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Knows mo itey?: Dissecting the ins and outs of Filipino gayspeak

More than just as a trendy social dialect, gay linggo is a language that connects the LGBTQ+ community together.

Sinetchiwerikyelz? ‘Pag na knowzik itez ng pudra, tegibels everybody in this country!” Vice Ganda exclaims in the 2015 film Beauty and the Bestie. To the average Filipino, the meaning behind these sentences may feel obscure; but to the fluent gay lingo speaker, it’s as clear as day.

(Who are you? Once my father finds out about this, you will all die!)

Vice Ganda’s lines are just one of many instances where Philippine gay lingo—also called beki language—is incorporated into popular media and culture. From movie scenes and YouTube videos to internet challenges and social media memes, local gayspeak has indeed become part of Filipino culture. But many still wonder how the language works, and how it continues to thrive despite its ever-dynamic nature.

Speaking life through language

“We refer to [Philippine gay lingo] as a sociolect,” states Jesus Federico “Tuting” Hernandez, associate professor at the University of the Philippine’s Department of Linguistics. Just like any sociolect, it’s centered around the speakers. “Wala namang isang body o isang komisyon that would tell you, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be,’”  he jokes. Therefore, it doesn’t follow a standardized or strict set of grammar rules other languages have.

(There’s no body or commission that would tell you, “This is how it’s supposed to be.”)

It’s no surprise then that the language is as colorful and alive as its community’s culture. For  Carlos Calo (III, PSM), gay lingo is the community’s avenue of expression. But to him, it’s more than just a language. “It’s part of our way of life—how we talk with one another and how we get our messages across,” he shares. Film writer-director Rod Singh speaks in the same vein. “Personally, I practice [beki] language more often because may sense of empowerment on my part knowing the history of gay lingo,” she expresses.

However, gayspeak back then wasn’t as vibrant as it is today. Its roots stem from a time when the Filipino LGBTQ+ community hid behind the shield of the language to keep themselves safe. “People [used to] practice gay lingo to create a space for [the community] without the fear of other people eavesdropping on their conversations,” Singh says. A secret language of sorts, it exists to conceal the true messages of its speakers as a form of protection from non-queer individuals or non-allies. The term “Julie Yap Daza”, for instance—which means huli or “to get caught”—was often used by gay men in the 80s to warn each other when policemen were in sight.

Thus, “[Gay lingo] is rooted in the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines [where] there’s really a need to sometimes veil conversations to avoid cultural violence,” Hernandez reaffirms in Filipino. But what was once a way to fend off the Philippines’ heavily patriarchal and heteronormative society, gay lingo now connects users—whether queer or not—in a community full of love and support.

Knowing me, knowing you

Yet, mastering the art of gayspeak isn’t as easy as it sounds; its intricacies lie in its hyperdynamic nature. “Ang bilis-bilis magbago [ng gay lingo] kumpara dun sa…campus-speak, or other social dialects,” Hernandez notes, emphasizing how external factors—like other languages and popular trends—contribute to the enrichment of the beki language. To this, Singh echoes Hernandez’ statement, “You can just invent a gay lingo right now and expect some of your friends to understand what you’re saying because you all know your codes.”

(Gay lingo rapidly changes compared to campus-speak or other social dialects.)

For example, she recalls a time when “Julie Yap Daza” became outdated. Instead, she heard a friend use “pearly shells” to signify a person who got caught. She was initially confused at the term until her friend cusped their hands together—mimicking a person in handcuffs—akin to a variation of the Pearly Shells dance. This was when she truly understood how deep gay lingo can get, “Talagang pawittyhan kayo ng construction. Parang imbento ni bakla ‘tong salitang ‘to pero nagegets mo.”

(It’s really about being witty in your construction. Some person may have just invented the word but you would understand it.)

But its fast-paced nature also serves as its downfall, as gay lingo doesn’t stay exactly the same forever. Some words can—in Hernandez’s words—“lose its power [and] become obsolete.” One example Singh points out is with the word bongga. “Bihira ka nalang makakarinig ng bongga because bongga is already a Filipino word,” she attests. Thus, variations sprung up to keep the root word as unique as possible such as kabog, and more recently, kavogue.

(You rarely hear bongga because bongga is already a Filipino word.)

Case in point: the term “Lupita Kashiwahara”. “Many don’t know [who] Lupita [is; she] used to be famous,” Singh demonstrates in Filipino, “but [in gay lingo,] Lupita means malupit or cruel.” With the constant societal changes influenced by popular culture and social media, antiquated words, phrases, and references are bound to disappear over time. However, Calo justifies this phenomenon as a means of “constantly communicating with the other members of the community” to create fashionable and more acceptable vocabulary. 

Lavaaaarn

As such, nothing is really set in stone for gay lingo. “Hindi rin kasi monolithic ‘yung [local LGBTQ+ community],” Hernandez notes. “Meron mga grupo na iba-iba ‘yung mga background, iba-iba ‘yung mga socioeconomic status, at iba’-iba rin ‘yung mga access [points] to popular culture.” With a plethora of LGBTQ+ centered shows like Drag Race Philippines—bound to introduce smaller pockets of gayspeak found in the Philippines—the linguistics professor is confident gay lingo is here to stay.

(The local LGBTQ+ community is not monolithic. There are groups who have different backgrounds, different social classes, and different access points to popular culture.)

This is why Calo appreciates scrutinizing the language. “Gay lingo represents how the LGBTQ+ community perceives the world and how to express themselves in this world,” he jets. This shared mode of communication is what links the tightly knit Filipino queer community even more. “[It] is the same thing that the Filipino language makes us Filipinos.” Singh reminds. “‘Yung importance sa akin [ng gay lingo ay] ‘yung how the language defines [our] sense of community.”

(The importance of gay lingo to me is how the language defines our sense of community.)

This liberty with which speakers create their own terms only proves how beautiful Filipino gay queer culture is. Truly a test of one’s wits, the local gay language is filled with codes that are not just limited to words and phrases, but also queer experiences. So for those who want to immerse themselves in the complexities of gayspeak and the LGBTQ+ experience, gorabells, mga dzai!

By Magz Chin

By Juliana March Mendoza

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