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social sciences

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William Leap calls this subtle communication the "language of risk." Examples include word choice (such as genderless pronouns to describe a partner), silence (to allow people to maintain assumptions of heterosexuality), ambiguous phrasing (as in a lesbian saying I'm not INterested in finding a man vs. I'm not interested in finding a MAN), and hinting at glbtq-related background knowledge (for example, reference to a glbtq-oriented business).

In short, one theory is that gay men and lesbians do have their own language, but the stigmatized nature of being non-heterosexual promotes a subtle form of expression. As A. C. Liang observes, "Covert meanings . . . can be inferred only if listeners disabuse themselves of the default assumption of heterosexuality."

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Answer 2: Multiple identities

By contrast, other linguists argue that language unique to all lesbians or gay men has not been found because glbtq people do not represent a single unified and delineable social group. Instead, glbtq people represent many social groups, and we would therefore expect them to use language in many different ways.

For example, Rusty Barrett's interesting research on African-American gay men demonstrates that people use language to construct simultaneously multiple and even contradictory identities. Linguistic expression of sexuality cannot be isolated. The African-American "bar queens" in his study used overly correct pronunciation, ritual insults, and in-group words such as fish, work, girl/girlfriend and Miss Thang. Each feature is used by gay men who are not African American, and also by African Americans (especially women). The bar queens "became" gay through manipulation of these different identities, but such language use would not be appropriate to all gay men.

Similarly, Robin Queen argues for the linguistic expression of multiple identities among lesbians as well. For example, she claims that lesbians can create a specifically lesbian identity through use of language stereotypically associated with different, even contradictory social groups (for example middle class heterosexual females and "macho" working class males).


Ultimately, there is probably truth in both theories. Some features of gayspeak clearly are subtle in nature, but we should not assume that language is used identically, and for the same purposes, by all glbtq people.

Potentially interesting paths for future research include the study of gayspeak in context (Do gay men speak differently amongst each other than when speaking with straight people?) and how language use differs at different levels of identity formation (Do women who are questioning their sexual identity use language differently from lesbians who are in the closet, and do the latter differ in speech from lesbians who are out?).

Gayspeak is only beginning to be understood as a multifaceted phenomenon, but it is a growing and promising topic of research.

Andrea D. Sims

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social sciences >> Overview:  Language and Gender

As linguistic research in the 1990s shifted towards investigating the ways in which people use language to "perform" gender, studies of glbtq identities became of increasing interest.


Barrett, Rusty. "Indexing Polyphonous Identity in the Speech of African American Drag Queens." Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse. Mary Bucholtz, A.C. Liang, and Laurel A. Sutton, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 313-31.

Gaudio, Rudolf. "Sounding Gay: Pitch Properties in the Speech of Gay and Straight Men." American Speech 69 (1994): 30-57.

Leap, William. Word's Out: Gay Men's English. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Liang, A.C. "Conversationally Implicating Lesbian and Gay Identity." Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse. Mary Bucholtz, A.C. Liang, and Laurel A. Sutton, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 293-312.

Moonwomon, Birch. "Lesbian Identity, Lesbian Text." Cultural Performances: Proceedings of the Third Berkeley Women and Language Conference, April 8-10, 1994. Mary Bucholtz, A.C. Liang, Laurel A. Sutton, and Caitlin Hines, eds. Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group, University of California, 1994. 509-24.

Queen, Robin. "'I don't speak spritch': Locating Lesbian Language." Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Anna Livia and Kira Hall, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 233-56.

Zwicky, Arnold. "Two Lavender Issues for Linguists." Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Anna Livia and Kira Hall, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 21-34.


    Citation Information
    Author: Sims, Andrea D.  
    Entry Title: Gayspeak  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated February 12, 2004  
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    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
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