A Reflection on Language, Gender, and Transgender Day of Remembrance

Yesterday, I attended the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony at the Hampton Convention Center. It was a huge venue for a relatively small turnout. The speakers invited to the ceremony were all fantastic in my opinion, although some of my friends that I attended with might disagree. A lot of what I felt while I was there was simply a profound sense of dissonance. A lot of what I had expected didn’t quite fit with what I got.

I suppose that some of that dissonance has to do with my own relative unfamiliarity and discomfort with the transgender community. The event memorialized 26 transgendered people that have been murdered this year. I don’t think I even really know (very well) half that many transgendered or genderqueer people. In spite of this very somber premise, the first speaker was very focused on herself and very upbeat. I thought it a good counterpoint to the sadness, but my companions didn’t agree with me.  Also, for such an expensive space, the quality of the ceremony surrounding the event felt a bit unpolished. If this event was truly a memorial, I felt it deserved a bit more attention to detail.

Finally, the last speaker, Kristin Beck, had a message that I wasn’t entirely sure resonated with me. Kristin openly talked about loving everyone (not the part I have a problem with) and how we were all really the same. As a rule, I reject the idea of sameness among people. I am not the same as Kristin, in my opinion. Kristin has been a Navy SEAL, and participated in a level of idealized hypermasculinity that I am unsure I could ever achieve even if I wanted to. She has also made the transition into womanhood, which is also a journey I have no interest in taking. The insistence that she and I are the same rang hollow in my ears.

I do not mean to say that this difference makes it impossible for Kristin and I to share a community. I only mean to say that our love for one another need not be predicated on any concept of sameness. The wish to be just like everyone else is a dream held by adolescents; it is an aspiration that is misguided and impossible to achieve. I don’t think that attitudes of acceptance can really flourish if they are based in this way of thinking.

What Can We (I) Do? An Attempt to Navigate a Troubling Time

After the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, I have been very hurt, frightened, and angry. I think that it’s safe to say that many people have had similar feelings as well. I have openly fought with acquaintances and strangers on Facebook, blocked and unfriended many, and written off every Trump voter as an enabler or supporter of misogynistic, xenophobic, racist, and homophobic attitudes. I have read countless articles on Vox, Slate, NY Times, MSNBC, and even Cracked.com, all of which have spoken about media bubbles, autocratic societies, the Trump transition team, and being empathetic with the other side of the political divide. I have read the heartfelt testimonials of women and men from many upset communities.

I’m very tired.

What I’m left with is the burning question: What do I do now? When I’m worried, I always try to remember a valuable piece of advice my mother loves to repeat to me: If you are worried and you can do something, act. If you are worried and you have done all you can, let it go. It’s not very easy advice to follow, but I have been doing my best to incorporate this practice into my life. I want to share what I have managed to do so far.

I attended Safe Space training at my college. Safe Space is a program that seeks to train students and staff to advocate and ally with the LGBTQ community. In addition to attending the training, I volunteered to serve as a student panelist for Safe Space training modules and to attend committee meetings. I have also volunteered my time to transcribe interviews for the Hampton Roads Queer History Project. I have taken the time to attend events on my college campus, particularly those sponsored by the Office of Intercultural Relations, the Student Counseling Services Office, Student Veterans Association, and ODUOut. I have listened, sympathized, and commiserated with my friends, fellow students, and coworkers. In short, I have done my best to make my community a more welcoming and supportive place.

In addition to doing all these things, I focused on my plans for the future. I have obsessed to an absurd degree over how my time in my M.A. program will unfold. I have branched out into professional development programs and considered other ways to volunteer in my campus community. I even wrote an email to my representative, and when I was told that isn’t generally effective, I looked up phone numbers and called the offices of not only my representative, but both my senators. I will probably march in a couple of protests as well. Finally, I decided to write about all of these things in this blog.

I’m not writing about all of these things to brag, but to say that for me, doing all of these things helped me to feel better. My mother’s advice has really helped to keep me from feeling paralyzed in this moment. I know I might never be able to change anyone’s mind, but that isn’t my responsibility. As long as I’ve tried to make a difference in the places that I can, I will be able to live with myself. I know this isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, that many of us have loved ones we’re worried we won’t be able to protect, or that we might not be safe ourselves. My hope is that if nothing else, whatever I can do will help just one person who feels powerless. I will never make nice with people that harbor malice or indifference for marginalized people, but I want to use my energy nurturing and defending the people I love, because my attacks have proven not only fruitless, but also toxic to myself.

I’m still frightened, but I’m doing my best to keep moving. That’s all I can figure to do.

Taking a Stance: Making the Gay Individual

Taking a Stance: Making the Gay Individual

I have previously discussed how “gay voice” has been associated with the gay man for better or worse. Gay voice is certainly a distinctive style that a person could choose to adopt to create their gay identity. A truly powerful way that LGBTQ people can go about creating their identities, besides the way that they sound, is situated principally in what they choose to say. Stance is a sociolinguistic term that refers to how a speaker orients him/herself to what they are talking about and to whom they are talking. Stance is easy to find if you know what you are looking for, and all people, not just LGBTQ people, use stance in their speech to act out their personae.

There are three major types of stance that a person may adopt:

Authoritative

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Authoritative stances lay claim to a regime of knowledge or expertise. They can also demonstrate a degree of certainty in what is being said. The following sentence is a good example of taking an authoritative stance:

“I’m a gay man, so I know what it’s like to be in the closet.”

In that sentence, I draw on my identity as a gay man to demonstrate my knowledge about being closeted. I also show a strong level of certainty in my statement (I know).

Evaluative

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When you make a judgement about something, whether it be someone’s clothes, your own feelings, a place you’ve been, or a person you know, you are taking an evaluative stance. Here’s an example:

“That guy’s beard is really sexy.”

In that sentence, I evaluate the beard of a guy I saw across the room. You can also notice how it helps me establish a gay persona, as I am a man who evaluates other men’s sexual attractiveness.

Interactive

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This stance is all about who you are talking to. When taking an interactive stance, you are distancing yourself from or making yourself closer to (in a social sense) the person you are conversing with. This can be done in a lot of different ways.

“Don’t worry, Jeff. Some of my best friends are straight!”

Notice that my talk is directed at Jeff. You can also tell that I am trying (whether successfully or not) to be funny and reassure Jeff. I’m doing these things specifically to lessen the social distance between me and Jeff because he may be uncomfortable about the fact that I am gay (a fact I have emphasized in the sentence) and he is not.

The stances a person adopts may not always be completely clear because any string of words can contain more than one stance. Hopefully though, you can see how someone can use a stance to say something about who he (or she, or ze) chooses to be. For a more advanced analysis of stance, you can check out my essay on stance here. A special thanks is due to Les Krambeal, and his contribution to the Arizona Queer Archives, which make my essay possible.

If you would like to see the paper from which I drew my definitions (and an even more sophisticated analysis), feel free to see for yourself in this paper.

Until next time!

Indexing Femininity: The Problem With Trying to “Sound Straight.”

Indexing Femininity: The Problem With Trying to “Sound Straight.”

Yesterday,  I watched the film Do I Sound Gay?. I was expecting a lot out of this film, but I admit that it disappointed me. The documentary details David Thorpe and his struggle with his “gay sounding” voice. The movie does a good job of exposing gay stereotypes and language ideologies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much work in the way of subverting those ideologies.

In the movie, David meets with a speech pathologist to help him change his voice. A pathologist. As in, talking in a manner that sounds effeminate is not only a problem, it’s a disease. The worst part is that she actually agrees to “help” him! I cringe when I watch the “therapy” in action. At no point in this movie, by the way, is anyone with a title like “sociolinguist” ever spoken to.

The movie identifies some of the phonological (sound) features that index (point to) stereotypical gayness. Not surprisingly, these are also features that index femininity. Some of the features include: uptalk (rising intonation at the end of declarative statements), elongated and fronted (moving the tongue further to the front of the mouth) |s|, hyperarticulated (enunciated) |p|, |t|, and |k|, and elongated vowels.

The key question, in my mind, is why are such benign variations in speech being denigrated? If there is a problem with men sounding “girly” it’s because someone still believes there’s a problem with being a girl or being like one (there shouldn’t be such a problem). Tell me that bald, hairy, wiry David from Do I Sound Gay is not manly by any number of other metrics, and then tell me why even that should be important. The policing of speech never has to do with the actual speech itself. It is always about the people that are believed to use that speech. (Tons of straight men possess the “gay” voice.)

When people police men and their “gay” voices it has everything to do with the fact that those men are perceived as gay. The only thing that should make a man sound “gay” to us is if he moans with pleasure while sucking his boyfriend’s face! Further more, if we truly live in a world where being gay is acceptable then we must never fear embracing a gay “dialect,” if there were such a thing. Someone may tell you they don’t like gay voice simply because they enjoy a “masculine” or “butch” sound or because they simply don’t like the way a group of people talk. The truth of the matter is that gay voice indexes being a gay man, and anyone who wants a man to “sound straight” has a lot of catching up to do to make homophobia a thing of the past.

We Know How They Talk About Us

We Know How They Talk About Us

“I hate faggots.”

“I can’t stand fudge-packers.”

“Don’t limp-wrist it, Greene.”

The quotes above are examples of things I heard during my first years in the military. I personally spent my adolescence “playing straight:” I had a girlfriend, I avoided flamboyant clothes, and I was adamantly, militantly Catholic. I didn’t “come out” until I was 25, and that was a year after my mother had told me she was gay. LGBT people are no strangers to the way that they are talked about. Many strides have been made for LGBT rights in the past decade in the United States, but those battles have been hard fought. For many gay people, these freedoms may as well not exist in the world they live. What good is being gay if all love and support is taken from a person when they come out?

Every gay experience is different, but there are always commonalities. We are marked as different when we decide to identify with our sexuality. This blog shall focus on the gay experience, particularly the male gay experience. I will focus my analysis on the Arizona Queer Archives, an archive principally made up of digital recordings of LGBTQ oral histories. I hope to discuss and bring awareness to the gay experience and discuss our orientation to society in a broader context. What linguistic resources do gay men employ to orient ourselves with one another? How do gay men create opposition with others? What rhetorical choices are employed to accomplish our broad range of goals and how does our gender performance interact with our finally-embraced sexuality?

Gay men face a difficult path if they choose to live openly, even as we live in a society that has come to a point where active persecution of gays begins to wane. Sexuality and gender continue to be conflated and male gayness is often associated with femininity. There is no question that women do not enjoy a position of privilege in society, but openly gay men suffer a different sort of sanction: choosing to “relinquish” one’s masculinity is viewed as an unacceptable choice in a patriarchal society. This blog will seek to answer the difficult question of how gay men go about constructing new, non-traditional masculinities in a patriarchal society that places emphasis on sexuality, sex, and “macho-ness” at the core of male identity.