February 14, 2013 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Queer conference explores language
kiss, Washington Blade, gay news

Organizers of the Lavender Language Conference say even the sounds gay porn actors make in the throes of passion have meaning and can teach us something about our gay lives. (Photo via Wikimedia)

Lavender Languages & Linguistics Conference
Friday through Sunday
American University
Washington
Prices vary — presentations may be attended individually and cost $25 per session for employed persons; discounts available for anyone who wants to attend but can’t afford to pay
Registration is possible on site or online
American.edu/lavenderlanguages

Watching gay porn at William Leap’s house near American University in Washington can be tedious.

“There’s a lot of hilarity with that,” Leap says. “My partner always wants to race through it. He says, ‘Oh, come on, this is stupid,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I need to listen to this. I want to hear the dialogue and really think about what phrases they’re saying.”

And yes, in a way, Leap does have a dialogue fetish but it’s not sexual. He’s a linguistics specialist and professor at American University in its College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Anthropology. His 20th annual Lavender Languages & Linguistics Conference, which he says is the longest-running queer academic conference in North America, convenes today. He and a stable of other academics will welcome about 150 attendees from around the world to a weekend jammed with about 80 presentations on queer language. Language used in gay porn is just one of the many topics that will be covered.

“We have a guy coming, and this is such a hoot,” Leap says with palpable glee, “who’s doing a presentation comparing the sounds guys make in coital ecstasy with the sounds animals make in the zoo and in the wild. He’s actually doing a phonetic technical analysis and comparison to see how, for instance, [gay porn star] Damien Crosse grunts, so I don’t know, we’ll see what he comes up with.”

But even with nods to porn and gay pop culture, isn’t the conference a bit on the geeky and dry side? Leap says no and that the use of language — from the way words are spoken to the origins of phrases and expressions — has a profound effect on LGBT lives. Yes, it’s his pet passion, but he says there’s something any queer person could find useful in the event.

“I think the real value in it is that it reminds us that gay is not a single phenomenon and no one owns it,” Leap says. “No one has a right to stand up and speak for all queer people and part of what we have to do as academics is make it clear that there’s this vast diversity of things associated with the use of language. Gays and lesbians have a rich history that has largely been ignored. These cultural experiences are not being talked about in textbooks.”

Leap started the event in 1993 with a half-day event and about 85 in attendance. Now it’s three days and he expects about 150 to register in addition to “walk ins” who come for “a session or two.” It’s a non-profit event and Leap says those who are interested but can’t pay will not be turned away or denied lunch/refreshments. He also says there’s a refreshing non-snob factor with the professors whom he encourages to mingle with attendees from all walks of life.

“There’s no attitude here, no prima donnas,” he says. “We really want an environment where everybody is free to talk to everybody.”

David Peterson, a gay associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has been attending and presenting almost every year since 1995. He says the topics that have been explored over the years at the Conference have endless “real world” implications for LGBT people.

“If we want to counter the kinds of things the Family Research Council, for example, is doing, we have to have some understanding of what they’re doing or it won’t be effective,” he says. “We can’t just protest it and say, ‘They’re just fundamentalist Bible thumpers,’ because they’re really not. It’s quite interesting, and not what many people would expect, that they don’t use a lot of scripture quoting on their website and in their arguments. … There’s been a shift. One of the things they do is pretend to be social scientists saying very homophobic things in what appears to be the objective language of science.”

Leap is happy to go anywhere during a phone chat this week. During an hour-plus conversation, he touched on dozens of topics. Among them:

• On understanding how gay language has changed in 20 years: “One of the most important things we’ve learned is that 20 years ago, many folks thought there was a gay language, a gay way of talking where you could identify a particular accent or a single way of doing things and while there’s probably some truth to that, what we’re realizing now is it’s terribly complex. There is no single way of talking, there is no such thing as a gay accent and it really varies across different groups, segments, classes and cultures. … You try to translate a phrase like “coming out of the closet” into French, for example, and their reaction would be, ‘Why would I be in a wardrobe?’ … If they’re actually talking about telling family and friends they’re gay, they would say it in an altogether different way and that’s just one example. Referring to the ‘gayborhood,’ is another that just has no French equivalent. And that’s just using French as an example. You can imagine how this varies around the world.”

 • Is faggot the new “n word”? “Well, yes and no,” Leap says. “A lot of guys use it as a term of self reference but get very angry if somebody else says it about them, so for many it is. It’s kind of like the high school expression, ‘That’s so gay,’ which is widely used as a bullying term. I don’t think this needs a whole lot of theorizing. It’s like queer was 20 years ago. We kind of took it back, made a joke of it and said, ‘You don’t own this term.’ We can do that with fag if we want.”

• Norman Lear could have Archie Bunker say fag on a sitcom 30 years ago but now celebrities who use the word get criticized and not just by GLAAD. What does that say about how language usage has changed? “It’s good because it keeps our issues on the front burner,” Leap says. “Yes, things have come a long way, but I still worry until we have some serious workplace protections in place. All these things we can do to keep that visibility going are good.”

• You say there’s no such thing as gay language, but you hear people say things like, “He was hot until he opened his mouth and a pink umbrella fell out.” People seem to know, at least among gay men in the U.S., pretty universally what that means. Thoughts? “It could be tone, it could be pitch. It’s really interesting because what it really shows us is that there’s no single thing as gay language, it’s really everyone’s perception of it. What they believe gay language to be.”

• Some celebs, when they come out, are very unequivocal. Others, such as Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes last month, don’t use the word lesbian, yet everyone watching knew what she meant. Does that cut it? “Of course it matters. Anyone who’s in a position of relative safety and privilege, should. I’m not going to say she should have, but I would have thought it would have been great and would have meant more to the 9-year-old girl watching. And yet what she did was absolutely wonderful and I’m dying to see a transcript of it, because you’re right, while everybody knew what she meant and it was her most direct statement yet, it was also terribly opaque on some levels. It’s a great example of using language in an indirect way though yeah, it would have been great if she’d just used the L word and been done with it.”

• LGBT has some universality to it, but people, in a quest to be inclusive, have added letters for those questioning, allies and so on. Is that OK? “This is when you see why the word queer has some appeal because it can encompass a whole range of counter-normative identities, aspirations and desires. And yes, this LGBTQ-adding on of letters gets to be this ridiculous alphabet soup where you can’t possibly include everybody in the phone book. A lot of it, for men who are same-sex identified, is, ‘Do you suck cock?’ But even then you have people, like Larry Craig, who are straight identified but like to suck cock. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want him on my team. One of the interesting things this leads to is how people make sense of themselves. You really start to see how many nuances there are to queer language.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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