The Queerness Of Tea

What’s the tea? Tea is queer.

We all know the lingo associated with the drink from drag terminology but the roots of the word are obviously much deeper, tied to black queer culture, a fact that is anything but recent. (Sorry, Drag Race.)

This is obvious and we all “know” this but I’ve fallen into a little rabbit hole of queerness and tea thanks to the fantastic work of E. Patrick Johnson, a professor of Black Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern who is the author of the book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South – An Oral History. I came across this work while doing research for an upcoming project and it’s quite striking how many nuances beyond “gossip” tea has. We all know this, yes, but have we thought to truly think about the connections? Probably not.

The 2008 book attempted to contextualize this word by theorizing how it fell into faggy favor for seemingly no reason at all. Johnson sees the word as tied to class and the “hierarchical function” of tea time as a social event befitting of people (Women.) who could afford to take a little time to themselves to do nothing but chat and indulge in super sweet treats at an off time. Johnson observes that the tea connection runs deeper with tea dances, tea rooms, tea room trade, and, of course, tea bagging as steeped in gay culture, where gossip quite literally turns to sex.

But how did this all happen? Johnson’s idea is straightforward enough.

While I cannot find a corollary between these British women’s teatimes and gay tearooms for anonymous sex, perhaps their connection is to the fact that these women’s teas took place in their own space, separate from the men in parlors consuming alcohol and tobacco. While this represents a form of segregation undergirded by sexism, one might argue that it also allowed a space for women to transgress or even subvert the social boundaries of their time. After all, no one really knows what those women were doing during their afternoon teas! The same can be true for the men who frequent the tearooms.

That is such a rich observation.

Of course, it’s more nuanced than this. Tea – specifically, the cloyingly sugar soaked Southern sweet tea – has ties to representing liking someone, silly laws, and universality tied to everything from class to family structure. No wonder it’s found a home with queer people: it’s the perfect object to lampoon and play with, something so normal that it requires a queering.

We shall drink to that.

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