Let’s be perfectly honest here, we all do this daily. We modify the words we say, the tone we speak, and our body postures based on the people we are communicating with. All of us. When you are at home with your loved ones you are more relaxed, and your affectations are looser, and you feel more at ease with yourself. If you are in public or at work, you worry more about what people may perceive you as, so you hold back on things you say or pay more attention to how you present yourself. Some of it, we are taught as children. This is how you act professionally, or this is what you say in polite conversation. For some of us, these are the very things that can keep us safe in mixed company or its things we say that only our friends understand. No matter what it is, it is call “Code Switching.”
Code Switching – the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. It typically refers to someone who speaks more than one language, but in modern times has come to also include types of language like body language, or elements that define a particular community. It is most often used as a means of fitting in. Think about it, when you are out with your friends, all sorts of topics come up and many of them aren’t things for polite conversation. Hell, the rest of society isn’t used to hearing us talk about our sexual proclivities, so we tone down some of the words and conversations we engage in. We all have varying levels of how we talk to one another, from truly Qween to pushing butch. It is all rooted from the same place, safety and acceptance, but the question is why?
When I was a younger gayby we would call it a nellyectomy. Basically, it would be used to describe someone in this way, “He is so butch at work, but when he walks into a gay bar it’s like he had a nellyectomy and flamed on like the human torch.” It is a good description of what code switching is like. We also used phrases like “are you a friend of Dorothy” as a means of identifying ourselves to one another. It of course refers to Judy Garland’s legendary role as Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz.” While not easily usable in “straight” conversation, it is a way to self-identify. Even saying something as simple as “I’m out” was a code-switching phrase. It’s one that can transcend the group you are with so that those in the know can pick up on you identifying as LGBTQ without others easily picking up on it. Well maybe not as true today as it was ten or twenty years ago.
Most of the language that LGBTQ and specifically gay men use comes from the gay African American culture. A prime example of this would be the movie “Paris Is Burning.” This movie shows the ball culture of New York city’s African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender community. Many of the words that have become so popular in our culture have originated there and is also one of the ancestors of modern drag. To sum up why it is important, let’s look at “Gurl! On Code Switching When Your Black and Gay” Madison Moore states “We all need to use language to survive, but code switching is about language used to create bonds and to convey secret information in plain sight.”
Prior to the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ people were much more conscious of modes of dress and terminology when they were looking for others of our kind. An example of code switching at this time would be dressing in a suit and tie to match your job and when you were heading out to pick up someone, you would switch to the “Castro Clone” mode of dress. This typically would be Levi’s jeans, white t-shirt, maybe a leather jacket, and some form of boots. This was a mode of dress common in the Castro from the mid-70s to the mid-80s. See the picture above or think Freddie Mercury from Queen. It was typically an over representation of the hetero culture. The other above picture shows a man in running shorts, white socks, and gym shoes, another example of “Castro Clone.”
“We’re looking at code-switching a little more broadly. Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We’re hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction – From NPR Codeswitch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity
It becomes second nature, for the most part. It does for me, anyway. When I am at work my whole mannerisms change. While I don’t hide being gay, I do tend to “butch it up.” I’m the IT guy and I want the company I work for to take me seriously, so I butch up my vocabulary and drop my voice an octave or two. It seems to convey an impression of authority and knowledge. It doesn’t change my knowledge, but as LGBTQ we are taught that heteronormative society doesn’t relate well to us in any position of power or influence. My knowledge over the subject matter doesn’t change, but the tone in which I convey something to people can create a perception that I don’t know what I am trying to impress. Many people can’t see beyond a sexual preference when it comes to LGBTQ. It begins and stops with who we sleep with, for them.
“Several friends and I who identify as queer or somewhere on the transmasculine spectrum, have learned the ins and outs of shopping for clothes alongside cis men. We’ve joked that men don’t take a lot of time perusing the options in the sock and underwear aisle. They know their size, they don’t care much about the color. You go in, grab a package of undershirts and boxer briefs and get out.” Many transgender men feel this way and is their approach to day to day shopping, according to the article “Queering the Line.” Things like this can make day to day normality a struggle for LGBTQ people.
The reality is that these differences do not really matter in the day to day. How we choose to dress, words we use, and body posturing doesn’t change who we are or the things we know. Unfortunately, much of the public doesn’t see it that way, they see the differences. To them that means not the same and therefore less than they are. Inclusivity is important for understanding how to deal with someone and would help in getting over the code-switching issues. So, how do you code switch on a daily basis?