Tag Archives: queer

“Fish” as folk speech to describe femininity in the drag community

Main Piece

Informant: In the gay community, fish or being fishy refers to how uhh accurately a drag queen presents as a biological female, I guess. This is hard to explain because I use it all the time, haha. Usually we say “oh, she is serving fish” or “oh, she is fishy” which is usually positive, and it is like saying they would pass as a woman because they are so fishy. 

Interviewer: Where did you learn this term?

Informant: I picked it up from RuPaul’s Drag Race, which popularized a lot of the drag slang today that has kinda started getting popular in popular culture. 

Background

The informant is a great friend and housemate of mine, and he is a senior at USC studying Lighting Design. Coming from Oxnard, CA he and his family are very connected with their Mexican roots and he has grown up practicing and identifying with many aspects of Mexican culture. He is also a very big raver, as he enjoys going to many EDM festivals and aspires to do lighting design for different raves as well.He also identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ identity, comfortable identifying as a bisexual man.

Context

The informant and I typically watch RuPaul’s Drag Race at our off-campus house when it is airing on TV. There are several terms that we use, confusing many of our other housemates and one of the one this informant uses the most is fishy. In our interview, I asked him to define it and provide a definition and some context. 

Analysis

A lot of the folk speech and terms used within the queer community has stemmed from the club and ballroom culture of queer POC’s in large Metropolitan cities such as NYC during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many of these terms are used today, and as queer POC’s both the informant and I continue to use these terms around other members of the communty as signifiers of our personal identity and our belonging in the community. The lingo also provides a special codified language that others outside of the community might not get as well, providing a sense of security and privacy in a subtle way.

Drag Performance

About the Interviewed: Davey is a student at the George Washington University double-majoring in English and LGBT Studies. His ethnic background hails from Spain. At the time of this interview, he was currently on leave at his home in Southern California. He is biologically male, but he identifies as gender-queer. Nonetheless, he prefers male pronouns. He is 20 years old.

My friend Davey moonlights as a Drag Performer. I asked if he could define what drag is.

Davey: “Well, everything is drag, that’s what RuPaul [drag icon] says. To most people, it’s just dudes dressing up as girls, which is like, kind-of what it is, but not really. It’s a statement on gender, it’s a statement on performing. People come to drag shows dressed as men, people come as women, people come as whatever the hell they want, that’s what drag is. It’s an illusory gender performance. Men and women both dress as things you can’t describe. Men become Queens, Women become Kings, some become things that you can’t describe.”

I asked him if he could describe what a performance is like.

Davey: “That depends on the queen. When I go out there, I lipsync to songs by Rihanna, Beyonce – I like to be fierce. Most queens lipsync, some don’t. Some actually sing live, if their voice is pretty enough. Those are the fishy queens.”

I asked Davey what “Fishy” means.

Davey: (laughs) “Oh lordy! It means vagina. The more fishy you are, the more you look like a real woman in dress and make-up. Some queens try really hard to be fishy. I don’t have the make-up, or the skills. Yet.”

We then talked about Davey’s personal experiences as a drag queen.

Davey: “Well for starters, I’ve never performed at one of the [drag] clubs. You have to be pretty much be top shit to get in these days. I’ve just done it for parties and things. Just for fun.”

I asked him if the pursuit of “fishiness” was about emulating a standard of beauty.

Davey: “Yeah, I mean, everybody wants to be a supermodel, but I just wanna have fun. I think that as a drag performer, we’re attracted to these images of grandeur and beauty, and some respond by mocking it and others try to become it. It all depends on how you interpret it. It’s art. It’s meant to be that way.”

Summary:

Drag is a performance that plays with the notion of Gender in Western Society. Performances take the form of wild cabaret shows, that showcase vibrant individuals who dress in ways that denounce typical gender norms. Drag can either be a form of Male to Female impersonation, or it can be something crazy and hard to pinpoint. Davey defines drag as a visual art.

As an artist myself, I resonated with Davey’s final statement on gender performance – that art is meant to be multi-faceted. Even within cultures, the meaning of certain performances or pieces of folklore are heavily debated. Ultimately, it’s up to the audience to pick and choose which elements resonate the strongest within themselves.

Bear Week and Dick Dock

My informant is a 20 year old gay film student who self-identifies as a bear. Gay bears are loosely defined as masculine, bigger, hairier guys who are into other masculine, bigger, hairier guys. In this interview he describes a holiday particular to bears called Bear Week, which takes place in Provincetown. He says it has always been a dream of his since he heard of it in 7th grade to go to Bear Week, and he might make his dream a reality this summer. It means a lot to him because this community is one he is very involved in, and very into personally as well. This interview took place in a university dining hall.

“Uh, ok so, the biggest bear event is at Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is already a pretty gay hotspot year-round, but uh, second week of July the bears come to town and wreak havoc on the pools and, (laughs) and hotels, and main streets of Provincetown. And there’s a place called Dick Dock, which is (chuckles) a certain section of the boardwalk in Provincetown, and you go underneath the boardwalk, just as the old song says, (laughter) you can find men engaging in… all sorts of pleasures.”
“Where’d you hear this?”

“That I know about… I know about this from friends of mine who have gone to Provincetown for Bear Week.”

When I asked him about the more common ways that this kind of knowledge is proliferated, he had this to say:

“Well in gay cultures, the folklore tends to spread more in private, um, because bears is not something that’s discussed widely in high schools across America so I didn’t know about it, my friends weren’t telling me about it so I had to look this kinda stuff up on the internet, and I would just read articles, and like, the Wikipedia article, like a lot, and you know, different theories on like, what bears were about, and there’s this one great guy named Andrew Sullivan, who’s actually a super famous writer, and he wrote this great article about what it means to be a bear…”

Bear Week and Dick Dock were two of the only pieces of information he could give me about bears that he hadn’t just learned from the internet or from bear movies and webseries (of which there are many!) because of this phenomenon he describes of the rarity of discussion of bear culture among youth. However this community means a lot to him, and since now he’s in college he can participate in it less virtually and more in reality, which gives him access to bear folklore of a different sort. That said, this community has evolved and proliferated (like many other queer subcultures) through the internet so much that it’s difficult if not impossible to disentangle the “real” folklore from the internet folklore, especially when you’re young and tech-savvy. I think the internet has opened up so many avenues and subcultures for youth, especially queer youth, to explore, as it’s easier to access in private, even before coming out.