Swish is a derogatory term[1] for effeminate behaviour and interests (camp), emphasized and sanctioned[2] 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".[3]

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[citation needed]. Further, one could turn one's swish on or off, as described by Martin Levine in Gay Macho:

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 Garbo and 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.[4]


  1. Stanley, J. P. (1974) "When We Say 'Out of the Closets!'" College English, 36, 7.
  2. Kleinberg, Seymour. "unknown article." Christopher Street, March 1978. Cited in Levine 1998.
  3. Wentworth, Harold and Stuart Berg Flexner. Dictionary of American Slang. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967.
  4. Levine, Martin P. Gay Macho. New York: New York University Press, 1998, p. 55–6.

Further readingEdit

  • Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever by Joel Derfner, Broadway Books, 2008.

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