William Leap on his book, Language Before Stonewall

Interview by Brian Adam-Thies

https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030335151

Background
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?  

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