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University Conference Focuses On 'Gay Language'
By Michael L. Betsch Staff Writer
February 06, 2003

(Editor's note: Contains innuendo some readers may find offensive)( - A panel of university professors will gather in the nation's capital on Valentine's Day to instruct fellow scholars, students and homosexuals on the proper usage of "lavender" language and linguistics -- the words homosexuals use to express their sexual orientation.

According to Bill Leap, coordinator of the 10th Annual American University Conference on Lavender Languages and Linguistics, homosexuals communicate with each other in ways that are "different from the linguistic practices of non-lesbian/gay-identified persons."

He said the Feb. 14-16 conference would examine homosexual linguistics including "pronunciation, vocabulary and meaning."

Leap, who chairs AU's anthropology department, believes the university-sponsored event will promote a better understanding of the so-called lavender language among students, scholars and homosexuals.

"The popular stereotype about gay language is that there are these secret coded terms, like the word 'lavender'," Leap said. "We use it as the name of the conference as a way of avoiding stringing along a whole bunch of identity labels...lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, inquiring."

According to Leap, the color lavender was a precursor to the rainbow flag that has become associated with homosexual pride, and which is often used to identify 'gay-friendly' environments.

But homosexuals across the globe still struggle to master the complex terminology and double-meanings of the homosexual language, Leap said.

Leap said "top" is one example of a term that homosexuals commonly use in placing personal ads. "To talk about a person as a 'top' immediately would label the speaker as lesbian or gay for anyone who knows lesbian or gay culture," he explained.

He said "pitcher" and "catcher" are a "beautiful example" of words that have a different meaning in the lavender language.

"If we say pitcher or we say catcher, in an ordinary conversation, I think it's unlikely that [straight people] would read anything else into it," Leap said. "You see it says 'pitcher' on somebody's T-shirt, and I bet you straight folks in Omaha will think this [homosexual] guy is on a baseball team."

Leap said lavender terminology is essentially a homosexual "code," with double meanings.

Learned language

"Just being a speaker of English does not prepare you to be a speaker of this gay language," Leap said. "It's not like when you were a child and you kind of get taught these things. You've got to learn a lot of it yourself.""

"How do you learn how to talk gay?" asked Leap. "How do you learn how to engage in this kind of repartee?"

According to Leap, homosexuals tell him that the local library is the best place to start.

"What people talk about is reading, going to the library and reading everything they can find," Leap said. "Every gay man I've interviewed on this talks about that...going to a library as a teenager, even today."

Leap said his own "gay men's English book," entitled Word's Out, "is one of the most widely stolen books out of college libraries in America."

Leap said that homosexuals also rely on television shows such as NBC's Will & Grace, Showtime's Queer as Folk and HBO's Six Feet Under to teach them the basics of communicating with their more entrenched homosexual counterparts.

"The learning process - the way people describe it - is self-managed socialization," Leap said.

But Leap cautioned that the so-called lavender language should not be mistaken for "gaybonics," a twist on "ebonics," which refers to slang used by some black Americans.

The lavender language is exactly what it is portrayed to be, Leap said. "We're not talking 'dialect' here. We are talking language."

And, it's not just homosexuals who want to learn more about the lavender language and linguistics.

Leap said organizers of the AU-sponsored event have worked very hard to create a "user-friendly environment so that people with no background in [homosexual] linguistics can feel like they are not fish out of water, and people who are not LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) can feel non-threatened."

'Homosexual mating language'

"It's just a courting language," said Lionel Tiger, Darwin professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. According to Tiger, "lavender language" is "like any courtship language for a particular group of persons interested in mating with each other."

Tiger said lavender language is similar to the "sports lingo" used by professional athletes to call plays, except lavender language includes sexual innuendo, such as the terms 'pitcher' and 'catcher'.

"It may just be a passing phenomenon emerging from the increase in the visibility of homosexual people," Tiger said. "What would be strange is if there weren't a specialized language for this."

Tiger could not understand why a prominent producer of instructional audio cassettes specializing in foreign languages has not come out with its own line of homosexual-language products.

"When I first moved to New York, [I] said that Berlitz should have a course called 'Gay,' because it was a very clear kind of language with its own inflections and its own words," Tiger said.

But Leap some straight people are already "fluent" in the lavender language.

He said one of his straight students realized that his vocabulary was the reason homosexual men seemed so attracted to him.

"His mother is an artist in New York, and he grew with a whole bunch of 'uncles,' all of whom were gay," Leap said. "He said he thinks he learned to talk with them. So, he uses this [homosexual] rhetoric that prompts people to turn around and say, 'This must be a gay man.'"

'Homophobic language'

Aside from teaching and promoting the lavender language, Professor Leap said the upcoming conference at American University will also address "the language of homophobia in all kinds of domains," including the media.

Asked by to pinpoint the most prominent example of homophobic language used in media coverage, Leap said, "Where do I begin?"

"I think the most viciously prominent example is when media gives all kinds of unnecessary, but definitely salacious information about a gay person...that somehow implies that they're criminal," Leap said.

"You get this stuff about the [gay sex] raids on the parks along the Potomac...and we're told that four guys are busted. Then, we're told that one of them is a high school professor, married with three children," Leap said. "Suddenly, it stops being about guys who were caught having sex in the woods and it starts being about the whole life story of these people."

According to Leap, the media is guilty of using "unnecessary language" when it exposes the personal lives of people engaging in homosexual activity.

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