The 2nd Lavender Languages Summer Institute
Participants (2019)
Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL

June, 2019 has been marked by multiple celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion and of the changes associated with the aftermath of Stonewall.  Academic and public interests in the language of Trans and gender- non-binary persons, of the genderqueer, and of same-sex desiring and same-sex identified women and men have been part of those changes, and these comments examine one component of those interests: Lavender Languages/Linguistics.

This category is a subject matter for academic and community inquiry, a focus for political action, an annual conference and, since 2018, a summer Institute, as well as a network of colleagues interested in exploring connections between language and sexuality, mindful that “sexuality is not extraneous to other modes of difference” (Ferguson 2005: 88).  Lavender Languages/Linguistics inquiry is in some ways different from Queer Linguistics, as explained below.  Still, the boundaries between these modes of inquiry are flexible, and current studies of language and sexuality draw richly on work from both domains, shown by the papers in collections like Levon and Mendes, eds. (2016), Milani, ed. (2018), Zimman, Davis and Raclaw, eds.( 2014) and in each issue of the Journal of Language and Sexuality.

Lavender languages/linguistics began with site-specific studies of lesbian and gay language use, but as that phrasing suggests, categorizing the speaking subject as lesbian or gay distorted the focus of lavender inquiry.  Bisexual language, Trans language, coming out, homophobia and other linguistic processes were of equal importance, and these topics were not grounded in the specifics of identity.  Refusing the call to embed the study of language and sexuality entirely within studies of language and desire as proposed in Kulick (2000) and Cameron and Kulick (2003), Lavender Languages/Linguistics became instead a focus for multiple directions of inquiry.

Today, twenty-six years after the first Lavender Language and Linguistics conference (1993), Lavender Language-centered inquiry embraces a point of view about language, sexuality, and regulatory practice which is more inclusive than the original interests suggested.  At issue now are conforming and transgressive linguistic practices which may be spoken, or written, signed, expressed through embodiment, vestment and other non-verbal means, or left entirely on “the edge of semantic availability” (Williams 1978: 134).  Lavender Language inquiry is attentive to whose language use engages sexuality and related modes of difference, how sexuality and related modes of difference are shaped by language use, and (adapting Vološinov 1972: 22), how the resulting reflections/refractions of language express speakers’ claims to sexual (and other) identity and sexual (and other) agency.  And because the Lavender Language network includes scholars from South Africa, Brazil, Ecuador, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, as well as Canada and the U.S., Lavender Language inquiry is concerned with global circulations of language and sexuality, and with local resistance to globalizing formations. Similarly, Lavender Languages/Linguistics now explores various infusions of language and sexuality into emerging forms of superdiversity (Blommaert and Rampton 2011) in contexts of displacement, diaspora and resettlement worldwide.

As much as any other single point, “at the site” inquiry distinguishes Lavender Language inquiry from work in Queer Linguistics, a powerful mode of inquiry that became part of language and sexuality studies in the early 2000s, (Cameron and Kulick 2003, Campbell-Kibbler, Podesva, Roberts and Wong, ed. 2002, Kulick 2000).  Queer Linguistics urges research to look beyond the specifics of local practice, and to theorize how structures of power assign meanings of similarity and difference to forms of social practice in multiple locations.  At the same time, as Motschenbacher notes, work in Queer Linguistics looks beyond those specifics as it “reconceptualizes the dominant discourses which shape gender and sexual identities”, in order to “question [the] normalized practices” through which those identities are understood (2010:11).  Queer linguistics’ attention to normalized practices must address “… those [normalized practices] that can be identified in academic research” (Motschenbacher 2010:11), exposing how academically sanctioned assumptions about sexuality orient the research agenda.

In earlier times (see Leap 2013), there were antagonistic relationships between proponents of Lavender Languages/Linguistics and of Queer Linguistics, but what were sources of friction have now become sources of strength.  Lavender Languages inquiry has always been involved in theory building, as well as localized description, with discussions ranging from lavender explorations of “coming out” (Liang, 1997, Leap 1999), to studies of linguistic accumulation and superdiversity (Manalansan 1995, Msibi 2013, Provencher 2003).  Zimman (2018, 2019) and other work in Trans linguistics has lavender affiliations even if its foundations rest within queer inquiry.

Queer Linguistics has also presented claims about language and sexuality to which Lavender Language inquiry has responded, thereby making its own contributions to theory.  One such issue had to do with locating the speaking subject, as a sexual subject, within the analysis of Lavender Language use, without foreclosing attention to how linguistic practices became processes of subject formation.  Queer theory, and some proponents of queer linguistics, argued against such efforts at locating the subject, since (following Butler 1990: 25) subject position is always performative (an outcome of “doing”) and never a pre-discursive stance.  But Lavender Language researchers wanted to maintain the speaker’s voice in the analysis and were unwilling to erase it in the name of theoretical purity. Bucholtz and Hall (2003), Decena (2011), and Leap (2008) are three of the many Lavender Language related papers that have addressed this question.

Leap (2008) is a study of a Black gay man’s coming out (terms deliberately chosen) in Cape Town, South Africa, during the mid-1990s, the transition from apartheid rule to the government of reconciliation. I titled the paper “Queering Gay Men’s English” because I wanted the paper to show that Lavender Language/Linguistics inquiry can usefully embrace the queer linguistics’ requirement of normative critique.  In this case, my analysis had to explain why a resident of a Black township framed his coming out by (trying to) enter a formerly all-white gay bar in Cape Town’s (formerly all-white) city center.  Lingering traces of now-abolished apartheid rule influenced the subject’s decisions, the bar owner’s responses, and the subject’s reflections about the on-site exchange.  Linguistic features shaping those reflections show what Freccero would call apartheid’s ghostly presence (2006) is reauthorized through the subject’s story-telling.

Other projects offering critiques of normative practice include Peterson’s (2016) studies of the linguistic processes that enable homophobia and hate speech; Adams-Thies’ (2015) discussion of the language of normative masculinity displayed and sanctioned in male-pornographic film; Jones’ explorations of  linguistic constructions of dyke and girl identities (2012); Provencher’s (2018) exploration of language, sexuality and racial/ethnic  discrimination in diasporic homeland and resettlement; Hall’s (2005) reflections on the distinctions between hijras and kotis, two Trans categories in Delhi;  and Sauntson’s (2015) overview of language use that will enable supportive instruction about sexual diversity in elementary and secondary school curricula.

These may not be the projects that scholars in Queer Linguistics have in mind when referring to critiques of normative practice.  But these projects do provide critiques of normative power, and its impact, which are consistent with expectations of Lavender Language inquiry: demonstrating the uneven inflections of language and sexuality at the site, locating the placement of the speaking subject within those inflections; refusing decontextualized discussions of language use; and developing critiques of normative as well as local practices linking language, sexuality and related forms of difference.

One other expectation guides Lavender Languages/Linguistics inquiry: the orientation that guides public and personal practice at the Lavender Languages Conference, the annual meeting of scholars and allies interested in language and sexuality studies; and at the Lavender Languages Summer Institute, a 10 day intensive program of instruction and conversation on lavender language-related research themes.  We have called this orientation a “no-attitude” philosophy since the earliest days of the Lavender Languages conference and it now applies to all areas of Lavender Language related activity.  “No-attitude” acknowledges that those who work within a Lavender Language framework have ideas worth sharing and worth hearing.  Lavender Language scholars and allies endorse this position because we recognize that our work still faces hostility from peers and supervisors in academe: we will not let this happen within our own cohort.  We agree with the village elder who told economic philosopher Amartya Sen: “it is not very hard to silence us, but that is not because we cannot speak” (2005:8).

-- William L Leap
Emeritus Professor, Department of Anthropology, American University, Washington DC
Affiliate Faculty, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Center, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton FL


References cited:

Adams-Thies, Brian. 2015. Choosing the right partner means choosing the right porn. Porn Studies 2 (2-3): 123-136.

Blommaert, Jan. and Ben Rampton. 2011. Language and superdiversity. diversities 13 (2): 1-21.

Bucholtz and Hall. 005.  Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies 7 (4-5): 585-614.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

Campbell-Kibbler, Kathryn, Robert J. Podesva, Sarah J. Roberts and Andrew Wong, eds. 2002. Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Cameron, Deborah and Don Kulick. 2003. Language and Sexuality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Decena, Carlos. 2011. Tacit Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ferguson, Roderick A. 2005. Of our normative striving: African American Studies and the histories of sexuality. What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now? David L. Eng, Judith Halberstam and Jose Esteban Munoz, eds., Social Text 84-85: 85-100.

Freccero, Carlos. 2006. Queer/Early/Modern. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, Kira. 2005. Intertextual sexualities: Parodies of class, identity and desire in liminal Delhi. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 125-144.

Jones, Lucy. 2012. Dyke/Girl: Language and Identities in a Lesbian Group. London: Palgrave.

Kulick, Don. 2000. Gay and lesbian language. Annual Review of Anthropology.  29: 243-285.

Leap. William L. 1999. Language, socialization and silence in gay adolescence. In Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse. Mary Bucholtz, A.C. Liang and Laurel A. Sutton, eds., 259-272. New York: Oxford University Press.

_____ 2008. Queering gay men’s English. In Language and Gender Research Methodologies. Kate Harrington, Lia Litosseliti, Helen Sauntson and Jane Sunderland, eds., 408-439. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

_____ 2013.  Queer linguistics, international perspectives and the Lavender Language Conference: Rethinking alterity. In Queering Paradigms III: Queer Impact and Practices. Kathleen O’Meara and Liz Morrish, eds., 179-200. Berlin: Peter Lang.

Levon, Eraz and Ronald Beline Mendes, eds. 2015. Language, Sexuality and Power: Studies in Intersectional Sociolinguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Liang, A.C. 1997. The creation of coherence in coming out stories. In Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, Sexuality, 287-309. New York: Oxford University Press.

Manalansan, Martin. 1995. “Performing” the Filipino gay experience in America: Linguistic strategies in a Transnational context. In Beyond the Lavender Lexicon. William L. Leap, ed., 249-266. Newark NJ: Gordon and Breach.

Milani, Tommaso M., ed. 2018. Queering Language, Gender and Sexuality. London: Equinox.

Motschenbacher, Heiko. 2010. Language, Gender and Sexual identity: Post-structural Approaches. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.  

Msibi, Thabo. 2013. Homophobic language and linguistic resistance in KwaZulu-Natal. In Gender and Language in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Lilian Lem Atanga, Sibonile Edith Ellece, Lia Litosseliti, Jane Sunderland, eds., 253-274. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.   

Peterson, David. 2016. Homophobic grammar: The role of transitivity and phoricity in homophobic formation. Journal of Language and Sexuality 5 (1): 61-93.

Provencher, Denis.  2004. Vague English creole: (Gay English) cooperative discourse in the French gay press. In Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Language. William Leap and Tom Boellstorff, eds., 23-45. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

_____. 2018. QMF: Queer Maghrebi French. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press.

Sauntson, Helen. 2017. Language, Sexuality and Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, Amaryta. 2005. The Argumentative Indian. London: Picador Books.

Vološinov, V.N. 1972. Concerning the relationship of the basis and superstructures. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (trans. Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik), 17-24. New York: Seminar Press. 

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Structures of feeling. Marxism and Literature, 128-135. London: Oxford University Press.

Zimman, Lal. 2018. “The other kind of coming out”: Transgender people and the coming out narrative. In Queering Language, Gender and Sexuality., Tommaso M. Milani, ed., 124-147. London: Equinox.

_____. 2019. Trans identity, agency and embodiment in discourse: The linguistic construction of gender and sex. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 256: 147-175.  

Zimman, Lal, Jenny L. Davis, and Joshua Raclaw, eds. 2014. Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender and Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.