The word “yas” is everywhere.
People have been murmuring about the origin of the word for years. Some have attributed the expression to Ilana Glazer in “Broad City,” others point to this Lady Gaga fan who was filmed in a viral video exclaiming “yaaas, Gaga, you look so good!” at the pop star as she exits a building. Others have dismissed both origin stories, claiming we owe the Scottish for the term.
Vogt tells listeners that he recently discovered the word “yas” actually originated with the queer POC (people of color) community circa the late 1980s, specifically those involved in ball culture.
“Yas” was one of many words created by this culture, a typical utterance yelled toward the stage as drag queens performed. It was an exclamation that acted as an encouragement ― a message of support and inclusion.
To the several queer men I spoke to after listening to this podcast, this backstory of “yas” was not revelatory by any means.
As a straight white women unaware that this oft-used slang word was rooted in something I knew nothing about, this lineage struck me as something that everyone should be aware of, queer or otherwise.
Other “Reply All” listeners on social media, who were also seemingly unaware of the word’s origin, agreed:
The balls that gave us social media’s favored exclamation can be traced back to the 1920s or even before.
For a visual and audio reference, Vogt uses the iconic 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” by Jennie Livingston as a basis for his “yas” analysis.
The documentary exists as a relic of the ball scene ― which very much still exists, just not in the same way as it once did. For those who haven’t seen it, the 78-minute film provides an in-depth look into ballroom culture in the late ’80s in Harlem ― where young, queer black and Latinx people would gather, dance, compete, laugh, cry and live together.
In the film, the words “yas,” “shade,” “reading” and many others are said repeatedly. Words that, in 2016, are still used virtually every second.
The “Reply All” episode interviews Jose Xtravaganza, a dancer/teacher active in the scene back then. Xtravaganza talks about the balls and how the words they used within that community were not just words. They had a much deeper significance.
“It was kind of like code. We were speaking code. For no one else to understand us,” Xtravaganza says. “For just us, you know? It was our code against society.”
“Paris Is Burning,” above all else, is a story of survival ― a story of how individuals in a time of extreme adversity muddled through, doing the best they could to achieve their dreams with what they had.
That code that Xtravaganza is talking about was his and his friends’ way of dealing with the rampant racism, homophobia and transphobia they experienced. It was their way of dealing with poverty and their (chosen) families dying daily from the newly discovered AIDS virus, which the politicians at the time were keen to ignore.
The drag and ballroom culture first exclaimed these words in spaces they were forced to create for themselves, and it’s crucial to remember that when we use words like “yas” and “shady,” it’s a form of cultural appropriation. But it can be argued that the use of “drag culture” or “ballroom culture” as the origin is far too general when you consider that those communities are comprised of individuals who are all from different backgrounds ― black, white, Latinx, etc.
The queer community has racism within itself and has varying opinions on where and how their culture has been appropriated. Queer black individuals have said time and time again that much of what white gay culture has made famous started with them. Black women have also made the same statements about white gay culture. Black gay men have pointed to ways in which straight black women have taken their culture. White gay men have said that straight white women appropriate their culture, too.
The contrasting opinions within the community make it difficult to pinpoint who exactly within the community is responsible for “yas.” So, ball culture as the origin exists as a generalization, one that sublimates these separate cultures and lumps them all into one. It takes a complicated issue and waters it down for widespread consumption ― which is often how we get to cultural appropriation in the first place.
Which brings us back to the question Vogt poses in the podcast, “What does it mean to take something from someone and not know it?”
In a world where cultural appropriation happens with alarming regularity and doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon, there likely isn’t a single answer to that question.
With social media being as prevalent in the zeitgeist as it is, the speed in which slang and cultural elements take hold and spread is incalculable. It’s not always easy to find where or how something originated, but, all that said, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or take care.
“Those people who are gone,” Vogt says. “They’re the ones who came up with it.”
And it’s up to everyone to make sure they’re never forgotten.