Recapping the Lavender Languages Conference

The 23rd Annual Lavender Languages Conference was held at American University on February 12-14, 2016. Directed by Professor William L. Leap, “Lav 23” offered a venue for discussion of language and sexuality, drawing on ongoing conversations in anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics, sexuality studies, and queer theory.

Professor William Leap

Professor William Leap

This year’s conference was all the more significant to Leap because it was the last to be held before he retires from AU. “I had a hand in creating the conference and maintaining it for twenty-three years, and it is one of the achievements that I am most proud of,” Leap said. “We didn’t have a safe space venue for LGBTQ language work when I started the conference in 1993, and today there are many places where this work is still viewed with suspicion and disdain. Not so at Lavender Languages. This may be what makes the conference attractive, its academic ‘safe space’ function.”

The first Lavender Languages Conference was held in conjunction with the 1993 March on Washington DC for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. At that time, very few academic venues were open to in-depth discussion of the relationships between language, gender, and sexuality, and few academic journals were publishing papers exploring the conversations in depth.

The conference’s accomplishments include encouraging the creation of a journal, the Journal of Language and Sexuality. It’s the world’s only journal devoted entirely to studies of language and sexuality, and Leap serves as a founding senior editor. “Our readership, like our authors, is world-wide and diverse in other ways—exactly in the spirit of the conference,” he said.

We reached out to Professor Leap over email to learn more about Lav 23, and plans for the future of the conference.


How did the conference go this year? What were some overall highlights for you?

The fact that the conference has been going for 23 years is important to me. The conference cannot happen without a lot of support from a lot of people, including the undergraduates who travel at their own expense to share their research findings, and the established scholars who travel from across the US and from more distant places (British West Indies, Scotland, Austria, South Africa) to do the same. That support remains after 23 years. When I say that Lavender Languages is the longest running LGBTQ studies conference in the US and maybe the world, and the only conference dedicated to studies of language, broadly defined, in LGTBQ life—this is what I am referring to: enduring interests in queer language/linguistics. This conference embodies that enduring interest.


Promoting a safe space environment is a main conference priority, with the info page announcing efforts made toward this end—low fees, accessible venues, casual environment, etc.—and the line “No one attending Lav 23 need feel alone, out-of-place, or unloved.” Can you tell me more about the conference’s “safe space” focus?

Though the world has changed greatly since 1993, there are many campus locations where queer language research is still discouraged. People say, ‘This isn’t real research, how will you get a job, etc.’ Our goal at Lavender Languages is to create a space where we can be supportive of these lines of inquiry and the people who pursue them. It is part of the ‘no attitude’ conference philosophy which we all work very hard to maintain during the three-day event.


How has conference interest grown over the years?

Attendance was much larger this year than at past conferences, due in part of a good turnout from on-campus, but also due to people travelling from various locations just to hear papers and participate in discussions. There is a very strong education function associated with the conference, with students (and younger scholars) finding ideas and suggestions here that they tell us they cannot receive back in their home institution.


How have you seen conversations and conference topics evolve over the years? In what ways were this year’s conversations and topics particular to this cultural/historical moment?

In earlier years, papers at Lavender Languages talked a lot about examples. We were busy discovering the presence of LGBTQ language and we wanted to share discoveries with others. We were challenged by others to stop being anecdotal and to start engaging theory—whether the theory be queer theory or linguistic theory, or theory of sexuality or urban geography or globalization, etc. People started to do that at the conference in the early 2000s. Several of the now-classic items in the LGBTQ language studies “canon” emerged from this work.

So the shift from description to theory has been one trend. Another trend has been a real concern with intersections of language and political economy: who speakers are in relation to race, ethnicity, class, opportunity structure, etc. We didn’t talk a lot about that in the 1990s (foolishly), but “intersectionality” is a major theme in almost every paper I heard at the conference this year.

To say this differently, people are not looking at language as a detached formation, as a plaything, separated from the realities of the historical moment. The language of drag queens is interesting because drag queens are real people, not aesthetic curiosities. Transgender language is interesting because transgender language is a major means of deflecting or combatting transphobic violence. And so on.

I’d also note how the conference has shifted from studies that focus only on American English. We had panels this year exploring LGBTQ issues in various forms of French (not your standard textbook French, either), and in Spanish as used in Central and South America. And papers addressing Spanish language themes were also included in panels across the program—including the Saturday plenary session, which featured the editors of the new anthology Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of LGBT Activism. Importantly, and especially in the case of the Spanish language papers, many of the presenters were native speakers of the languages under discussion. This lends qualities of authority and also personal voice to the discussion. Native speaker involvement is especially important when the presenters were students; this is confirming substantial investment in the future of lavender language research.


What will the conference look like in the coming years, and how can people get involved?

Next year, in 2017, we are taking the conference to the University of Nottingham in the UK. This will allow our European colleagues to have greater access to Lavender Languages discussions, and introduce more of those discussions to US scholars (who are often sheltered from the exciting work that is happening in Europe in the areas of queer linguistics.) I anticipate that Lav 24 will be quite international in focus. Details regarding conference planning are posted here.

For Lav 25, we hope to return to the American University campus to celebrate a quarter century of conference activity.


Would you like to add your voice to valuable conversations, like those at the Lavender Language Conference? Learn more about AU’s master’s in public anthropology program.

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