Gender and Sexuality

The study of language and gender is now about three decades old. However, the study of language and sexuality is much more recent—most of the books and articles on this topic have appeared within the past 5 years. Much of this work has so far been done in North Atlantic settings, with a few key exceptions. One of the first questions which arises in talking about people whose sexual and gendered practices and identities fall beyond the boundaries of normative heterosexuality is what to call them. Debates about, and studies of, naming practices point to a continuing concern amongst linguists and activists about which identities are to be foregrounded. These are not trivial issues; the overriding theme here is that naming confers existence, and it appears everywhere, from coming-out narratives to AIDS activism. Linguists have considered lexical and political debates over the usage in English of homosexual versus gay, lesbian versus dyke, queer versus gay, gay as adjective versus gay as noun, etc. (Murphy, 1997; Zwicky, 1997). However, a focus on lexicon alone can be quite limiting. Since the 1990s, then, linguists have largely tried to move "beyond the lavender lexicon" to investigate intonation and phonological patterns that might be said to characterize queer language (Leap, 1996, 1997). However, trying to find those features which can be so labeled is problematic, since labeling a specific feature as "gay" is both too general and too specific (Podesva, Roberts, & Campbell-Kibler, 2002), assuming as it does that there is a singular way of being and speaking gay, and reifying certain features as gay though they are shared throughout society. Studying the construction of queer identities requies a more flexible model of the relationship of language to acts, activities, stances, and styles (e.g., Ochs, 1992). Indeed, recent work by some linguists suggests that queerness will not ever be located in specific codes, but in the juxtaposition of incongruous codes. African American drag queens who perform in Texas bars do not convey queerness by relying on a clearly delineated set of features, like high pitch or lexical choice; instead, they convey queerness by skillfully switching between a number of styles and forms that stereotypically denote other identities (European American women, African American men) (Barrett, 1994, 1997). Queerness is conveyed by the juxtaposition of socially contradictory forms (hypercorrect pronunciation while uttering obscenities). Queen (1997) has made a similar argument for lesbian language.

One of the areas where linguists have made the most progress in studying language and sexuality is in studies of discourse. Not surprisingly, given the importance of the distinction of being out versus "closeted" in North Atlantic society, and given pervasive presumptions of heterosexuality, "coming-out stories," or stories about how people realize their own sexuality and disclose it to others, have received a great deal of attention. Coming out is a speech act that describes a state of affairs (gayness) but also brings that state of affairs into being (Liang, 1997). Weston (1991) offers a rich ethnographic analysis of what gays and lesbians from a variety of different ethnicities and classes in San Francisco think a good coming-out story is, and by extension their sense of what it means to "come out" properly. Crucially, Weston points out that in San Francisco such stories are understood in terms of a sense of self that is distinctively Western. There is an assumed division between inner and outer selves, and the core self is seen as essential and privileged. Resolving contradictions between the inner and outer self creates a sense of wholeness between inside and outside. What a coming-out story might look like if a different model of self prevails has only just begun to be investigated in groups inside North America, or in select other countries where the notion of coming out circulates (for Asian American coming-out stories, see Liang, 1997). For instance, Valentine (1997) offers a historical account of lexical terms and the identities they are seen to designate in Japan, a consideration of why Western terms for understanding sexual identity do not apply in Japan, and the ways Japan and the United States define themselves over and against one another in dialogic gestures of orientalism and occidentalism. Valentine points out that the practice of coming out, of having a political stance or association with a political movement, and of feeling that sexuality defines self (the ideas that are picked out by the Western notion of gay) are associated with the Japanese use of that foreign term gay but that the word is mostly used to describe westerners, or certain aspects of the commercial gay scene (like bars and magazines). This identification is not a common one. The concealment of less public selves is valued, rather than seen as being dishonest or conflicted. To argue that this is "backward" is, Valentine argues, ethnocentric; it is to judge Japanese culture against Western norms. Wong (2001; see also Wong & Zhang, 1999) has also explored the interaction between occidentalism and orientalism in the construction of tongzhi identity in Hong Kong. Tongzhi was a word originally used to mean "comrade" during the Communist Revolution in China, but has been reappropriated in recent years by the Chinese gay and lesbian community as a term which marks for some the cultural distinctiveness of same-sex desire in Chinese society over and against "the west," as it works to create a "transnational" community for those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China.

In many places, notions of sexuality vary dramatically from dominant North American models, raising wholly different linguistic issues. Consider a group in India which have been variously called transvestites, eunuchs, hermaphrodites, a thirdly sex, and hijras. Hijras are known for taking on feminine dress and mannerisms, and for acting as ritual specialists; they sing and dance at births and weddings, and are compensated with clothes, jewelry, and money. Most community members focus on the asexuality of hijras, but some also describe relationships they have with men while others survive by prostitution. Many European and North American anthropologists have pointed to their organized and extensive network as evidence that a greater social tolerance of gender variance exists in India than in the West, but Hall (1997) argues that the network exists because the hijras have created it to resist systematic exclusion from families and jobs. They are not given respect; they have demanded it in political arenas. Many hijras claim that they are physically hermaphrodites, that they are "naturally" different, though some community members and researchers argue that up to three quarters of them undergo operations (castrations and penectomies), with some dying as a result. Hijras are contrasted with women because they tell lewd jokes, use obscenity, and have a conversational style perceived as aggressive. They are distinguished from men by their putative penchant for gossip and endless meaningless chatter. Hijras use verbal insult, a practice that underlines and constructs the sexual ambiguity for which they are feared, to gain immediate interactional advantages in social situations where they might otherwise be ignored. Their insults often use obscenity and double entendre. On the surface, their comments may seem to be about, say, the buying and selling of fruit and vegetables, but they are meant to be understood in ambiguous sexual terms, as about the buying/selling of sex. To be offended, however, one must acknowledge understanding sexual innuendo, crudity, gender fluidity—all the realms of activity the hijra talk about and participate in.

In northern Nigeria, Gaudio (1996, 1997) has described Hausa-speaking Muslim 'yan daudu, men who talk like women. 'Yan daudu talk and act in woman-like ways, engage in a woman's occupation (cooking and selling food), and use woman-like gestures (roll eyes, slap thighs, swing hips). Their clothing is usually conventionally masculine, though they may put on selected items of female clothing (head-ties, waist-wrappers). They do not attempt to pass as women; they have men's short haircuts and moustaches, and they never fully relinquish the sociocultural perks accorded to them as men, including marriage and children. Heterosexual marriage and homosexual behavior are not mutually exclusive. Like the hijras, they exploit linguistic ambiguity to establish and enhance their power to attract and criticize others in a society that demeans them. For instance, they use karin magana (proverbs) and habaici (innuendo). Such indirect speech is stereotyped as female. Hausa cowives are stereotypically portrayed as jealous, conniving, and backbiting, and the use of figurative indirect language is said to arise from verbal sparring in polygamous households. Their use of thigh-slaps and loud laughter is also said to be woman-like. However, they also talk in ways seen as flamboyant, frivolous, and shameless. Indeed, the practices of 'yan daudu call attention to the ambiguities and contradictions in dominant ideas about women. They use language stereotyped as female, yet another stereotype of married women is passive and demure. 'Yan daudu's actions undermine—and reinforce—gender, sexual, and moral boundaries.

Finally, it is important to note that much of the early and continuing work on language and gender is work on heterosexuality, but it is rarely studied as such, though see Cameron (1997) and Kiesling (2001) for discussions of flagrant heterosexuality in the discourse of college men. Indeed, one of the tasks which faces the field of language and gender in general is to return to that work and place it within larger political, economic, cultural, and historical contexts.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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