Queer Auslan: A Crash Course


Words || Charlie Zada

Heya students, thanks for coming to my crash course on LGBTQIA+ Auslan signs! You might be wondering why you’re learning some Auslan and to that question, I have several answers. One, because I said so. Two, if you’re reading this, it means you’re studying so why not learn something that’s actually interesting for once in your miserable lives and three, why not be That Bitch Who Knows Auslan?

If you don’t know what Auslan is, allow me to teach you. Auslan is Austalian Sign Language. It’s a visually based language incorporating the use of space, with its own syntax and vocabulary and the ability to communicate a rich variety of concepts and subtle meanings. Auslan incorporates ‘established’ and ‘productive’ signs, fingerspelling, body movements, facial expression, mouth and eye movements, mime and gesture as well as lip reading. 

Our community in Australia is huge, namely because Auslan is not a language just used by non-hearing people but also by hearing people. There are hundreds of thousands of Auslan users in this country and our language, just like every language, has an interesting history. Our language is built upon other languages, having roots in British sign language and the Irish sign language. This should not really come as a surprise. Auslan followed the English language throughout history so it makes sense! 

A bit of a history lesson for you all: until the 1970’s, each state ⁠— but not the Australian Capital Territory or the Northern Territory ⁠— had a large public residential school for the deaf. These schools used Auslan.

By the 1980’s, deaf children were increasingly integrated into classes with hearing children or attended classes in small units attached to regular schools. The use of sign language came to be seen only as a last resort for those who failed to acquire spoken English. Oralism ⁠— relying on residual hearing, lip-reading and learning to speak ⁠— was often the preferred means of instruction. 

I personally reject the idea of Auslanbeing seen as a last resort. Auslan is an incredibly fun language that all people should really pick up at some point in their life. It was designed to build bridges between people who can’t otherwise communicate, and I have always been an avid believer that Auslan should be mandatory in schools because I believe in the power of communication. I also feel that I don’t need to acquire spoken English to get my point across  Asking someone to speak spoken English is akin to asking a person to speak your own language just because you don’t understand them. 

As I wrote before, Auslan followed the English language and just as words in the English language came to represent different members of the queer community, Auslan users developed specific signs to reflect that difference. Before I get into that, I just wanted to say that queer people with disabilities have existed since the dawn of time. In fact, in Australia there’s this group consisting of hundreds of queer people with audio related disabilities called the Deaf Rainbow. It’s run by one of my favourite human beings to walk this wretched, godforsaken earth. 

Things you need to know before you start: 

  1. Auslan became an official language in Australia in the 1980s which means if you’re reading this and know Auslan, congratulations you’re officially bilingual at least! 
  2. Some signs vary from state to state. You will not learn any Queensland related signs because that is a hell state and everyone in it is a demon. 
  3. An Auslan sign is made up of four elements: the shape of the hand used in the sign, the direction of the palm and fingers, the position of the hand in the signing space and the way the hand(s) moves through that space.
  4. There are over sixty handshapes listed in the Signs of Australia dictionary of Auslan.
  5. Of these handshapes, thirty-seven are the core handshapes used and the other signs are seen as non-significant variations of these ⁠— the exception to this is with ‘productive’ signing where small differences can represent a different and precise meaning. 
  6. Fingerspelling is using your hands to represent the letters of a writing system. In English, this means using 26 different hand configurations to represent the 26 letters of the English alphabet. As such, fingerspelling is not sign language in and of itself, rather it is a manual code for representing the letters of the English alphabet. 
  7. ‘Established’ signs: These signs are ‘frozen’ and form the basis of the vocabulary listed in Auslan dictionaries. These signs are frequently used and highly standardised.
  8. ‘Productive’ signs: Productive signs make use of a much larger and more varied selection of locations and movements than established signs. These signs are actively created by signers as they put together combinations of meaningful units. This explains why these are called ‘productive’ signs. These ‘meaningful units’ can be used to extend or modify the meaning of established signs.
  9. Being patronising to Auslan users or exaggerating lip movements will be seen as an invitation to smack you. An invitation I will happily and violently accept.
  10. Do not imitate the sounds deaf people make — don’t be a douche. The bar is set so low it is underground and some of you can’t even reach that. 
  11. Do not hide your eyes or look away when communicating — Auslan users tend to rely on facial expressions and lip reading to add context to what you are saying.

Straight people look away, this is not for you. The signs for our community are actually incredibly cool and I’m so excited to teach this. 

For the Lesbian sign, you create the L shape with your hand and then bring that L shape to your face and tap the curve between your thumb and index finger on your chin twice and mouth “lesbian.” It was lovingly described by my queer tutor as licking the vagina. 

The Gay sign has a funny personal history to me. As a kid I made shapes out of my hands in front of a light to create shadow animals on the wall, I had unknowingly used the ‘Gay’ sign for years and kids, that’s what y’all call foreshadowing. Stretch your fingers and while keeping your fingers stationary, tap your middle finger on your thumb and mouth “gay.” It really is that simple folks. 

In honor of 20BiTeen I’m so thrilled to show you what is easily my favourite sign. It’s a bit of a dance! Keep your elbows tight to the sides of your body, have the inside of your palms facing each other and open but the tips of your fingers pointed outwards away from each other and then move both elbows back and forward while mouthing the word “bisexual.” You’re essentially saying you go both ways. It’s a bit awkward but all languages are awkward! 

TERFs look away or your eyes will burn out. The Transgender sign is super difficult to describe but I think it’s also the most poetic and meaningful sign. The best way I can describe it via the written word is to tap the middle of your chest with the side of your hand, reach out slightly and then turn your hand to the other side of it, cup your hand with your thumb touching your index finger and bring it back to your chest mouthing the word “trans.”

The Queer sign is also a favourite of mine! It’s just the letter Q and the rainbow! Yes, God’s Rainbow which we godless creatures have claimed as our own, the very same. With your left hand, create an O shape and with the index finger of your right hand create a hook shape, then put that hook shape to the O shape and from a bird’s-eye view you have created the letter Q! For Auslan, the location of the sign is super important so I tend to have that Q sign to the left of my body and then I mouth “queer” as I do the rainbow curve finishing on the right side! 

Intersex and Asexual, as far as I am aware, do not have signs and are instead finger spelled. Bummer, but this is where you can learn something super cool — hearing people cannot make that sign, the only people who are allowed to decide what the sign for intersex people is are intersex people who are deaf and/or hard of hearing, and the same goes for asexual people. 

Languages are incredibly diverse and it’s hard to not feel inspired by Auslan. Communication for deaf people has always been difficult and yet in the face of difficulty, we’ve pushed to build bridges with the people around us. I think that’s pretty fucking cool. Being able to communicate who you are as a person is an absolute blessing. There’s also probably a sign for straight people but straight people don’t exist and are irrelevant so whatever, class dismissed.