Q is for Queer

3 07 2011

As the sign suggests, with the passing of the same-sex marriage bill, it’s been a good time to be gay in New York. It’s also interesting – from a linguistic point of view – to track the effect that these social changes are having on language. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, has only just amended its definition of marriage in order to make it more inclusive.

I’m also intrigued by the (still relatively slow)  increase in the use of the collocations his husband and her wife – wordings that, as teachers, we might instinctively ‘correct’. The COCA corpus records 13 instances of the former, and 27 of the latter, but none before 1990 (see chart). Here are a couple of examples:

Occurrences of 'his husband' in the COCA Corpus (click to enlarge)

….whole day was unbelievable, ” said Mr. Adams, who now lives with his husband, Fred Davie, 51, in Brooklyn. (NY Times, 2007)

Jules has aspirations toward starting a landscaping business while her wife, Nic (Annette Bening), works long hours and drinks too much wine (Esquire Magazine, 2010)

Interestingly, the much bigger (155 billion word)  GoogleBooks corpus documents examples of his husband from as early as it has records. E.g.

Sometimes he travelled the country with goods in the character of a married woman, having changed his maiden name for that of his husband who carried the pack. (1813)

The Google Books corpus, in conjunction with the handy ngram viewer, also allows us to plot the relative frequency of the terms gay and queer (see chart below) and to track the way that both terms have been reclaimed – resuscitated, even (although it would require a more fine-grained analysis to discriminate between the neutral and pejorative uses of both these words).

Gay? Queer? What’s the difference? While gay describes both a sexual preference and a life style – and therefore collocates mostly with men, marriage, rights, people, community (according to the COCA Corpus) –  queer connotes an attitude or stance. Its most frequent collocates are eye, nation, theory and studies.  Here’s how the Urban Dictionary defines queer: “Originaly [sic] meant strange or odd. Now stands for anyone who is sexualy [sic] different but may or may not mean gay. Queer covers any type of gender or sexual attitudes that are outside of the mainstream of one man one woman monogamy”.  In other words, queer is a reaction against what is called – in the literature – heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity is defined as “the organisation of all patterns of thought, awareness and belief around the presumption of universal heterosexual desire, behaviour and identity” (Baker, 2008, p. 209). A good example of this came my way the other day, when I picked up a second-hand translation of André Gide’s somewhat bashful defence of homosexuality, Corydon, first published in 1911. As an aside, Gide cites, with some derision, the French translator of Walt Whitman’s poems, who re-works “the friend whose embracing awakes me…” as “l’amie [feminine] qui...” Gide adds that the translator’s “desire to draw his hero [i.e. Whitman] onto the side of heterosexuality is so great, that when he translates ‘the heaving sea’ he finds it necessary to add ‘like a woman’s bosom'” (p. 195). This is heteronormativity taken to ludicrous extremes.

(I’m wondering – very quietly – if the trend to describe one’s same-sex married partner as my husband/wife is not also a teeny-weeny bit heteronormative. But hey).

Unsurprisingly, given their global remit, heteronormativity is rife in ELT coursebooks too.  But I’ve discussed this before so I’m not going to wade in again. Besides, I suspect it’s a lost cause. Instead, I want to take a quick look at another queer collocation: queer pedagogy.

Relative frequency of gay & queer over two centuries (click to enlarge)

Queer pedagogy is a development from feminist pedagogy, in itself heavily influenced by critical pedagogy. On feminist pedagogy in ESL, Crookes (2009, p. 193) quotes Vandrick (1994) and her call for a pedagogy, in which the classroom ideally functions as a “liberatory environment, in which students also teach, and are subjects not objects; and in which consciousness could be changed, and the old weaknesses (racisim, classism, homophobia, etc.) expelled”. Crookes comments that the practical implications of these goals would require teachers to foreground group process skills, cooperation,  networking and being inclusive.

By extension, a queer pedagogy (according to the entry in Wikipedia) also “explores and interrogates the student/teacher relationship, the role of identities in the classroom, the role of eroticism in the teaching process, the nature of disciplines and curriculum, and the connection between the classroom and the broader community with a goal of being both a set of theoretical tools for pedagogical critique … and/or a set of practical tools for those doing pedagogical work”.

Is it too fanciful to suggest that Dogme ELT, in aligning with these goals, and in the way that it attempts to position itself in contradistinction to the ‘normal’ in language teaching, might also be a little bit queer?

References:

Baker, P. (2008) Sexed Texts: Language, Gender and Sexuality. London: Equinox.

Crookes, G. (2009) Values, Philosophies, and Beliefs in TESOL: Making a Statement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gide, A. (1950) Corydon. New York: Farrar, Straus & Co.

Vandrick, S. (1994) Feminist pedagogy and ESL. College English, 4/2, 69-92.