Swish (slang)

Swish is a derogatory term for effeminate behaviour and interests (camp), emphasized and sanctioned in pre-Stonewall gay male communities. This behaviour 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 (Sonenschein 1969; Tripp 197?, both cited in Levine 1998)-basically, everything up to the other side of camp, or drag.

"Extravagant language is common. Such expressions as 'Oh my word!' '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,' 'sublimely,' 'charming,' 'appalling,' 'vicious,' '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." (Henry, 1955, p. 291, cited in Levine 1998)

Although being butch was viewed as deviant and socially unacceptable by gay male society (Warren 1972, 1974; Helmer 1963, both cited in Levine 1998), being swish has since lost its mainstream gay status post-Stonewall, and in addition to being used occasionally by straight people 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 straight stereotypes of gay men as failed men (or women); however, "clone"-the masculine, even macho, standard and ideal behaviour that replaced swish-adapted many camp elements such as dish.

Thus while clones view swish as harmfully embodying anti-gay stereotypes, being swish was a way of indicating and performing one's identity, indicating that anti-gay stereotypes were and are derived from gay identities. Further, one could turn one's swish on or off, as described by Martin Levine in Gay Macho:

Further reading

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