If you binge-watch YouTube or spend hours scrolling through social media, pretty soon you’re going to stumble across something queer — like maybe the famous drag queen Jasmine Masters’s viral “And I Oop…” video. YouTubers and Tik Tok-ers are obsessed with queer slang – that’s the tea, sis! – and in turn, so are their legions of stans.
But for queer people who know our herstory, it wasn’t a YouTuber who taught us our words.
It was Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning,” an iconic film from 1991 that introduced viewers to the New York City ballroom scene and with it, the expansive vocabulary that is still used today.
The film brings us into the lives of the city’s queer and transgender youth of color who, in response to the hardships they faced, formed tight-knit families called houses. Together, they’d compete in balls and walk-in categories based on fashion and beauty with a chance to win trophies, money and name recognition.
Their slang was a secret code and only meant for one another. Decades later, it’s mainstream. But lots of people don’t even know the origin of the language they’re using.
So I made a queer vocabulary glossary. Now you’ll know where today’s slang really came from.
No, an ecstatic Lady Gaga fan did not invent “Yass!,” nor did Ilana Glazer of “Broad City.” Yass! is a variation of Yes! The word has been used for decades. Yass! comes from the raw emotion and excitement of watching an amazing performance, which happened all the time at the balls. If you’re living for the moment, then you’d yell out, “Yass!” The longer the enunciation, the higher the emotion. Think of “Yass! queen slay!” as the queer translation of “You go girl!”
A gag is the physical emotion that comes from being shocked. For example, when someone does something that is so amazing it leaves you gasping with your jaw dropped and you’re left speechless, you’re gagged.
This is a type of dance, not just Madonna’s 1990 song. Voguing has been around for years and it originated in balls. In the words of the grandfather of vogue Willi Ninja himself, “Imagine runway modeling … in freeze frame.” The dance is characterized by its sharp, angular movements inspired by the poses seen in “Vogue Magazine” as well as by Egyptian hieroglyphics. Vogue exploded beyond the balls and has influenced countless artists over the decades.
You don’t even have to tune into “Rupaul’s Drag Race” to see some voguing. Pop stars like Ariana Grande are adding vogue to their performances.
Today, when celebrities unfollow each other on social, we call it shade. But it’s really much more than that. True shade is about the art form of a calculated, often backhanded insult. Instead of directly insulting your outfit, I would compliment it in a condescending tone, letting you know exactly how I really feel.
This is one of the more obscure words in queer slang, and it has nothing to do with cleaning. Mopping is another way of saying stealing or robbing. Balls are built around glamour and fantasy, but for the poor queer people of color who competed in them, expensive accessories were out of reach. So if your fantasy is being a glamorous rich woman, but you don’t have the money to furnish the lifestyle, you find other ways to make ends meet. When people want to participate in a ball but don’t have the clothes, they mop. These queens did what they had to do for their trophies.
Nowadays, anything our favorite pop star does is legendary. But in ballroom, one could only be legendary through hard work and talent. Legendary meant you put in the effort to win your trophies, that you were the best of the best. Becoming a legend didn’t come easy.
In the ballroom world, these kids were legends. They had trophies and prestige from their community, but outside the balls, they were marginalized — black and Latin queer people in poverty at the height of the AIDS crisis. This is what made ballroom so powerful. They were able to create a space for themselves to live their fantasy and to win something.
As queer representation in media has increased, queer slang has entered the lexicon of the English language, trickling down to our internet-speak. Through shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Pose,” queer culture is reaching millions. That’s not a bad thing. But now that our culture is finally being appreciated by mainstream media, we should pay respect to the real creators who didn’t live to see it treasured.
This story was originally published on July 23, 2019.