Rusty Barrett on his new book, From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Cover for  From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

Your ethnography and analysis of language use centers on 6 subgroups in gay culture: drag quens, radical faeries, bears, circuit boys, barebackers, and leathermen. How did you decide to focus your ethnography on these six subgroups?

I had already done research on drag queens and circuit boys, so I set out to do research that would allow for comparisons across different subcultures. I tried to choose groups with minimal overlap with straight subcultures that were also positioned in opposition to “homonormative” gay culture. I avoided groups where marginalization within gay culture stems from displaying more (hetero)normative identities (like Gaymers, gay gang members, or gay evangelical Christians). Those groups are certainly interesting, but the questions they raise were different from the research path I had already taken.

In analyzing the speech practices of each gay male subculture, you raise different methodological and theoretical issues around defining  communities of practice or speech communities. How did your own ethnographic journey with each of these subcultures make you rethink about the ways that linguistic anthropologists go about defining or identifying the communities they work with, as well as labels such as speech community, language community, or communities of practice?

This is a question I have struggled with since graduate school when Queer Theory was new and pushing to reject the idea of community entirely in order to focus instead on the marginalization processes that leave some individuals “shut out” of communities. While I was drawn to the Queer Theory take on “community,” it was hard to reconcile that theory with questions of language use. Homophobic parents might exile a child from their family, but they can’t exile them from the community of “English speakers.” So, one of my first academic pieces (in “Queerly Phrased”) was about how Queer Theory might challenge prevailing ideas about speech communities. Over the years, I’d ultimately come to feel that external scholarly definitions of community were inherently limiting. So, going in to this project, I felt like I had a pretty open-ended view of what “community” might mean. However, the ethnographic research made me aware that I still had a lot of preconceived notions about community. I expected to find gender to be central to establishing social boundaries between gay men, but I came to find that in the emergence of gay male subcultures, indexing racial, class, political, religious, and even regional identities can be just as important as gender identities. I went in thinking that intersectionality emerged at points of overlap between communities, but I ultimately came to feel that it works the other way around. That is, communities actual emerge through intersectionality.

One theme that emerged in all of your chapters was the question of citizenship and belonging that individuals who identified as members of each subgroup. In some cases, such as the leathermen and drag queens, ideas and projections of citizenship were more explicit and part of their language ideologies. But similar concerns appeared in the linguistic practices and ideologies of all the subgroups, explicit or not. Could you comment more on this issue of citizenship, and how the ideologies and language practices across the subgroups not only project a particular idea of citizenship within the US context, but also a sense of belonging with a more global gay male citizenry. 

This is a great question – where to position the research on a local-global continuum was actually something I struggled with. The issue of belonging occurs at various scales within each subculture so that the chapter on drag queens is highly local compared to the chapter on circuit boys (for example). I originally expected the leathermen chapter to emphasize global citizenship since the chapter focuses on the International Mr. Leather contest (IML). I had planned for there to be a widening of “scales” of citizenship across the book from the local (the drag queen chapter) to the global (the leathermen chapter). However, I was surprised by displays of U.S. nationalism at IML and that became a central issue of the chapter. This left me without a thorough discussion of questions of global citizenship, although belonging to a global community is part of the attraction of subcultures for many gay men. The final solution was to include images of subcultures from pride parades outside of the U.S. so that the global character of these communities would be hovering in the background even though the research itself is largely restricted to U.S. contexts.

You stress that gay male culture is not only not uniform, but that there is also no such thing as a monolithic set of gay linguistic practices and ideologies that cuts across all gay male subgroups and subcultures. In this regard, how would you like your book to influence future studies on LGBTQ communities and language use? 

More than anything, I would like for scholars who aren’t linguists or linguistic anthropologists to recognize the value of a language-based, discourse-centered approach to understanding LGBTQ culture. Despite the fact that performativity is foundational to contemporary thought on LGBTQ issues, an emphasis on marginalization and shame often obscures the fact that performativity cannot be felicitous without normativity at some level of interaction. I think the approach of linguistic anthropology allows one to observe performativity at work in ways that scholars in other disciplines often miss. Maybe my fantasy would be that indexicality would become as commonplace as performativity in research in LGBTQ studies.

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