to harm you. Point blank.
One of the big influences in queer language for Americans is also deeply rooted in Ballroom culture. Now, I could have an entire blog on Ballroom culture (watch Paris is Burning or Pose for a good primer) but let’s start with two basics: ballroom culture was started by queer people of color. You have queer people of color to thank for shade and voguing and fan choreography that could snatch a girl bald. Second is that is was a welcoming place for all. Cis people were involved, trans folks, cis gay men, cis les women. All were welcome. And because of the ethnic roots of ballroom culture, a language began to form that was unique to queer people. You throw shade at a girl you don’t like. You punch the clock and go to work when you are on stage dancing. You snatch a girl’s wig when you don’t like her and you say something that could literally end her life. Ballroom culture informed drag culture and then club kid culture which brings us to…RuPaul. RuPaul has always said she as a drag queen was a club kid but as a queen often hearkened back to the roots of ballroom culture.
RuPaul is for many America’s first recognizable drag queen. She’s very easy to digest. She’s black but not scary, she’s very classically beautiful and she’s very charismatic. (Here is where I pause to say yes I am gendering RuPaul, a cis gay man, as she but that’s because I’m mostly discussing her as a drag queen) and her ability to use the language queer people have been using for decades at that time was mostly just a funny thing the nice pretty lady says.
The show Drag Race got popular in the 2000s. Hell, I remember watching Season 4 (the best season) on television and a lot of the themes of that season were older drag queens (Latrice, Willam, Chad) teaching the younger queens their history [herstory] (Jiggly, Phi Phi). It wasn’t a very popular show unless you were queer (because it was on LOGO and that channel was mostly for queer people). That meant that if you were watching Drag Race in let’s say 2007 you either understood the references made or you knew someone who did.
But that changed as the show began to gain very commercial success around the time of All-Stars Season 2, the language that kept queer people safe for decades became mainstream. Now, I’m not here to say that it isn’t good for queer culture to join mainstream culture because let’s be real, gay people exist and it’s a part of history that’s worth knowing. But opening things up to mainstream culture means that sacred items once held tightly together through cultural memory and history can be more accessible without the baggage of the history behind them. So a group of wine moms now can say YAS QUEEN WERK because she heard Trixie Mattel say it without understanding at all why that has meaning or value.
And with mainstream acclaim, there is a lot of people who love to monopolize and quote queer culture without giving queer people credit. For many OKURRR is a Cardi B thing rather than a noise drag queens having been making for years. This also plays into commercialization. Recently, I see a lot of merch with YAS and WERK and honestly, it’s all just exhausting. Not to mention the fact that it’s now socially acceptable for wine moms to use drag lingo but if me, a queer person of color still uses it, I get called out for following a trend.
This all culminates with RuPaul taking what was typically drag language like using work and look and now making those words more cutesy? Lewk is not a word. Werq is not a word. They’re odd spellings of words that have real double meaning to queer people. Now, these misspellings are likely for trademark purposes because Ru is a ruthless capitalist and likes to sell merch but it also makes something rooted in struggle and in bloodshed and in violence and in a lack of hemongeny.
Cultural appropriation is real and I’m seeing it happen with the memeification of queer language. And I’m not going to gatekeep to the point that I’ll say only queer people can say YAS but really, before you go on and try to “snatch a wig” just remember who gave you those words, who gave you that language and on the backs of whom you are not able to walk around in Target-sold merchandise.
Be mindful of where you spend your pride dollars. If it isn’t going to an organization, maybe stay away from it. Be mindful of brands who will swap over to rainbows for a month and then continue to deny queer people basic rights the rest of the year. Be mindful of people who love saying these words but also don’t think that gay people should be allowed to marry in churches. You can hold people accountable and still be cordial.
Happy Pride Month, everyone.