William Leap (he/him) is an emeritus professor of anthropology at American University and an affiliate professor in the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Florida Atlantic University. In 1993 he founded the Lavender Languages and Linguistics Conference and in 2018 he founded the Lavender Languages and Linguistics Summer Institute.

He was interviewed by Mingus Murray (they/them), a high school student in Oakland, CA.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MM: How did you start with queer linguistics? How did you come into like LGBTQ linguistics as a field?

WL: Okay, well, when I started, there was no such field. Right? Two things brought me into this. One was I had been working with American Indian languages for years. I was doing work, supporting tribes in self determination, and I always thought there should be something about who we are, and self determination that had to do with language, but I wasn't quite sure what that was. But it always caught me off guard and what I was doing was working with other people, and I was doing a lot of help with the tribe. But I kept thinking, can I make this more personal?

Okay, so then comes the AIDS pandemic. And there were many scholars who were writing about AIDS as a language of signification. And I said to myself, that doesn't mean shit. An AIDS patient doesn't care if it's a language. A person with AIDS wants to know, how do I communicate this to my boyfriend? or girlfriend, my doctor? And how is that face to face language? So that's what I started working on. And I've got no one interested in this. Absolutely no one. I mean, I got so much mud in my face from people who were interested in the language of signification, the high flying discourse. But that's okay. Because I found ways to publish. But one day at a meeting, someone asked me, Are you talking about the language? Are you having to help people with AIDS talk about AIDS? Are you talking about how gay people talk about it? And the light bulb flashed. And I said to myself, self, I said, that's a very good question. How do gay people talk about anything?

And I went to the literature, and I found there was a lot of broad sweeping stuff. But there wasn't a lot of face to face. And I said, I'm interested in that. And that's how my first set of research, which ended up coming out as Words Out: Gay Men's English, was created. And I'll just say one of the reasons I wrote that book was, I wanted to say to people, we can study gay English, and we can study our own languages, our own ways of talking, and because a lot of folks, particularly heterosexual folks, were saying, "You can't do it". And I said, "Yes, you can." It started in what I call Lavender Languages.

MM: What's been a source of solidarity or like support in linguistics, in either in the past or more recently?

WL: When we started, the listserv was just being invented. Advertising the first [Lavender Languages] conference, we had to do this by sending press releases to gay newspapers, if you can believe. I think what's been a source of solidarity and comfort throughout is the fact that there are individuals in unbelievably isolated places who respond with the greatest enthusiasm. And they say, " I'm so happy to know that somebody's thinking about this, because I felt like I'm the only person in the world who's wondered, and I'm just glad I can talk to somebody about these language questions." And I am still getting emails from people who say, “I'm at a university, my faculty will have nothing to do with this, they don't think it's linguistics, they don't think it's anthropology, they don't think it's legitimate,” And so on.

Program from 1993 All Lavender Languages and Linguistics Conference
First LavLang Conference Program, 1993

So what that says to me is that the conference, the listserv and the like is working as a kind of magnet. It certainly works that way for me. I am a little skeptical about the big academic conferences, because they've always kind of swallowed us up. But that's why COZIL got invented as a way for people to find each other and to have opportunities to have presentations that share ideas. And so that that remains and promises continue to be a worthwhile entity and for this purpose.

MM: On the topic of newer lavender language research, do you have a favorite new paper you've read this year?

WL: There's so much to think about, and I don't want to embarrass any one particular person. Well, I will say this: I think much of the work that's happening in trans related linguists is exciting because that work is completely upsetting all of the assumptions that people have had about what language gender and sexuality is about. It just reminds us how much we have yet to know about language itself, and this is this research that speaks to that kind of thing.

The other area, and I'm very biased, because I'm involved in some of this work, but there's so much more work now in history, in historical inquiry. People who are actually finding documents. And not saying, “here's a document,” but saying “read the document very carefully, and look at all the interesting linguistic data that we can retrieve from the document that demonstrates how language came together at an earlier time.”

MM: Looking ahead, do you think there's any important work that remains to be done for LGBTQ justice and linguistics?

WL: Oh, my god, yes. So much of the work that we do still remains focused on meaning, and meaning related syntax. So much work has not been done on the accessible pragmatic and the day to day conversation. So much work has not been done on questions of syntax. And I think, as more comes out of people being attentive to the face to face conversation, there's going to be questions about agency, and there's going to be questions about causality, that's going to make the theory of gay lesbians on syntax absolutely necessary. And that has not been theorized. And then there's just description, we just need to get more examples of what people really do.

MM: Do you have advice for any younger scholars in the field?

WL: Yes. You're gonna hear as a younger scholar that this is not going to be worth your time, and you're never going to get a job. Okay, this could be true. So your job is going to be to make yourself valuable. That's the first thing you have to remember. So when you go to graduate school, you want to make sure that you have marketable skills. So what kinds of analysis of phonology can do? So somebody says, well, what exactly do you do? Your response will be, “I analyzed phonology, I am able to do this kind of analysis, this kind of analysis, this kind of analysis, this kind of analysis. And I have taught four classes, undergraduate students on the nature and wonder of phonology. Now, my research focus is on gender and sexuality variations.”

So you have to turn around and say, how can I make this tiny little esoteric thing that I do into something that looks like I have 1000 different skills, and they're going to want me. And then you start sending out your feelers to find other people who are doing the same kinds of things. And that's my advice to young folks, you find a department that gives you the skills that lets you situate your interests in something that's broadly marketable. And then never let some faculty member tell you that you can't market what it is you want to do. It's just like, we don't let them tell us that we can be who we are.

And there are many of us who are here, who are willing to tell you that at 3am in the morning, when the world is terribly dismal and everything looks like it's going to hell. So come to our Conference [Lavender Languages] or the Summer Institute we have at FAU every summer for two weeks where we teach and we talk about queer linguistics in various forms. All people are invited to that.