During the last two years, I lived and worked in China, and while I was there, I noticed a very interesting phenomenon, related to sexuality and gender. Once again, this is based on my own experience; I haven’t done any legitimate research on this, and also, very importantly, I am not Chinese, I’m not an expert on the Chinese LGBTQ+ community’s linguistic practices, nor do I pretend to be; this post should only be viewed as what it is, an attempt to make sense of my experience regarding specific linguistic practices while living in China.
I think Van Herk (2012) does a very good job of summarizing work on gender and sexuality and language, but I still want to include here the notion of ‘gayspeak’, a set of linguistic features (higher pitch, elongated consonants, etc.) that indexes the speaker as gay. Drawing on work from Cameron and Kulick (2003), he argues that ‘gayspeak’ is used to perform a specific identity, in this case being gay.
Now this is where it gets interesting. In China, I was in a relationship; my partner was Chinese and spoke no English, so Chinese was the sole language of communication. Despite Chinese being my second language, I noticed very early on that sometimes, but not always, he ‘sounded gay’. At first, this was just something that I noticed, but I then realized it had significant implications.
First of all, what we consider to ‘sound gay’ is based on a long history of Western values, stereotypes, and ideas about masculinity and feminity, which all culminated into the idea of a marked ‘gay identity’ and how it is performed through speech. It is highly specific to the West. Other cultures and languages have different ways of performing masculinity, feminity and sexualized identities. For example, Sreetharan’s (2004) study of Japanese people’s use of feminine sentence-final particles showed that feminine features can be used to index members within certain life stages (young, middle-age, and old), rather than being an expression of feminity.
Now, given that:
- My partner’s culture is extremely different from mine;
- Western and Chinese cultures necessarily have different, culturally-specific ideas about what being gay is, and how one performs ‘being gay’ in speech;
- Chinese isn’t my first language (and as such I don’t possess all the cultural referents that a L1 speaker would);
- I hadn’t previously had extensive contact with the Chinese LGBTQ+ community;
How is it even possible for me to perceive that he ‘sounds gay’? My only idea of what a ‘gay’ man sounds like is based on a distinctly Western concept, so how can he, as a Chinese gay man, sound like a Western gay man?
Now this is where additional research is needed, but my current theory is that he has borrowed features of English ‘gayspeak’ to perform a more Westernized gay identity. There are a few reasons why I think this is.
First of all, as Western culture is hegemonic, it stands to reason that Western gay culture is also hegemonic, and as such potentially exerts considerable influence on China and other countries. Furthermore, ‘being gay’ in the West is a culture that is highly defined, with its own set of linguistic features, celebrities, interests, etc. In other words, in the West, it is very easy to perform a gay identity. Also, although I don’t have any statistics to back this up, I am fairly certain that the West is the most important source of LGBTQ+ rights activism in the world.
Perhaps because of these reasons, the feeling I had when in China was that many gay people ‘looked up’ to the West as a place where being gay is accepted, and where the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is significantly ahead of China. Ho, in Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Urban China (2009), argues that many “Chinese gay and lesbian identities signify a quest for the Western experience of modernity and authenticity in a more self-conscious manner than ever before” (p. 3). Rather than using the Chinese term tongxinglian 同性恋 ‘homosexual’ or tongzhi 同志 ‘comrade’ (often used to design general LGBTQ+ culture in China), more and more gay people use terms directly borrowed from English, e.g. gei for ‘gay’; I perceive this to align with the construction of a more Western gay identity. Furthermore, since mainstream ‘gay identity’ is a fairly new concept in China, perhaps even introduced by the West, defining a ‘Chinese’ gay identity is, for now, probably still done in relation to Western gay identity. However, Ho also argues that despite this appropriation, Chinese gays and lesbians are currently in the process of creating new, uniquely Chinese gay and lesbian identities.
Finally, I can think of another reason why Chinese gay people might appropriate some features of English ‘gayspeak’: I sometimes found myself in public (non gay-friendly) spaces with groups of Chinese gay people, and became self-conscious of how ‘gay’ we looked and sounded, because I perceived it to be very easily recognizable. People within our group were making no effort to ‘hold back’, so to speak. Despite this, it seemed that most people outside our group did not realize this. It is possible, then, that borrowing elements from English ‘gayspeak’ is a way to index a speaker as gay, but only within the Chinese gay community, as a means to ‘sound gay’ (and perform a gay identity) to insiders (who would be familiar with it through their engagement with Western LGBTQ+ cultural productions, such as movies, websites, etc., or even other Chinese people performing that Western gay identity) but not to outsiders.
In that case, Chinese gay people would be borrowing elements from a second language, which have specific meanings in that language, and bring them to their first language, therefore establishing a form of ‘covert prestige’ to people who are familiar with the performed meanings in the first language, and yet remain neutral to people not familiar with it. Wow. It’s also very interesting because developing an exclusive, ‘secret’ slang is actually a pretty common feature of LGBTQ+ communities worldwide, from Polari (which borrowed from Italian, Romani and English) in 1960s England to current Swardspeak (which borrows from English and Spanish) in the Philippines. Maybe Chinese gay men are in the process of developing their own?
PS: One of the reasons I wrote this is because we have a lot of Chinese students in the class, and I’m interested in what you think. If you feel that anything I wrote is wrong, please do tell me, I would love to have some Chinese perspectives on this. What is your experience with people ‘sounding gay’ in China? Can people ‘sound gay’ in Chinese, and is it different than ‘sounding gay’ in English?
Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and sexuality. Cambridge University Press.
Ho, L. W. W. (2009). Gay and lesbian subculture in urban China. Routledge.
Sreetharan, C. (2004). ‘Students, sarariiman (pl.), and Seniors: Japanese Men’s Use of ‘Manly’ Speech Register’. Language in Society, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 81-107. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Van Herk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics (Vol. 6). John Wiley & Sons.