Ryan Lee: The flattering theft of black gay culture

Bert and Ernie have some new company in the Queer Muppet Suite following the re- cent outing of Kermit the Frog. Miss Piggy must be in full-bore rampage mode—but that’s none of my business.


Sesame Street’s leading man has dominated the summer on social media, with an endless stream of Kermit memes offering a visual manifestation of an iconic black gay catchphrase: sipping tea.

Forget “Word of the Year”; the Oxford Dictionary folks ought to create a “Linguist of the Year” award, with the inaugural recipient being the black gay ballroom scene.


“One term for talking trash about someone is ‘throwing’ this, like a big elm tree might do,” Alex Trebek said during the recent “Jeopardy” teen tournament.

“What is ‘Shade’?” a contestant replied, inducing a proud tear from the eyes of many black gay men across America.

The vernacular they have developed for decades has influenced the way we talk in 2014; familiar to white teenage girls on “Jeopardy,” celebrated in acceptance speeches at the BET Awards and immortalized on the internet by a green Muppet.

“The Real Housewives of Atlanta” has been one of the most salient bridges in this export of language, each season the female cast members appropriating more words from their expressive black gay sidekicks. We can kiki about the playful borrowing of phrases, but the Bravo show has also revealed unfortunate aspects of the mainstream infatuation with black gay slang.

While the delight and affection the Atlanta housewives feel toward their Judys seems evident, the behavior and statements of most of the cast members inspire doubt that they fully recognize the dignity and value of black gay men. They have picked up black gay slang fluently, but their tongues range from clumsy to venomous when they talk about queens, faggots and the qualities of gay men.

More broadly, the popular embrace of black gay terminology has not correlated with tolerance and appreciation for the people whose vernacular has been pillaged. The group responsible for crossover trends from voguing to “Yasssss” remains among the least visible in popular media, and most marginalized within its communities: gay and black.

African-American aunties and girlfriends, even brothers and homeboys, laugh while throwing shade and sipping tea, yet cling to the conviction that the gay men in their lives are broken and going to hell. White LGBT culture values black gay slang and style more than it does the experience and input of that population in the movement’s narrative and priorities.

Even within the larger black gay community, the ballroom scene that has broken more ground in pop culture than any other segment of LGBT expression, is often judged, slandered and emasculated.

There has also been a diluting of the ballroom vernacular as it’s passed through black gay culture, the white gay community, black heterosexuals and, ultimately, to Alex Trebek: “tea” is now a generic synonym for gossip instead of the “T”ruth, “shade” no longer requires nuance, and “kiki” is a noun that originated with the Scissor Sisters.

Cultural bartering occurs constantly. Black gay culture is influenced by everything from hip hop to “The Devil Wears Prada”; much attention has recently been paid to white gay men channeling their inner black woman, and the LGBT movement has co-opted Bert and Ernie to the point that the closeted gay roommates have become cover boys for marriage equality.

In some ways it’s an achievement that aspects of black gay life have claimed such an impressive share of the pop culture exchange market, even if the trading doesn’t always feel even or fair. There is value in visibility, but appropriation without acknowledgement and reverence of origins is a flattering form of theft.

Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.