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Queer Language, Words, & Voice

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Is there such thing as queer language? Do those who identify as queer use language in a different way than those how align themselves with heteronormativity? More importantly what does the word queer even mean? Some consider the term to be offensive; others consider it to be a term of empowerment-reclaiming the once derogatory term. Since there is no definition of the term queer that appeases all individuals, I feel it is useful to provide multiple definitions in order to understand the various connotations that come along with the word.

Various definitions of queer:

PFLAG Definition “Think of queer as an umbrella term. It includes anyone who a) wants to identify as queer and b) who feels somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender, sexuality or/and even politics. This, therefore, could include the straight ally who marches during pride, the republican lesbian, the person who highly values queer theory concepts and would rather not identify with any particular label, the gender fluid bisexual, the gender fluid heterosexual, the questioning GLBT person, and the person who just doesn’t feel like they quite fit in to societal norms and wants to bond with a community over that.”

UC Berkeley Definition “An umbrella term to refer to all LGBTIQ people. A political statement, as well as a sexual orientation, which advocates breaking binary thinking and seeing both sexual orientation and gender identity as potentially fluid. A simple label to explain a complex set of sexual behaviors and desires. For example, a person who is attracted to multiple genders may identify as queer. Many older LGBT people feel the word has been hatefully used against them for too long and are reluctant to embrace it.”

Merriam Webster Definition of QUEER

a :  worthless, counterfeit <queer money>

b :  questionable, suspicious

c :  differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal

d :  eccentric, unconventional (2) :  mildly insane :  touched

e :  absorbed or interested to an extreme or unreasonable degree :  obsessed

f : often disparaging :  homosexual (2) sometimes offensive :  gay 4b

g :  not quite well

*These few definitions of the word queer are not meant to be an exhaustive list, but instead are offered to provide an idea of the range of meanings the word has.

Queer Words

Being that the term queer is not an inclusive umbrella term that all feel they can identify with, various attempts have been made to form a more politically correct term. Acronyms have been a key force in this attempt to be more inclusive. In the 1960’s there was no need for abbreviations or extra terms. One was considered either gay or straight. Towards the end of the 60’s women identifying as lesbian began to protest the term gay. The term was said to strip them of their feminism, which was a part of their sexuality. Hence we see birth given to the term lesbian. Various other terms have been coined, altered, and edited to provide more accurate depictions of peoples lifestyles. The GLAAD organization solely uses the acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) on its website, while other acronyms such as LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) and LGBTTSQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, and queer or questioning) exist in other spaces. With these acronyms we can see that they are simply add-ons, we’re just adding new terms. Instead of being more inclusive the focus on terms seems to only leave more and more people out. A person has to make the choice between one or the other in terms of what to identify with. The question then is how do we discuss queer/gay/LGBT/LGBTTSQ/LGBTQIA issues if we do not even have the proper vocabulary to do so?

Queer Language

The irony in our inability to effectively come to an agreement of terms is that there are numerous glossaries solely dedicated to queer terminology. There is this notion that those who occupy space of the “other” often use language in a queer way. There has been a large focus on Polari-a “secret” language of queer individuals that emerged in London during the 1800’s. Some of the terms we currently use are rooted in this secret language. For instance some speculate that the term camp is rooted in the Polari term “kamp” (Known As Male Prostitute). Paul Baker has an entire book dedicated to Polari and tracing roots of our current terms to Polari terms. What is interesting about the queer world is that there is so much emphasis placed on language. There are myriad of glossaries and dictionaries available defining terms and emphasizing which terms are politically correct. More of the focus seems to be placed on terminology instead of dismantling a binary system that creates this idea of normal and abnormal-queer being considering the abnormal side of the spectrum.

Despite so many glossaries circulating defining queer words, a study by Conrad and More done in 1976 discovered that queer students did not know the definitions of queer termed words anymore than the heterosexual students did (Kulick). Although their study is a little dated, as most of these beliefs are, it exposes that queer individuals do not innately use language differently than those who do not identify as queer.

Queer Voice

So there has been a focus on what words queer individuals are using amongst themselves as well as what word or words should be used to categorize these individuals. The current trend is to study the actual way that a person identifying as queer speaks. Can you tell a person’s sexuality based upon the way that they speak? Some argue that there is such thing as “gaydar”, which is a perceived innate ability to sort out those who are queer based upon audio and visual cues. This sets up the belief that being queer is something that is non-normative. Heterosexuality tries to assert itself synonymously with normativity. It perpetuates this belief that a difference in sexual preference connotes a difference in all aspects of the individuals life. Language and speech are assumed to be used differently among queer individuals since their sexuality is different. Many studies have been conducted focusing on tone and pitch of queer people. Specifically studies that have been set up to have heterosexual individuals try to pick out the queer person in the pool of voices, since a lot of times they are in fact told there are the voices of queer people being represented. The results of these studies are inconclusive since they are bias being that the listener knows they are picking out a “gay voice”. I used the term gay because there is very little research done on the voice of lesbian or transgender peoples. The tricky thing is that the majority of the time the listener was able to assign the persons sexuality correctly although very few differences were found in speech and pitch between the voices of the straight and gay men. The differences that were found were considered statistically insignificant (Kulick). Is there a performative way that queer people use their voice? If so is this on purpose, unintentional, or does it even occur? Also what about those who are in the closet? Does their speech “out them”?

Online Glossaries:

GLAAD Reference Guide

Brief Guide of Gay Slang

Gay Slang Dictionary

Definition of Terms

“research on gay and lesbian language has had little impact because it is plagued by serious conceptual difficulties. One problem to which I return repeatedly is the belief in much work that gay and lesbian language is somehow grounded in gay and lesbian identities and instantiated in the speech of people who self-identify as gay and lesbian. This assumption confuses symbolic and empirical categories, it reduces sexuality to sexual identity, and it steers research away from examining the ways in which the characteristics seen as queer are linguistic resources available to everybody to use, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

-Don Kulick


Baker, Paul. A Dictionary of Polari & Gay Slang. London: Continuum, 2002. Print.

Kulick, Don. “Gay And Lesbian Language.” Annual Review of Anthropology 29.1   (2000): 243-85. Print.

Reuter, Donald F. Gay-2-zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime. New York:     St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.

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