Queer Linguistics and Queer Theory

Queer Linguistics is a specific area in the study of language and sexuality that is based on queer theory. Queer theory does not refer to a single theory but is a cluster of perspectives which questions heterosexuality and its naturalness (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). The term ‘queer’ was first used as a new category in sexuality to include people who rejected and challenged heteronormativity (Cameron& Kulick, 2010). People of these sexualities are the focus of queer theory as they represent threats to heterosexual hegemony (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). Queer linguistics challenges the linguistic mechanisms that result in heterosexuality being seen as the norm and highlights non-heteronormative alternatives in an attempt to destabilise this norm (Motschenbacher, 2011).

Queer can be seen as an umbrella term for sexualities that fall outside the norm

One of the earliest queer theorists was Michel Foucault, who treated identities, including sexual identities, as social categories “embedded in power structures” (Motschenbacher, 2011). Foucault’s study led others to shift the focus of their research — where they used to view identity as the source of language use, it was now seen as the effect of specific acts (Cameron & Kulick, 2010).

Perspectives behind the queer theory were also said to be inspired by Gayle Rubin’s article ‘Thinking Sex’ in 1984, where she criticised radical feminist literature for interpreting sexuality in strict relation to sexuality and called for scholars to develop a theory that was independent from feminism and specific to sexuality (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). Feminists at the time used to think that sexuality could be explained just by studying gender, with some analyses viewing sexual oppression as a result of gender oppression (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). However, Rubin felt that sexuality and gender are separate and she argued that lesbian women were oppressed for not just being women who did not conform to gender norms, but because of their sexuality which led the society to perceive them as ‘sexual perverts’ (Cameron & Kulick, 2010).

In 1990, six years after Rubin’s article, Judith Butler published her book ‘Gender Trouble’, which was regarded by many to be one of the first published texts of queer theory (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004). She introduced the idea of performativity to the study of language and sexuality, and suggested that similar to gender, sexuality is performed and one’s sexual identity has to be repeated and achieved through interaction (Coates, 2013). One of the ways that sexuality is performed is through language and heterosexual references can be easily found to be part of our daily conversations — even words such as ‘wife’, ‘husband’, ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ can be used by people to index their heterosexuality (Coates, 2013). Butler points out that repeated performances of gender lead to gender norms and because these are related to sexual norms, gender performances also affects sexuality as well (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004). However, these performances can also be in the form of drag and other practices where speakers make the conscious choice to violate gender norms (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004).

It can be seen that queer theory has affected the direction of scholars studying language and sexuality (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). In the 1980s, scholars claimed that some kind of ‘Gayspeak’ existed and was spoken by a homogeneous gay community (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). The term ‘queer’ was also resurrected by political activists, who felt that certain people such as Black drag queens were marginalised by these claims because they  did not share certain values as others in the community to be considered part of them (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). Queer theorists such as Butler have since led other scholars to reject the notion of a ‘Gayspeak’ and homogeneous gay communities who had one way of speaking, and instead look to study how there are ‘queer’ ways of using language (Cameron & Kulick, 2010).

Is there really a ‘gayspeak’?

Anna Livia and Kira Hall’s book ‘Queerly Phrased’, which consisted of a collection of articles, was published in 1997. They argue that because sexuality is performative, their work should not be taken as descriptive of specific groups of people — such as that of gays, lesbians or bisexuals —even though (Morton-Brown, 1999)  Instead, queer discourse can be viewed differently from specifically queer or heterosexual identity, and rather that which can be performed by anyone to achieve specific personal goals (Morton-Brown, 1999). It can be seen that Livia and Hall’s work has been influenced by both Rubin and Butler, as they focused on theories specific to sexuality and not gender, and also make use of the concept of performativity to explain language use.

One of the most significant articles published in ‘Queerly Phrased’ was one written by Robin Queen which built on earlier articles by Rusty Barrett who focused on the speech patterns used by drag queens in their performances (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). Barrett observed that performances by drag queens often involved using different forms of language to index different social positions, and the contrast between the forms highlights their gayness (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). Barrett argues that it is because of this contrasting effect between different forms portrayed at the same time that the queerness of drag queens can be presented (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). Queen’s article in ‘Queerly Phrased’ uses Barrett’s papers as a basis to put forth similar points that can also be observed in language used by lesbians (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). She came to the conclusion that a combination of different features, including women’s language, the language of working-class men, gay male language as well as stereotypical lesbian language, are used by lesbians to index their lesbian sexuality (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). In other words, it is the use of features that are supposedly used by contrasting groups of people that allows lesbians to highlight their sexuality, similar to how drag queens portray their gay side and show that they do not conform to heteronormativity.

Drag performances are ‘dragnificant’ because of the effects of contrasting forms

Keith Harvey was another researcher who worked on language that indexes the sexuality of speakers. His studies focused on ‘camp talk’, which is commonly found in the speech of homosexual men in French and English fiction, and by extension also associated with homosexual identities (Harvey, 1998). In his 2000 paper, he presented a framework for ‘camp talk’, which consists of four semiotic strategies that speakers of ‘camp talk use for different meanings and effects (Harvey, 2000). Harvey labelled these four strategies Paradox, Inversion, Ludicrism and Parody and he viewed these strategies as the different ways that people use different kinds of juxtapositions to construct specific identities that they want to be seen as (Cameron & Kulick, 2010). Harvey also notes that ‘camp talk’ is not the only style or register that uses the four strategies (2000). This suggests that even though ‘camp talk’ is seen as a ‘different’ way of speaking that indexes homosexuality, it still shares certain characteristics with other ways of speaking which could also include how people normally speak and this means that ‘camp talk’ should possibly be thought of as ‘normal’ as well.

It is clear from Harvey’s research that research from early queer theorists have come a long way. From a time when scholars looked at language as a result of people’s sexuality, different ways of speaking are now seen as tools that speakers use in order to portray certain sexuality. In other words, sexuality is now seen as performative and scholars have shifted their focus to look at how people are making use of language to portray their sexuality. The different strategies that are used to do so, as well as the meanings and purposes for employing the strategies, have been also been investigated. While queer linguistics is still a relatively new area of research, it has definitely contributed to research on language and sexuality and will continue to do so.


Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2004). Theorizing identity in language and sexuality research. Language in Society, 33(04), 469-515. doi:10.10.17/s0047404504334020

Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2010). Language and sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coates, J. (2013). The discursive production of everyday heterosexualities. Discourse & Society, 24(5), 536-552. doi:10.1177/0957926513486070

Harvey, K. (1998). Translating Camp Talk. The Translator, 4(2), 295-320. doi:10.1080/13556509.1998.10799024

Harvey, K. (2000). Describing camp talk: Language/pragmatics/politics. Language and literature, 9(3), 240-260. doi:10.1177/096394700000900303

Morton-Brown, M. (1999). Queer linguistics vs. compulsory heterosexuality. Text and Performance Quarterly, 19(3), 248-256. doi:10.1080/10462939909366265

Motschenbacher, H. (2011). Taking Queer Linguistics further: Sociolinguistics and critical heteronormativity research. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2011(212), 149-179. doi:10.1515/ijsl.2011.050