The Linguistic Foundations of Homophobic Discourses

This month we are publishing The Discursive Ecology of Homophobia by Eric Louis Russell. In this post the author explains how he came to study homophobia in far right groups.

The cover image for this book shows les Hommen during a protest

“But… they’re SO GAY, right?”

A*** and I stared back at our mutual friend B*** [not their initials], somewhat incredulous. Gay? These guys? How could he possibly think that?!

It was early 2013 and the three of us were observing protests against same-sex marriage legalization in France. Among the more conventional opponents on the streets were les Hommen, young men in colorful pants and white opera masks, strutting around shirtless with messages painted on their mostly-chiseled chests, chanting arm-in-arm. For B***, an American anglophone, they would fit in the Marais or Dupont Circle, but were out of place at an anti-gay march. A*** and I understood things differently. Colorful jeans, bare-chested sloganeering, yelling in unison? Not just traditionally hetero-masculine, but exaggeratedly so.

Discussion soon turned to how it is we “read” the Hommen so divergently, without really thinking about it. Particularly curious to me was the inseparability of cultural and linguistic knowledge required in such moments, and the ways in which these are grounded and embodied. With common Francophone backgrounds, A*** and I called on shared knowledge of language and their intersection with cultural practices, concluding the Hommen to be examples of rather blatant heteronormative masculinity. Our American friend misinterpreted these signs at nearly all levels. All three of us, however, struggled to articulate exactly how or why we came to our judgements.

As a linguist, I focus on language forms, structures, shapes and patterns. When I read text or hear speech, I dissect and deconstruct the communicative package – much the way an engineer looks at a bridge or a musician listens to a symphony, I imagine. With some time to reflect on this and similar moments, I became increasingly uneasy at how rarely scholars like myself contributed to conversations around hate speech, regardless of target, context, or participants. It was as if we were only scratching the surface of language, and therefore only looking to a small part of how meaning is created, transmitted, and received. Perhaps worse, so much of the work being done seemed to depart from a “one-size-fits-all” perspective, as if sexualities and identities, as well as reactions to them, were universal or could be understood in linguistic and cultural translation. Being a bit mule-headed – and always up for a challenge – it seemed a good idea to wade into this controversy. Which is what led to this book: an attempt to pierce the surface of language performances and unravel communicative practices at a deeper level.

Is it complex? Certainly. Is this the type of thing that everyone needs to do? Probably not. But I believe it’s important to bring more understanding of language into the critique and confrontation of homophobia (and much else), and to engage in a more culturally-grounded way when doing so. With any luck, this sort of examination can shed light – a potent disinfectant – on hegemonies and hate, especially when they lurk in the shadows and their authors maintain a veneer of civility. At least, that is my hope.

For more information about this book please see our website

We Speak Up: Firsthand Experiences of Gendered Language

This month we were very excited to publish Speaking Up by Allyson Jule – a book that looks at how language use and related ideas about gender play out in the home, workplace and online. In this post the MM team considers their own experiences with language and gender.

Elinor

One of the most frustrating thing about sexist language is that it is so ingrained in people’s everyday speech that they are often completely unaware of the significance and implications of the words they use. One word that particularly infuriates me is that of ‘manning’ a stand. As we attend conferences a lot and the majority of our staff is female I really take objection when people use the verb ‘to man.’ While many people wouldn’t necessarily be offended by it, I feel that it is very easy to use the word ‘staffing’ instead which removes the gender connotation completely.

Another issue that I often face is that of titles. Frequently, I am asked whether I’m ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ and when I reply ‘neither’ people are sometimes confused. I’m glad that the term ‘Ms’ exists in English so that I have an alternative to Miss and Mrs but I really don’t see why women should be forced to use a title to denote their marital status when men do not. As a married woman who hasn’t taken my husband’s name, neither Miss or Mrs is correct but I still find Ms is not an option that is always available or that everyone even understands. I would be happy if we did away with titles completely as in my mind it only confuses people and creates an impression of inequality between the sexes.

Tommi

The recent publication of Speaking Up has given me a few moments to pause and reflect on my own use of language in my professional life, and how this might be seen by other people. One of the habits that I have been trying to train myself out of for years has been referring to my female colleagues collectively as “the girls”….

The term arose years ago when we had a larger office, and the majority of the staff and directors were tending closer to retirement age. We had a new intake of younger staff members, who happened to be women. Often my mum, Marjukka Grover, then editorial director, would say something like “are the girls coming to lunch?”. The term stuck, and was a lighthearted way of referring to a group of colleagues and distinguishing the younger ones from the older ones.

Fast forward 15 years, and those “girls” are now Editorial Director, Head of Production and Head of Marketing themselves, and have been joined by another two extremely capable women. They all know very well that I have the utmost respect for them, and that without them this business would be in desperate trouble. I manage mostly to refer to them outside the office as “my colleagues”, but every now and again, usually when we are talking about something social rather than business related, I’ll call them “the girls” and I’ll kick myself for doing it. Will I ever be able to train myself completely out of this habit? I doubt it, although I am getting better, and since one of my colleagues recently commented that she really hates that term, I will try even harder in the future. If any of you catch me using the term, please feel free to challenge me!

Anna

At 20 weeks pregnant with my elder daughter, I’d just found out at a scan that everything was ok with the baby, and that she was a girl. I decided to buy some baby clothes to mark the occasion, and so I took myself to Mothercare to buy some vests and sleepsuits. It was like stepping into another world – the baby clothes were rigidly divided by gender, pink for girls and blue for boys (my mum bought a set of blue sleepsuits with penguins on them for my daughter to the absolute horror of the shop assistant, who kept trying to tell her she was making a mistake). The ‘boy’ clothes encouraged boys to do things – drive tractors, fly planes, run fast – or be the boss. The ‘girl’ clothes encouraged baby girls to aspire to be princesses or defined them in relation to other people or how they looked: there were racks and racks of ‘Daddy’s Little Cutie’ vests, or ‘I’m so Pretty’ tops. Having lived up to that point in a feminist bubble, it was a rude awakening to discover that messages about gender equality are still something you have to work hard to instil in your children, in the face of prevailing culture.

My daughter is now nearly 7, and it’s clear that some of her contemporaries, brought up on these messages, have internalised and now believe them. One of her friends was told recently by a classmate that she wasn’t a proper girl as she prefers shorts to summer dresses and enjoys sports. The gradual drip, drip of these judgements hurts both girls and boys, men and women, and it turns out that the stereotyping starts at birth, if not before.

Flo

In our office I’m usually the one who answers the phone when it rings and I’m happy to be gatekeeper if needs be. However, we’ve noticed that when answering a cold call, I am often assumed to be a receptionist (I was even referred to as “just the receptionist” by one cold caller), with no authority, knowledge of the business, or decision-making power. Not only is this very insulting to genuine receptionists (surely it’s a mistake to get off on the wrong foot with the person who has access to the entire company), but as we’ve noticed that when Tommi (or for that matter, a male intern) happens to be the one who answers the phone, he is never taken for a receptionist, it could be argued that it’s an assumption based on my voice being identifiable as a young woman’s. Where I would be fielding question after question about who is in charge of accounts or how do I know my boss isn’t interested (I can see him from my desk waving his arms ‘no’), callers generally seem to accept being dismissed in the first instance by a man.

For more information about Speaking Up please see our website