Swardspeak: What Queering Language and Form Means to Me

| Austere Rex Gamao
 +  A placard that says, ‘Because love is liberating, to love is revolution.’.

Swardspeak: What Queering Language and Form Means to Me

Swardspeak: What Queering Language And Form Means To Me | Austere Rex Gamao

Queer resistance that sings 

Pride Marches don’t really happen near me. In previous years, I had to commute to them. I accepted that my participation this year was only artifice, that I cared about appearances and nothing else, and that I needed to take photos for this essay. Walking alone to the march, I felt a certain singularity. I saw my body as timid and anticipatory. Okay, I felt self-conscious. As in the self makes itself known to the body. I arrived mid-march, stopping before the parade to spot an opportunity where I can blend in with the crowd. I saw companies sporting their T-shirts and their banners rolling by. I wasn’t really interested in joining companies trying to hit their DEI goals for the year, even though I shared some of their motivations for the day. Then, Bahaghari (Rainbow) Philippines, a national democratic, non-profit organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in the country came into view. No, their voices reached me first, loud and ringing and direction-full. I was invited to their cultural night the year before to read my poetry along with other writers and artists. I immediately joined them.  

My body in motion, in utterance, pushed my self-conscious-ness outward. I am a solitary person most of the time. The indwardness as my cave. I am a Virgo and, in the tarot, the Hermit card represents me. But it felt nice being out, in every sense of the word. It was nice finding a place in that crowd. It was nice knowing that there is room for me in the struggle. My voice doesn’t carry that much weight. I’m soft-spoken and don’t know how to express my anger. In that crowd, the other people’s voices carried mine. Yes, I got my pictures but then it didn’t seem important to have them. Being in the crowd, doing what we do, stripped my assertion of artifice away. I shouldn’t separate myself from what we have to fight for. 

 + Pride March Photo: Austere Rex Gamao, 2023. Makati City, Manila, the Philippines. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Pride is a protest. That’s reiterated in this year’s Pride March with organizations giving updates on the next steps to attain our rights and with the protest chants, ‘SOGIE Equality, ipasa na!’ (Sogie equality, pass it now!), ‘Makibeki! Wag mashokot!’ The latter is a Swardspeak version of the slogan. Swardspeak or Gayspeak or Bekimon arose in the community, particularly with gay men, as a coded lexicon.1 Makibeki comes from the word Makibaka which means to participate in the struggle. Beki is the Swardspeak for Bakla which means gay. Wag mashokot comes from huwag matakot which means don’t be afraid. Wag is the shortened version of huwag and mashokot is the Swardspeak of matakot. I know it’s a lot to take in but once you get it, you get it. In ‘Gay Language: Defying the Structural Limits of English Language in the Philippines’, Norberto Casabal posits that it is a form of verbal sublimation of gay people against the domineering power of patriarchy. The Filipino gay community began coining words that can be associated with the original word, either by its literal meaning or denotation, or by using other shades of meaning or connotation. It also includes the collocation of words through their phonological resonance and resemblance.  

There are many-many words in the Swardspeak vocabulary. One can even say a full sentence with them. Because of its rising popularity, almost everyone outside the LGBTQ+ community can understand it. Part of its appeal is that speaking it is fun. It’s like taking something plain and putting glitter all over it, creating something exorbitant, an ornamentation. What I like most about Swardspeak is its musicality, how the LGBTQ+ community’s inflection turns playful, that language is a vessel for laughter. 

I don’t hear Swardspeak being spoken out loud often. I usually read it online with the voice in my mind and that always pales in comparison. So, hearing a street full of people shouting protest chants in swardspeak filled me with a giddiness I only felt the first time I fell in love. This Pride felt more alive. Maybe because I came in with ambivalence, only wanting to take pictures.  But I think it’s because I chose the right crowd to be with. In that moment, there was joy and there was hope that the future won’t be the same as the present. 

Bakla? Agi? What’s that? 

The bakla is widely used in the Philippines and holds a number of meanings such as drag queen, gay, hermaphrodite, homosexual, queer, third sex, and transgender.2 The word bakla is used in the Tagalog-speaking regions of the Philippines and in mainstream media. I don’t have a strong relationship with the word bakla. When someone calls me that, there’s a wall of unfamiliarity. I don’t turn my head towards it. I like the Swardspeak version of it more which is baccla with the two soft Cs replacing the hard K. You have to say it with more flourish.  

In my region, I am called an agi.3 People called me agi even before I knew what it was. My existence just gave it away, I guess. I spoke softly, swayed my hips, laughed girlishly. I was filled with shame and guilt over something I didn’t understand. I was told to fix how I spoke, walked, and positioned my pinky finger when holding things. In the early 2000s, my mother would tell other teachers and relatives that I sang Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and recite bible verses, proud that I can do that at a young age but ignoring the fact that I was effeminate. My father and other relatives would tell me not to be agi or they’ll put me in a sack, hang me on a tree, and beat me till I become manly.  

In ‘The bakla, the agi: our genders which are not one’, Jaya Jacobo presents the meanings of agi:4 ‘agui’ is registered as ‘señal’ (sign), ‘huella’ (track),’rastro de lo que paso’ (trace of passage). It also refers to the act of walking by (pasar andando), manifesting in various aspects of the voyage, as ‘transitar,’ ‘transito,’ ‘transitorio.’ Paradoxically, it conducts itself as a ‘hidden trace’ (tandang̃a tago) by way of ‘ostugo,’ intimating the aleatory rhythm of passing through, its visibility alternating between countenance and camouflage. When I was younger, the other children would call me agi and when I looked upset, they would switch inflection and say, ‘Excuse me, ma-agi ko.’ (Excuse me, I’ll pass by.) To pass by, to become an indeterminate phenomenon that only settles when it wants to was not a concept I thought of back then (I didn’t have a masters at age 8). I only felt thwarted. 

The agi is always in motion.5 A movement is necessary to arrive at something, somewhere. I share a utopic vision with my LGBTQ+ family in attaining our rights. This shared goal identifies us as a phenomenon, separate from our sexualization and sexuality. To be bakla or agi or queer is not a static identity but that moves in gay time as opposed to straight time.6 Both J. Neil Garcia and Jaya Jacobo want to examine the merits of a universality of queer experience with which English is the main mode of discourse.  

What’s next? Future Kwoah 

‘Kwoah’ (pronounced quah) is Swardspeak for the word Ko which means My. When spoken aloud, you can’t help but be more musical and dramatic. Ko/Ako (I, Me, My) is one of the first words you learn. Making it gayer is a declaration of our existence. 



The full version of Austere Rex Gamao's essay was first published in Cordite Poetry Review's Issue 110 on September 1, 2023 with the title, "Ambot sa Essay Kwoah: From Swardspeak to Hiligaynon, What Queering Language and Forms Means to Me".

1. See John Iremil E. Teodoro, “Anitch Itich? Bekimon, or the Secret Code of Gays,” GMA News Online, August 12, 2010, https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/lifestyle/artandculture/198393/anitch-itich-bekimon-or-the-secret-code-of-gays/story/. Teodoro adds that bekimon provides a space for gays to talk about their lives without being understood by heterosexuals around them, many of whom are homophobic. Because of this, bekimon is quick to change or mutate. 

2. See Jaime Oscar M. Salazar, “How ‘Bakla’ Explains the Struggle for Queer Identity in the Philippines,” Foreign Policy Magazine, July 30, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/30/bakla-queer-identity-philippines/

3. The Hiligaynon Dictionary says agi are soft, effeminate, not manly, said of men with feminine voice and manners, hermaphrodite. https://hiligaynon.pinoydictionary.com/ 

4. The meanings come from Diccionario de la lengua bisaya hiliguiena y haraya (1841) 

5. Jacobo adds that the agi is configured metonymically, as phenomenal movement. 

6. Muñoz posits that straight time tells us that there is no future but the here and now of our everyday life. 

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