Queer Linguistics for Dummies

By the very nature of its name, the definition of queer linguistics cannot be easily parsed. While the word “queer” has undergone amelioration from its initial use as a slur to an in-group marker of identity, its use in an academic context was originally meant as “a signifier without a stable signified” (Barrett, 2002), so the discipline can only be loosely defined.

To begin with, queer linguistics was developed as an extension of the earlier discipline of lavender linguistics, which focused largely on the language and lexicon of gay and lesbian speakers. Where lavender linguistics was restricted by normative binaries or homosexual/ heterosexual and male/ female, queer linguistics focuses on sexual identities that are non-normative, that is, queer. Rather than presuming that language is the result of a fixed identity, queer linguistics adopts a constructive view of that presupposes that one’s identity fluctuates and is not concrete (Motschenbacher, 2011). This ensures that individuals who do not meet rigid normative requirements (for example, a gay person living in a non-urban environment) are not excluded from the various identities used as means of categorisation. However, this does not mean that defined identity categories can be wholly ignored, because analysis and deconstruction of hegemonic structures, especially in the context of pragmatism, relies implicitly on the acknowledgement of imbalances of power between groups (such as between men and women, or heterosexual men and homosexual men), which means that dominant ideologies must still be conceptualised (Motschenbacher, 2011). In this case, however, the main difference between identity in the context of queer linguistics and traditional conceptions of identity is that the former is far less rigid or clearly defined.

At its heart, queer linguistics is the practice of application of ideas from queer theory to linguistic research in order to critically examine linguistic construction of heteronormativity from a poststructuralist perspective (Motschenbacher, 2011), which allows linguists to confront and destabilise hegemonic Discourses that have become accepted within a society as naturalised ideologies (Motschenbacher, 2011) with non-heteronormative alternatives. These alternatives can be interpreted in one of two ways: either to mean sexualities that do not include heterosexuality, or heterosexualities that do not fall under normative definitions. In this context, Foucault’s definition of Discourse as “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (Foucault, 1972) is used – also showing the departure of queer linguistics from traditional linguistics.

Queer theory is irrevocably tied to language and sexuality research. While queer theory itself is grounded in the examination of sexuality, it has also contributed to language and sexuality research in significant ways. Most significantly, it has altered the perspective through which language and sexuality research is conducted by providing paradigms through which said research can be contextualised, specifically, the concepts of gender performativity and queer linguistics.

Firstly, queer theory has provided researchers with a framework with which to critically examine language and sexuality Discourse. Queer theory rejected the essentialist perspectives of existing research into gay and lesbian identities that ignored the conflation of intersectionality with sexuality in the construction of identity. While incommensurable by virtue of its nature (since “queer” represents deviation from a norm rather than an established set of criteria or categories), through the lens of queer theory, researchers can analyse or deconstruct concepts germane to gender and sexuality without ignoring groups of individuals who, indeed, make up the majority of non-heteronormative individuals. This marked a shift away from the study of homosexuality as deviation from the perceived norm (Coates, 2013).

Queer theory was heavily influenced by the work of Judith Butler, who also developed the concept of gender performativity. Coined by Butler in 1990, gender performativity was influenced by philosopher John L. Austin’s concept of performativity and is a critique of traditional perceptions of gender. At its core, to say that gender is performative is to say that individuals are not born into their genders; rather, their gender identities are shaped by the culture and society these individuals are born into and exist in.

Under gender performativity, the relationship between language and identity is seen as constructive (Motschenbacher, 2011). In the vein of poststructuralism which heavily influenced queer theory, identity was seen as something not inherently stable – something that might be positioned in relation to hegemonic notions of identity within a society but that was ultimately prone to fluctuations as a result of having to navigate those same hegemonic notions: that is, out of an individual’s autonomous control (Butler, 1990). Thus, the emphasis within gender performativity is on the performance itself rather than the fictional “doer” (Butler, 1990) behind the deed. Ultimately, performativity is about the repetition of behaviours that are endorsed by or enforced by the norms (implicitly or explicitly) agreed upon by a society, whether as a result of instrumental (for example, classifying homosexuality as a mental illness) or influential (for example, lack of positive representation in media, bullying in schools as a result of ‘deviant’ gender identities) forces. In this way, performance constructs identity and gender. Crucially, the way in which these forces shape these behaviours and vice versa is cyclical in nature; this creates a reading of gender and performativity that provides an additional framework with which to examine language and sexuality.

Another framework that spawned from queer theory is that of queer linguistics.

Queer linguistics developed from within the field of language and gender research and is inextricably entwined with it. In the earlier phases of language and sexuality studies, much of research was focused largely on the experiences of gay men and lesbian women, spawning disciplines such as lavender linguistics, and later queer linguistics, which allowed for more nuanced observation and study of the queer individual as opposed to a focus on binary identities (for example homosexual versus heterosexual).

Although queer linguistics rejects essentialist attitudes towards language and identity, the discipline is still concerned with the study of heterosexualities, which are subject to the same discursive constructions as non-heterosexual (gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.) identities (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013). This very study of heterosexual discursive construction subverts the idea of heterosexuality as the default. Despite this subversion, however, queer linguistics is not free of normative influences simply because sexuality is tied to gender and sex, which in turn is influenced by hegemonic norms that dictate what a society deems orthodox and what it deems deviant. In general, queer linguistics has expanded the scope of and fine-tuned the focus of language and sexuality research.



Barrett, R. (2002). Is queer theory important for sociolinguistic theory? In R. J. Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Language and sexuality. Contesting meaning in theory and practice (pp. 25– 43). California: CSLI.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Coates, J. (2013). The discursive production of everyday heterosexualities. Discourse and society , 536-552.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. London: Routledge.

Motschenbacher, H. (2011). Taking queer linguistics further: sociolinguistics and critical heteronormativity research. International journal of the sociology of language (212), 149–179.

Motschenbacher, H., & Stegu, M. (2013). Queer linguistic approaches to discourse. Discourse and society , 519–535.

Author: Kai Wen

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