Ever wondered why people speak the way they do? Well that’s because our language use is affected by a myriad of factors. Research in sociolinguistics has shown that language use is an ‘act of identity’, in which people convey what kind of person they are (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004). Differences in regional provenance, social class, and ethnicity can create distinction in how we create and produce language, just as speaker gender and sexual identity. For instance, we know that women tend to inhabit different social spaces and exist in different social roles as compared to men. Different genders have been traditionally assigned culturally oriented roles to play, and therefore possess different social standing, rights and obligations. These sociocultural factors influence and shape one’s identity, and invoke differences in language use. If one’s gender is able to play such a huge part in language differences, then certainly, sexuality should matter too.
Traditionally, the linguistic labelling and classification of sexual identities produced two opposing categories: the ‘normal’ – heterosexuals, and the ‘deviant’ – homosexuals, until the emergence of the term ‘queer’ sparked numerous debates and theorisations in the field of sociolinguistic. It demonstrated a labelling strategy in a deliberate attempt to embrace all kinds of ‘deviant’ identities that challenged heteronormativity. Originally a derogatory term for homosexuals, the term ‘queer’ is now used as an umbrella term for all non-heterosexual identities such as transvestites and other transgendered people, including those with ‘deviant’ desires such as sadomasochists or fetishists (Cameron & Kulick, 2003).
Today, ‘queer’ is also used interchangeably with ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’. The near-equivalence of the terms suggest that although ‘queer’ has not succeeded in relegating the existing classification system, the acknowledgement and arguments presented in Queer Theory and activism surrounding the terms has definitely advanced the debate of identity, sexuality and language. The reclamation of the term ‘queer’ also demonstrates a strong resistance to heteronormativity, signaling a set of cultural-political positions critically engaged with identity policies presented by the gay and lesbian movements between the 1980s and 1990s (Cameron & Kulick, 2003).
Guided by the ideas of various distinguished scholars such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, Queer Theory takes on a different approach from conventional theorisations of language and identity, by rejecting traditional categories of gender and sexuality and challenging heteronormativity. The Queer approach embraces all non-straight identities that previous gay and lesbian activists had overlooked.
Queer theorists ask questions like:
“What is normal?”
“Why is that normal?”
“Who is not normal or being subject to oppression due to these norms?”
The queer approach deems all categories of identity as problematic, as they serve to regulate and exclude people who do not fit into normative expectations (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013). It challenges the earlier essentialist approaches of traditional feminist, gay and lesbian activists, and argues that the analysis of sexuality is largely regulated by hegemonic heterosexuality, and thereby constructing non-normative sexualities by these structures (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004). It sets to deconstruct the processes that shape certain sexual identities and practices as normal while reproducing the others as ‘deviant’ (Milani, 2016).
Queer Linguistics then, emerged as an approach to language and sexuality under the influence and contribution of three main theories – queer, sociocultural linguistic and feminist (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004). For the purpose of this blog post, I will only focus on Queer Theory, although it is worthy to note that these theories intertwine in their concepts and contribution to Queer Linguistics as a field of study.
Queer Linguistics is not only restricted to the study of language and linguistic practices of homosexuals (gay men and lesbian women). Rather, it is an analytic linguistic study of how certain ideologies, discursive acts and cultural practices promote and shape heteronormativity and gender binarism as normative constructs (Nelson, 1999). As a relatively new field of inquiry, Queer Theory has had strong influence and contributions to the larger field of language and sexuality research. In recent years, there has been a steady increase in publications on Queer Linguistics research activity, ranging from monographs to edited volumes and journal articles (e.g., Cameron & Kulick, 2003; Leap and Boellstorff, 2004; Bucholtz and Hall, 2004). Furthermore, the annual Lavender Languages and Linguistics Conference held at the American University, Washington DC serves as an esteemed platform for international Queer Linguistic research (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013). We can see that the influence and contributions of Queer Theory and Queer Linguistics has spread far and beyond in the research of language and sexuality.
There are two central areas of interest for discourse analysts of Queer Linguistics, one of which is heteronormativity. Through the linguistic analyses of mechanisms, Queer Linguistics look at how discursive acts and cultural practices construe heterosexuality as the norm. It does not see identity as a stable, pre-discursive given, but rather, it sees identity as performed – that is, speakers are thought to construct identities through their language use (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013). Queer Linguistics thus sparked a paradigm shift in viewing the relationship between language and sexuality – instead of seeing identity as the source of particular forms of language, to seeing identity as an effect of linguistic practices (Cameron & Kulick, 2003).
One of the fundamental ideas of Queer Theory and Linguistics is gender performativity. According to Butler (1990), gender is performative – as a result of the repetition of semiotic and linguistic practices by individuals and their community, which translate into culturally accepted and reinforced practices and norms. And while gender norms are often associated with sexual norms, the performance of gender undoubtedly influences sexuality as well. Much of Queer Linguistics research question the authenticity of these performatives. Identity politics that developed in 1970s and 1980s such as the Women and Gay Liberationist rhetoric emphasised on the ‘authentic’ expression of identity through shared practices of a community (Cameron & Kulick, 2003). The conversation around heteronormativity and performativity sparked a debate on the whether there is a distinctive and ‘authentic’ language spoken for the expression of group identity, and thus, the quest to define what has been called ‘Homosexual Language’ (also referred to as the Lavender Lexicon), ‘Gayspeak’ or ‘Queerspeak’. This led to an ongoing debate on the ‘homosexual language’ label, which assumes gays and lesbians belong to homogenous communities with a shared own culture, identity, and language (Cameron & Kulick, 2003). This, however, is an inaccurate portrayal that one’s identity shapes their language use. On the idea of performativity, the agency lies within individuals, whom may choose to speak in certain ways to enact certain identities. For instance, drag queens identify as males but engage in gender ‘crossing’, adopting linguistic features generally associated with females (Cameron & Kulick, 2003), demonstrating that language does not shape an individual’s identity, but a mere manifestation of the identity individuals wish to portray.
On the topic of the debate on the ‘authenticity’ of homosexual language, another area of interest is on gender and sexual binarism, which is critical on the construction of gender (male versus female) and sexual (homosexual versus heterosexual) binaries as a natural phenomenon, without the consideration of contextual, cultural and historical variability (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013). The Queer approach seeks to debunk this strict binary categorisation of gender and sexuality, for it fails to include identities that fall out of the spectrum. For instance, drawing parallels on the example above, gays and lesbians do not fall into homogenous communities with shared practices. Hence, it would be fallacious to assume and define identities according to a single sexual category (homosexual), just as it would be to consider all females the same and in contrast to males – what about the transgendered community?
Queer theorists also question the naturalness and universality of gender and sexuality binarisms. Historically, these binaries didn’t exist before the 19th century. During ancient Greek and Roman times, the sexual binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality was unknown, and the discursive construction of sexualities differed strongly from contemporary times (Cameron & Kulick, 2003). It is arguable that by contrasting the binary categories, we are only further polarising the categories which leads to the stigmatisation of people who deviate from normative requirements (Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013).
Through the lens of Queer Theoretical framework and ideologies, the direction of studies on language and sexuality has evolved from the mere study of gay and lesbian vernaculars to the critical analyses of discursive processes through which hegemonic heterosexual and homosexual identities are constructed or excluded by different theoretical and methodological approaches. With the burgeoning Queer Linguistic scholarship, the Queer approach signified an important step in the inclusion of not only the LGBTQ community, but also a more accurate representation of the normative communities in linguistic research, by reshaping how traditional linguists approached the topic of ‘identity’ and shedding light on the seemingly harmless but toxic consequences of thinking from a heteronormative and gender and sexual binary standpoint.
Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2004). Theorizing identity in language and sexuality research. Language in Society, 33(04), 469–515. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s0047404504334020
Butler, Judith (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and sexuality (pp. 25-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Leap, W., & Boellstorff, T. (2004). Speaking in queer tongues. Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Milani, T. (2016). Language and Sexuality. Oxford Handbooks Online. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190212896.013.17
Motschenbacher, H., & Stegu, M. (2013). Queer Linguistic approaches to discourse. Discourse & Society, 24(5), 519-535. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0957926513486069
Nelson, C. (1999) Sexual identities in ESL: Queer theory and classroom inquiry. TESOL Quarterly 33(3): 371–391.