Professor William L. Leap
Department of Anthropology
American University, Washington DC

Gay English, Queer Linguistics:
Language before Stonewall

When: Monday, October 21, 2013, 4:15pm
Where: Bond Memorial Hall

Sager Series Lecture
Open to the Public

In my current writing project, I explore how people talked about sexual sameness in the US in the years before Stonewall. Stonewall may be a misleading point of reference for this discussion in some ways, but I use it deliberately. Stonewall’s associations with visibility (“out of the closets and into the streets”) and its privileges predict that language before Stonewall was concerned with concealed messaging, distancing, privacy and separation. As I show in this presentation, language before Stonewall was certainly not a “secret code”. In fact, its basic features were drawn from mainstream English, enriched by materials from African American sources and from areas of the demimonde . Moreover, familiarity with “homosexual language” circulated widely during these years. Entertainers and playwrights reproduced its stereotyped features, and police decoys , politicians and military psychiatrists cited its details when confirming the identities of sexual “undesirables” during projects of surveillance and disclosure. And sexual subjects themselves learned this language and refined their skills as they interacted with strangers as well as with friends.

Overall, language before Stonewall was a language of the closet, it was not a language of enclosed space or a language that demanded confinement. In this sense, studying language before Stonewall offers new ways to think about language, sexuality and visibility—and also new ways to think about how the visibility of linguistic practices becomes regulated in queer history.

Professor Leap coordinates the annual American University Conference on Lavender Languages and Linguistics where lesbian, gay, trans and queer linguistics themes have been explored freely and frankly since 1993. With Heiko Motschenbacher, he is co-founder and senior editor of the Journal of Language and Sexuality.