Queer Linguistics for Dummies

Foregrounded by gay and lesbian activism in the 1970s and 1980s, which challenged the concept of a coherent and homogenous gay or lesbian identity (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013), the “queer” agenda emerged to highlight the diversity within the non-heterosexual community. Initially coined as a derogatory label, it was reclaimed to categorize all positions that did not conform to the heteronormative assumptions in circulation. Extending its reach past the homosexual community, the queer identity included transgenders and persons that self-identified with culturally marginalized sexual desires (Jagose, 1996). In effect, the queer agenda aimed to bring all individuals who challenged the existing hegemonic and orthodox understanding of sexuality together under this umbrella term. Soon after, a body of perspectives developed and came together to form queer theory, interrogating how institutions, social structures, relations and actions promoted heteronormativity as natural and desirable (Cameron & Kulick, 2003).

Drawing upon this pluralistic framework that is queer theory, queer linguistics is a sociolinguistic inquiry and study of language data that, contrary to its name, does not examine or suggest a distinct brand of homosexual language use in itself. Instead, queer linguistics focuses on how linguistic and discursive practices enable and contribute to the reinforcement and formation of hegemonic heterosexuality and gender binaries as normative constructs. Peering behind the veil of dominant heterosexual discourse, queer linguistics examines how an alienation of non-normative sexual identities can be promoted and disguised by and in language use.

Being a relatively new sub-field of sociolinguistic inquiry, queer linguistics has offered new approaches and ways of thinking about and theorizing language and sexuality. By providing the overarching basis and underpinnings for queer linguistics, queer theory has made noticeable contributions to language and sexuality research. Namely, how it builds upon previous major works on language and sexuality, signifies a step towards ascribing equality and recognition for LGBTQ persons in research and goes beyond mere theories of sexuality to question how various social positions combine to form a complex queer identity.

Queer linguistics builds upon and addresses a key shortcoming of the previous approach towards studying this relationship between homosexuals and language. Prior to engaging with queer theory, research on language and sexuality revolved around attempting to uncover how gays and lesbians used language differently. What came to be known as the “lavender lexicon” (Leap, 1995; Legman, 1941) defined characteristic ways for homosexuals to speak. However, critics have pointed out that it simply attributes an observed linguistic feature to a pre-determined identity group (Stokoe & Speer, 2017), jumping to conclusions about gay language when these linguistic features are not exclusively used by the gay community. By selectively noticing linguistic features that fit with stereotypes of the identity group and disregarding other occurrences of the same features in the unmarked identity groups (Jefferson, 2004), traditional studies fail to account for what exactly makes gay language “gay”. Instead, they polarize both identities and problematically attempt to distinguish the homosexual identity from the heterosexual one via an exclusive focus on the homosexual identity. Queer theory challenges this exact dualistic approach that assumes a female/male and heterosexual/homosexual binary, instead recognizing the variation and range of positions within non-heteronormative identities (Cameron & Kulick, 2003). Likewise, queer linguistics does not shoehorn language use into reified categories and has served to inform studies examining how straight people also access and employ supposedly “gay features” (Cameron, 1998; Kiesling, 2005). Furthermore, queer linguistics can reverse the discourse to study how certain linguistic features may have been stigmatized as a marker of subversion from the heteronormative, subliminally criminalizing both the community and the associated linguistic features. Beyond merely circumventing the circular reasoning demonstrated by traditional work on “homosexual language”, queer linguistics offers a concrete step forward in reshaping and demystifying the rhetoric surrounding the language use of the LGBTQ communities.

Next, queer linguistics advances an awareness in treating homosexuality and heterosexuality as equals by focusing on how language use interacts with all forms of relationships between sexuality and gender. Language and sexuality has largely treated homosexuality as a marked identity, singling them out for study and research, thereby unwittingly propagating the treatment of homosexuality as a subversion of the heteronormative. In so doing, the heteronormative identity is assumed to be the unmarked sexuality, echoing sentiments viewing homosexuality as unnatural perversions. Queering the sociolinguistic inquiry into language and sexuality entails challenging this exact unmarked status of heterosexuality (Coates, 2013). In line with the view that heteronormativity is merely common and not normal, queer linguistics suggests that heteronormativity itself is subject to the same discursive construction and reinforcement. Studies looking at telephone sex workers who have to constantly maintain and emphasize their heterosexuality showed that heterosexuality can indeed be actively marked in language use (Hall, 1995). In demonstrating that heterosexuality is equally susceptible to the same linguistic processes as non-straight sexualities, queer linguistics shifts the focus from being exclusively on the LGBTQ community to how language governs and intersects with all sexual relations. Removing heterosexual identity from its default and self-evident position, queer linguistics alters the baseline assumptions that has long privileged heterosexuality and demands a paradigm shift in negotiating the queer identity.

Finally, queer linguistics moves beyond a narrow focus on sexuality to broader social positions and provide a more nuanced insight into identity construction of non-heteronormative persons. Beyond the interaction solely between language and sexuality, queer linguistics is also predicated upon queer theory’s “broad critique of multiple social antagonisms, including race, gender, class, nationality, and religion, in addition to sexuality” (Eng, Halberstam, & Muñoz, 2005). Analysing how a queer speaker embodies multiple minority positions and temporalities by adopting different scripts (Provencher, 2014), it becomes evident that homosexuality is not just a position of desire. Given that there is a policing of sex in public discourse (Foucault & Hurley, 1990), idealized sex has long been portrayed as the practices of “heterosexual, white, middle or upper-class couples” (Gadsden, 2003). There is an undisputed and longstanding intersection between sexuality and issues of race and class. As such, the LGBTQ identity cannot be viewed isolated from social forces, to attempt to do so would grossly simplify their identities and overlook the struggles and regulation that they systematically face. A multifaceted queer identity consequently means that discursive practices enacted by a queer speaker differ depending on individual biographies and their positioning in that particular social moment (Leap & Motschenbacher, 2012). Queer linguistics divorces us from studying sexuality as an end in itself, drawing attention instead to the various material forces at play that all shape identity.

The intersection between gender and sexuality has been a topic of much fascination for scholars past and present. As the rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ community begins to shift in our modern world, so queer linguistics has emerged to provide a wholly dedicated sub-field of sociolinguistic study into an identity that has been marginalized and misrepresented for the most parts of history. Informed largely by the perspectives embodied in queer theory, research into the intersection between language and sexuality has been reshaped by the field of queer linguistics. By challenging hegemonic institutions that promoted and regulated heterosexuality, it addresses the inherent flaws in existing scholarship, reinvents how research handles the homosexual identity and offers a more comprehensive view of queer identity.


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

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

Eng, D. L., Halberstam, J., & Muñoz, J. E. (2005). What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now? : Duke University Press.

Foucault, M., & Hurley, R. J. (1990). The history of sexuality. Volume 1, Volume 1. New York: Vintage.

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Jefferson, G. (2004). A note on laughter in ‘male–female’interaction. Discourse Studies, 6(1), 117-133.

Kiesling, S. F. (2005). Homosocial desire in men’s talk: Balancing and re-creating cultural discourses of masculinity. Language in Society, 34(5), 695-726.

Leap, W. (1995). Beyond the lavender lexicon: Authenticity, imagination, and appropriation in lesbian and gay languages: Taylor & Francis US.

Leap, W., & Motschenbacher, H. (2012). Launching a new phase in language and sexuality studies. Journal of Language and Sexuality, 1(1), 1-14.

Legman, G. (1941). The language of homosexuality: an American glossary. Sex variants: A study of homosexual patterns, 2, 1149-1179.

Motschenbacher, H., & Stegu, M. (2013). Queer Linguistic approaches to discourse. Discourse & Society, 24(5), 519-535. doi:10.1177/0957926513486069

Provencher, D. M. (2014). Stepping back from queer theory: Language, fieldwork and the everyday in sexuality studies in France. French Cultural Studies, 25(3-4), 408-417.

Stokoe, E., & Speer, S. A. (2017). Conversation analysis, language, and sexuality. In K. Hall & R. Barrett (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Language and Sexuality. Oxford: OUP.

Image Credit for Cover Image: Chronicle Books

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