“From Drag Queens to Leathermen: Language, Gender, and Gay Male Subcultures” by Rusty Barrett— Six Gay Male Subcultures and Language

Barrett, Rusty. “From Drag Queens to Leathermen: Language, Gender, and Gay Male Subcultures”, (Studies in Language Gender and Sexuality), Oxford University Press, 2017.

Six Gay Male Subcultures and Language

Amos Lassen

In “From Drag Queens to Leathermen: Language, Gender, and Gay Male Subcultures”, Rusty Barrett examines gendered language use in six gay male subcultures: drag queens, radical faeries, bears, circuit boys, barebackers, and leathermen. We immediately see that within each subculture, there are unique patterns of language use that challenge normative assumptions about gender and sexual identity. What made this book so interesting for me is that we seem to have returned to an earlier time to see the implications of language within sexual subcultures we once did in the late 80s and early 90s when there were several books written about the differences in language between gay and straight society. Having studied language and linguistics in graduate school, this kind of study is especially fascinating to me. In fact, this book is actually a new edition of an earlier work that Barrett did on African American drag queens in the 1990s, emphasizing the intersections of race and class in the construction of gender. Barrett’s analyses of these subcultures stress the ways in which gay male constructions of gender are intimately linked to other forms of social difference. We look at sacred music among radical faeries and see “the ways in which expressions of gender are embedded in a broader neo-pagan religious identity”.

The subcategory Bear came into being in the late 1980s when heavyset and hairy men formed their own sob-society and appropriated linguistic stereotypes of rural Southern masculinity. Looking at those who regularly go to circuit parties, we see that language serves to differentiate gay and straight forms of masculinity. Gay men who do not believe in condom use, barebackers (beginning in 2000 after the initial scare of AIDS had subsided) use language to position themselves as rational risk takers with an innate desire for semen. Finally for participants in the International Mr. Leather contest which is a disciplined, militaristic masculinity that links expressions of patriotism with BDSM sexual practice have their own way of speaking among themselves.

“In all of these groups, the construction of gendered identity involves combining linguistic forms that would usually not co-occur. These unexpected combinations serve as the foundation for the emergence of unique subcultural expressions of gay male identity” that are fully explained here in this book.

What we see is how language is used as a central medium that both reflects and constructs a sense of belonging and distinctiveness. Barrett aligns sexuality with race, class, and gender identities, among others. In doing so we can understand and appreciate “the sites of performance, of ritual, and of ecstatic practice where the semiotic work is of indexically infusing sexual identity with sociocultural meaning and value, and with the dignity of subjectivity, is accomplished”.

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