‘Gayspeak’ in China: a(nother) case study

Simon Desmarais

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?

References

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “‘Gayspeak’ in China: a(nother) case study”

  1. Hello! Thank you for this thought-provoking post about gayspeak across languages and cultures. I would like to offer another layer of complexity to gayspeak, that goes beyond language. In describing and theorizing identity as a performance, language people have tended to focus on only language (linguistic variables that index certain subject positions). But, identity performance is more than “speak”. James Paul Gee (1996) distinguishes between Discourse (big D discourse) and discourses (little ‘d’ discourse), where the former is like an identity kits – ways of doing being recognized as a certain kind of person (how ways of talking, listening, writing, and reading, acting, interacting, believing, valuing, and feeling fit into – or don’t – patterns associated with a recognizable social network, or affinity group). The latter (little ‘d’ discourse) focuses on language, which is always situated. There’s so much more to say about Gee’s work, but for now, I will keep it short. The point: perhaps we need a broader framework for understanding identity performances than simply linguistic patterns. What do you think?
    One more: Nicholas and Starks (2014) developed a framework of identity for SLE called Multiplicity, which expands the notion of communicative repertoire to many dimensions, including, for example “modes” (sound, movement, image and spatial orientation).
    There are others, but this is enough fodder for the moment. Where would your writing take you if you expand your framework for identity performance? (this could be rhetorical, or not – up to you).

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  2. Maxime – Comment 3

    Hi Simon! I thought this was a fascinating read. I’ve always found the topic of gayspeak interesting, as I grew up with several gay individuals in my life. It always fascinated me that two of these individuals would not come across as espousing gayspeak whereas the other two really did. I’ve often though wondered how it is that for some individuals, gayspeak (one where there are perceivable linguistic traits to observers) appears to be innate whereas for others it is not present at all or appears to be ‘over-performed’. I also often wondered about the principle which states that individuals generally perform certain identities they want to ascribe to; why is it that gayspeak appears to manifest as a performance (not innate) and as an innate trait? I’m also interested to hear the perspective of the Chinese students on Chinese gayspeak.

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  3. Hello Simon! Thanks for your interesting post. I would love to share my opinion about sounding gay in Chinese. I think “sounding gay” in English and in Chinese may have lots of similar characteristics. For example, the tone, the higher pitch, always ending up a sentence with particle, etc. In my view, gay speaking doesn’t really mean that a person is a gay. It means that the way he speaks shows “too many” feminine features than he “should”. Here, it contains a framework of how people should behave or speak according to their gender. If people are out of the social contractive framework, people probably would sound gay.
    However, an interesting sharing is that Chinese Mandarin are quite different from Taiwanese Mandarin.
    The Taiwanese accent sounds more soft, containing a lot more modal particles. I would say that men who have Taiwanese accent sound “more gay” for me. For example, they would speak many sentences with modal particles in their special tone “是哦~”(yes~~), “真的假的”(is it really?!), “过分耶~”(going too far), etc. Taiwanese Mandarin has their language feature, which may be seemed more “gay” than Chinese Mandarin. (But i am sure people from Taiwan won’t agree because it is the way they speak and they won’t feel any “gay” sense in it.) Therefore, even the same language could have different linguistic features and different “gayspeak standard”. People would have different sense of gayspeak according to their own language.

    -Kunyao

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  4. Simon Desmarais – Comment 5

    Hey Kunyao,

    That’s super interesting. That is exactly one of the things that for me would be pretty difficult to perceive, because I don’t have that knowledge about how different varieties of Mandarin sound. I think we’ve mentioned this in class, but it sounds a bit similar to Quebec vs European French; many people in Quebec feel that European French is more ‘feminine’, and thus sounds more gay. Very interesting.

    I don’t know if you’ll read this, but I have a few questions for you:
    – One of my partners’ friends often talked to other men (even people he didn’t know) by saying “帅哥” (‘handsome’, as in ‘hey handsome’). He’s the only person I heard saying this; usually men can call women ”美女”(as in ‘hey beautiful’), and women can call men “帅哥”, but men never call other men “帅哥”. At least, that was my impression. Do you think that that would be a ‘gay’ thing to do? I think that was perhaps the only thing I noticed that could be considered ‘performing being gay’ in Chinese.
    – Here, in Montreal, when you hear people speaking French or English, do you perceive that some of them sound ‘gay’?

    Anyway, thanks a lot for commenting!

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    1. Hi, Simon!

      Yes, I agree that it’s a bit similar to Quebec and European French. Even I, a person who can’t understand French, could tell the difference between the two “styles” of French! But I can’t tell that which one is more gay…

      I am amazed that your interesting and careful observation in Chinese “gay” language. To answer your question, calling a stranger “帅哥” or “美女” is very common in China. For me, I would use both of them, for example, to ask for service in a restaurant or ask for a stranger for help. It’s more like a way to show politeness. But as you mentioned, “帅哥” seems like being much less used for men. Instead, they would usually use “兄弟”(brother? something like “dude” in English), “小哥”(little brother), or they just use “欸”(hey), which sounds more masculine. It is not that “gay” to use”帅哥” for a man, but it could be. Maybe depends on how you say it, for example, a more soft-tone way or a more casual/common/masculine way??

      For the last question you ask, for me, if a man is saying “sooooooo cute” in English, I may think he is a little bit gay. I think that I can feel some “gay” features in English, but which more depends on their pitch, tone or body language but not only on words.

      Nice to share with you. Hope it could help!

      -Kunyao

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  5. By Wai In Chan

    Hi, this is a very interesting post although I do not know too much about the subject. I am no expert, but I just wanted to share my experiences with my students in China that align with this idea of the “gay” language. When I was teaching in China, I realized that most of my students did not have this filter when it came to what they identified as “gay”. I’m not saying that all Chinese students are like this, but my students were extremely close (especially the students of the same gender) and were not afraid to be cute, girly, and touchy with their friends of the same gender. I did not find this abnormal because I am really close to my Chinese friends of the same gender, however, the other teachers who weren’t Chinese, found it very strange that the students were so open with one another. The teachers started to speculate if those students were gay and if maybe they simply felt their classrooms were safe enough to express themselves.

    So I decided to ask my students if that was true. When one of my male students was sitting in the lap of another male student and flirting, another female student chirped in and asked if they were together. I was present during that situation, so I decided to listen in and asked if they were. They immediately said no, not at all. They told me they were just really close friends and when you are really close friends, you can cross those boundaries as a joke/or friendly bond/gesture between you two. Whether this was true or not, I got used to this behaviour in my classrooms and around the streets in China, actually. In the area where I lived, I don’t believe there wasn’t a legit stereotype of being “gay” or a “gay” language. In fact, the students that did come out to me in the classroom, acted like perfectly normal students and did not adopt any of those behaviours often seen as stereotypes of gays in the Western culture. That was the small amount of experience I had being exposed to any type of gay behaviour or language during my teaching job in China.

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