Category Archives: My Work

we’re ‘queer’ to stay

Language has, and always will, remain the means in which we express and construct our sexual identity. Heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, he, she, man, woman, girl, boy; these are just some of the terms that we use on a daily or regular basis when one asks to describe ourselves. It is simply inherent for us to use these gendered personal nouns, pronouns and terms to describe our gender or sexual identities.

Ever since its emergence, language and sexuality has long been established as an area of research that is important in discourse analysis and sociolinguistics. Queer linguistics refers to the ways, methods and strategies that implies various notions of sexualities (Leap, 2015) and provides an avenue for the analysis of language data that are formed based on the insights and research of Queer Theory, which refers to the understanding of the relationship between gender and sexuality. Much of the critical analyses of Queer Linguistics revolve around heteronormativity, in which it defined it as a system that ‘prescribes, enjoins, rewards and naturalizes a particular kind of heterosexuality–monogamous, reproductive, and based on conventionally complementary gender roles–as the norm on which social arrangements should be based.’ (Cameron, 2005) 

The impact that heteronormativity has had on queer linguistics has been largely significant in the study of language and gender, so much so that it has since introduced sexuality into the big picture when it comes to the research of language and gender. Queer theory has largely been motivated simply by the idea that gender is performative in the current world we live in as gender identities are no longer determined biologically, in terms of the sex of their bodies that they were born with. It no longer fixates on the idea that gender is binary.

Before we go on to talk about queer linguistics and how it has changed over the years, let us first look at how the meaning of the adjective queer itself has changed over the decades. Once considered as a highly contemptuous synonym for homosexual, it is now typically used as a positive term to describe all non-heterosexual identities. The term heterosexual itself was only created in the second half on the 19th century and was used as a term to diagnose an illness or disease. Foucault (1978) stated that the identity concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality are not only a ‘predominantly Western phenomenon (and therefore culture-specific) but are also relatively recent from an historical point of view.’ The perceptions of heterosexuality and homosexuality were vastly different as homosexuality was seen as a deviance. 

In recent years, there has been more liminal focus on marginalized and ‘queer’ gender identities and the relationship between factors such as gender, sexual identities and heteronormativity. This included more than just lesbians and gays, but other queer identities such as bisexuals, transgenders amongst others that were found to be marginalised and improperly represented in research and studies on queer theory and queer linguistics. On top of that, recent studies on queer linguistics have also placed much emphasis on cultural diversity and sexual minority groups such as the hijra in India and the yan daudu of Nigeria, that transcends beyond the typical modern western categories that constitutes gay men or lesbians, or any other traditionally sexually marginalized groups. By highlighting and including these groups in queer studies and queer linguistics, as it widened the categories of sexuality related discourses, making queer linguistics more coherent and cohesive. As Livia and Hall (1997) have pointed out, gender as a reiterative performance has ‘access to a variety of scripts, not all of which may be intelligible to the culture at large.’ Queer linguistics allows for the discussion of relations that stem from a series of theories such as sexual ideologies, sexual or cultural practices and identities and examines ‘how nonnormative sexualities are negotiated when it was examined in regulatory structures.’ (Bucholtz and Hall, 2004) Some of the research studies that emerged from queer linguistics revolve around linguistic distinctiveness, in which researchers analyse linguistic features as markers of lesbian and gay identities.

However, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the research carried out at that time focussed heavily on lexicons and gay glossaries that existed at that point of time, some of which were Cory and LeRoy’s “A Lexicon of Homosexual Slang” published in 1963, “The Lavender Lexicon: Dictionary of Gay Words and Phrases” published in1964, and Rodgers’ “The Queens’ Vernacular” published in 1972. These works highlighted the varieties spoken by the white gay male population in the United States whereas Giallaombardo’s “Society of Women: A Study of a Woman’s Prison” that was published in 1966, presented the variety in which lesbians used which consisted of terms from other languages, apart from English such as the “Gay Girl’s Guide to the U.S. and the Western World” which was published as early as 1949, with sections that included French, German and Russian terms. (Livia, 1997) Why was there such a considerable disparity in the number of studies conducted on linguistic features of lesbians and gays, you wonder? Legman states that it could perhaps be due to the “tradition of gentlemanly restraint among lesbians” (Hayes, 1978) He then argues that if the lack of lesbian slang indexes a lesbian’s speech style as gentlemanly, the gay slang indicates that their speech style resembled that of women.

Following these publications of glossaries and collating these lexicons then came a time where numerous studies focuses on lesbian and gay discourse. Aptly coined ‘queerspeak’ or ‘lavender linguistics’, copious amounts of studies and research discuss the gay and lesbian discourse strategies, and examine the traits that are exclusive and specific to the speech of gay men or lesbians. The study of these features have remained key in the formation of their identity and researchers have shifted towards trying to understand the ‘meaning and function of linguistic practices–what people do with language–in light of those people’s beliefs about language’ (Milani, 2016) which simply means that looking beyond just the different lexicons or features, but studying why they use them and in what contexts.

In the beginning of the twenty-first century, researchers have called for the study of identity in language and sexuality research to be temporarily halted. Cameron and Kulick (2003a) supports the idea with the assertion that sexuality is not and cannot be reducible to simply sexual identity and desire should be taken into consideration and how power relations or dynamics come to play when expressing desire. Queer linguistics build on the ideas and theories from Queer Theory, and no longer reflects simply a ‘gay and lesbian’ approach to language. What queer linguists find problematic are the categories in which are established in queer linguistics which may exclude certain people as well as regulate certain criteria in which some queer people may not identify with. 

In conclusion, queer linguistics remains an indispensable means to better understand the relationship between language, gender and sexuality. It sure has come a long way since the days where queer linguistics was just about linguistic features that marked the gay identity and gender and sexuality is seen as fluid, performative and in constant continuum, instead of it being fixed and rigid. Whatever it is, it will certainly stay and strive to continue bringing new insights to linguistic research and the study of language, gender and sexuality in a more sociolinguistic manner. 

Hayes, J. (1978) Language and language behaviour of lesbian women and gay men: A selected bibliography (Part 1). Journal of homosexuality 4:2 (Winter): 201-212.

Livia, A., Hall, K., (1997) Queerly phrased: Language, gender and sexuality. Oxford University Press: 3-58.

Milani, T. M., (2016) Language and sexuality. The Oxford handbook of language and sexuality. 403-419.

Bucholtz, M., Hall, K. (2004) Theorizing identity in language and sexuality research. Language in Society 33(4): 469-515.

Foucault, M. (1978) The history of sexuality. Vol. 1: An introduction. New York: Penguin.

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

Cameron, D. (2005) Language, gender and sexuality. Applied linguistics 26/4. Oxford University Press.

Motschenbacher, H. (2010) Language, gender and sexual identity: Poststructuralist perspectives. John Benjamins: Amsterdam.

Livia, A. (1997) “It’s a girl!” Bringing performativity back to linguistics. Queerly phrased: language, gender, and sexuality. Oxford p3-18.

Motschenbacher, H. (2013) Focusing on normativity in language and sexuality studies. Insights from conversation on objectohilia. Criticial discourse studies. pp49-70

Motschenbacher, H. Stegu, M. (2013) Queer linguistic approaches to discourse. Discourse and society. 24: 519-535.

LGBT Representation in Media

In a report published by GLAAD last year, out of the 895 series regular characters expected to appear on broadcast scripted primetime programming in the coming year, 43 (4.8%) were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer. In comparison to all the reports that they have published, this percentage is the highest of LGBTQ series regulars that they have ever found. On top of that, there were also a total of 28 recurring LGBTQ characters. Lesbian representation, on the other hand, dropped drastically on broadcast television to only 17% of all LGBTQ characters.

So, why is LGBT representation in mass media so important? In Wolff and Kielwasser (1991: 20), Goss suggests that sexual minorities are different from the conventional and ethnic minorities in a sense that they are quite similar to political minorities. They are not necessarily identifiable or recognisable by others. Similar to radicals, they are represented as perceived “threats” to the “natural” order of things. By positioning them in this way, this would perpetuate society’s stereotypes about them. Rothenberg (2007) mentioned that television plays an important active role in shaping and defining cultural groups hence, it also has the power to stereotype the gays and lesbians.

In the 80s and 90s, gay and lesbian characters on television mostly appeared in roles underlining issues pertaining to sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV or AIDS. The digital era in which we live in today is far from depicting LGBT characters in that light. LGBT representation in mass media has evolved, and television shows and films are now embracing LGBT issues instead.

More often than not, lesbians are either portrayed as ‘lipstick lesbians’ or ‘femmes’. Lesbianism is also often depicted as a frivolous lifestyle choice, instead of simply a part of who they are and what they identify with. In my opinion, for LGBT to be accepted in society, it first has to be accurately represented in the media. Netflix original Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has done a great job in LGBT representation and I say that because they have delved into the issue of sexuality and gender in a way that no other television show has done before. OITNB is a television show surrounding Piper and her incarceration in a federal women’s prison. She meets new inmates, one of which is her ex-lover, Alex (and the whole reason why she’s in prison anyway). The show revolves around a number of female inmates that are of different sexualities, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. In the first episode, Piper is seen telling her fiancé, Larry, that she used to be lesbian, but is not one anymore.

In OITNB, they have not only embraced the wide spectrum of lesbians, they have also included a transgender character as well. They also do not put a label on Piper’s sexuality and fully embrace the concept of sexual fluidity when it boils down to her sexual identity. She’s allowed to just be who she is freely. Additionally, misguided assumptions and stereotypes of sexuality and being queer have also been highlighted several times throughout the show, often by the male characters of the show. The show’s depiction of the transgender character, Sophia, is also fleshed out as they show the struggles she faces as the prison halts her supply of oestrogen and she has to come to terms with the possibility of losing her gender identity. Her relationship with her wife and son are also depicted in a way that is realistic, as they try to make their relationship work and is portrayed in a positive light, a rare occurrence in television as trans characters are often portrayed in a negative light instead.

The entire show portrays these usually invisible women in a way that does not make them singular, one-dimensional characters but instead, they’re fleshed out as women with complex personalities, with enough details paid to their sexualities and identities. All in all, I think the main takeaway from OITNB is that people’s sexuality may be defined differently and ultimately, it is defined only by what you choose to be defined as. It is never as simple as it looks.


GLAAD (2017) Where we are on TV report. Retrieved at:

Wolf, M.A, Kielwasser, A.P. (1991)  Gay people, sex, and the media. New York, NY: Harrington Park Press.

Rothenberg, P. S. (2007). Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study (p. 774). New York: Worth Publishers.