Doing Linguistics Out of the Closet: A Queer Perspective on Discipline

Research on LGBTQ+ issues is frequently marginalized in academia. However, only by making space for the exploration of queer issues within established disciplines such as linguistics can we discover new insights and approaches that encompass the full spectrum of human experience.

This blog post is part of a series centered around Pride Month.

“You’re smarter than this.” I was 16 years old, living on my family’s farm in Tennessee, and my father had just been yelling at me in what had become an evening ritual ever since he found that I was gay. My father had already exhausted several lines of argument by this point – from “Gays go to hell, so don’t be gay” to “I raised you better than this” – so, perhaps in his desperate desire to make himself understood, he made an appeal to my intelligence. (The reader should note that while I had read quite a few books by this time in my life, at this point, I was still just like every other stubborn 16-year-old.)

As he said this, I was first struck by an innate confusion – “What does being smart have to do with this?” – followed by a somewhat more developed sense of confusion – “Why has my father been yelling this at me for the past five months?”.

It was this second question that drove me to pursue a body of work spanning multiple disciplines focused solely on what I would later describe as the socio-cognitive linguistics of violence – which is simply a different way of saying “why has my father been yelling this at me for the past five months?”. During this period of research, however, I became increasingly well-acquainted with what has become my second body of work: the historical and contemporary peripheralization of LGBTQ+ academics within the university and of LGBTQ+ research within every discipline.

Pushed to the Far Edges

Discipline can be defined as a particular field of study or domain of knowledge, specifically one that is self-differentiated by methodology or epistemology. Various theoretical approaches to discipline have emerged over the years – multi-disciplinarity, inter-disciplinarity, trans-disciplinarity, anti-disciplinarity, and so on – which have only served to cement the concept of discipline within academic life. But, if nothing else, these varying approaches to discipline betray a growing anxiety over the legitimacy of discipline which minority scholars, unfortunately, have come to bear the full weight of.

For LGBTQ+ individuals, our existence frequently disrupts long-established paradigms of knowledge and always disrupts the established social hierarchies implicit to the academy, often reinforced by larger disciplinary projects. But the questions brought forward by LGBTQ+ academics are often of urgent importance, especially in our increasingly polarized world. And the answers to those questions – when and where we can claim to have the answers – deserve more than the far edges of disciplines which seek to expunge LGBTQ+ perspectives (i.e., methodologies and epistemologies) from their scientific projects.

“Research on LGBTQ+ issues is knowingly but unintentionally shoved to the outer bounds of disciplinary production, or peripheralized.”

Research on LGBTQ+ issues is thus knowingly but unintentionally shoved to the outer bounds of disciplinary production, or peripheralized. Although interdisciplinarity has become increasingly popular over the last few decades, LGBTQ+ research is forced into an interdisciplinary position – not because of the many, inherent benefits of interdisciplinarity – but rather, because no space within discipline has been allowed for these types of questions. The best example of this in linguistics arose in an academic blog discussion on the issue of misgendering, or using the incorrect pronouns to refer to someone. The established disciplinary paradigm, which a small cadre of cisgender linguists championed, suggested that misgendering was acceptable because non-binary pronouns such as singular they were not a feature of some English speakers’ grammars, or idiolects – essentially maintaining a hard descriptivist perspective, which has historically been a mainstay of modern linguistics.

When LGBTQ+ linguists spoke out against this unfortunate defense of misgendering, accusations of prescriptivism began to fly across the aisle. The idea that a minority group might have a better understanding of how they would like to be addressed and respected was immediately interpreted not only as an affront to the hardline descriptivist point of view but also as an affront to the very scientific discipline in which we were all engaged. Essentially, valid criticism of linguistics as a discipline and of linguistic research on LGBTQ+ populations was simply dismissed as irrelevant or “not real linguistics.”

Glimpsing New Horizons

Many LGBTQ+ linguists, including myself, have come together over the years to address this peripheralization through exploration of our particular areas of expertise and additionally to challenge normative disciplinary notions of what is or is not “real” linguistics. For my own part, I have contributed papers and lectures on the subject of how LGBTQ+ perspectives in science shed light on a growing academic anxiety over the function of discipline as well as on the subject of how socio-cognitive linguistics can help explain the emergence of fundamentalist theo-political ideologies of gender and sexuality.

Others have explored gaps related to the intersection of gender and sexuality with race, ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic class – with many articles and books having been published on the subject of queer Appalachian identity, coming out narratives among queer American immigrants, African American drag queens and their relation to African American English, to name but a few areas of contemporary study.

And still others – perhaps, as a necessity of existing as a queer and/or trans individual at the margins of polite academic society – have sought to challenge the very institutions that have created these systems of peripheralization through organizational work and activism. What I have seen in this over the last decade is that, when given the space to explore LGBTQ+ topics rarely afforded a space within the established disciplinary project of linguistics, we may yet glimpse new horizons in scientific inquiry and projects which are inherently inclusive of the full breadth of human experience.

[Title image by Spiderplay/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Tyler Kibbey

Tyler Kibbey is a Doctoral Research Fellow at Humboldt University, Berlin. His work concerns activism and linguistics research focused on religious violence and advancing LGBTQ+ issues in the academy and beyond.

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