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The Art of Successful Code-Switching

Will is a third-year student at Yale University, majoring in Comparative Literature. Code-switching: ‘the action of shifting between two or more languages, or between dialects or registers of a language, within a discourse, esp. in response to a change in social context’ (OED). In his piece, Will discusses the roots of this practice in relation to his personal experiences as a queer male.

If I feel completely comfortable with you, I am probably speaking with a breathy vocal fry and a high-pitched, rising ‘uptalk’ that makes it sound like I am always asking a question, even when I am not. I am probably flailing my hands or clapping my palms together in place of periods in my sentences. I am probably spitting out wet plosive ‘Ps’ and ‘Bs’. I am also probably talking about something gay and unsavoury - graphic sex dreams or unhealthy dieting or poppers or conspiracy theories about Cristiano Ronaldo keeping a gay lover.

If I feel uncomfortable around you, even slightly, I am probably talking more like I should. I lower my voice by an octave; I make sure to measure the tempo and volume of my speech - no shrieking or wailing; I speak more in declarative sentences than in questions; I nod and smile and I probably keep my hands behind my back or pin them to my sides. In terms of the topic of conversation, I veer towards things like: The News, Friends and Family, Career, Sports (Cristiano Ronaldo is straight), anything nondescript.

This distinct change in voice and mannerism is both conscious and unconscious. I slip into it unconsciously because it is old habit - I meet the straight parents of a close friend and immediately I am a kid again, trying to assure parents that their child isn’t friends with a homosexual. The switch is still conscious, though, insofar as once deeper sounds have come out of my mouth or rigidity has overcome my limp wrists, I am totally aware of what I have done. I understand that I have slipped into another vocal range, another character. I am a serial code-switcher.

Code-switching, which traditionally refers to the practice of moving between different languages or dialects within a conversation, has adopted a much broader definition in our modern context. Nowadays, code-switching can refer to changes in most aspects of behaviour and appearance like voice, tone, clothing, posture, gait. This is particularly pertinent for individuals who fall outside of a narrow notion of ‘proper’ conduct or vernacular and is used as a technique for assimilation, acceptance and avoiding mistreatment. Research from Harvard Business Review identifies the tradeoff of code-switching for Black people in the US: code-switching generates negative psychological effects on the individual and yet is often necessary to the advancement of their career and professional success. Similarly, Vice reports on the ‘exhausting work’ of queer, non-binary and trans individuals who code-switch in order to survive many workplaces and social situations. Code-switching is clearly a burdensome practice. In all this research, however, there is a sense of code-switching as second nature. What begins as something acutely necessary proceeds to something that feels natural.

Through years of code-switching, I sold my voice, and perhaps my soul

Growing up queer in a hyper-privileged bubble of Melbourne, I felt that I needed to perform code-switching. Families tended to reproduce images of themselves - sending their children to the same single-sex religious schools and dressing their children in similar collared shirts and chino pants. All the men in my family are straight, so I wanted to be like them and look like them and sound like them. In an insular community, it seemed to me that the construction of myself had to be closely linked to locality and inheritance and reproduction.

There also weren’t, and still aren’t, many hyper visible gay celebrities in Australia. There was the couple from the book Holding the Man, who played football and went to the Catholic all-boys school in the neighbourhood next to mine, and there was High Court Justice Michael Kirby who delivered opinions deeply and had probably code-switched the shit out of his career, and then there was the swimmer Ian Thorpe and his tortured, public coming-out process. Before writing this article, I googled ‘famous gay Australians’ to see if I could find anyone that had been important in my childhood, but the top result was Kylie Minogue and most of the other lists were filled with people I had never seen before. Who the fuck is Paul ‘The Dude’ Morris (Number 7 on one list)?

Even outside the realm of celebrity, I came into contact with very few gay adults as a kid. For me, Australia’s tiny overall population density often made living in a large city like Melbourne still feel isolated and parochial. Melbourne is big, yes, but it becomes your entire world. I felt far away from other cultures and outside influences. The ‘gayest’ people that I met were my parents’ friend John, who was a diplomat and who liked to wear polo shirts and keep a low profile, and the odd flamboyant gay man at a party who would be offhandedly labelled by my family as a ‘bandit’ or some other slur.

Now that I have been living in the US, I understand that many people here view Australia as some sort of progressive utopia with generous universal healthcare and safe-injecting spaces everywhere and pride festivals each weekend. Yes, Sydney has a huge Pride festival and Melbourne has a thriving queer community, but those things felt other-worldly as a closeted boy in a city so divided by class and race and sexuality. I remind the American idealists that we didn’t get Marriage Equality until the end of 2017, after an especially ugly ‘No’ campaign. We still have politicians denouncing LGBTQ+ safe schools programs as vehicles for spreading paedophilia and ‘dangerous’ gender theory. Australia is far from a progressive dream, and traditional masculinity and femininity are enshrined in most aspects of public and private life.

At my high school (the Presbyterian one that my dad and grandfather had also attended), masculinity was expected and, in fact, necessary to the advancement of some sort of ‘school career’.

Most people there knew my voice as the lowered version I started using by middle school, after my older brother’s friends had started asking why my voice was so high, and followed up by asking if I was gay. Was I going to come out to some fifteen year-olds who had just called someone else a faggot? No. It then became easier, for me and for everyone else, to drop my voice. Through years of code-switching, I sold my voice, and perhaps my soul, for a ‘Prefect’ badge and an office with a swivel chair. People definitely still suspected that I was gay - my code-switching was ugly and ill-fitting and my voice still cracked, but I had started and couldn’t stop.

This code-switching not only felt bad because I was betraying some sort of ‘true’ self, but also because I felt the judgement of other members of the queer community, my friends who were out when I wasn’t. They rarely said anything, and maybe they didn’t feel anything either, but I projected that judgement onto them. I was betraying the community by code-switching, rejecting not only myself but all the others who had spoken with higher voices before me and around me.

After leaving school, I began to explore my queerness. I found amazing friends, we went to Melbourne gay institutions like Thursgays, I got a boyfriend, and I came out to my family and everyone else. I never fully stopped code-switching, though. I often still feel like a traitor to the gay community - making out with boys in gay clubs and then lowering my voice to order a pizza. I like to tell myself that it is defensive rather than evasive, that everyone still needs protection or acceptance. To varying degrees, I have seen all my Australian queer friends code-switch. Some more often than others, myself more often than everyone else. However confident and comfortable we are in our identities, there is always latent fear and the compulsion to tweak ourselves. We greet each other’s parents and we want them to accept us, even if they already have. It’s sometimes embarrassing, knowing that my friends can see when the switch goes on and off and my voice goes up and down. It is mechanical, though, and compulsive.

I often still feel like a traitor to the gay community - making out with boys in gay clubs and then lowering my voice to order a pizza.

Since moving to university in the US, I am surrounded by queer people. Yale is known as the gay Ivy, and as a white cis gay man, I feel part of the majority. Still, I can’t help but slip into code-switching. A couple of months into my first semester, I ate dinner with a group from my debate team and sat next to a guy who could only then be called an acquaintance (at best). He had attended an all-boys private high school in the UK, probably similar to mine, and he told me that he was straight. At dinner, he asked me ‘Do you know what code-switching means?’ I said that I did. Then, with light condescension, he proceeded to tell me that he had noticed me code-switching, that he had seen me being more ‘sassy’ (direct quote) to some of our women or queer mutual friends and I had been colder and gruffer when talking to him. He assured me that I didn’t have to pretend in front of him anymore; I didn’t have to change my voice, and I could be as gay and ‘sassy’ as I liked; in fact, he would prefer it if I were my gay and ‘sassy’ self.

I think, in his mind, he was setting me free. He was saying - fly free gaybie! Express yourself! Maybe he thought that I needed his permission or recognition in order to finally release myself from code-switching. I know that his intentions were probably pure and comforting, but he only made me squirm. I promised him that I would be my ‘authentic’ self and would use my ‘real’ voice in the future, and left the group dinner abruptly.

I know that I am code-switching, I am a seasoned professional, and pointing it out is only a reminder that what was once a necessary defence mechanism has now become instinct.

To be totally honest, I am not sure what my ‘real’ voice sounds like. I have code-switched for so long that any singular voice got lost in the act. It is probably out there somewhere, in the ether, being called a pussy or a faggot or something. No matter how hard you want me to stop code-switching around you, or how much you want me to feel comfortable to be myself (Clapp or Tripp or whatever your name is), I can’t get that voice back. I know that I am code-switching, I am a seasoned professional, and pointing it out is only a reminder that what was once a necessary defence mechanism has now become instinct.


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