Queer Linguistics and Queer Theory

‘Queer’ was first introduced in the 19th century to mean ‘homosexual’. Homosexuality then, was seen as a deviant and homosexual acts were heavily legislated. Queer was stained as the negative institutionalization of homosexuality back then. Even in modern dictionary, it is indicated as a ‘derogatory’ or ‘offensive’. Linguistic reclamation of Queer has proven tough, especially with mixed feeling from the LGBT community themselves. In the 1990s, academics have successfully reclaimed queer when Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in Epistemology of the Closet, founded queer theory. They have successfully reopened discussions on the relations between sexuality and gender, segregating it from the preconceived notions that public have on homosexuality.

So what is queer theory? Queer theory is the critical studies of heterosexuality and heteronormativity. It challenges cultural norms of heterosexuality and posits the different sexual identities people encounter based on different living and sexual experiences. Instead of stereotypically prescribing homosexuals’ behaviours to a single set of attributes, we are able to identify how heteronormativity can affect the behaviours and practices of homosexuals. One way people expresses their sexuality in different contexts is through language. This derives to queer linguistics. Queer linguistic is an exploratory study of language use in forming one’s sexuality and desires in discourse (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013; Maree, 2015). Through the different contexts mentioned later, it is observed how queer linguistics, based upon queer theory, do contribute to language and sexuality researches. Sexuality, as a whole, do not only consist of just sexual identity but also includes the desires that were suggested in different contexts such as fantasy, repression, pleasure, fear and the unconscious (Cameron & Kulick, 2003, p. 105). In the following, examining the language uses in certain discourse brings to light how heterosexuality is performed and the possible deviances we may observed, that arises from it.


The study of heterosexuality constructs ideological concepts of normal and deviant sexualities are. In Kulick’s (2003) study on the enunciation of ‘No’ in different situations have constantly emphasize heterosexuality and heteronormativity. In his first illustration on cases of rape- in a culture where women are constantly objectified, a woman’s ‘No’ in this case has lost its illocutionary force. A woman’s ‘No’ has been normalized in the society and females in these situations are not allowed to reject males’ desires (McConnell-Ginet, 1989). On the other hand, men refusing women’s sexual advances can indicate non-heterosexuality. Stereotypically, men are also the ones who initiate sexual advances and only to females. Should a male expresses desire to a man, then rejecting it by saying ‘no’ will be put straight male in a predicament as a female’s. In this case, it can sometimes result in a Homosexual Panic Defense. In such defense, men claim to use aggression in reaction to other male’s sexual advances which they perceived as a provocation and their heterosexuality has been jeopardized. Such justification has been exploited in court where Jonathan Schmitz managed to escape first degree murder charge.

The art of saying ‘No’ for both man and woman strongly conforms to heteronormativity. Stereotypically abiding cultural norms, woman’s ‘no’ is disregarded and man always are allowed for sexual advances to woman, they should also never reject a female’s sexual desire. However the man being sexually initiated will have his heterosexuality threatened. Cultural norms are being challenged, and as mention justification of Homosexual Panic Defense can result in the marginalization of homosexual community.


The early study of language and sexuality was more prescriptive whereby analysis were carried out on how homosexuals spoke index their sexual identity. The initial stage of ‘Lavender Lexicon’ was established by Legman in 1941. 329 items were listed claimed to be words used by the in-group of homosexuals. It is unfair that a lexicon listing can simply represent the entire community as they are too generalized and lack in contexts. When these lexical items seemed to be too superficial in representing the gay community, homosexual language emerged. It did not focus on identity as per se, but encompassed sexuality showing how desires were conveyed by utterances through different contexts. Through the language use in expressing desires in different discourses, not only the utterances are performed but also portray how performative materializes one’s sexuality.

For instances of drag performances, the use of features of women’s language is constantly dramatized. The use of stereotypical linguistic resource by drag queen shows how fluid one’s sexuality can be (Livia & Hall, 1997). Drag queens who are biologically men, are subversive thus  their performances do not conform to a single set of hegemonic heteronormativity. The performative effect of such performances displayed unnaturalness of one’s sexuality and how simply one can flout heteronormativity. In a study of 801 girls, one audience felt that they are neither male or female, but “their own thing” (Taylor & Rupp, 2004). The explicit personification of drag queens as women and yet do not biologically identify with, continue to challenge sexuality that cannot be conform to binary categories.

While in queer theory, heteronormativity is studied extensively as such, it is challenged on authenticity in identity and in its discourses that molded these identities. Studies found telephone sex workers’ (Hall, 1995) and Brazilian travestis’ (Kulick, 1997) gender and sexuality are not in alignment as one supposed. Telephone sex workers exploit features of women’s language to create a setting to entice their clients. It was also discovered one of the telephone sex worker was a bisexual Mexican-American male. Sexuality in this case is not transmitted through one’s sexual preferences. It is precisely the context, which is work, in which these fantasy makers are able to deploy the various linguistics resources to characterize the person they are in without relating to their actual identity. Therefore in line with the definition mentioned previously, the discourse-  living experiences (the need to work for money) although, shaped an unauthentic sexual identity but it challenges heteronormativity by simply using linguistics.

Brazilian travestis’ sexuality on the other hand, is conflicting. Apart from economic gains that may motivate one to be a travesti, there may be more to it. Brazilian travestis that dress as women, also try to achieve more women bodily forms through estrogen intake. Despite this, they still very much value their male genitals instead of augmenting their biological sex like most transgender do. In terms of their linguistic practices, they refer themselves as both gender pronouns depending on the situations they are in. In situations when client refuses to pay for services, a traversti may convert into one who is masculine. The freedom to cross over between genders can be attributed to its patriarchal culture. Travestis identify themselves with women because of their desire of being penetrated yet they do not see the benefits of removing their male genitals, as it does not signifies what she does not has. The feminine bodies they choose to possessed, also culturally bounded, allow them to attract both male (penetrator) and non-male (penetrated). Here, it is also illustrated how heteronormativity, cultural norms of heterosexual where men are the penetrators and attracted to beautiful females bodies while women are the ones being penetrated and should be attractive enough for men to look at, shaped the sexuality of travestis. As complex as travesti’s sexuality seems to be, queer theory in this sense, allow us to how sexuality is continuously negotiated in discourses.

Queer theory allows a descriptive perspectives into different sexualities. By enlarge, sexual desires advances can be observed through language use. We can grasp the idea of ideological notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality. As such, through queer theory, we understand that sexualities are not compounded to binary categories. Lastly the discourses should also be considered in the materialization of sexuality.


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Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and Sexuality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, K. (1995). Speaking of sex. Gender Articulated: Language and the Sociall constructed self, 183-216.

Kulick, D. (1997). The gender of Brazilian transgendered prostitutes. American Anthropologist, 574-585.

Kulick, D. (2003). No. Language & Communication, 139-151.

Livia, A., & Hall, K. (1997). Queerly Phrased. Language, Gender and Sexuality.

Maree, C. (2015). Queer linguistics. The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality.

McConnell-Ginet, S. (1989). The (re)production of sexual meaning: a discourse-based theory. Language, Gender and Professional Writing, 35-50.

Motschenbacher, H., & Stegu, M. (2013). Queer Linguistic approaches to discourse. Discourse & Society, 519-535.

Taylor, V., & Rupp, L. J. (2004). Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to Be a Drag Queen. Journal of Homosexuality, 113-133.