Applying queer theory to language, gender, and sexuality research in schools

Helen Sauntson


This chapter explores how queer theory, and the associated linguistic framework of queer- applied linguistics, can be used to fruitfully investigate the ways that different gender and sexuality identities are enacted through language. I exemplify a queer applied linguistics approach by applying it to the analysis of interview and interactional data taken from school settings. Queer theory is largely seen as an interdisciplinary theoretical approach that utilises methods from a range of other paradigms in order to problematise and destabilise taken-for-granted, socially sanctioned notions of gender and sexuality. Language and sexuality work from the 1990s onwards has been heavily influenced by aspects of queer theory. The study of language and sexuality has grown from a fairly restricted focus on lexical studies of gay men’s slang to a broader examination of the ways in which language can be used to index sexuality in various contexts of use. Furthermore, the field has moved from an almost exclusive focus on gay men to investigating a range of sexual identities. The incorporation of elements of queer theory has involved a critical reconsideration of what is meant by ‘sexuality’ and 'sexual identity’ and their relationship to linguistic forms, context, and use. In Livia and Hall's (1997) landmark publication, Queerly Phrased, the term ‘queer’ is used to refer to non-normative or resistant identity performances which may or may not be tied to a particular categoiy of sexual identity. Conceptualisations of ‘identity’ are a key concern of queer theory, as they are in other sociocultural and critical methodologies used in the smdy of language, gender, and sexuality.

In the following sections, I describe the development of queer theory and its application to the smdy of gender and sexuality within linguistics - queer linguistics. I consider some of the oft-cited criticisms of queer theory and offer a development of a ‘queer applied linguistics’ (QAL) framework which works to counter such criticisms. Within QAL, I consider the key concepts of temporality, spatiality, and normativity and their usefulness in accounting for the ways in which different gender and sexuality identities emerge in, and are enacted through, language. I then illustrate the QAL framework by examining some linguistic data (interviews with teachers and young people, and recorded extracts of classroom interaction) taken from school settings. In analysing this data, I draw on critical discourse analysis as a method that can be used within an overarching QAL approach. In the final section of the chapter, I outline other applications of queer theory to research on language, gender, and sexuality beyond education and offer suggestions for how the approach may be developed and utilised in the future.

Queer theory and queer linguistics

Queer linguistics is underpinned by queer theory, which takes ‘heteronormativity’ as its main object of critical investigation. Heteronormativity is defined by Cameron (2005: 489) as ‘the system which prescribes, enjoins, rewards, and naturalises a particular kind of heterosexuality - monogamous, reproductive, and based on conventionally complementary gender roles - as the norm on which social arrangements should be based'. Queer theory scholars such as Halperin (1993) have pointed out that, importantly, there is actually no such thing as ‘queer theory’ in a singular form. Rather, queer theory consists of many different approaches. But what all queer theory work has in common is its critical investigation of heteronormativity and its resistance to presenting gender as an a priori category. Instead, queer theory interrogates the underlying preconditions of gender and sexuality identity, and how these may be enacted and formulated in discourse.

Within queer theory, Butler’s (1990,1993,2004) theories of performativity have been of particular importance for questioning socially sanctioned concepts of normality in relation to gender and sexuality. Queer theory presents a unified view of gender and sexuality in that it recognises that cultural ideologies of gender normativity are bound up with assumptions of heterosexuality. Butler (1990) develops this notion in her claims that heterosexuality is naturalised by the performative repetition of normative gender identities. Butler surmises that the categories of gender and sexuality have been ‘causally entangled in knots that must be undone’ (1998: 225-226). Thus, the principle of queer theory that claims an integral and definitional relationship between gender and sexuality is of central importance to queer linguistics and its applications.

Queer linguistics draws on the principles of queer theory outlined above and applies them to the study of language. Motschenbacher and Stegu (2013: 522) define queer linguistics in concise terms as ‘critical heteronormativity research from a linguistic point of view’. Most definitions and explanations of queer linguistics are based around the concept of heteronormativity and use it as a theoretical and analytical starting point. Cameron and Kulick (2003) assert, importantly, that queer linguistics can be applied to the critical investigation of heterosexual identities and desires as well as those that are sexually marginalised. They note that research on language and sexual minorities tends to focus on analysing linguistic manifestations of homophobia and other kinds of sexuality-based discrimination, whilst queer linguistics more broadly encompasses an analysis of discursive formations of all sexual identities, including heterosexualities. Part of this analysis involves exploring the linguistic means by which heterosexuality comes to be seen as the assumed default sexuality whilst other sexualities become marked as ‘non-normative’. Furthermore, it is certain kinds of heterosexualities that are privileged and this is also a concern of queer linguistics (also discussed by Leap and Motschenbacher 2012). What we can take from queer linguistics is that there also needs to be more critical scrutiny of how privileged forms of heterosexuality are discursively formed in applied contexts with a view to ultimately challenging and changing such practices. With this in mind, intersectionality is an important concept which has been developed within queer theory in order to acknowledge and understand how ‘sexuality’ can involve more than the hetero/homo continuum. For example, identities and relationships may be discursively constructed as normal/not normal in relation to other social dimensions of identity such as ethnicity, age, and social class.

Motschenbacher (2011) and Motschenbacher and Stegu (2013) argue that queer linguistics lends itself well to an eclectic combination of linguistic analytical methods (or methodological pluralism) in order to provide mutually qualifying positions. Leap (2018: 10) has also referred to a ‘scavenger methodology’ as being particularly appropriate for queer inquiiy across a range of disciplines. In work which applies queer linguistics, various established methods are therefore drawn on in order to analyse different types of language data. These methods include corpus linguistics, critical discourse analysis, conversation analysis, multi-modal discourse analysis, linguistic landscapes, and interactional sociolinguistics (and this list is not exhaustive).2 Within the scope of this chapter, it is not possible to review or exemplify applications of all of these methods to work on language, gender, and sexuality. I therefore take one approach - critical discourse analysis (discussed later) - as an illustration of how an established methodological and analytical framework can be used within queer linguistics to explore how gender and sexuality identities are enacted through language in school contexts.

Criticisms of queer linguistics and the development of QAL

Motschenbacher (2011) documents the main criticisms levelled against queer linguistics - that it has restricted relevance and real-life empirical applications and that it raises problematic issues concerning political agency. Motschenbacher counters such claims by arguing that queer linguistics, contrary to the critical claims, does not focus exclusively on documenting gay and lesbian aspects of language. Its focus is on how all sexual identities are construed through discourse, but with particular attention paid to how heteronormativity becomes materialised through discourse as the dominant sexuality. In other words, attention is paid to how non-heteronormative identities are often marginalised through particular discursive processes which are identified through the application of queer linguistic approaches. The effects of such marginalisation can arguably be damaging for heterosexual-identified people as well as members of sexual minorities. The political motivations underlying queer linguistics are thus self-proclaimed and seen as a strength rather than a limitation. It has been argued that there are tensions between queer linguistics as an identity-questioning approach and the focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, which instead suggests an identity-affirming theoretical background. However, counter-arguments claim that the notion of identity does not need to be dispensed with if taking a queer linguistic approach. In terms of its empirical applicability, Motschenbacher counters criticisms by arguing that queer linguistics lends itself well to utilising linguistic methods that have already been established within other areas of applied linguistics, such as those mentioned in the previous section (and many of which are covered thr oughout this volume), and applying them to queer research purposes.

One such way forward may be to embed queer theory into the existing approach of critical applied linguistics and apply it to analysing discursive constructions of heteronormativity in specific contexts. Critical applied linguistics (CAL) has been defined as 'the practice of applied linguistics grounded in a concern for addressing and resolving problems of inequality’ (Hall, Smith, and Wicaksono 2017: 18). According to Hall et al., critical applied linguistics is an approach to language study which addresses a specific problem for the benefit of a defined set of 'clients’ or end-users. They argue that the identification of a 'real-world’ problem should be informed by the people who experience it. But their definition does not address key theoretical issues which, I argue below, have emerged from queer linguistics and are potentially useful to the field of applied linguistics more broadly. Data discussed in this chapter identifies a set of social inequality problems related to gender and sexuality in schools which can be investigated through a queer theory-informed analysis of linguistic practices. We may loosely define ‘queer applied linguistics’ (QAL), then, as CAL which is informed by queer theory/queer linguistics and which is applied to addressing social concerns with inequalities around gender and sexuality. Like CAL, QAL has a social justice orientation. Drawing on Motschenbacher’s (2011) conceptual developments of queer linguistic approaches, I argue that three key overlapping issues have emerged as relevant to work which utilises a QAL framework. These issues are: temporality; space; and normativity. ‘Real-world’ problems are always situated in time and space, and are therefore temporally and spatially construed. These first two issues map onto what Motschenbacher calls contextuality (spatiality) and fluidity (temporality) in his identification of dimensions that a queer approach to applied linguistics must be able to grasp. What is considered a 'problem’ is also at least partially constructed by culturally and socially situated notions of 'normativity’ - a concept which, according to Motschenbacher, needs to be theorised more fully in queer linguistics. I briefly consider these key QAL concepts in the remainder of this section before applying them to the critical discourse analysis of school-based language data in the later sections.

Leap (2020) indicates that the temporal signification of ‘before’ is of central importance and should be critically interrogated in work which focuses on language and sexuality. Leap proposes the approach of ‘queer historical sociolinguistics’ for engaging with issues of time in relation to language and sexuality. Significantly, Leap argues that temporal narratives can frame historical events in such a way that the narratives obfuscate problematic issues which persist after the event in question. Leap’s work enables us to see how discriminatory language practices around gender and sexuality are real-world problems which are historical (temporal) constructs. Their temporal and contingent nature means that they are inherently unstable and subject to narrative retellings which imbue them with diverse meanings and effects in different temporal and spatial sites. Importantly, queer time can also function to exclude, restrict, and erase, rather than to open up possibilities that lie beyond the ‘normal’. Leap argues that narratives of language and sexuality that end in ‘triumph’ may actually disguise homophobic (and other discriminatory) practices by focusing only on positive outcomes and rendering invisible continuing struggles experienced by certain LGBT+ individuals and communities. Examples include the ‘triumph’ narratives that circulate in popular discourse around legal and social ‘successes’ relating to sexuality such as the passing of same-sex marriage laws and decriminalisation.

This notion of temporality links to another important principle of queer theory discussed by Hall (2013) - that heteronormativity itself is not stable across time and space. Hall (2013; 638) argues that ‘the social meaning granted to heteronormativity, even if its idealisation persists, is always shifting across the interactions of those associated with it’. Although temporality and spatiality are probably true of any so-called resistance movement, within queer theory, the ways in which they have the potential to destabilise heterosexuality are important.

Milani (2013) also draws attention to the need for temporal analysis in the discussion of normativity (another key concept in QAL), asserting that normativity as a concept is never stable and is always temporally and spatially contingent. It is from this position that Hall argues that temporality (especially in relation to heteronormativity) should be a key concern of queer linguistics.

In another seminal queer theory work. In A Queer Time and Place (2005), Halberstam argues that time and space are subjected to the same kinds of naturalisation processes as discursive practices. Therefore, 'queer time' can both constnict and resist normative identities. Drawing on Halberstam’s (2005) work and transferring it to the study of language and sexuality, Leap and Motschenbacher (2012: 7) state:

To study language, sexuality and queer temporality is to ask questions about linguistic and sexual practices that take place in spatial and temporal domains that lie outside of the ordinary, the familiar, and the ‘normal’.

Such ideas have led to a recent incorporation of examinations of space and time in relation to language and sexuality. Milani (2013), for example, examines multimodal (linguistic and spatial) constructions of sexual identity in a university environment. He argues that using multimodal methods of discourse analysis, and incorporating a semiotic analysis of sexuality and space, could further our understanding of the relationship between language and sexuality and how it operates in educational and other contexts.

A third key concept in QAL, and in queer theory more broadly, is that of normativity. Motschenbacher (2014) has been critical of the lack of theorising around the term ‘normativity' (including //eteronormativity) in queer linguistics. He argues that much recent language and sexuality work makes frequent reference to the concept of normativity without fully explaining or theorising it. Motschenbacher argues that speakers have a tendency to orient towards a shared notion of normativity in their language practices. However, normativity itself is not stable and a way of theorising it is to view it as constantly shifting and relative to spatio-temporal contexts. Therefore, the three QAL concepts identified here always overlap.

In sum, QAL is problem-focused and has a social justice orientation relating specifically to gender and sexuality issues. It takes critical heteronormativity analysis as its central focus and recognises that key issues within contextualised examinations of heteronormativity need to take into account temporal and spatial understandings and realisations of normativity. I discuss these issues below with illustrations from linguistic data taken from UK secondary school contexts.

Applications of the approach: language, gender, and sexuality in schools

To date, education has been a key area of application of queer theory to the study of language. Nelson (2012) asserts that queer linguistics is an appropriate approach to use to examine the ways in which particular discourses of gender and sexuality are produced in school contexts through the deployment of specific linguistic practices. In previous work (Sauntson 2012, 2018), I illustrate how linguistic methods of analysis can be used alongside queer theory to critically examine the discursive constructions of ‘normal’ and 'queer' gender and sexuality in school classrooms. I show how incorporating some of the principles of queer theory into the types of analyses already used can help to uncover the ways in which heterosexuality is naturalised and how other forms of sexual and gender identity are ‘queered’ in school contexts. QAL can therefore provide a helpful theoretical framework for examining how normative and non-normative constructions of sexual identity are enacted through and inscribed in language practices in schools, and how these language practices may effect particular discourses of sexuality. I incorporate the key conceptual elements of temporality, spatiality, and normativity within QAL when researching language and sexuality in schools. In practical terms, this means examining how and why speakers and writers orient towards particular ideas of normativity through their language practices, and how normative genders and sexualities are represented through the language used in school settings. The approach also involves being aware of how the very notion of normativity may shift in relation to spatial and temporal contexts.

Research in a range of international contexts identifies schools as sites that are characterised by assumptions that students are heterosexual (heteronormativity) and by an atmosphere of homophobia, thus highlighting a ‘real-world’ problem. Despite recent legislative changes in the UK and US, for example, research indicates that heteronormativity and homophobia continue to pervade schools and that the effects of this are damaging for young people identifying or perceived to be LGBT+ (Kosciw et al. 2015; McDermott et al. 2008; Bradlow et al. 2017). However, little attention has been paid to the linguistic dimensions of these problems. The application of queer theory to the study of language and education using a QAL framework can arguably be particularly helpful for exploring the often complex ways in which homophobia and heteronormativity are enacted in school contexts, as illustrated in the sections that follow.


In a project which explores the role played by language in constructing sexual identities in schools, CDA is used within a QAL approach to uncover linguistic practices in the datasets of: 20 semi-structured interviews with LGBT+-identified3 young people (aged 13-25) who attend or have recently attended school; 14 semi-structured interviews with educators working in a range of 11 to 16 and 11 to 18 schools in two areas of the UK; 4 (x 1-hour) Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) classroom interactions. In the interviews, all participants discuss their perceptions of how issues around sexual diversity are handled in their schools and what they think the key issues are. Additionally, the young people reflect on their experiences of, and attitudes towards, school in relation to their LGBT+ sexual identities.

In CDA, various types of linguistic analysis are used to uncover power relations and ideologies. There are various formal linguistic features which can be focused on in applying CDA, such as (but not limited to): lexical items; metaphors; evaluative language (e.g. semantic fields and adjectives); intertexmal references; grammatical and syntactic structures. In the data presented in this chapter, I focus mainly on particular lexical items and intertextual references which Pakula et al. (2015) have identified as 'gender-triggering points’ (GTPs) in texts. GTPs are based on Sunderland et al.’s (2002) concept of ‘gender critical points’ in classroom interaction in which specific references draw attention to gender and make it relevant to the lesson in some way. A GTP, according to Pakula et al. (2015), happens when gender is negotiated into relevance through the interaction taking place. Typical examples identified by the authors might include: gender roles being ascribed to characters or social actors; explicit linguistic instantiations of heterosexuality or heteronormativity; stereotypical or non-stereotypical representations of femininity and masculinity. I incorporate ‘sexuality’ into this framework so that GTPs become GSTPs (‘gender and sexuality triggered points’) in the current analysis. And I subsequently add any explicit or implicit linguistic references to sexuality as indicators of GSTPs in the data (some examples are discussed in the next section). I also pay particular attention to GSTPs which also signalled anything relating to temporality, spatiality, and normativity. Therefore, the critical analysis of GSTPs in the data is used to explore the QAL concepts of temporality, spatiality, and normativity. Arguably, the use of this kind of CDA within an overarching QAL approach enables a greater focus on how macro-discourses and ideologies around sexuality are embedded and inscribed within micro-interactions.

After presenting the QAL-informed critical discourse analysis around temporality and spatiality in the interview data, I then move to using examples from the RSE classroom interaction data to explore the dimension of normativity as it manifests in the language used in the data. This is done intentionally to give an idea of the different datasets used in the study. The key QAL concepts of temporality, spatiality, and normativity emerge as salient factors in the interviewees’ responses and narratives about their school experiences. These concepts also emerge in the analysis of the RSE classroom interaction data. In the sections that follow, I illustrate the importance of these three concepts and explore how they emerge as salient in the interview and classroom interaction datasets. In doing so, I aim to exemplify a QAL approach which draws on the specific analytic method of corpus-based discourse analysis. As stated earlier, the concepts do overlap - they are presented in separate sections in this chapter purely for illustrative purposes.


In the interview data taken from the school-based project, the young people and teacher participants in the study refer explicitly to school as a temporal (and spatial) state, as in the examples below (temporal/historical indicators are underlined). In the first example, Lauren (a history teacher) responds to a question about whether she had been given any training on raising awareness about sexual diversity issues in schools. In the response, Lauren locates her own stance towards teaching about sexual diversity in schools through a historical reference to the introduction of Section 28 in 1988.4

Lauren: I started teaching when clause 28 came in and so you know especially again

teaching in Brighton it was all you weren’t allowed to say it I mean I remember clause

28 was about not promoting it really it was bizarre it was all shite

Lauren reflects on how the introduction of the legislation had the effect of silencing talk about same-sex relationships in schools and this reflection is accompanied by negative evaluation. The very fact that Lauren raises and discusses this historical event suggests that it continues to have salience for her in relation to sexual diversity issues in schools. It is also an example of what Leap (2018) refers to as ‘ speciality ’ in historical sociolinguistics - past events and discursive formations ‘haunting’ and continuing to shape sexuality in the present day. A similar phenomenon occurs in the next example in which Natalie (an English teacher) makes a historical reference to ‘teachers of my age' (i.e. teachers who have many years' experience in the profession) and their perceived temporally located belief that open discussion about homosexuality continues to be illegal in schools. Natalie reflects on her belief that the passing of Section 28 had the opposite effect of its intended one of making teachers talk openly about sexuality more than they had done in the past. She laments the lack of explicit talk about sexuality that she believes characterises the present time.5

Natalie: I was reading something recently there was an article in was it the TES6 and somebody had done a big survey with this idea that teachers of my age thought you weren’t allowed to talk about homosexuality [...] I was reading this and thinking gosh I wasn’t aware of that it almost made me do it more [••■]

I think there was a lot more awareness about that when I mean you know because we think we mustn’t do that we have that discussion I don’t think as an English teacher we talk about those sorts of things in the same way any more

However, Natalie does not take this as an indicator of young teachers’ regressive attitudes towards LGBT+ identities, stating that she believes younger teachers to be ’more liberal’ than some of their older counterparts. But, importantly, she perceives less of a willingness to ‘take risks’ in the present school climate. Thus, open positive discussion about same- sex relationships and LGBT+ identities is temporally located in the past as she indicates here:

Natalie: I think they’re probably very much more liberal than perhaps thirty forty years a go about homosexuality but in terms of text content they are less willing to take risks

The LGBT+-identified young people in the study likewise made numerous references to temporality in relation to certain events and issues raised in the school context. In the first example below, Josh reports a teacher in the present time referring to AIDS as a ‘gay disease’ located in the space of gay clubs. This spectral homophobic discourse of AIDS as a gay disease is brought into the present in the spatio-temporal context of Josh’s recent experience of RSE lessons at school.

Josh: one thing that shocked me is that they were talking to us all about these dangers of sex and stuff in the sex education part and then they’d take us to a disease section and the teacher there she gets very into it and she talks about AIDS and that was the only time when she talked about gays and stuff but she sort of talked about like AIDS was a gay disease like she was saying this spread from gay clubs

Here, the temporal indicators are not explicit in that Josh does not directly refer back to an earlier time period in the way that the teachers do. Rather, the temporal reference is implicit and functions as another instantiation of the kind of spectral haunting discussed by Leap. The reference to AIDS as a gay disease echoes the dominant AIDS discourses of the 1980s - but here we see in Josh’s narrative that this discourse is still being reiterated in classrooms in the late 2010s. Ashford also reports on a teacher relaying to a class that openly discussing LGBT issues and same-sex marriage is ‘illegal’ in schools and churches. This erroneous information is another example of a spectral discourse from the past being construed in the temporal present. In a similar way to the previous example, the temporal indicators are not explicit, but are implied through spectrality: homosexuality and same-sex marriage were illegal in the past and, even though this is no longer the case, the discourse from the past is reiterated by the teacher in the present to produce a homophobic discourse in the classroom.

Ashford: I asked the teacher and she said we can’t do anything like LGBT and marriage because it’s illegal to do it in the church and school

For these young people, there are no available reporting mechanisms for spectral (past) homophobic discourses being construed in the present time in schools. Thus, temporal spec- trality (echoes of past homophobic discourse) becomes a legitimate means of perpetuating homophobic discourse in school spaces.


The examples discussed in the previous section have shown how temporality emerges as a QAL concept in the interview data and functions as a means of showing how some of the young people and teachers understand how homophobia is produced in schools in the present day. The second QAL concept of spatiality also emerges as salient in the interview data and often overlaps with temporality and normativity. The young people interviewed for the research often talk about school as a space (or a number of spaces) and frequently report their school experiences as conflicting with their experiences of other spaces, such as the home, social media, and the internet in relation to their sexuality. In this sense, the GSTPs invoke spatiality as well as gender and/or sexuality. They often perceive different gender and sexual norms as operating within the space of the school, meaning that ‘normativity’ itself becomes imbued with specific meanings which are contingent on school space. The young people participants, in particular, also often report different norms operating in different school spaces, such as specific subject classrooms, toilets, and changing rooms. Whilst classrooms are often perceived to be ‘safer’ due to the presence of teachers, schools spaces which are not policed by adults are reported by the young people to be experienced as unsettling and threatening and as spaces where uon-normative sexualities and genders are likely to be punished through physical and verbal violence. Thus, normativity itself shifts in relation to time and space. Several young people report on the spatial segregation of students according to perceived binaiy sex in their schools, as in the example below.

Ashford: another thing that schools need to change is segregating or like putting people in different things because of their gender

[...] girls' changing room right next to it they’re on completely different sides of the school and even our PE lessons are quite often segregated which is ridiculous

Some of the young people also constnicted their school as an ‘unsafe’ space, lamenting the lack of spaces within the school which offered safety and freedom from the strict gender and sexuality policing perceived as characterising the school environment.

Ashley: I think that it would be good to implement discussion of sexuality and gender identity in any kind of conversation about sexual health I think that in terms of policy there should really have been some safer spaces I feel like the solution they offered was so absurd that I should change with the female staff that would have never worked

In the interviews, the students suggest that safe school spaces could, for example, take the form of ungendered toilets and changing rooms and classrooms in which any form of discriminatory language and behaviour is consistently and explicitly challenged. In sum, the young people talked about their school-based experiences of gender and sexual diversity as largely heteronormative and homophobic, and these discourses were located temporally and spatially through linguistic signifiers such as GSTPs. Moreover, these signifies of temporality and spatiality overlap with the third key concept within QAL - that of normativity.


In the interview data, the young people identified SRE lessons as a key school-based site for the reinforcement of heteronormativity and, therefore, as a temporal space in which they repeatedly felt isolated and marginalised. This is revealed through the QAL-informed CDA presented in the preceding sections. As explained earlier, I also recorded a sequence of four (x 1-hour) SRE lessons as part of the research project. The lessons focused on the topics of the risks associated with embarking on a sexual relationship, and making decisions about relationships. In applying CDA to this dataset, I again used the method of critically analysing GSTPs in relation to normativity.

A key finding which emerged was that 'gender' itself was frequently constructed in binary terms and transgender issues are completely ignored, thus constructing a norm of gender as biological and static. For example, there were frequent references to ‘penis' (biological male) in relation to 'boys’ (gender). The result is the emergence of normative constructions of gender as reducible to biological sex, and as a binary construct. Furthermore, talk about biological body parts in relation to sex almost always occurred in relation to the negative consequences of engaging in sexual activity, such as the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as illustrated in the following examples (in the data examples, GSTPs which construct normativity are underlined):

  • 1 T: this is thrush this is what a discharge would look
  • 2 like boys the one below is what a thrush discharge would
  • 3 look like for a girl
  • 1 T: it’s genital warts and you can see warts on a boy's
  • 2 penis and warts on a girl’s vulval area as well
  • 1 T: if you don’t get it treated then it can cause
  • 2 infertility when you’re older which means it might stop
  • 3 you from conceiving a baby in the natural way that a baby
  • 4 is conceived

Another key finding is that particular and restricted normative discourses of heterosexuality are (re)produced through the interaction as well as through the content of the lesson. Monogamous heterosexual relationships are ideologically afforded a normative status and sexual activity which takes places within such relationships is prioritised. Other possible relationship and sexual activity options are notably absent from the discourse. This supports Motschenbacher’s (2010, 2011) argument that heteronormativity is ‘ubiquitous’ and continually thriving in everyday talk. But there is also no diversity represented within heterosexuality - it is almost always constructed as two-person, monogamous, and involving no physical sexual activity other than vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, sex is constructed as risky and dangerous, even the vaginal intercourse that is presented as the primary activity taking place within such heterosexual relationships. Sex is constructed in negative terms, and there is a predominant focus on ‘unwanted’ outcomes, such as pregnancy and the transmission of STIs. In the example below, this coincides with the idea that sexual activity amongst teenagers is expected to remain ‘hidden’ from parents and caregivers and that engaging in sex is something that young people would not normally be expected to discuss with their families. It is implied in this example that the hypothetical ‘mum and dad’ would not have been involved in the young person’s decision to start engaging in sexual activity and to take measures to ensure protection. The notion of secrecy and lack of dialogue amongst families is a theme which runs throughout the whole sequence of lessons. The possibility of sex being a topic which is openly discussed in a positive way in the home is absent from the discourse.

  • 1 T: understand the impact that your decisions have on your
  • 2 life and remember that there are other people involved in
  • 3 that life and it can be for example pregnancy it can be
  • 4 sexually transmitted diseases it can be something as
  • 5 simple as your mum or dad have found condoms in your
  • 6 bedroom or the pill

In examples such as these in which the teacher is discussing the negative consequences of engaging in heterosexual activity, there are more serious consequences for girls than for boys. The negative consequences include infertility, pregnancy, STIs (there are more examples discussed of girls having STIs than boys), being labelled, and having regrets. Thus, ‘regret’ is constructed as a norm for girls in this particular spatio-temporal context.

The actual SRE guidance document for England and Wales (2014) (which informs the content of SRE in state schools) states that there should be 'no promotion of sexuality’ despite the implicit focus on heterosexuality as exemplified by its concurrent emphasis on reproduction, contraception, and ‘importance of marriage for bringing up children’.

[...] children should be taught about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children. The Government recognises that there are strong and mutually supportive relationships outside marriage. Therefore, children should learn the significance of marriage and stable relationships as key building blocks of community and society [...] teachers should be able to deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, answer appropriate questions and offer support. There should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and what is taught in schools is an area of concern for some parents.

(SRE Guidance for England and Wales 2014:11-13)

This tension between the edict to not promote sexual orientation and the routine ‘promotion’ of heterosexuality is realised through the ideological assumptions made about normative gender and (hetero)sexuality in the classroom interaction data. In the two typical examples below, the GSTPs invoke heterosexuality, and explicit reference is made by the teacher to ‘mum and dad’, thus inferring that a heterosexual two-parent family structure is the expected norm: [1]

  • 1 T: and you’ve got your mum and dad there and you’re like
  • 2 [singing noise] or your gran is even worse isn't it

In other examples, the teacher makes reference to ‘the guy' and ‘the girl' when discussing 'relationships' in a general sense, thus reinforcing heterosexuality as the expected norm:

  • 1 T: when we watched that ‘A to Z of Love and Sex’ there
  • 2 was a guy on there that talked about his first intimate
  • 3 relationship was with a girl it was her first time
  • 4 T: just glide it out don’t just pull your penis out
  • 5 because what happens is the condom will stay inside the
  • 6 girl

In sum, the norms operating in the school environments of these young people were overwhelmingly perceived to be discriminatory and intolerant in relation to gender and sexual diversity.

The examples discussed above are intended to give a flavour of how a QAL approach, drawing on the established linguistic analytical method of CDA in its application, can be applied to the study of language, gender, and sexuality in school contexts. The examples illustrate the centrality of the QAL concepts of temporality, spatiality, and normativity within a queer approach and, in doing so, draw attention to real-world problems and challenges currently being faced by young people. What the QAL-informed research reported on in this chapter has shown, for example, is that homophobia (and other gender and sexuality-based discriminatory practices) in UK schools now largely operates at a discursive level and is therefore very difficult to challenge. Moreover, it is evident that research on language, sexuality, and education must move beyond a focus on homophobia towards broader queer linguistic issues of gender and sexuality diversity. The context of the research suggests that sexual equality (‘triumph’) is becoming an accepted linear ‘triumph narrative’ (Leap 2020) which actually functions to occlude and obscure ongoing discriminatory practices in relation to gender and sexuality which continue to be discursively achieved.

Future directions

Fumre contributions to the development of queer theory and its application to language, gender, and sexuality are also likely to involve the development of methods and analytical frameworks. Milani (2013), for example, examines multimodal (linguistic and spatial) constructions of sexual identity in a university environment. He argues that using multimodal methods of discourse analysis, and incorporating a semiotic analysis of sexuality and space, could further our understanding of the relationship between language and sexuality and how it operates in educational and other contexts. Queer linguistics has been applied to the analysis of language and sexuality in virtual spaces (e.g. Hiramoto 2015; King 2011) and it is likely that this will continue to be an important area of development.

The datasets and analytical frameworks used for illustrative purposes throughout this chapter are by no means the only ones that may be used within a QAL approach. Indeed, a key strength of QAL and queer linguistics more generally is its flexibility and adaptability to context and purpose. A QAL approach itself is not intended to be presented as a ‘finished product’. In fact, Milani (2014) notes that ‘uncertainty’ is what crops up in many queer theoretical writings, and this includes research informed by queer linguistics.

The queer dimension of the approach itself means that it should not be stable, but should instead be constantly evolving and always open to contestation and critical development. As an approach, QAL certainly needs more rigorous theorisation of spatiality, temporality, and normativity, as well as what Pennycook (2017) has recently termed ‘a queer approach to materiality’ whereby greater attention is paid to discursive materialisations of sexualities in relation to political economies. The constructs of spatiality, temporality, and normativity may also come to be usefully applied to other areas of critical linguistic theory, although, at the time of writing, their relevance is only being addressed in relation to queer linguistics.

Furthermore, future projects that apply queer theory (and in particular QAL) to language, gender, and sexuality will take place in different times and spaces and may address different conceptualisations, understandings, and experiences of sexual and gender normativity. But what they will have in common is a desire for social transformation, in which schools become places where acceptance of diversity is the new norm, and a move towards greater social justice.


  • 1 Some of the material in this chapter is drawn from Sauntson (2016) and (2018).
  • 2 See Sauntson (2019 - Chapter 3) for further discussion of how each of these methods has been applied in empirical studies of language, gender, and sexuality.
  • 3 ‘LGBT+’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender +) is a shorthand term for a range of non-heterosexual and non-gender-conforming sexual and gender identities. The ‘plus’ sign (+) on the end of ‘LGBT’ is an acknowledgement of the diversity of gender and sexuality identities, whilst at the same time realising that it is not feasible to iterate or capture all of them when discussing gender and sexuality issues. The indeterminacy of the “+’ is also an attempt to go some way towards recognising that gender and sexual identities are fluid and difficult to define. For more information, see and erms-and-definitions.
  • 4 Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 made it illegal for homosexuality to be ‘promoted’ in schools. Non-heterosexual relationships were described as ‘pretended family relationships’. It was repealed by Britain’s Labour government in 2003.
  • 5 Data extracts are transcribed for content only. Conversational features are not included as they did not form part of the analysis.
  • 6 Times Educational Supplement - a British newspaper.

Further reading

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

This textbook explores the role of language in the construction of gender and sexuality identities in a range of text types and contexts.

Cameron, D. and Kulick, D. (eds.) (2006) The Language and Sexuality Reader. London: Routledge.

This reader brings together work from a range of fields and disciplines which examines various aspects of the relationship between language and sexuality.

Cashman, H. (2018) Queer, Latinx and Bilingual: A Critical Sociolinguistic Ethnography. London: Routledge.

This book presents findings from an ethnographic study of LGBTQ Mexicans/Latinxs which explores how participants’ ethnic and sexual identities are understood and enacted in relation to their language practices.

Morrish, E. and Sauntson, H. (2007) New Perspectives on Language and Sexual Identity’. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

This book, informed by queer theory and queer linguistics, presents a range of linguistic data to explore aspects of the relationship between language and sexual identity with a specific focus on non- heteronormative identities.

Nelson, C. (2009) Sexual Identities in English Language Education: Classroom Conversations. London: Routledge.

This monograph draws on queer theory to explore the challenges and opportunities which arise in addressing queer themes and perspectives in English language classrooms.

Related topics

Language, gender, and sexuality: reflections on the field’s ongoing critical engagement with the

sociopolitical landscape; gender and sexuality normativities; interactional sociolinguistics in language

and sexuality research: benefits and challenges; determining the impact of gender stereotyping on

patient feedback; investigating gendered language through collocation.


Bradlow, J., Bartram, F., Guasp, A. and Jadva, V. (2017) School Report: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans Young People in Britain's Schools in 2017. London: Stonewall.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York, NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1998) ‘Afterword’. In: Munt, S. (ed.) Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender. London: Cassell, pp. 225-230.

Butler, J. (2004) Undoing Gender. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (2005) ‘Language, gender and sexuality: Current issues and new directions’, Applied Linguistics, 26(4), pp. 482-502.

Cameron, D. and Kulick, D. (2003) Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Department for Education (2014) Sex and Relationships Education Guidance. Crown Copyright. DfE..

Halberstam, J. (2005) In a Queer Time and Place. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Hall, C., Smith, P., and Wicaksono, R. (2017) Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.

Hall, K. (2013) ‘Commentary I: “It’s a hijral”: Queer linguistics revisited’, Discourse and Society, 24(5), pp. 634-642.

Halperin, D. (1993) ‘Is there a history of sexuality?’ In: Abelove, H., Barale, M., and Halperin, D. (eds.) The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 416-421.

Hiramoto, M. (2015) ‘Who’s really normal? Language and sexuality in public space’, Journal of Language and Sexuality, 4(2), pp. 183-192.

King, B. (2011) ‘Language, sexuality and place: The view from cyberspace’, Gender and Language, 5(1), pp. 1-30.

Kosciw, J., Greytak, E., Giga, N., Villenas, C., and Danischewski, D. (2015) The 2015 National School Climate Survey. New York, NY: GLSEN.

Leap, W. (2020) Language and Sexuality before Stonewall. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Leap, W. and Motschenbacher, H. (2012) ‘Launching a new phase in language and sexuality studies’, Journal of Language and Sexuality, 1(1), pp. 1-14.

Livia, A. and Hall, K. (eds.) (1997) Oueerty Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, E., Roen, K., and Scourfield, J. (2008) ‘Avoiding shame: Young LGBT people, homophobia and self-destructive behaviours’, Culture, Health and Sexuality, 10(8), pp. 815-829.

Milani, T. (2013) ‘Expanding the queer linguistic scene: Multimodality, space and sexuality at a South African university’, Journal of Language and Sexuality, 2(2), pp. 206-234.

Milani, T. (2014) ‘Sexed signs - Queering the scenery’, International Journal of the Sociology’ of Language, 228(228), pp. 201-225.

Motschenbacher, H. (2010) Language, Gender and Sexual Identity: Poststructuralist Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Motschenbacher, H. (2011) ‘Taking queer linguistics further: Sociolinguistics and critical heteronormativity research’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 212, pp. 149-179.

Motschenbacher, H. (2014) ‘Focusing on normativity in language and sexuality studies: Insights from conversations on objectophilia’, Critical Discourse Studies, 11(1), pp. 47-70.

Motschenbacher, H. and Stegu, M. (2013) ‘Queer linguistic approaches to discourse: Introduction’, Discourse and Society, 24(5), pp. 519-535.

Nelson, C. (2012) ‘Emerging queer epistemologies in studies of ‘gay’-student discourses’, Journal of Language and Sexuality, 1(1), pp. 79-105.

Pakula, L., Pawelczyk, J., and Sunderland, J. (2015) Gender and Sexuality in English Language Education: Focus on Poland. London: British Council.

Pennycook, A. (2017) ‘Discussion: Sexuality and applied linguistics: poststructuralist perspectives’, Colloquium at American Association of Applied Linguistics Conference, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2017.

Sauntson, H. (2012) Approaches to Gender and Spoken Classroom Discourse. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Sauntson, H. (2016) ‘Language, sexuality and education’. In: Wortham, S. and Kim, D. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Language and Education: Discourse and Education. New York, NY: Springer.

Sauntson, H. (2018) Language, Sexuality and Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sauntson, H. (2019) Researching Language, Gender and Sexuality: A Student Guide. London: Routledge.

Sunderland, J., Cowley, M., Abdul Rahim, F., Leontzakou, C., and Shattuck, J. (2002) ‘From representation towards discursive practices: Gender in the foreign language textbook revisited’. In: Litosseliti, L. and Sunderland, J. (eds.) Gender Identity’ and Discourse Analysis. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 223-255.


  • [1] T: diseases it can be something as simple as your mum or 2 dad have found condoms in your bedroom or the pill
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