You know I’m really comfortable around you, that I want to be close to you as a friend and think you are SO COOL the second I start calling you gurl. Gurl isn’t the same thing as “girl,” a female person, but is really just a term of affection or an interjection that gay people, and black gay people especially, use to punctuate a juicy story of some kind.
YOU: Hey, madison, how was your weekend?
ME: GURL. You will never guess who I saw!!!
Failing that, gurl is another way of being like “get yourself together.”
YOU: OMG do u think I should message him again? He hasn’t responded to my last 27 messages…
ME: (falsetto) Gurl (end falsetto) why are you so thirsty?
I love black gay language. I love saying “work” and “honey” and “yaasss” and “turning it” and “c’mon!_____” and “gagging,” and I love being around other black or brown gay people who can talk this way, too. When I can code switch like this I feel free, not that I don’t feel free in my normal speech patterns. It’s just that my normal speech isn’t all that fun because I’m just trying to get through the day. But when I get to code switch around my people, well, that’s when I’m really having fun. I’m accessing another side of my personality.
Black gay language is a kind of genius rooted firmly in humor. It’s about turning creative phrases. Everything can be — or is — a punchline.
Probably the best recent example of black gay language in the public sphere is James Wright’s amazing endorsement/review of Patti LaBelle’s Sweet Potato Pie, the so-called Pattie Pies. YASS GOD. Now, I should have known this pie was going to go off because at this time of year sweet potato pie is de rigueur in black households. Wright’s review is full of hilarious moments, but the part that had me gasping for breath all up in this coffee shop was what he said when he was having a hard time getting into the pie.
“It’s hard to get in this motherfucker! Patti what you seal this bitch with, Gorilla Glue? The shade of getting into the bitch.”
When I saw this video make the rounds on social media, shared largely by my black gay friends on Facebook, I connected with it instantly because the way he talks, the things he says, reminds me so much of my family and upbringing. The virtuosity of being funny without even cracking a joke. A party at my family house is a game of wits, a game of who can be the funniest or say the funniest thing first, and then keeping the humor ball rolling all night long.
Everybody code switches. You’re different in a seminar room than you are at the club, and you talk differently to your boss than you do to your boyfriend. Even if you aren’t black or gay, one place where code switching is especially relevant is if you date someone outside your race. Your boyfriend might listen to you on the phone while you talk to your mom or your cousin, or see how you change when you talk to your best friends. I have definitely had to teach a boyfriend or two what it means when I say “work” to everything.
HIM: Hey let’s meet at 7?
ME: Ok, work.
There’s a problem with code switching and black gay language, though. It’s popular. It’s on RuPaul’s Drag Race and it’s on RHOA. Sometimes I meet a white queen who knows I’m gay and will instantly start “gurl”ing and “yasss”ing me without knowing anything about my background or that I’m capable of that style of speech. It’s assumed that because I’m black and gay that I automatically want to talk to people that way — that I feel like code switching with u — when that isn’t always the case. Code switching requires a level of intimacy and familiarity.
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. Black gay language spoken with people who know is a fun, exciting way of making and sharing community.