Let’s “Spill Tea” on Spilling the Tea

Walking the precarious tightrope between queer vernacular and AAVE.

Student Commentary

By Josephine Gravatt / Contributor

“Werk” RuePaul, Via WallpaperAccess








Even if you’re not binging TV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on your Friday nights or thigh high in Drag culture, you most likely recognize at least one of these vivaciously delicious phrases. 

I can’t count how many times I’ve been greeted by a friend on the street by a heartwarming, yet sometimes earthshattering, “BAE!” Or maybe you too have walked out of a dressing room feeling like an absolute model and were peppered with, “SLAY QUEEN” or an encouraging, “YAS, WORK IT!” Despite effortlessly working their way into mainstream youth language, it is important to understand the complex history behind slang such as “bitch” vs. “byotch” and the gravity of the colorfully colloquial words we all love to say.  

Thanks to the growing popularity of shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Queer Eye,” LGBTQ+ slang is no longer just for drag queens. The vernacular of drag culture has been absorbed into pop culture so quickly that sometimes it can even be difficult to distinguish where this vocabulary originated.

But while 14-year-olds are batting their eyes saying “sissy that walk,” on TikTok, for many, the overuse of these once sacred phrases strips them of their value and weight. The minority LGBTQ+ community has always endured ostracization and oppression, and queer individuals still face incredibly high rates of violence, murder, poverty and homelessness to this day. Needless to say, stealing and appropriating their language by a majority population is inconsiderate, to say the least, and extremely devastating to the significance of queer culture.

But in an argument of appropriation, we must dissect even further. Can the LGBTQ+ community even lay sole claim to this dictionary of colorful language? Or did they actually appropriate this language in the first place?

To answer this weighted question, we must once again go back in time to the Harlem Renaissance. It is no coincidence that drag culture began and flourished in Harlem- home to a colossal African American population. That said, the origin point of the majority of these terms, such as, “lit,” “sis,” or even “woke,” can be traced back to African- American Vernacular English, or AAVE. In other words, because drag vernacular was born from African American culture, the phrases we assume are niche to the queer community are actually closer to the black community and therefore should be more accurately described as AAVE.

African American women in particular were symbolic of a strong femininity and became a way for gay men to claim femininity in a stance against straight ideas of masculinity.  

Rusty Barrett, linguistics professor at the University of Kentucky and author of From Drag Queens to Leathermen: Language, Gender, and Gay Male Subcultures 

So what does this mean?

Appropriation of the black community is not a new concept to say the least. If you don’t believe me, try to spot a white woman adorning cornrows next time you went through a Piazza- I’m certain you’ll see at least one! Similarly, pop culture can’t seem to get enough of the “best” parts of black culture while blatantly discarding people of color. Through the media, we can see (white) people unapologetically stealing traditionally African American fashion trends, stripping rap of its history and claiming rap as its own, and of course, peppering their language with the trendiest AAVE.

Gladys Bentley (1907–1960) was an American blues singer, pianist, and entertainer / Harlem 1920s. Public domain.

Even singer, songwriter and American sweetheart Olivia Rodrigo was caught red handed this past July using AAVE on an Instagram live. Not only does it sound off putting to watch her switch from her normal colloquial tone to a very different set of grammatics, but it also displays how easy it is to be ignorant to appropriating AAVE.

Olivia Rodrigo receiving backlash for using AAVE, Societea on Youtube

Point being, when Olivia Rodrigo inserts AAVE into her live chats, she is praised as sounding “cool.” However, on the flip side, when AAVE is rightfully used by African American people, it is often deemed unprofessional and associated with the “undesirable” aspects of society such as poverty, drugs, violence, and gangs. This also occurs for the association of such terms in the drag culture and the queer community. It’s all fun and games to “slay” but when it comes to actually showing support for the community, it’s all too easy to turn the other cheek.

So, to revisit the question of origin: LGBTQ+/drag vernacular can be considered a subset of the grander language, AAVE. The fusion of dialects is a natural process but that is not to say that we cannot be held accountable. The line between organic language fusion and cultural appropriation is paper thin and as long as these minority communities face oppression, the usage of their vernacular by white people will have ignorant, disrespectful and harmful undertones.

Therefore, the advice here is to think twice before we repeat a catchy phrase we heard on TikTok- especially if we are white. The portrayal of the black LGBTQ+ community within mainstream media goes hand in hand with this wide range of historical innuendos and we all need to do our part to combat dilution and appropriation. So, next time you want to pluck a word from the famous RuPaul’s dictionary, consider your privilege and possibly even take a step back.