Robin Queen (she/her) is Professor of Linguistics, English Language and Literatures and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. Her work within sociolinguistics has explored the relationship between language and social identities, particularly queer identities.

Robin was interviewed by Montreal Benesch (they/them) who is a recent graduate from Reed College with a B.A. in Linguistics. Their research thus far has focused on phonetic construction of gender by genderfluid individuals, perceptions of uptalk in the content of different personae, and linguistic discrimination within higher education.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MB: How did you come into queer/Lavender/LGBTQ+ Linguistics?

RQ: I started graduate school in 1990, my advisor, Keith Walters, was the first gay academic I’d ever known and through him, several of us got introduced to the Out in Linguistics (OUTiL) listserv run by Arnold Zwicky. At that time there was almost no research on queer language nor was it something seen as “real linguistics” or “real sociolinguistics” (not sure that has changed all that much), but there was a growing community of queer linguists. The more I got involved in connecting with queer linguists, the more I noticed pretty interesting things going on with language in queer communities, so for me, getting into queer linguistics was really an iterative process tied to being a queer linguist. Rusty Barrett and I got interested in dating ads written by gay men and lesbians and how they excluded people with various gender identities. Together with Keith Walters, we did an analysis of them and presented it at the first Lavender Languages conference in 1993, which was one of my first conference talks. At the same time, I was reading a lot of fanzines, and one of them, Hothead Paisan (by Diane DiMassa) took a really fascinating approach to representing language variation among different lesbian characters. Analyzing how she used language to help delineate the characters became the basis for my first publication.

MB: How has your identity impacted the direction of your research or how you think about linguistics?

RQ: My experience along different axes of identity has had a strong influence on my own scholarship and on my orientation to linguistics. Not so much in the “me”-search tradition but more in what I’ve opened my linguist ears and eyes to. The majority of my research has focused on language users who are minoritized. My drive to understand how the perception and production of their language repertoires (either directly from them or as representations of them) is tied to my view of linguistics, articulated so many years ago by Dell Hymes, that having competence in language includes the knowledge of how to use language. Also, I was told during the early part of my career that working on queer topics was professionally dangerous and that I needed to have a “mainstream” body of work as well. Those experiences absolutely influenced my understanding of linguistics and the academy more generally.

MB: What do you think has been the most significant event that has impacted the field?

RQ: The publication of Queerly Phrased (Livia and Hall 1997) really started queer linguistics and legitimized the study of queer linguistic practices. More recently, I think work on embodiment in linguistics, much of it coming from queer linguists and about queer bodies, is some of the theoretically most interesting work going on in the field. One shift that has taken me by surprise is the return of identity and identities as a theoretical object.

MB: What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

RQ: I’m proud to be one of very few scholars to have focused specifically on linguistic practice as it intersects with identifying as lesbian. For the most part, lesbians have remained invisible in queer linguistic research (but shout out to Lucy Jones) and socioculturally inaudible. I’m also proud of the various committees that I’ve been part of—both in the discipline and at the universities where I’ve worked—that involved boots on the groundwork against bias and discrimination and toward equity and social justice for queer people (and, crucially, not only for us).

MB: What’s your favorite new paper that you’ve read this year?

RQ: Since I’ve spent a lot of time doing administration for the last (too many) years, I don’t get to read a lot of papers. One of my all-time favorites, though no longer super recent, is Zimman (2014) “The discursive construction of sex: Remaking and reclaiming the gendered body in talk about genitals among trans men.” A more recent piece that I’ve gone back to repeatedly since I read it is miles-hercules’ Masters Thesis (2020) on the materiality of black-femme discourses. And given some recent work I’ve been doing, various papers by Kirby Conrod, Evan Bradley, and Lauren Ackerman, all of whom work on singular specific they, have proved insightful and theoretically engaging. The more I think about this, the more things I think of, so I’ll stop here.

MB: Looking ahead, what do you think is some important work that remains to be done for LGBTQ+ justice in linguistics?

RQ: Doing more to include LGBTQ+ participants in all kinds of linguistic research, not only those that are about queer linguistics, is important for our general knowledge of a range of linguistic questions. Most of the participants in linguistic research are cishet people. As we’re discovering in many areas of linguistics, and has been known forever in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, people’s beliefs about language and their experiences with language and with the world have an effect on how they process and produce language. This is mostly ignored in the bulk of linguistic research, which is a matter of linguistic (in)justice in my opinion. I also think more justice for everyone involves linguists putting to rest the idea of a “normative” speaker and taking the range of linguistic systems that any human knows more seriously in linguistic theorizing. This is slowly happening, for instance in work that focuses on undoing the idea of “native” speakers/signers.

MB: Do you have any advice for young scholars in the field?

RQ: My honest advice to young scholars in any field is to find questions you can’t let go and pursue them with all the passion and commitment you can. This is certainly not easy since academia in general and linguistics more particularly are conservative enterprises, and there are real constraints that we’re all subject to tied to methods, epistemologies, expectations for how and what we write, hierarchies everywhere. In the end though, we all have one life, and if we choose an academic life, pursuing what we’re unable to let go (and that can be in research, instruction, and service/leadership) is one way to make sure we make that life as meaningful as we can.