How did being “cunty” become cool in the queer community?

There’s a fine line between “throwing shade” and verbal abuse.

Illustrated by Lais Borges/Getty Images
Throwing Shade
Originally Published: 

In queer and trans communities, to “read” someone means to creatively call out their flaws with the intention of inflicting emotional damage. When Elektra from Pose tells another character, "I know you have two faces, but three chins is remarkable,” that is a read. When Jujubee on RuPaul’s Drag Race tells Raven, “Legendary? Looks like leg and dairy,” that is a read. The more specific the read, the better, and every characteristic about a person is fair game: their weight, their race, even their childhood trauma.

In the rest of society, people who speak like this are assholes; in the queer community, they’re icons. In fact, for many queers (myself included), learning how to deliver a scathing insult off-the-cuff is a rite of passage — and a skill that comes in handy when people inevitably try to come for your neck. But since I started seeing a therapist, I’ve realized that the amount of arguments I have with my queer friends each week probably isn’t too healthy. Now I wonder: Why the hell are we so mean to each other?

The concepts of “reading” people and “throwing shade” originated in the 1980s, with Black and brown queer drag communities, as drag queen Dorian Corey explained in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. In ballroom, there are competitions in which trans women are ranked based on their ability to pass as cisgender. “Members of the communities are often ‘read’ along the lines of their ability to fit in with normative beauty standards,” Kristie Soares, the co-director of LGBTQ Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells me. The trans women who are viewed as traditionally feminine win competitions, while those who don’t fit those standards are “chopped” by judges. And if you’ve ever watched ballroom, you know there’s no sugar coating — if someone is even remotely clockable, they’re told as much.

But while it may seem harsh at first glance, “reading” was essentially developed as a defense mechanism for a community that’s been stomped on throughout history. “I would say that historically [throwing shade and reading] is less about competition than about disciplining,” Soares says. “The idea is to keep the members of your community in line so that they do not face violence from the outside world.” Basically, if you can take the meanness and honesty in a controlled environment from people who won’t physically harm you, you’ll be better prepared outside those circumstances.

Admittedly, we don’t wield insults as part of some noble pursuit. Reading someone — especially if you already kind of hate them — can be fun. Not only does it force you to think on your feet and be clever, but it can also be a cathartic (if fleeting) experience, especially if you tended to be the butt of jokes growing up.

“Reading” someone can be a cathartic (if fleeting) experience, especially if you tended to be the butt of jokes growing up.

Still, I can’t help but feel like there should be a threshold that separates snarky humor and tough love from bullying, or even verbal abuse. Knowing how to inflict emotional damage might make us better at defending ourselves from harassment, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for our psychological or emotional wellbeing. “Many times, these behaviors worked for us in the past and got us through difficult times, but they can falter and become destructive to ourselves and others as we get older,” José Arroyo, a Chicago-based psychologist tells me. “It is trauma. And at times, we inadvertently re-engage in that trauma with others that we are close with, maybe within our community, maybe within ourselves.”

Even when the constant arguing is theoretically all in good fun, “our brain will take it in as a truth,” Arroyo says. “And if it’s said enough times, we may even begin to believe it’s true. So when we shade someone's personality, traits, [or] character, it will inherently lead them to question their own views or self-worth.”

Indeed, humans have a tendency to focus on negative feedback about ourselves, so even if someone throws shade without the intention of hurting, the impact is often different. This is particularly true for people who experience ongoing adverse life events; i.e. queer people who stay in the closet for years. “In my life experience, so many angry folks don't even realize how much unprocessed and unfelt grief they carry in their bodies — and a lot of it is deeply connected to early experiences,” Max Schneider, a New York-based therapist and clinician, tells me. So many of us carry tension in our bodies from being on guard all the time — whether because we were trying not to give away our queerness as kids or because we were racialized from a young age — so, even when we become adults and there’s nothing specific to argue about, we can continue the habit of looking for problems.

Tearing each other down constantly can also perpetuate minority stress, which is when a person’s values clash with that of the dominant group, and studies have shown that experiencing minority stress leads to bad health outcomes and risky behaviors, like drug use and unprotected sex.

It’s worth questioning which parts of our culture hurt us and which serve us.

Now, I’m not here to say we should all start being disingenuous and fake nice to each other. Frankly, we can leave that to the straight white community. But I am saying it’s worth questioning which parts of our culture hurt us and which serve us. There are definitely some benefits to our bickering. We don’t always read people in our community based on their perceived flaws — a lot of times, a read can be about someone’s actions, too. “Anger can let us know that something isn't okay for us, that a boundary has been crossed, that there has been an injustice,” Schneider says. “A lot of anger is totally justified.”

In my experience, expressing ourselves and then moving on from uncomfortable situations — as opposed to holding things in and harboring secret resentments — can help us form more genuine relationships. “Shade” and “reading” become harmful when they re-impose heteronormative ideas of how people in our community should look and behave — for example, how feminine a trans woman should be, or how muscular a cis man should look. But when it’s done without true malice, it can actually be a way to bond with other queer people. “I definitely think there should be room for biting humor, sarcasm, joking, reading people (especially if it's with love), and laughing together,” Schneider says.

The challenge ahead will be to strike a good balance: of being honest, of resolving our issues, and of setting boundaries without feeling the need to tear each other down and perpetuate cycles of trauma. Next time you feel that gravity-defying urge to say something that’s not so nice, try pausing first. “One of the first steps is just noticing when this comes up and taking a beat. Taking some space to self-soothe or sit with the feelings,” Schneider says. “To try to extend some compassion towards one's self and not act immediately on the feeling.”