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Conclusion

To conclude, we revisit a few of the central themes of our analysis and offer our ideas for important directions for future study. First, we have advanced an analysis that attends to the ways in which variation patterns are constrained by the community’s sociopolitical landscape. While speakers surely exercise agency—we see evidence of agency in gay men’s use of fronter /s/ than their straight counterparts in Redding—they do so within a system of constraints. When gay men produce /s/ in Redding, they do so under strong pressure to retract the sound. The agency that they exercise operates on a smaller scale, so that gay men can (but need not) produce slightly less retracted /s/ variants than straight men, thus maintaining some distinction between themselves and straight men (if such distinction is important) without explicitly violating the gender norms that are so heavily surveilled in Redding. Without denying that speakers have agency, it is crucial to note that individuals are not free to produce whatever linguistic variants they want.

Nevertheless, we also suggest that speakers may be bestowed with greater agency in situations characterized by greater ambiguity. The social meaning of linguistic variation is never fully determinate, and in cases where indeterminacy is greater, speakers may be relatively free to exploit ambiguity. When lesbians produce /s/ in Redding, their retracted variants could in principle be interpreted as non-heteronormative, but so too could such variants be interpreted as sounding country (or as indicating that their speakers align with the ethos of a country lifestyle). And it is worth mentioning that country readings of retracted /s/ may be especially likely when listeners are themselves oriented to the country. In sum, the indeterminacy of social meaning may afford speakers the freedom to produce a wider range of linguistic variants without fear of sanctions.

Finally, we have emphasized the connection between sociopolitical ideology and linguistic variation. The field of sociolinguistics is only beginning to understand the nature of this connection. In their work on the pronunciation of Iraq among members of the US House of Representatives, Hall-Lew, Coppock, & Starr (2010) report that liberals favor [a] in the final syllable of the word, while conservatives favor [ж]. Here, we have argued that, in Redding, conservatism promotes gender polarization between women and men, and gender normativity among sexual minorities. But can we conclude that the reverse is true, that gender differences are less extreme, in more liberal contexts? This remains an open question, but we hope to explore it in future work by analyzing data collected in other field sites that are more politically liberal than Redding.

We aim to expand our investigation in a number of other ways. First, we plan to consider the patterns for speakers of color. Since our focus was on Redding, we limited our investigations to speakers who identify as white, which is the overwhelming majority of Redding’s inhabitants. But as we proceed with examining other communities in greater detail, we plan to also consider ethnic groups that are well represented in those communities—particularly Hispanic speakers in our Bakersfield sample. The variant under consideration here— /s/—would be particularly interesting in this context because of its status as a locus of variation in many varieties of Spanish (cf. Mack, Chapter 7, this volume). We hasten to add that expanding the data set in this way may be facilitated by using the methods advanced here. The acoustic robustness of /s/ has given rise to largely accurate forced alignments, which expedite the analysis of sibilants across large datasets. Finally, we issue a call for continued work on the linguistic practices of sexual minorities in rural, or at least less urban, contexts. Most of what we know about the linguistic practices of sexual minorities in the United States, and indeed all over the world, is based on research conducted with sexual minorities who live in cities. As we have shown here, the ways in which speakers experience gender and sexuality can be very different in rural contexts, and differences in experience yield strikingly divergent variation patterns. Failing to consider the particularities of how gender and sexuality play out in specific communities like the one under investigation here, as well as across a variety of communities like the range exemplified in this volume, may give rise to impoverished understandings of how linguistic variation figures in the construction of sexuality.

 
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