Content note: this article contains some references to homophobia.
No one could argue that LGBT rights in the UK have not made progress over the last decade or two. With the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004 and the successful campaign for same-sex marriage in 2013, today LGBT people have more and more protection under UK law. However, there is still some way to go before those who identify as LGBT experience the same levels of equality afforded to the rest of the population. Given this struggle for total equality, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of these themes emerge in the way LGBT people present themselves, including how they use linguistic features to mark aspects of their identity.
Lucy Jones of the University of Nottingham did a study on a group of LGBT youths, looking particularly at the way that they used language to construct their own identity. Jones noted that, with many of the above advancements, came a culture of what is known as homonormativity – the belief that sexual and romantic attraction should be between man and woman, as opposed to those of the same sex. This belief influences the way LGBT people live their lives and members of the community feel that they are under pressure to assimilate (i.e., become more similar to) mainstream society and adopt heterosexual or cisgender social norms.
In her study, Jones wanted to see if this had an impact on the way that the youths discussed their identities.
Her research took place in a youth group that specifically supported those who identified as LGBT or who questioned their gender or sexual identity. Jones spent four months with the group, and did several interviews with members. She ended up taking data from five members, all of whom were white and cisgender, and identified either as lesbians or gay men.
Jones identified three ways in which these young people negotiated their identity. The first way was through the rejection of stereotypes – one participant deliberately distanced himself from the idea of a “stereotypical gay camp man”, rejecting the idea of “flaunting around the place”. The participant also compared being gay to horse-riding, saying that it would be silly to define people by their hobbies. Jones argued that this creates a disconnect between being gay and performing a gay identity, and hence deliberately distancing themselves from it.
The second way was through the discussion of “othering” by their heterosexual counterparts. When discussing the importance of Gay Pride Marches, the teenagers aligned themselves with gay people, and positioned themselves in opposition to heterosexuals by using the pronouns “we” and “they”. When quoting heterosexual acquaintances, one teenager repeatedly used the second person pronoun, but in the plural, such as “why do you have Pride?”. By reporting their speech in this way, the respondents show how they become ‘othered’ by heterosexual peers.
Finally, as might be expected following the above, negotiating the homophobia that they experienced formed a considerable part of how they constructed their identity. The teenagers reported that they had experience multiple homophobic incidents. Jones interprets this as a possible cause of why these individuals sought to distance themselves from overtly gay stereotypes.
Ultimately, what Jones’ paper shows is that, despite the advances that legislation has made, LGBT youth still have very difficult experiences that lead them to construct their identity in ways that adhere to mainstream norms and make themselves more like their heterosexual peers. Through an analysis of language, we can see that we have a long way to go to help LGBT peers feel accepted.
Glossary - Cisgender: Someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth
Jones, L. (2018) ‘I’m not proud, I’m just gay’: Lesbian and gay youths’ discursive negotiation of otherness. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 22(1), 55-76.
This summary was written by Marina Merryweather