Lavender Languages & Linguistics 24

What is ‘Lavender Languages’?

The first Lavender Languages and Linguistics conference was held at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C. in 1993. William Leap established the conference as a small event for colleagues working in linguistic anthropology, with an interest in language and sexuality, but it has since become an annual event. Throughout its recent history, it has regularly attracted participants from all around the world, and has been generously supported by the Department of Anthropology at AU. At a special twentieth anniversary conference event, those involved in the conference considered how to accommodate this increasing global interest, and concluded that we should make it more mobile. The plan now is for it to return to AU periodically, but for it to be hosted by other institutions around the world as well.

The conference name has, at times, been a source of confusion to some: “why not call it ‘queer linguistics’ or just a ‘language and sexuality’ conference?” The term ‘lavender’ is a long-standing example of lexis associated with the gay community; indeed, it was recorded as a synonym for ‘homosexual’ by Gershon Legman1 in his 1941 glossary of American gay slang. In the 1990s, William Leap2 and his colleagues3 published in what was then a new area of research: the language of lesbians and gay men. This began to be called ‘Lavender Linguistics’, hence the name given to the conference in 1993. ‘Lavender’ was seen to be a neutral term which would not exclude particular research foci, which was not explicitly political, and which would therefore be welcoming to all those interested in language and sexuality.

Since then, those involved in the conference have considered changing its name to reflect the increased diversity of work in this area, and to give the event a more modern feel. However, the focus of research presented at Lavender Languages and Linguistics is so broad that it cannot easily be captured in another word, phrase, or acronym. Even the phrase ‘Language and Sexuality’ does not easily include all of the varied work taking place within the field – much of which is not directly related to sex and desire, sexual identity, or sexual orientation. ‘Queer Linguistics’, arguably, is not so much a discipline as it is a political and theoretical approach; not all those researching non-heteronormative language necessarily take a queer approach (or identify their work as ‘queer’).

In contrast, ‘Lavender’ is a phrase that is fundamentally intertwined with the conference, and with those who have spent the past thirty years (and more) doing research relevant to it. It provides us with historical continuity. It is also unconventional; in itself, this reflects much of the work that we do! For these reasons, we continue to use it, and we do so proudly and with great respect for the groundbreaking work done by scholars who helped to create the space of Lavender Languages and Linguistics nearly twenty-four years ago. 

Lucy Jones, 2016

  1. Legman, Gerson. 1941. The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary’ In George W. Henry (ed.) Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1149-79.
  2. Leap, William (ed.). 1995. Beyond the Lavender Lexicon. Newark: Gordon & Breach
  3. For example, see Zwicky, Arnold M. 1997. Two Lavender Issues for Linguists. In Anna Livia and Kira Hall (eds.) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 21–34.

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