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Talking Sexuality and Gender Identity in the Pub

8 May 17 words: Gav Squires

PubhD. The evening that combines research with... pints. With the Lavender Language and Linguistics conference taking place in Nottingham, PubhD put on a special event, inviting some of the conference attendees to speak. The theme of the conference was Language, Gender and Identity, and each of the talks fitted into this theme...

Katie

First up was Katie from the University of Sunderland, researching the lived experiences of trans people in the north-east of England.

The north-east is made up of tightly-knit, former mining communities, often rural and isolated. Support for trans people is some thirty years behind the support for lesbian, gay and bi people. Katie followed a data-led approach, including six in-depth interviews, trying to avoid any cis-normative bias.

With naming and labelling, Katie has been looking at a critical discourse, analysis of text, looking for any inequality in society and a membership analysis: How do we organise our social lives? What sort of person are we?

In an interview, each utterance isn't incidental. There is a requirement to analyse the whole; the questions as well as the answers. Plus, our underlying values as a culture need to be considered.

The key question in Katie's interviews was, "How would you describe your gender identity?"

There were different answers from each of the participants. As humans, we like to categorise to make sense of the world, but the people who took part struggled to categorise themselves. In relation to trans people, our lexicon hasn't caught up with reality, the categories that we do have are not quite right.

If you don't fit into certain tropes, are you really trans? What does it mean if you don't fit in with the language or with society's view? For example, some of the participants didn't realise until they were in their teens that they were trans but there is a view that people "always knew". This leads to fear, which is perpetrated by the media and the language that they use.

For example, there has been media sensationalism related to the murder of trans women in the US. However, the interviewees were all expecting violence and they all thought that they were unique because they hadn't actually experienced any. There still isn't a great deal of help or recognition for trans people in the north-east though.

Key learning: Being trans is only part of people's identities

Sam

Next up was Sam, from Nottingham, researching identities of asexual people in the online community.

Around 1% of the population are asexual, that is they don't experience sexual attraction to anyone. However, they do differentiate between sexual and romantic attraction. For example, they could be hetero-romantic. There are a wide variety of terms to describe these attractions.

Asexuality itself is a relatively new label. Many people who are asexual may feel confused, abandoned or inadequate. They can struggle to equate their experiences with others. Hence, it's important to raise awareness for people to identify themselves and also for the general population to be more accepting.

How do asexual people see themselves? How are they perceived in such a sexualised world? If you study the lack of something, you can also learn more about that thing. So, by studying asexuality, we can learn more about sexuality.

The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network is the most prominent website in the asexual community with 92,000 users. It features information pages and a forum. By looking at this, we can see how community identities and individual identities fit in with the wider world.

By first looking at the ethnographic make-up of the website, its structure, how it's used and its prominent members, Sam created a user survey. From there, the next step is to set up some focus groups to talk about the big themes about attitudes in the community. How do people defend their sexuality to others in the community?

Identity labels are key. Some think that all the labels are good, as many have had no experience of sharing their identity. Some think that having so many different labels takes focus away from creating a community. A lot of the labels have Latin or Greek roots, which are being used to validate these identities.

Despite all of the progress made, many asexual people still have to put up with comments such as "You just haven't found the right person", "You're gay and in denial" or "You're straight but you want to be special."

Key learning: Asexuality was considered to be a sexual disorder in the US until 2005.


Paul

Finally, there is Paul from Durham. His main research is into the motivation for men to become sign language interpreters (a predominately female profession) but today he's talking about gay sign variation.

Gay sign variation is not a language in itself, rather it is signs that are used in the deaf gay community, somewhat similar to polari; a gay code invented when homosexuality was still illegal. How are the signs linguistically different and how do they represent the identity, culture and language oh the deaf gay community?

There isn't much information on the internet about gay sign variation because it is an action. In fact, there are only three scientific papers online and one of those was co-authored by Paul.

How is it different to British Sign Language? By looking at a linguistic analysis of hand shape, it's possible to see that gay sign variation is camp, and much more exaggerated than BSL. Elbows, teeth, eyes and eyebrows are important.

It's about the whole thing including signing space, hands and wrists. It is predominantly used by gay men but is also used by some lesbians, friends, family and interpreters. There are also some signs, such as "chicken boy" that you don't get in BSL.

However, gay sign variation is now being lost. A lot of deaf clubs were originally set up in churches as there was a slightly condescending "poor deaf people, we must be seen to be doing something" attitude around. Hence, a code was needed due to the church's view on homosexuality.

As attitudes have become more progressive, there is less of a need for this secret language. Deaf society was also prejudiced against deaf gay men because they weren't having any children to keep the deaf community alive.

So, does the community still need gay sign variation? If they don't, would they ever document it? American Sign Language has only been documented since the fifties, so if gay sign variation existed before then, we wouldn't know. Different countries do how their own gay sign variations though, and there are even different signs in Nottingham compared to London.

Key learning: Around 1 in 6 people in the UK will end up deaf, although this is mostly due to age-related deafness.

PubhD returns to The Vat & Fiddle on Wednesday 17 May, with talks on psychology, English literature and border studies and theory.

PubhD website

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