Photo by Alex Sushil
The wood floor of the Peacock Room was warm under my mostly-bare ass cheeks. Prince’s “Kiss” blasted through the small performance space adjacent to the bar, and as the electric guitar solo kicked into gear, I watched as on stage, The Johnny Deep slid semi-sensually off MC Buttstallion’s lap, dropped to his knees, pulled a guitar pick from his tiny gold booty shorts, and began air-guitar strumming next to his crotch to simulate jerking off. I was the placeholder audience, sitting cross-legged on the ground in red and black lingerie and my mother’s teal terrycloth bathrobe, a soggy blue Dixie plate of meatballs resting on my thighs. I didn’t know where the meatballs came from. I’d found them in a tray on the other side of the bar, next to several for-sale surrealist paintings of unicorns and grizzly bears. My burlesque troupe had been rehearsing in our underwear for two hours, and as I jokingly told several other dancers, nothing made me feel sexier than a plate of meatballs.
Green lights, then blue, washed over the stage in time with the music. The Johnny Deep mouthed along as he thrust his hips: ain’t no particular sign I’m more compatible with. White lights flashed like a strobe and illuminated his face as he ripped off Buttstallion’s professorial blazer, then shoved Buttstallion’s tie in his own mouth. Just want your extra time and your—and Deep grabbed the other man’s jaw and leaned in for a stage kiss that was all tongue and no lips, kiss.
As the music ended, and Deep wiped spit from his mouth across his entire forearm, I clapped and hollered along with the rest of my mostly-white troupe. Yass queen and slay mama and werk bitch. Deep laughed self-consciously, head down, nervous grin, as he gathered his khaki pants, button-down, and tie from where he’d strewn them across the floor. He hopped off the stage, and our burlesque mother Joanie Waters took his place to discuss some technical elements with the run crew.
Sassy Britches and Connie Lingus, two other dancers in the queer, body-positive burlesque troupe, returned during the down time with drink refills, handing me a vodka cranberry, Deep a Tom Collins when he wandered over to our group. They’d been talking to the bartender and relayed that I could keep the can of whipped cream for my number in the bar fridge so that it wouldn’t spoil the night of the performance—good news for me, because if I had to eat half a can of room-temperature whipped cream during my number, I probably wouldn’t make it to the end of the song. They slipped away to deliver the rest of the drinks, and The Johnny Deep sat down criss-cross on the floor next to me.
With the performance finished, Deep was my friend Edgar, a guy I’d known since the sixth grade. He’d teased me for being fat, and I’d kicked him in the shins during Language Arts hard enough to bruise, and then we didn’t talk again until Junior year of high school when our multiple mutual friends meant hanging out in Orlando on a regular basis. And in 2013, we found home in a troupe where we could express our anger at society telling us how we should act: him, for being Latinx; me, for the size of my body; both of us, for being obnoxiously, excruciatingly queer.
“I almost lost the guitar pick in my pubes,” Edgar said. “Had to dig around for a while to find it.”
“I just thought you were making an interesting character choice, fisting yourself on stage,” I said. I popped the last meatball in my mouth with a plastic fork, then folded the plate in half and set it beside me. Distantly, I could hear Joanie talking about a second run-through, which meant I would eventually need to put on my brown bob wig and four-inch heeled boots again, but I wanted to delay that uncomfortable process for as long as possible.
Edgar took a sip of his drink, then another. “How was it?” He twisted his shirt in his hands like he was wringing out water. He had nothing to be nervous about. The number was incredible, and he looked more confident in his dancing and in his body than I’d seen him thus far. But our friendship was built on punchy communication—speaking mostly in one-liners, a performance of constantly one-upping one another—so I couldn’t tell him that.
Instead, I said, “Well, it wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen.”
He laughed, one burst of air with a giggle on the end that turned into a snort. Like putting on a second skin, he became The Johnny Deep again. One hand splayed over his heart, while the other landed square on his hip. I don’t know who I became when I performed, but Edgar adopted the persona of The Johnny Deep as though he’d been that character his entire life.
He pursed his lips. “Hunty, please,” he said.
Then he read me to filth.
Hunty. Noun. A minorly aggressive, yet still endearing, term which derives both sound and meaning from a combination of honey and cunt. Example: Hunty, you’re just jealous because your weave looks jacked.
Like most queer slang, hunty originates in the drag community. It’s the perfect word, used for friends and enemies—sometimes, both at once. I learned that from a YouTube video on the RuPaul’s Drag Race channel when I Googled the word on my phone during the next break. I’d had no idea what it meant when Edgar said it, but I loved the bite. Hunty. The crisp T, the way I sounded gayer when I lifted my voice. It entered my active vocabulary instantly, along with the other drag slang I’d picked up once I became more active in the scene.
The creator of hunty is anonymous, but I’m fairly confident that I know exactly what she looks like. She’s walking backstage after a killer performance of the 90’s remix of “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay,” dollar bills stuffed into her white plunge-neck pantsuit. After removing her pumps, she unpins her wig and sets it on her makeshift dressing table—a card table pushed against the black popcorn-speckled wall of the club. She takes a foam wedge, dabs it in makeup remover, and begins working it into her hairline.
Some queen who’s only been working at the club for, like, two weeks saunters past and attempts to read her to filth. “With that beer belly, you look like you’re starting pregnant drag.”
Without pausing or looking up, she says, “Hunty, don’t front. That cracked foundation makes your face a saggy, wrinkled ass.”
The library is closed. And they both laugh, and the other queen asks what the fuck hunty means, and then they it spread to other clubs, and their non-drag gay friends pick it up, and it appears on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and people who don’t know drag queens at all begin using it.
I find slang fascinating, the way it crosses ethnic, gender, social, sexuality, and class lines to bridge language gaps as well as gaps between members of various communities. I’m a fan of language in general, the way it’s ever-shifting, ever-evolving. Slang is just one component of that. But should slang that’s created by an oppressed group be spoken by the tongue of an oppressor?
Marginalized communities are like a Venn diagram: some people overlap in specific areas, and other people don’t. For the most part, I can check my privileges when it comes to concepts and ideas outside my sphere of personal reference and understanding. And while I know where certain words lie in this hypothetical diagram of identities, slang that intentionally crosses boundaries is more of a gray area. Hunty may be a queer community word now, but I don’t know if it should be. I don’t know if white queers are racist for making the word as mainstream as the intra-community stereotype of flamboyant white gay men as “sassy Black women,” or if the word falls into our community, too.
Like all good researchers, I turned to Google again. This time I combined my new favorite word with various others inside quotation marks: “hunty usage,” “hunty origin,” “hunty AAVE.” All links, all roads, led me back to drag.
The dissemination of drag slang through the queer community works much the same as any other type of slang. I’m on the east coast and say hella, my friends from the north say y’all. Humans parrot words because they sound nice, or because we want to fit in, or because they fill a gap left by Standard English, which is a mish-mash language comprised of Germanic, Native American, and Roman roots. Standard English also include loanwords we adopt as though they are our own, like kindergarten, portmanteau, and karaoke.
The jumble of origin languages is why the plural of goose (Germanic) is geese, but the plural of moose (Algonquian) is not meese; why house is houses but mouse is not mouses. Why there are “false friends” between English and similar languages—embarazada means pregnant in Spanish, not embarrassed—and why there are “false cognates” that derive from different roots but appear related—male (masculinus) and female (femella), loon and lunatic.
Still, even with all that borrowing and cobbling together, Standard English doesn’t have a word for everything. And we love specificity of language, which is why we develop slang. Pointing out someone’s misguided opinion is not the same as dragging them. Asking for proof or clarification is not wanting someone to show me the receipts. The difference can be connotation, tone, intensity, or association between two people. Slang conveys what other words cannot.
What started with hunty rapidly corkscrewed out of control until I had twenty tabs open on my browser, linguistics and theory and slang and a Vine compilation of white people “twerking,” the Wikiquotes definition of the word breeder, another queer slang. First definition: a derogatory term for heterosexuals, sometimes bisexuals not in same-sex relationships, used by homosexuals. Second definition: a derogatory term for someone, usually an African American woman, suspected of having children solely for government assistance. Synonymous with “welfare queen.”
I had expected to find a simple answer to my question, can I use hunty or not?, but if anything, with each unearthed tab I walked further into an unsolvable labyrinth of language and appropriation.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not slang, nor is it a language all its own. Scholars can’t agree on whether it evolved as a creole language, with West African slaves applying their grammatical structures to English, or whether it started as a pidgin language from learning English via assimilation. Regardless, AAVE is not “incorrect English;” it’s a dialect of English with separate grammar and usage rules. For example, “He be riding the eight a.m. bus,” uses the habitual be to describe a continual action, which in Standard English might be written as “He always rides the eight a.m. bus,” or “Every day, he rides the eight a.m. bus.”
The most similar dialect to AAVE is that spoken by whites with roots in post-Civil War sharecroppers. They share a lot of slang, from y’all to ain’t, but there is also slang used by AAVE speakers only. Finna (“She finna buy a new car.”) comes from the verb phrase fixing to. The idea of incorporating finna into my vocabulary has never occurred to me, but I was quick to claim hunty as mine.
I liked the idea of sounding queer. Though a friend once told me that I have a “classic lesbian look,” most people assume I am straight until told otherwise. I have to come out to every new person I meet, and saying “I’m queer” over and over again is both exhausting and awkward to work into a casual, get-to-know-you chat. After years of being in the closet, and then years of being out-but-not-recognized, hunty was a way to prove myself to other queer people without shoe-horning my sexuality label into the first conversation. See, I’m one of you, I know the secret handshake. Words are a way of identification and of bringing community together.
Reclaiming language is inherently political. Queer was and still is a pejorative, but enough queers decided to take ownership back that now universities have Queer Studies programs. Students and faculty discuss theoretical minutiae and in-group issues—where are all the butch lesbians going, anyway?—while educating a new generation of academia allies on less-than-friendly campuses. Women call their friends bitch as a term of endearment. Black people use the n-word. If I call myself a cunt, someone can’t twist the word away. I have declared dyke mine, so others can’t use it to reinforce my subjugation, to “put me in my place.”
Right. That would be nice.
My girlfriend and I stumbled out of Costello’s Piano Bar not drunk, but tipsy—that pleasant floaty place where walking wasn’t hard but holding hands somehow made us steadier on our feet. It was the day after Halloween. She was Peppermint Patty and I was Marcie, the clearly-queer duo from the Peanuts comic strip. We spilled onto the downtown streets of our coastal North Carolina home, making our way from one of the town’s two gay bars to the other, one block over and one block up, wanting the party crowd to be a little more hopping, a little closer to our age.
Princess to Front Street, waiting for the sad white horse pulling the trolley cart to amble out of the way before we stepped into the crosswalk. The New Orleans bar on the corner had their outside heaters on, a sandwich board out front advertised raw oysters and beignets as the daily special. The small boutique stores were closed—gift shops, my girlfriend’s jewelry store, the novelty tee shirt stand, the fudge shoppe with afternoon lines that wrapped the block and then some—and a busker out of sight picked his guitar to an unmoved crowd. We passed one bar, then another, then an Irish bar with an unpronounceable name tucked between a sushi restaurant and brewery.
We didn’t see the man hovering in the stoop until he folded forward out of the shadow, just his neck and chest illuminated by the streetlight and passing cars, occasionally swipes of red dotting over his face when they drove past. He looked like every other man who has ever shouted a homophobic slur at me.
“Fucking dykes,” he spat.
I didn’t mean to make eye contact but it happened like an involuntary reflex, connecting with him before I could help it. My eyes glanced off his face like a sword skidding across armor, and I turned away again, continued chattering to my girlfriend about my day at school as though I had not heard him. We walked on.
Neither of us said anything to each other, but we both knew what we heard, and we both knew that the other heard, and we walked faster, hands gripping each other’s, white-knuckled, like crushing a beer can between our clasped fingers. I listened behind us to make sure that he wasn’t following, wanting to shout or punch or murder the words home. And I knew that she was doing the same.
At any point, I may be dyke‘d in public. To reduce the frequency, I avoid displays of affection that most people don’t have to worry about: brushing shoulders, smiling too wide, giving her my jacket when she was cold. Though it was never my intent, every time I held my girlfriend’s hand it was a political statement, not a romantic one. Yet in spite of this, I texted a friend recently: wore a beanie to a gay bar tonight. omg, too dyke to function. That man and all the others just like him were right, of course—I am a fucking dyke. But those words are on my terms and out of my mouth only.
In the queer community, there’s a growing movement against queer itself. Some people argue that even though queer has been used academically since the 1970’s, its history as a slur makes it unfit as an umbrella term. Age, ethnicity, and urbanization play a large factor in the anti-queer movement. While its use as a slur seems antiquated to me, others have recent memories of playing “smear the queer” in their high school gymnasiums. Not everyone has reached a place of reclaiming the term, nor will they ever reach that place. With such a varied community, and with a country still debating where and when we can adopt children or pee in public restrooms, it’s perhaps naïve to assume we could unite at all, especially under a slur.
However, the old standby LGBT is wrong, too. It excludes too many groups, and tacked-on letters at the end make it an unwieldy mouthful. The most inclusive version I’ve seen is LGBTQPIAA+, where the + is to signify anyone else who may have been forgotten. MOGII (Marginalized Orientation, Gender Identity, and Intersex) came into fashion a couple years ago and I began using it instead, but the term quickly fell out of favor because it didn’t define what marginalized meant, and could allow community members to play gatekeeper and deny others based on their own ideas of marginalization. I moved to GSRM (Gender identity, Sexual orientation, and Romantic orientation Minority) for a bit, but that has similar problems to MOGII, and additionally was created by people who wanted to include pedophiles and kink enthusiasts as “oppressed minorities.”
No option is good; no option is correct. After weighing the pros and cons of each term, I stuck with queer as both a community label and as a self-descriptor because it seemed the most correct given the situation. However, if I don’t know with one-hundred percent certainty what words describe my peers, describe myself, how can I be any sort of authority on language outside my experiences?
Hunty, however, is not a slur. It is what it always has been.
I avoid blatant, highly offensive homophobes at all costs. They’re easy to spot. They love peppering their cars with bumper stickers. However, sometimes people I care about will say something mildly homophobic, and instantly I feel unsafe around them. “Which one of you is the boy?” or “Are you bringing your special friend to dinner?” or “You don’t even look gay,” or “If you’ve never been with a man, how do you know you’re gay?” and I grimace because it’s low-key offensive, and I have to make a split-second decision whether to call it out or let it slide. It’s not that big of a deal, I sometimes tell myself. They don’t know any better.
Laugh, shake my head, pat their shoulder condescendingly. Straight people are so silly! Neither one of us is the boy—that’s the point. My special friend can’t make it, but I’m bringing my girlfriend along instead. Straight? You must enjoy boring, missionary-with-the-lights-off, no-orgasms sex. You don’t even look straight. If you’ve never been with a woman, how do you know you’re straight?
Microaggressions ache like internal bleeding, like old injuries that flare up during high pressure weather systems. Over time, they accumulate until you can’t bear the weight of them anymore. Until you’re tired of saying anything at all to members of the majority group, because their words mean they don’t truly understand you. Until you turn to your own group, and white people are calling each other hunty without regard for where that word originated. Until there’s nowhere that feels like home.
Hunty makes me feel like I’m with the group, in a secret tree fort of queers with our own made-up language. No straights allowed. In this club, we overexaggerate our queerness as a statement, put on the feather boa and lisp, flannel shirt and undercut, that society wants to pin on us. We own our gender and sexuality expression, reshape stereotypes into something beautiful.
The difficulty of navigating slang-based microaggressions is that there is no consensus from any group. Shockingly, all people within a community don’t have the same opinion, and that opinion changes from word to word. Bae is out, hunty is in. Even the term microaggression is up for debate, as Chester M. Pierce created it in 1970 specifically for the struggle of African-Americans, and other marginalized groups adopted the term later. It could be that using microaggression for my struggle is, in fact, a microaggression.
Maybe drag queens shouldn’t have coined hunty at all, since it derives from cunt. Maybe I have more at stake in the hunty debate than I think. Maybe I don’t have rights to it at all.
I find my hunty answer, and I am relieved. Slang isn’t appropriation because it exists to fill language holes. Just as y’all is the missing second person pronoun to differentiate between singular you and plural you, hunty fits into its own gap. The closest word to hunty is frenemy, but even that doesn’t have the same connotation. Hunty and I are safe.
But then I find that others feel that with the pervasive history of white people appropriating Black culture, there really is no difference. I can’t use hunty because it follows in a long tradition of white people stealing Black slang to seem cool, or to make a profit. White people using bae is in the same vein as advertisements from the 1950’s featuring dark skinned, red-lipped figures talking “incorrectly” to sell cornstarch. Miley Cyrus wearing faux locs at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards is the latest version of a minstrel show. Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar at the 2014 Grammy’s for Best Rap Album. Iggy Azalea said she’s representing an underrepresented demographic in hip-hop. We take the unacceptable-when-black and make it acceptable-when-white, right down to language.
White queers have quite the record of co-opting things started by queers of color, from slang to the first rock thrown at the Stonewall Riots. If hunty isn’t my word, then I can’t use it, and I can’t decide who can—just as I can’t decide whether I can say faggot—because while I’m a member of the queer community, I am not a man attracted to other men. Zooming in, the identity Venn Diagram contains infinitely overlapping circles.
Eighteen months after my first burlesque show, The Johnny Deep was still humping the dance floor while I’d turned my garters and longline bra out to pasture and moved six-hundred miles north from Florida to Wilmington, North Carolina. During a brief visit home, I offered to work the merch booth at their penultimate show, wanting to feel a connection to something that I still loved so much.
I sold posters, nipple pasties, and buttons with my face and others’ faces; stitched errant bra straps and touched up lipstick and blush; and hid a package of Costco cupcakes under the table for the end-of-show event. Our very own Havana Gold officiated a gay wedding of two audience members, thanks to a license he received from the internet. His speech was moving and beautiful and full of all the words that I’d fallen out of practice using: yass and kween and some non-ambiguously-originated ones like powerbottom and bussy.
My favorite was in there, too. Hunty. I tuned out as I passed the cupcakes around the drunk crowd, wondering what this new data point meant, what Havana’s usage meant in terms of my own. If he used it, and was in groups a and b, but not c, and I was in c but not a—
I realized, then, that it didn’t matter.
No word should feel so important that I would use it without consideration for the people who live its implications. If eliminating hunty from my vocabulary makes someone feel safe, connected, human—regardless of my opinion on the word—why would I not want to do that?
The words we speak and the way we speak them can legitimize oppressive structures. The media discredited Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend, Rachel Jeantel, in the court of public opinion for the way she spoke while delivering her testimony against George Zimmerman. In the Department of Justice report from the Ferguson police department investigation in 2014, damning evidence of internal racism came from several emails that contained the habitual be (“I be so glad that dis[sic] be my last child support payment. Month after month, year after year, all dose[sic] payments!”).
I don’t know who has authority over hunty. I don’t know who has the right to make decisions on the word and its usage across community boundaries and into other segments of the Venn Diagram. Queer people? Drag queens? Drag queens of color? I can’t see the line between appropriation and appreciation, slur and slang, mockery and flattery—but I know that it is a thin one, and that it is one I don’t want to cross.
Can I use hunty?
I can’t say. I have to stay in my lane.
stay in my lane (v.) 1. avoid speaking with authority on subjects primarily affecting minority groups to which I do not belong.
Megan Ellis is a finalist for the 2015 Crab Orchard Review Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she is also the designer for Ecotone. Previously, she was an intern at Lookout Books and an assistant editor at the Florida Review. Her work appears in Bluestem, |tap| lit mag, and elsewhere.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.