Swish (slang)

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Swish is a slang term usually used derogatorily for effeminate behavior and interests (camp), emphasized and sanctioned in pre-Stonewall gay male communities. This behavior is also described as being nelly. Wentworth and Flexner define swish as a noun meaning "a male homosexual, esp. one with obviously feminine traits".

Being swish includes sashaying and the use of limp wrists, falsetto voices, feminine pronouns, and superlatives—basically, everything up to the other side of camp, or drag.

Extravagant language is common. Such expressions as 'Oh my word!' 'Give you a clue' 'Good heavens!' and 'Oh, my dear!' are readily associated with other aspects of a feminine man. In describing ordinary experiences the male variant is likely to use such words as 'terrific,' 'fabulous,' 'completely devoted,' 'horrible,' 'tremendous,' 'oh, honey,' 'sublimely,' 'charming,' 'appalling,' 'vicious,' 'fierce,' 'loathed,' and 'madly.' Exaggerations are made more conspicuous by placing undue or inappropriate emphasis on certain syllables and intonations which leave little doubt of the effeminacy of the speaker."

Although being butch was viewed as deviant and socially unacceptable by gay male society, being swish has since lost its mainstream gay status post-Stonewall, and in addition to being used occasionally by mainstream culture is now most often derogatory even when used by gay men. Though it may be assumed that most post-Stonewall gay men view acting swish as internalized homophobia, a concession to stereotypes of gay men as less than manly. However, the Castro clone, a hyper-masculine, macho standard and ideal behavior that replaced swish—adapted many camp elements such as dish.

Thus while clones could view swish as embodying anti-gay stereotypes, being swish was a way of indicating and performing one's identity, indicating that anti-gay stereotypes could be derived from gay identities. Further, one could turn swish on or off, as described by Martin Levine in Gay Macho: {{cquote|Just look at all these clones dear...they all look so 'butch.' But I remember when everyone was 'nelly'. What a joke!...Over the last few years I have watched many of these girls change as the times changed. A couple of years ago, they had puny bodies, lisping voices, and elegant clothes. At parties or Tea Dances, they came in dresses, swooning over Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. Now, they've 'butched up,' giving up limp wrists and mincing gaits for bulging muscles and manly handshakes, giving up fancy clothes and posh pubs for faded jeans and raunchy discos.

Most recently, swish has taken on an empowering and action-oriented meaning within the LGBT rights movement. To swish is to create opportunities for straight allies to become active in the LGBT civil rights movement. It embodies a form of activism that is uplifting, rewarding and fun. Eg. “I swish because all LGBT people deserve to live and love equally.”

Further reading

  • Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever by Joel Derfner, Broadway Books, 2008.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) slang
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