A Secret Gay Language Has Gone Mainstream in the Philippines

Swardspeak is more than gay lingo—it's a common bridge between the incredible diversity of languages to be found in the nation of islands.

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Aug 22 2016, 4:48pm

Illustration by Lili Emtiaz

Three years ago, after Wil Dasovich completed his bachelor's degree at California Polytechnic State University, he did what many young graduates do: He planned a several-month-long backpacking trip abroad. The only difference is that Dasovich never returned to the United States.

Instead, after traveling through Indonesia and Singapore, he was scouted for commercial modeling in Manila. He decided to stay, and soon found himself working his way up the ranks of the Philippines' entertainment industry. Half Filipino, he realized he wanted to connect with his roots on a deeper level.

"I figured I might as well immerse myself in the culture. It was a bucket-list thing," he told VICE. "My entire life I wanted to speak Filipino—since I am Filipino—so I thought this was an opportunity to learn it."

Dasovich began picking up bits of Tagalog (also called Filipino), the country's first official language, listening closely to conversations and repeating things he heard his friends say. This, however, wasn't nearly as straightforward a method as he imagined.

An archipelago republic of more than 7,500 islands, the Philippines remains one of the world's most linguistically diverse regions, with a heritage of Malayo-Polynesian languages and the lingering colonial influence of Spanish and American occupation. Even as English increasingly grows as a dominating cultural force, people across the country still speak more than 170 languages. Of those, the government has designated two as official—Tagalog and English—and nineteen as auxiliary languages.

Tagalog itself is only spoken as a first language by a quarter of the population, so it's no surprise that Dasovich would hear a hodgepodge of words and phrases. It's within this ethnolinguistic melting pot that he first encountered Swardspeak (aka Bekinese and Bekimon). A coded lexicon mostly spoken by gay men, Swardspeak draws from English and Tagalog, as well as Spanish and, to a lesser extent, Japanese. It's what might be referred to as an "anti-language," the lingua franca of an "anti-society"—in this case, the Philippines' gay subculture.

To Filipino speakers, Swardspeak sounds witty and twangy, and it immediately identifies the speaker as homosexual. "At first, I couldn't tell the difference between gay lingo and 'normal talk,'" Dasovich admits. "To me, everything seemed Filipino—just another foreign language."

Swardspeak is both playful and mind-bogglingly complex. Many terms come from the names of celebrities, brands and a cornucopia of other colorful sources. "Walang Julanis Morisette," for instance, translates to "there's no rain," a play on a lyric from Alanis Morissette's single "Ironic"—"it's like rain on your wedding day." It is language as pun, as inside joke, as subversion—and it is as metaphorical as it is ephemeral.

"When I finally understood gay lingo, I thought it was hilarious—the use of celebrity names as words, the intonation," he recalls. Filipinos are surprised to find foreigners who can fluently speak Tagalog, let alone Swardspeak. "And when I began speaking it, people thought that was hilarious. So I went out of my way to learn it."

Dasovich chronicled his journey learning Filipino in a YouTube series called "The Art of Tagalog." In one video, he spoke Swardspeak; almost immediately, the clip went viral, garnering some 400,000 views and landing Dasovich spots on national television in the country. This made him one of the most popular vloggers in the Philippines, and the success of his series has since earned him his own TV show, "TFC Connect," aired on the The Filipino Channel.

His viral clip also serves as a window into the evolution of gay slang. Although he may not have known it at the time, Dasovich—who self-identifies as straight—was showing how Swardspeak has been appropriated by mainstream heterosexual society.

Far from a recent phenomena, the origins of gay slang stretches back decades. The film critic Nestor Torre apparently coined the term Swardspeak in the '70s, but the lingo it designates had emerged years before as a way for gay men to exclusively communicate among each other—a cultural safe space disguised as slang, a series of codes to identify fellow "deviants."

But over the last several decades, Filipinos have become increasingly more accepting of gay men—a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found the Philippines to have the most positive views toward homosexuality among Asian countries, despite reports of ongoing discrimination and hate crimes against LGBT individuals. Words and phrases from Swardspeak have, in turn, permeated Filipino pop culture. This is especially true in industries typically dominated by gay men, such as show business.

It's something Dasovich hears every day in his work. "Anyone in the entertainment industry uses it. Girls use it all the time," he says. "Even some straight guys use it. Especially comedians."

These patterns are reminiscent of anti-languages in other parts of the world—some that have vanished as the notion of an "anti-society" crumbled.

In many ways, the historic trajectory of Swardspeak parallels Polari, a British gay secret language that was widely spoken among gay men and theater types in the early-to-mid 20th century.

Polari was popularized in the mainstream by two notably campy characters, Julian and Sandy, on the 1960s BBC radio show Round the Horne. As society slowly became more open, certain words from Polari crept out of London's gay pubs and into commonplace British slang. By the time the UK Sexuality Offences Act legalized private homosexual acts in 1967, Polari fell into disuse and all but disappeared. This decline could be accredited to the stigma associated with using it as it came to embody camp stereotypes in Britain, but gay men also had fewer reasons to speak an anti-language as culture became more hospitable. Only time will tell if Swardspeak will eventually follow the path of Polari to irrelevance and eventual cultural neglect.

Just as cultural trends change, so do Swardspeak words' definitions evolve and quickly shift, like a verbal jazz which riffs upon and constantly reinterprets the world at large. "There are many words that started in gay lingo that people use, many that people don't realize started that way," Dasovich says, increasingly aware of the influence Swardspeak has on the language he uses every day. And this is perhaps what makes Swardspeak a singular, and singularly modern, language: "It's always evolving—sometimes rapidly."

Follow Jon Shadel on Twitter.

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