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