The Exhausting Work of LGBTQ Code-Switching

Queer, trans, and non-binary people have to do the extra work of changing how they speak, act and express themselves in everyday spaces.
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Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection

Court, a 25-year-old sales engineer based in Portland who previously identified as a lesbian, told me how their voice changed when they came out as non-binary (all sources in this story have had their last names omitted for privacy and safety). “I would attempt to “masculinize” my voice before—that sort of stable, droning mutter,” they said. “It was only after I realized I was genderfluid—neither a man nor a woman—that I became more comfortable slipping in and out of the more feminized voice I’d been so afraid of.” Court explained that this involves more animated, energetic pitch changes and use of the “gay lisp.” “I still switch back to my more masculine timbre in professional spaces and new environments,” they continued, “since I fear inevitably getting clocked as she/her.”


Aubrey, a 26-year-old trans woman working as a grocery store cashier in Iowa, also notices that her speech and mannerisms change depending on how comfortable she feels around a customer. “When I get customers that I know or assume are queer, I get a lot more vocal fry, laugh and swear more, and talk with my hands a whole lot,” she told me, adding that, in contrast, she “turtles up” around rude or threatening customers. “I find my voice drops in pitch, my sentences get shorter, I make less eye contact, and I’m not as expressive with my arms.” Early in her transition, too, her presentation was different. “Code switching into 'social queer mode' was kinda scary, and I didn't do it a lot,” she continued. “I talked 'like a guy' for the most part.”

Code switching is a sociolinguistic concept that once simply described the practice of alternating between multiple languages or varieties of language in conversation, but which is now used in discussions about how members of marginalized communities adjust their voices, speech patterns, mannerisms, and behavior to blend in across various social settings. Often associated with racial and ethnic minorities—think of, say, a Black woman who uses AAVE around her Black friends but switches to "standard" English around her white co-workers—“code switching” is also increasingly used to describe the way in which LGBTQ people adjust their presentation in spaces of varying tolerance (gay clubs versus the office, say). For trans people, especially precarious Black trans women, the stakes are particularly high: Code switching is literally a matter of life or death.


There can be many components to a code-switch, but to take voice as an example, gender presentation is more than just pitch, i.e., men having deeper voices than women. As Vivian Wang reported in a fascinating 2016 piece for The Awl, it also includes resonance (how full a voice sounds), cadence (men often speak in a staccato, as opposed to fluid, style), volume (men are louder), and vocabulary (women have a greater tendency, for example, to end sentences with “tag words” like “right?”). Non-vocal gestures during speech are important, too: Women make more eye contact during conversation, for instance, and also use more hand movements. “For many transgender people,” Wang noted, “sounding like their true gender is just as crucial to the transition process — and at times, just as complicated — as looking the part.” This means, of course, that people like Aubrey must constantly calibrate whether to sound “like a guy” or “like a woman” depending on whether they’re in a tolerant space in which they’re “out” as trans.

To understand what this code switching looks like and why queer people engage in it, I spoke to more than 30 trans men and women, non-binary people, gay men, lesbians, and bisexual folk about the practice, including Jyoti, a 23-year-old based in New Zealand whose identity as an Asian migrant with ADHD and autism, a sex worker with a “straight” job, and a queer, trans and polyamorous communist organizer means they are constantly engaged in chameleon-like levels of code switching. “As an Asian migrant, I code-switch accent-wise, of course, so it's all jumbled—my general speaking voice has what is often called an "autistic mumble",” they told me. “I talk very fast and in the middle of my range—I'm an alto, my testosterone levels haven't affected my [vocal range] much.”


“For sex work purposes, where I'm trying to pass as a heterosexual cis woman, I don't necessarily pitch my voice up, because people who hunt for petite Asian girls are… uh, not the johns I want to see,” they continued, “but the entire timbre of my voice is more feminine, even if I drop it to be sultry. I also put on a 'cosmopolitan' or 'international school' accent.” At Jyoti’s “straight” job in tech they’re read as “cute, young and enthusiastic”, whereas in queer spaces, especially white, queer spaces where Jyoti calls out racism, they’re read as “intimidating to the point of being dangerous. In straight spaces, nobody's scared of me the way they are in queer spaces, but in both, I generally get read as a bit sexless,” they continued. “Queers read me as prudish or uninterested by way of my blunted, autistic affect; straight scenes tend to read me as innocent. I swear like a sailor, and that bursts both bubbles a little, but people are often very surprised to learn that I'm a sex worker.”

Many of my sources told me that they feel they can’t present as openly queer or trans at work or around certain family members, so they code switch in these environments. Teo, a 28-year-old PhD student in North Carolina, said that they code switch in male-dominated spaces like the auto shop or hardware store for safety. “I'm AMAB non-binary/genderqueer, and I do a lot of femme presentation things like having painted nails, short shorts, and ‘women's’ tank tops,” they explained, telling me that when they run errands in male-dominated spaces they “usually present significantly more masculine” by hiding their painted nails and tucking their long hair under a baseball hat. “The way I carry myself changes, too,” they continued. “I have a more naturally effeminate body comportment that I straighten out in those spaces.”


For the sources I spoke to, the point of making these adjustments is avoiding hate-fueled violence, dysphoria-inducing misgendering, rudeness, hostility, and even just awkwardness. “I don't trust the kind of people I may run into here: I'm a QTPOC and I’m worried that someone might attack me,” Teo explained. “Even getting yelled at would not be great—I wouldn't really know how to handle it.”

Matt, a 33-year-old non-binary artist based in New York City, feels similarly, telling me they hide everything they do to present as queer in certain intolerant environments: “I do whatever I can to avoid confrontation, weird looks, or basically anything uncomfortable happening.” Since coming out two years ago, Matt’s been surprised by how hard it can be to know when code switching is necessary. “Family members I thought were going to be weird have been very cool, and some I figured would be great have been weird,” they explained. “It forces me to be making calculations constantly, which stinks.” They said the hyper-awareness one needs to move through the world as a non-binary person can be exhausting. “I do not have the fortitude to explain non-binary gender to my goddamned widowed grandma,” they continued. “It really screws me up and erodes my confidence and sense of worth, often for days afterwards, because what am I, some kind of coward? Am I betraying the cause somehow?”

Aubrey made a similar comment about how draining code switching can be. “Switching to more masculine speech and mannerisms wears me out,” she said. “There's a threshold of how much I can do it per day before my job performance and cheeriness starts to plummet.”

Despite this toll, code switching can include moments of tenderness and solidarity. “Maybe it's because I was a theater kid in school, but chatting 'full femme' with my few queer coworkers only to snap immediately to employee mode for a customer is almost nice,” Aubrey mused. “It's a performance that I have at least some control over, so I guess there's a sense of agency about it.”

Mitch, a 25-year-old retail manager based in Canada, concurred. “When people I don't know give signals of queerness, like using the word 'partner' or wearing certain clothing styles, I give signals back, like explicitly mentioning my girlfriend,” they said. “I do this to let them know they’re in a safe space, and that I’m a safe person.”

While these moments of tenderness and solidarity are heartwarming, they illustrate an uncomfortable reality for LGBTQ people, which is that most spaces entail a risk of violence, hostility and misunderstanding for them—and again, for Black trans women in particular, the risk of death. For LGBTQ people, especially QTPOC, code switching is constant, background labor that is often invisible to heterosexual, cis folk, and the pockets of safety carved out by people like Mitch are all-too-rare refuges from the struggle to blend in.