What is queer linguistics?

Queer, unlike its name, is not only centred on homosexuals and other sexual identities alternative to heterosexuality. ‘Queer’ is an umbrella term for the sexually deviant, and those socially stigmatized for deviating from what is agreed to be the norm. A central focus of queer linguistics – queer theory questions the establishment of the norm and its consequences – namely, privilege and oppression. Queer linguistics can be defined as the study of interplay between language and other social parameters and is focused on the discourse which sexual identities and desire are produced. It mainly targets heteronormativity – “structures, institutions, relations and actions that promote and produce heterosexuality as normal, self-evident, desirable, privileged and necessary” (Cameron & Kulick, 2003).

How it came about?

The discussion of queer theory is essential to address the underlying principle of queer linguistics. Compared to its presentation as a theory, it is more accurate to address Queer Theory as a set of combined perspectives. Queer theory prioritizes hegemonic social forces over individual speakers (Livia & Hall, 1997) and can be considered opposite to identity politics of feminism (centred on compulsory heterosexuality) – a label used in the recognition of membership to a specific (typically oppressed) group across various stratification. A criticism of identity politics includes the fact it derives all social relations from gender; assuming other social parameters to be subsumed under gender. Linguistic studies falling under this category undermines influences by other social factors and is insufficient to answer for discourse studies of other sexualities.

The Rise of Queer Theory

This gap is answered for by queer theory, which centres on the separation between gender and sexuality constructs. Queer theory also behaves as the intersection of language and social inequality faced by the queer. Although Cameron and Kulick (2003) have based studies of language and sexuality as ‘not only sexual identity but [also]… fantasy, repression, pleasure, fear and the unconscious’; of which come under the general heading of ‘desire’, it is not enough to focus solely on desire for a comprehensive study. The human experience of sexuality is a social aspect too complex and requires a nuanced analysis (van Dijk, 2015). This essay will thus present contributions of queer theory with relation to language and sexuality across various discursive practices.

Label me ‘q u e e r’

The use of certain lexical terms to denote stigmatized sexualities has been observed in everyday practice – namely, labels like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ in a heteronormative society, where individuals are expected to be gender-appropriate behaving “opposites”. Queer linguistics provides insight with the use of labels like ‘homosexual’ and ‘queer’ to include alternative sexualities, and those marginalized, such as ‘travesty’, ‘transsexual’ and other gender-bending identities. It defies the structure of heteronormativity which forces sexuality in binary classification.

Queer & Normative Structures

Besides curiosity about how common-sense assumptions about sexuality came about, queer linguistics pursuits research revolving around normative authority and regulatory power; of which exist in institutions and structures. ‘Lavender linguistics’ is another term often used by linguists to represent queerspeak – the study of language as it is used by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) speakers (Leap, 2015), or people who do not conform to norms of gender and sexuality. Queerspeak is viewed as an intentional phenomenon and tips the scale of the norms of society away from compulsory heterosexuality; with the speaker fully conscious of ‘queer’ (not) being produced within contexts. Discourse strategies in contexts like coming-out stories, homophobic slang or graffiti are resources of interest in queer linguistics (Morton-Brown, 1999). Producing queer however, does not directly cohere with disruptive acts and material change (Morton-Brown, 1999); it does not forcibly undo heterosexist conditions. Queer sexualities are highlighted by its manifestation in every speech act that serves to overthrow dominant notions. This is achieved through performativity of speech acts: its sustained and repeated “queering” of local, cultural and global discourse (Morton-Brown, 1999) – by the marginalized identities – to the point of acceptance by the general public.

Metaphors – how queer?

Metaphoric formations also provide entry for queer linguistics (van Dijk, 2015). Functioning to draw analogies and invoke contrasts, metaphors introduce discursive references to judgement, evaluation and other features associated with the linguistics of affect and emotion (Martin & White, 2005). The effectiveness of metaphoric reference is dependent on general consensus; this creates ingroup solidarity while introducing boundary and hierarchy (Morton-Brown, 1999) into discourse and can be said to be accompanied with normative consequences. The same can be expected for metaphors differentiated from those with discriminated statuses. In The Handbook of Discourse Analysis (2015) by van Dijk, he sed “hot” as a metaphorical example which possesses multiple associated meanings in the discourse of sexuality – indexes an individual whose male embodiment suggests an authoritative stance in the context of gay pornography and other forms of homoerotic interest. It can transcend social boundaries in its usage, but is met with a constraint – ‘explicit references to the particulars of a subject’s race, ethnicity, or nationalism usually remain unmarked when a subject’s hotness is indicated’ (van Dijk, 2015). He mentioned likely descriptions of an African American performer in a gay film as a “ripped, lean Black man” or “hot stud”, but not a “hot Black man” (Leap W. L., 2009), symbolizing a White race, or momentarily loss of racial identity for admittance under that description. Normative properties of certain words thus limit expressions by coinciding with social dimensions i.e. white racism. Halperin stated that queerness ‘has been described as an unbounded formation’ (as cited by van Dijk, 2015), embedded in sexuality and other dimensions of human experience. In the context of critical discourse analysis, the integration of sexual and other social divisions that ‘enable and inscribe hierarchy and privilege’ (van Dijk, 2015) in everyday practice has been illustrated through queer linguistics.

In conclusion,

This post has addressed queer theory in the interests of language and sexuality via its lexical terms, performativity and metaphoric expressions of normative authority. Queer linguistics, as concerned with a specific social wrong, can be studied via discursive practices manifested in a system of hierarchy, power and privilege. In the discourse of sexuality, the ultimate goal of queer theory is ‘reconceptualization of dominant discourses which shape gender and sexual identities’ (Motschenbacher, 2010) — to destabilize conventions which alienate deviant sexualities who do not conform.



Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and sexuality. New York, United States of America: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved March 1, 2018

Disemelo, K. (2014). Black men as pink consumers? University of the Witwatersrand, Faculty of Humanities. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10539/18447/Black%20Men%20as%20Pink%20Consumers%20-%20Dissertation.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Leap, W. (2015). Queer linguistics as critical discourse analysis. In W. Leap, D. Tannen, H. E. Hamilton, & D. Schiffrin (Eds.), The handbook of discourse analysis. doi:10.1111/b.9780470670743.2015.00034.x

Leap, W. L. (2009). Out in public: Reinventing lesbian/gay anthropology in a globalizing world. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. doi:10.1002/9781444310689

Livia, A., & Hall, K. (1997). Queerly phrased: Language, gender and sexuality. (A. Livia, & K. Hall, Eds.) New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://books.google.com.sg/books?hl=en&lr=&id=1G_dVlJ2KhcC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=queer+language+and+sexuality&ots=4NZDkH37fK&sig=MRyxxjXcCmRdjDk4ArTVisvAiQg#v=onepage&q=queer%20language%20and%20sexuality&f=false

Martin, J. R., & White, P. (2005). The language of evaluation: Appraisal in English (1 ed.). Palgrave Macmillan UK. doi:10.1057/9780230511910

Morton-Brown, M. (1999, June 5). Queer linguistics vs. compulsory heterosexuality. Text and Performance Quarterly, 19(3), 248-256. doi:10.1080/10462939909366265

Motschenbacher, H. (2010). Language, gender and sexual identity: Poststructuralist perspectives. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=MT0zAAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

van Dijk, T. A. (2015). The handbook of discourse analysis (2 ed., Vol. 1). (D. Tannen, H. E. Hamilton, & D. Schiffrin, Eds.) WILEY Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9781118584194