Because language represents such a ubiquitous and vital function of daily life, analyzing the unique slang or jargon used by a community offers valuable insight into certain features of its culture; shared values, the language of self-identification, and underlying communicative mores emerge when evaluating a subpopulation. To this end, inspecting the function of language as it correlates to the formation of LGBTQ identity proves invaluable to the study of queer theory.
As a result, to understand better the varied facets of queer identity as it relates to language, this paper concentrates on a few distinct aspects of identity formation in the LGBTQ community, with a particular focus on the identities of gay men. It examines whether the use of orientational labels persists in a more sexually open society, and the impact that homophobic utterances express on heterosexual and homosexual male relationships.
Furthermore, it discusses the intergenerational communication patterns of gay men, and upon the tensions that therein emerge, and the ramifications those exhibit on the culture overall. Finally, it addresses the methodology of styleswitching by drag queens in crafting their gender norm-avoidant alter egos, and, in a similar vein, the deliberate crafting of identity that is apparent in the usage of Polari, the secret language of gay men and women (though primarily of gay men) that permeated that early- to mid-twentieth century.
Firstly, to divine the prevalence and importance of accurate identifying labels in the development of sexuality, Stephen T. Russell, Thomas J. Clark, and Justin Clary surveyed the self-reported orientations of high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors in their article “Are Teens ‘Post-Gay’? Contemporary Adolescents’ Sexual Identity Labels. ” Their stated goal in administering the survey was to test whether high school students tended to err more on the side of ambiguous or indefinite orientations, a hypothesis gathered from the observable increase in sexual fluidity amongst young people.
Their findings suggested that in spite of a more open society and the growing prevalence of alternative sexualities, the desire for sexual minorities to assign themselves a label remains primarily consistent with stage models of sexual identity; that is, that the classification of one’s sexuality proves enduringly relevant in the formation of one’s character (Russell, Clark, and Clary 885). Although the study is somewhat dated, having been conducted in 2008, its findings nonetheless serve as an indicator of the role labels play in establishing one’s relationship with oneself.
Particularly noteworthy from the article is the “Write In” category, where students elected not to describe themselves using any of the provided terms, but rather described their orientation in their own words. The responses in this category varied greatly – for some, it served as an opportunity to vent frustration at sexual uncertainty to a greater degree of specificity than that provided by the orientation of “Questioning,” notable in student responses such as “I wish I knew” (Russell, Clark, and Clary 887). For others, it allowed them to emphasize the importance of their sexual identities in the greater landscape of the self.
This subsection of “declarative” sexualities, as the paper’s authors refer to them, included responses such as “supergay” and “extremely black and very very gay” (Russell, Clark, and Clary 887). Though accounting for only a small percentage of responses, these unambiguous and illustrative self-descriptors demonstrate how descriptive labeling supports the foundation of personal development for certain queer youths; although there existed a category for the sexualities defined under this group, some students felt the need to further emphasize their sexualities, underscoring their importance in the broader identity.
Furthermore, there was a significant difference in the mean age of students who aligned with these “alternative” orientations rather than assign themselves one from the given list (Russell, Clark, and Clary 888). LGB students who labeled themselves with the typical sexual identifiers tended to be older, indicating that queer students tended to find themselves more comfortable with definite labels as they aged. Overall, rather than finding that modern teenagers eschew common labels, Russell, Clark, and Clary’s survey demonstrated that modern teenagers still value the affirmation of a self-expressed, definite sexual orientation.
Investigating a related aspect of the queer linguistics, Mark McCormack, Liam Wignall, and Max Morris interviewed thirty-five openly gay undergraduate students in England in order to study the intersection between “homosexually themed” language, male friendships, and gay identities in “Gay guys using gay language: friendship, shared values and the intent-context-effect matrix. ” In particular, they examined the nuances that conventionally homophobic phrases such as “that’s so gay” possess when considered situationally (McCormack, Wignall, and Morris 755).
Discussing his experiences, one participant, Graham, reported, “Back home, I’m one of [my friends’] only gay friends and so everything I do is, ‘oh my god, that’s so gay’… That’s not homophobic because we’re having a laugh, and it’s with that group, in that context,” implying that the acceptability of homosexually themed language is heavily dependent on the situation in which it is uttered (McCormack, Wignall, and Morris 759).
Although his friends are using the phrase directly as a result of Graham’s sexuality, the friendly nature of their banter lends the term a sense of affirmation rather than of derivation; it serves as a recognition of identity rather than a belittlement thereof. Further highlighting this point, participant John also discussed the importance of the intent and context, saying, “If someone on the street, a friend, was like ‘Oi, gay’, that’s fine, fantastic. If some random guy across the street shouted it, I might go over and start something with them” (McCormack, Wignall, and Morris 760).
Moreover, the study demonstrates that shared understanding and language is fundamental in developing that sense of security; not only is the intent important, but also the mutual foundation of trust and comprehension of intent. As a result, the article concludes that, in order to better understand the nature of gay identity and the contemporary sociological impact of homosexually themed language, it is imperative to consider the intent, context, and effect as well as the phrase spoken (McCormack, Wignall, and Morris 765).