DeLeon: Maybe slay isn’t for you.

Isaiah DeLeon, Op-Ed Contributor


‘I love that f–king axe wound, you wh-re!’

‘Slay, hunty, you better werk it, sis!’

Anyone who has watched the YouTube web series UNHhhh knows the iconic drag legend Trixie Mattel said the first line in reference to gay language. The second line is a theoretical ally’s reply. This dialogue shows that the roles could have been switched – gay men and straight women can communicate in very similar styles, sometimes indistinguishable.

For a project in my Language and Society class, my classmates and I administered a survey about the word ‘slay’ to other Northwestern students. Our data shows that the people that understood the word to come from queer culture were, in fact, women and queer people –– especially TikTok users. Even TikTok algorithms think queer people and women sometimes share similar dialects.

When I go out to Northalsted, I look forward to seeing women at bars. They give me a sense of security. This sense of security goes both ways according to psychologists; straight women are more likely to find comfort and trust in gay men than straight men.

But, it’s no coincidence queer people who come into contact with straight female allies all know how it feels to be talked down to. Coming to Northwestern, I’ve had to deal with straight women who talk to me as if they are trying to prove their allyship, which only makes me dislike them more. At A&O Productions’ 2021 Fall Speaker event, I was excited to finally see Shea Couleé and Alyssa Edwards bucking down where I normally attended my Intro to Sociology lectures. Instead, I spent the whole night trying to avoid a straight woman who kept calling me ‘sis’. She was also trying to prove she was a bigger Couleé fan than I was — wrong.

Why did that girl think it was appropriate to call me ‘sis’ and try to upstage my knowledge of drag queens? I’m sure she was just trying to make a friend. But, the line between trying to be friendly and trying to insert yourself in the community is very thin, and something as little as saying ‘sis’ repeatedly in dialogue is the determining factor of which side of the line you fall. 

And I know gay men aren’t off the hook either. Not many people, even queer folk, know terms like slay come from Black and Latine queer culture in Harlem. Much of queer culture originates from communities of color, so it’s important to understand the etymology before loosely using terms. This is especially true for white queer folk.

Plus, calling a woman a ‘wh-re’, even when used as a term of supposed endearment, isn’t always the best idea. Women experience misogyny every day and calling a woman a ‘bitch’ when it’s intended to be light-hearted is a reminder that men, queer or straight, get away with putting women down. I’m guilty of this for sure. My best friend, who is a woman, had to pull me aside and tell me that the frequency with that I use the word ‘bitch’ made her uncomfortable –– even knowing I meant it in good fun and as an expression of femininity.

We all use language to construct our identities. As a gay man from Texas, I struggle with navigating my gay identity. Women try to show support for queer people by using queer language and displaying themselves as trustworthy. Overlap between language for different identity groups is how we are able to connect, but it isn’t always appropriate.

Language crossing is defined by sociolinguist Carmen Fought as “a situation where an individual deliberately chooses a code that is not the default for [them] within the local context.” Crossing into each other’s languages is tricky because of the way we each construct our identities.

Who is legitimately allowed to use these languages then? ‘Slay’ is used by many TikTok users, and the large-scale language exchange that happens online sometimes loses the important history of the word.

I’m not here to be the Supreme Court of language (and I wouldn’t trust the Supreme Court to do this anyway). I just want allies and queer people alike to be more aware of the language we use. So, next time you hear a new word on TikTok cycling through your For You Page, make sure you do a quick Google search –– especially when these words are coming from minority communities.

From now on, I will avoid putting down women just as much as I will avoid being called ‘hunty’.

Isaiah DeLeon is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.