William Leap on his book, Language Before Stonewall

Interview by Brian Adam-Thies


The Stonewall “Riots” occurred from June 28th-July 3rd, 1969 in New York City, Greenwich Village.   These events began as a result of police oppression and harassment of LGBTQ+ in the Stonewall Inn, a popular bar and meeting place.   The events reportedly evidenced spontaneous cooperation between people of all colors; gender conforming and non-conforming; cis-gender lesbian and gay men; different generations; and people from various socio-economic classes.  The Stonewall moment is said to mark the rise of the modern LGBTQ liberation movements.   Pride Month occurs in June each year to commemorate the events at Stonewall and their significance. Leap’s  book questions whether “it all began at Stonewall” accurately describes U.S. LGBTQ language history. Leap offers multiple examples showing that language before Stonewall was not buried in the closeted but in broad circulation, inflected variously across gender, race, class and other forms of difference, and associated with multiple moments of disidentification, rebellion and refusal before late June,1969.

Brian Adams-Thies: Pride month is based on what you term the ‘anchor ideology of Stonewall’.  This   powerful ideology  has both linguistic and material repercussions.  What inspired you to interrogate the ideology?  How did you come to write this book?

William Leap:. The stories about the events at Stonewall in late June 1969 that  are  presented at Pride events,   in the public media, and in many gay history books explain the event by telling the Stonewall story according to an appropriate, anchoring formula: experiences of “the closet” preceded Stonewall, and pathways to gay liberation swiftly followed, culminating in marriage equality, access to military service and federal promises of security within the workplace. We hear this story and we agree (with Althusser): “that’s good, that’s right, that’s true”.

But as is often the case for ideologies, this version of the Stonewall story  privileges a certain storyline while  excluding nonconforming subjects and narratives. Recent discussions of Stonewall have done much to decenter whiteness and gay/lesbian dominance.  For myself, I have long been  suspicious about the  Stonewall-related stories suggesting that language  before Stonewall was a secret “code,” shared but deeply concealed within the in-group,   unfamiliar if not entirely unrecognizable to outsiders. Through such mean, same-sex desiring, gender-transgressive and similar subjects could safely signal concealed identities to each other in public places —  dropping words and phrases like “[hair]pins”. The events at Stonewall and their aftermath brought this secret code  out of the closet and into the streets, making this linguistic usage public, visible, explicit, and open for anyone to hear.

This linear historical trajectory meshes with Stonewall’s anchor ideology:  the concealed becomes visible, the disguised become revealed. But  , this linear trajectory is not supported by the abundance of evidence documenting the widespread circulations of language before Stonewall within mainstream as well as “marginal” locations. Contrary to the anchor ideology, language before Stonewall was already “ … in the streets.” What Stonewall did was strengthen a more privileged discourse of sexual sameness tied to racial and economic hierarchy and privilege which was already in place before and would soon become    a language of homonormativity.

Having worked with language and sexuality studies for some time, I wanted to tell this story, and bring forward parts of the argument that I left unaddressed in Word’s Out  (Leap 1996).  Language before Stonewall is the result.

Brian Adams-Thies:  What do you mean by queer historical linguistics?  And why is Halberstam’s “scavenger methodology” (1998: 13) a helpful orientation for work in this mode of queer inquiry?  

William Leap: Queer inquiry is interested in countering narratives that celebrate normative conformity with narratives documenting experiences that are not and cannot be made to signify monolithically (adapting Sedgwick 1993: 8).  My work in queer inquiry explores language before Stonewall, not to construct unilinear ties between past and present, but as an entry point for understanding language and sexuality meshed within everyday experiences before Stonewall, for same-sex desiring subjects and for (other) subjects on the sexual margin. This           understanding of language and sexuality before forces us to rethink the significance of the Stonewall moment for language and sexuality/linguistic history.

I group these two areas of queer inquiry under the phrase queer historical linguistics (hereafter QHL). The phrasing indicates QHL’s interest in languages through time, language relatedness and linguistic change, and the like, but, it also indicates that all such work unfolds through a queer lens. Queer inquiry deals with “messiness” (Giffney 2009; Manalansan 2014) and it requires a data base flexible enough to address a variety of topics, expected and unexpected, conventional and potentially scandalous.

I could interview people about their memories of language use before Stonewall,  but    their suggestions often benefit from additional insights.  In this case, there are no opportunities for firsthand observation or for participation in the linguistic activities as they unfold at the site,   So, the bulk of my data base draws from in other projects would be labeled secondary sources:  descriptions of language  use before Stonewall  found in (auto)biographies; short stories and novels; theatrical scripts and song lyrics; newspaper stories and magazine articles; police officer arrest reports; transcripts of witness testimonies at trial; academic, government and popular reports on linguistic and related research.  In other words, I made use of data from any location offering data that might be useful, taking note of data quality and any other considerations that may limit how useful those data might be for project interests.   .

Halberstam (1998: 13) refers to this process of data-gathering from multiple sources a scavenger methodology, adding that this data-gathering process creates an archive of data related to   topics of interest to the inquiry, but potentially addressing additional topics as well. Unavoidably, a scavenger methodology differs from other forms of practical data gathering, especially in its tolerance in what is considered useful data. A particular formation may occur infrequently within the archive,  but in each case, its occurrence  suggests an otherwise  unexpected association of linguistic or social facts. Queerness itself is often located on the edges of logics, or is proudly out of sync with the statistical norm. These details are helpful insights into  queer understandings of linguistic history.


Brian Adams-Thies:  As you describe it, queer historical linguistics works against the notion of chronology and alignment between the present and the past. You, engaging with those working in ‘queer history’, seem to be saying we cannot make this assumption.   But there are connections between the present and the past, and most certainly in terms of language, no?   


Of course there are connections between past and present. The problem is in the Stonewall case and in so many other historical linguistic projects, these connections between past and present are determined prior to the data gathering and analysis.  We assume that languages have an origin in place X, their speakers migrated to place Y, settled in, and begin to spread. Across the new landscape. We assume there was secret code and closetry, and then disruption, and then everything poured out of the closets and into the streets to enjoy the benefits of  liberation.  and so on.

But what if ( a useful approach to queer inquiry — what if !) we did not write the history of language before Stonewall as linguistic practices, bathed in concealment,  awaiting liberation? What if, instead of  forcing description into that goal oriented, linear  chronology, we examined how language was actually used by same-sex identified  subjects, or trans subjects or “straights” who are also same-sex desiring, etc?  We do not find a linear chronology, but we find a lot of language diversity, language dynamics. language acculturation, translanguaging —  in spite of widespread networks of surveillance and heinous acts of disdain, disgust, and hatred.


Brian Adams-Thies: A scavenger methodology describes how the queer subjects under study in this work also came to knowledge of queer language/queer life.  Queer subjects, myself included in the 1980s rural Wyoming, pieced together knowledge of queer life through various pieces of text; scenes in movies; music; and so on.   Is a ‘scavenger methodology’ both an academic methodology and a lived (queer) practice?


William Leap:  I totally agree, and my earlier writings on gay language socialization audience reception of gay porn imply as much.  And that is my life story too, growing up in North Florida and frantically scanning  every film at the Saturday matinee for evidence of something that helped me fit pieces of the puzzle together. I cite  Ethan Mordden’s (1986) memories of watching Broadway musicals and multiple stories about young girls watching women’s softball games in similar terms;  I did not add in my childhood fetish for monster movies, but probably should have. Hopefully, readers will add their scavenger-like experiences to this list.


Brian Adams-Thies: I love the distinction you make between the secret and the discreet.   The secret doesn’t invite participation while the discreet seems to invite participation and then increased forms of participation.   The examples you use of cruising arrests where men invited other men to participate in not only sex but linguistic interactions; Chelo’s music; the women’s softball teams and so on, the queer subject seems to invite participation but at slowly increasing levels.  Invitation seems to be an aspect of queer language?


William Leap:  I am more interested in the fact that queerness (along with queer subjects) extends this invitation, than I am in determining the invitation’s origins.  Assuming that “invitation” was a property of language use before Stonewall, here is additional refutation of the idea that language before Stonewall was designed to keep its speakers separate (secrecy) rather than to enable people to gain access to each other (discretion). Whether the site was urban or rural, and whether the actors were female or male or transgender, or Black, Latinx or white, the stories that people tell about language before Stonewall and the reports about various forms of language use suggest that  friends and strangers relied on multiple linguistic cues — verbal, gesture, posture, intonation, vestment, location, time of day, affect — to construct and to interpret explicit and implicit messages, and, to provide options for backing out of suspected difficulty if one or both parties misrecognized some portion of the conversation.

There are plenty of reports of language use connected to unhappy experiences before Stonewall. But  those stories frequently  reproduce the anchor ideology: before Stonewall, homosexuals were miserable, but with Stonewall they found the rainbow. A “what if” inquiry wonders if there is any other way to understand the same events, and to offer a more affirmative image of   speaker agency.

Johnson (2004) tells the story of one man living in the Washington D.C. suburbs in the 1950s who liked to visit the DC gay bars but was also terrified that if he went inside, he would be arrested and “outed” to his employer (the U.S. government), and likely fired. So each time he went to the bars, he sat silently, nursed his drink, and watched the crowd around him, avoiding eye contact and speaking with no one.  Still, he reported, each time he went to the bars, he brought another man back to his home and spent the rest of night in ecstasy. The next day, he could not escape the after-effects of fear and pleasure, so he decided to avoid completely the bar scene, until he mustered up enough courage to return. And the same sequence unfolded again.

This is a story about unhappiness and frustration (or a story about melancholia), but the story also displays examples of linguistic agency.  It is a story about a subject pushing against the restrictions imposed by the   demonization of homosexual subjects imposed during the 1950s by the McCarthy-led, anti-communist witch hunts. To that end, the subject made use of a language of discretion, whose details he did not outline  to Johnson.   As McCune (2014) and Mahmud (2014) explain, discretion is not concealment, but   revealing to others according to what they are in a position to understand. And learn how discretion unfolds  as a practical strategy,  a would-be learned only had to go to one of those bars, sit and watch. The use of discretion  was not concealed, although it was very discrete.


Brian Adams-Thies: Space plays a huge role in this work: honky tonks; the bars; the space of cruising; the theaters; the rural/urban; the interzones; the army barracks; the softball field; the space of the body, whether from outside surveillance or the subject’s work/experience of their own body.  These spaces are fraught with language learning and language exchange, and also are sites of linguistic circulation .  Could  talk more about the role of space in relation to languages of sexuality  before Stonewall.


Let me reply specifically to language before Stonewall and the  urban/rural distinction.

Language before Stonewall was not an entirely urban formation, nor was it based only in the urban centers of the east and west coasts of the USA, exclusively.  Women-centered language use can be associated with women’s ball-playing at locations in more than 30 states before World War II, and almost all of those locations were outside of the urban terrain. And men who left home to join the military after several years of social and private same-sex intimacy with male friends often reported that they had to learn entirely new ways of talking about male-centered desires and erotic activities as they made friends from other parts of the U.S., or when they went to a gay bar off base. Examples like these suggest that there were ways of talking about sexual sameness attested in locations nation-wide before Stonewall. They differed, region-by-region, urban vs. rural, within urban and rural locations, and in other ways. So they were attested, albeit variously, in all of those locations.

I cannot say more about the urban vs. rural variability and differences until  the project archive assembles  more narratives and other or data from   locations  outside of the metropolitan areas. Research to that end is ongoing. Still, the  available information  s some broader questions:  why  were academic projects before Stonewall, and often after it, reluctant to acknowledge the significance of linguistic variability in their data ? ( Julia Stanley ‘s [1970]  essay on  homosexual slang is a significant exception). And if sources materials   before Stonewall are read closely in search of evidence of that variability (even if the authors disregarded it), what can be said about  interactions between speakers within and across   gendered, racial,  ethnic,  class, and national boundaries?  I address these questions in a discussion of Harlem’s linguistic diversity during the 1920s, and  throughout the book.


Brian Adams-Thies: What was the experience of writing this book?  Your previous work, or most of it, has always been based on participant-observation.   What was it like to engage in this project where there were minimal amounts of participant-observation?


William Leap:  OMG this book took a lot of professional and personal time. many drafts of many chapters, much rewriting …  until I realized that I was questioning a dominant ideology and not just describing the nifty data that I had  discovered in a library basement of a library or in a newspaper archive.

But I should have expected as much. This was my first documentary-based research project since leaving graduate school. I learned to work with historical documents and historical evidence while training with George L. Trager and William S. Willis during my doctoral studies at Southern Methodist University. That training, plus what I later learned about critical discourse analysis and queer linguistics, helped me form  my orientation to language and sexuality in historical text.  My memories of experiences  before Stonewall embellished  that orientation as did stories I heard from others about conditions before. . That was one reason why this project started:  what I heard and what I found in  public and personal  documents did not coincide with the official Stonewall story.

Now that “gay life:” is being swallowed up by another ( a homonormative) anchoring narrative — be monogamous, get married,  have  children,  “blend in” with the rest of your  affluent neighborhood, etc.  it seems especially  important to   document the language-centered restlessness, danger, visibility, transgression  and subversion  hat upstage pressures of  assimilation and compliance  during the years before.   Writing   Language Before Stonewall   was  my attempt to  document features of this legacy.




Giffney, Noreen. 2009.  Introduction: The “Q” word.  The Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory. Noreen Giffney and Michael O’Rourke, eds. 1-13.  Furnham: Ashgate.

Halberstam. J. 1998. An introduction to female masculinity: Masculinity without men.  Female Masculinity. 1-44.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Johnson, David K.  2004. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leap, William., 1996. Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mahmud, Lilith. 2014. The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Manalansan, Martin. 2014. The “stuff” of archives: “Mess”, migration and queer lives. Radical History Review 120: 94-106.

McCune, Jeffrey. 2014 Sexual Discretion, Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mordden, Ethan. 1986. The theatergoer. Buddies. 30-45. New York: St. Martins Press.

Sedgwick, Eve. 1993. Queer and now. Tendencies. 1-22.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Stanley, Julia. 1970.  Homosexual slang. American Speech, 45 (1-2): 45-59.

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