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Ethnography and the Shifting Semiotics of Gender and Sexuality



This chapter focuses on ethnography as a multi-method research approach in the study of language, gender, and sexuality. The approach is especially appropriate to the field's understanding of gender and sexuality as intertwined social systems that are brought into being through situated discursive practice. Yet the dynamism of gender and sexuality is difficult to capture in published work: How can researchers write about a particular time and place in a way that acknowledges the ongoing processual nature of that particularity? The chapter illustrates how ethnography answers this question through its attention to the conceptual triad of practice, ideology, and theory. Drawing from fieldwork among groups in the United States and India associated with systems of gender outside colonial cisnormativity and heteropatriarchy, the discussion demonstrates the advantages of ethnography for assessing how gender and sexuality come to matter in the semiotic exchange of everyday life.
Ethnography and the shifting
semiotics of gender and sexuality
Kira Hall and Jenny L. Davis (Part II leads)
This chapter focuses on ethnography as a multi-method research approach in the study of lan-
guage, gender, and sexuality. Based on the practice of long-term participatory eldwork, the
approach primarily originated within cultural and linguistic anthropology, where it remains
the central anchor of research today. Yet, as seen in the following chapters in Part II, ethnog-
raphy has also been taken up by scholars in diverse elds across the humanities and social
sciences and shaped to t the particularities of each discipline. Several recent collections
have addressed the use of ethnography within language-oriented elds such as linguistic
anthropology (Perrino and Pritzker forthcoming), linguistic ethnography (Snell, Shaw, and
Copland 2015), and ethnography of communication (Kaplan-Weinger and Ullman 2015).
Our overview focuses on the use of ethnography within the now robust tradition of research
in the eld of language, gender, and sexuality.
Our discussion highlights the ways that ethnography enables the analysis of semiosis
here dened as sign processes that produce social meaning – as embedded in social context.
This approach is uniquely appropriate to the eld’s long-held understanding of gender and
sexuality as intertwined social systems that are brought into being through everyday dis-
cursive practice. Although the development of this understanding is often traced to Butler’s
(1990) philosophical work on performativity, it is also evident in early language and gen-
der scholarship informed by ethnography, including research on indexicality (Ochs 1992),
language ideology (Gal 1989), and communities of practice (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet
1992). The ethnographers who advanced these formative concepts, each in dierent ways,
enabled the eld’s later uptake of Butler’s work by countering sex-based generalisations
with a dynamic vision of gender as produced in everyday discourse (for a review, see Hall,
Borba, and Hiramoto 2021). Each stressed the crucial role played by social context in this
production, establishing ethnography as a necessary partner to the analysis of discourse. In
one of the chapters appearing in Part II, Philips, a leading ethnographer of language and
social life, calls this partnership ‘anthropological discourse analysis’. If gender is cultivated
through community-based practice as a ‘dynamic verb’, as Eckert and McConnell-Ginet
(1992: 462) argue in their early inuential review, then ethnography is the approach for
Kira Hall & Jenny L. Davis
tracing those dynamics in discourse (on ethnography as a central approach in language,
gender, and sexuality research, see Besnier and Philips 2014; Gaudio 2019; Hall 2009).
We have come together to co-author this discussion as two linguistic anthropologists
who are deeply committed to what ethnography can bring to the social analysis of language,
even as we acknowledge the important critiques made of the method by each new genera-
tion of scholars. In fact, ethnography is one of the ‘most critiqued’ methods in the social
sciences, in part because it asks for a kind of reexivity from the researcher that methods
aspiring to a dominant model of scientic objectivity do not share. Today’s ethnographers
are trained to be suspicious of claims to objectivity, holding that all research – even research
based purely in quantitative methods is in some sense inuenced by the position of the
researcher. Certainly, our own positions as a ‘native ethnographer writing from the inside
about Indigenous communities in the United States (e.g. Davis 2014, 2018, 2019) and a
‘foreign ethnographer’ writing from the outside about Hindi-speaking communities in India
(e.g. Hall 2005, 2009, 2019) aects the kind of data we collect and the type of analysis
we pursue. This reexive awareness arises in the very act of doing eldwork, whether in
a village, at school, in front of the television, or online. In ethnography, researchers do not
do objective observation, collecting specic pre-determined information from a detached
vantage point; rather, they do participant observation, taking part in the everyday practices
that are formative to the social, cultural, and linguistic behaviours they analyse. In the broad
interdisciplinary study of language and society subsumed under sociocultural linguistics
(Bucholtz and Hall 2008), these practices include the face-to-face interactions that are the
focus of more traditional eldwork alongside the digital interactions that pervade twenty-
rst-century social life. We are all participant observers of the media systems that surround
us; an ethnographic sensibility makes this participation the subject of analysis.
This chapter advances an understanding of social context as situated in a specic time
and place yet complexly informed by what came before and what exists elsewhere. This
deep contextualisation is the hallmark of ethnography and, as we argue in the pages that fol-
low, undergirds all phases of ethnographic activity, from collection and analysis to writing
and dissemination. The term ‘ethnography’, in our view, comprises much more than simply
‘describing a social group’, as its Greek etymology (ethno ‘social group’ + graphia ‘descrip-
tion’, ‘writing’) may suggest. As a kind of describing that is based on the author’s participa-
tion in the practices of others, ethnography refers to the process of research as well as its
product, involving much more than narrowly dened tools for data collection. As research-
ers of language in social life, we have found it challenging to represent the dynamism of
gender and sexuality in published work: How can we write about a specic time and place
in a way that acknowledges the ongoing processual nature of that particularity? We suggest
that ethnography oers an answer through its attention to the conceptual triad of practice,
ideology, and theory. We draw from our own work and the excellent work featured in Part
II to illustrate how ethnography, designed anew to encompass the heavily mediatised nature
of contemporary sociality, enables researchers to assess how gender and sexuality come to
matter in the semiotic exchange of everyday life.
The concept of practice runs deep in language, gender, and sexuality scholarship. Prominent
lines of research assume Bourdieu’s (1977) inuential understanding of language as a prac-
tice that shapes, through repetition, a social actor’s habitus, or way of being in the world.
Ethnography and shifting semiotics
Where the concept of practice has perhaps surfaced most robustly in the eld is in research
focused on ‘communities of practice’ a term initially advanced by Lave and Wenger (1991)
in their exposition of learning as a process of becoming a member of a sustained community.
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet’s (1992) introduction of this model into language and gender
scholarship countered broad-scale generalisations about women and men’s language pat-
terns found in early research in the eld. In a community of practice view, links between
language and gender are not merely a binary product of childhood language socialisation, as
scholarship advocating a two-cultures understanding of gender often implied. Rather, these
links are ‘learned’ throughout the life course as social actors become members of diverse
communities that cultivate the relationship between language and gender dierently.
Ethnographic research inspired by the community of practice tradition has convincingly
shown that indexical knowledge – that is, knowledge of how linguistic forms are connected
to social meanings – arises from sustained participation with others. In her research on uses
of ethnic jokes by lesbian and transgender youth in Delhi, Hall (2019) identies this kind of
knowledge as ‘indexical competence’ to emphasise the exclusionary semiotic mastery that
is required for localised forms of identity work (see also Parish and Hall 2021). The impor-
tance of this form of competence is amply illustrated by research on organisations of gender
in educational youth environments such as high schools, institutions that are recognised
in social scientic scholarship as vital sites of identity formation. Ethnographers entering
these sites have explored the ways that competing youth communities ascribe social mean-
ing to constellations of language, apparel, embodiment, and space as a means of achieving
stylistic distinction (e.g. Bucholtz 2011; Eckert 2000; Mendoza-Denton 2008; Pichler 2009;
Shankar 2008; Smalls 2018). Consider, for example, Bucholtz’s (1999) inuential account
within language and gender studies of a community of female nerds at a Northern California
high school. As the girls in her study engage with one another across multiple interactions,
they learn to use and interpret hyper-standardised uses of the English language as indexical
of a female nerd identity that opposes the perceived superciality of more popular peers.
Community members display nerd identity by demonstrating knowledge of these indexical
relations and the ideologies that inform them.
The link between knowledge and practice is what makes ethnography, with its key com-
ponent of participant observation, such an important approach for understanding the social
analytics of language. A primary strength of ethnographically informed analysis is its atten-
tion to the ways that indexical relations are situated within time and space. Through longi-
tudinal participation in situated communities, researchers can come to know the multiple,
ever-shifting, and often competing indexical relations that give meaning to gender and sexu-
ality. Scholars often comment on the paradoxical nature of participant observation: How
can one be both a participant and an observer? But the term is paradoxical only within a
perspective holding that observational knowledge must be detached from participation to
escape bias. This perspective, still dominant across the social and natural sciences, is built
on the premise that ‘knowing’ must exist independently from ‘being’ that we can only
know about the world when we refrain from participating in it (see discussion in Ingold
2014). However, community-based research in sociocultural linguistics has demonstrated
that our understanding of how to use and interpret language (‘knowing’) is in fact culti-
vated through our everyday interactions with others (‘being’). When cultural anthropologist
McGranahan characterises ethnography as a ‘unique way of knowing’, she is speaking to
the sensibility that derives from this cultivation: ‘The ethnographic consists of the rhythms
and logics through which we, in sociocultural groups, collectively make, and make sense
Kira Hall & Jenny L. Davis
of, the world’ (2018: 2). In this respect, we are all participant observers, acquiring indexical
knowledge as we engage with others through our bodies, minds, and senses. As a research
method, participant observation is designed to approximate the learning process that takes
place in everyday life, as lived experience.
Nevertheless, this approximation is always partial, given the ethnographer’s peculiar
investment in the learning process. Feminist anthropologists have argued for decades that
the asymmetry between ethnographer and subject has consequences and requires care.
Scholars in language, gender, and sexuality do not often display the self-reection seen
in certain genres of anthropological writing, yet the eld’s ongoing concern with power
relations requires researchers to be attentive to biases that unavoidably pervade all stages
of the research process, whether personal, cultural, or institutional. For instance, how
might our own social backgrounds aect the kinds of things we notice in the eld? How
might our previous histories of knowing and being inuence the way we analyse the
data we collect? This attentiveness is precisely what is captured by the term ‘reexivity’.
Ethnographers of language, as a special category of ethnographers, must also consider
the semiotic biases that inform our entry into worlds of practice dierent from our own.
How might our interpretations of language be inuenced by life experiences in commu-
nities that view the relationship between linguistic form and social meaning dierently?
As Briggs (1986) argued over three decades ago when reecting on his research among
Spanish speakers in northern New Mexico, the assumptions academics may hold about
communicative events as seemingly ubiquitous as the interview can lead us to ask the
wrong kinds of questions and to draw interpretations that may inaccurately reect the
perspectives of those we write about.
It is for this reason that the feminist concept of intersectionality gures so prominently in
ethnographically based research on language, gender, and sexuality (cf. Chun and Walters
forthcoming; Cornelius 2020; Levon and Mendes 2016). Because identity is multiply con-
stituted by engagement in diverse communities of practice, there can never be seamless
congruence between a researcher’s subjectivity and the subjectivity of the individuals under
focus. Rather, as language-and-gender scholar Jacobs-Huey has pointed out, ‘ethnographic
eldwork is an intersubjective process that entails an interaction of various subjectivities’
(2002: 791). It is this acknowledgement of intersubjectivity that transforms ethnography
into a feminist method, compelling us to see our interlocutors not as objects of study but
rather partners in discovery. This brings us to the second concept we see as integral to eth-
nographic analysis, ‘ideology’.
In the course of our respective careers, we have each encountered colleagues in linguistics
who view ethnographic work as ‘narrow’. A recent event in one of our departments comes
to mind, when a sociolinguistic presentation analysing over 14,000 tokens of the sound
/s/ as used by a gender variant community was characterised as based on ‘small data’. We
counter with the following response: ethnography is big data. It is the kind of data that can
be collected only by immersive participation over an extended period of time, often involv-
ing observation of hundreds or even thousands of hours of interaction. In fact, as Radin
(2017) and Lemov (2017) point out, Big Data owes much to ethnography and the associated
methods outlined in this chapter. Consider, for example, the Pima Indian Diabetes Dataset
(PIDD) that now forms an integral part of the UC Irvine Machine Learning Repository
Ethnography and shifting semiotics
responsible for testing data-mining algorithms (Radin 2017: 53) or the more than 300 hours
of anthropological interviews with Hopi consultant Don C. Talayesva that are foundational
to the web-based full-text database eHRAF World Cultures (Human Relations Area Files).
The dierence between big data and small data, then, is often more a matter of how the
‘local’ is acknowledged:
What makes data “big” is not so much its size – though that is relevant too – but its abil-
ity to radically transcend the circumstances and locality of its production. Computers
and algorithms make that possible, but understanding the politics of Big Data also
requires attention to the creation and processing of the data itself, including the recog-
nition that it often comes from living, breathing people.
(Radin 2017: 45–46)
Because ethnographers of language and social life investigate the ways that linguistic forms
and social meanings emerge within an array of practices that include consumption, cultural
traditions, education, kinship relations, media, politics, and religion, there is nothing ‘nar-
row’ or ‘small’ about ethnography. On the contrary, ethnographers examine a situated aspect
of semiotic practice in comprehensive detail as a means of discovering the historical, cul-
tural, political, and interactional processes that invest language with social meaning in the
(living, breathing) lives of those who use it.
To recall a well-cited phrase from Silverstein (1985), ethnographers seek to uncover
the ‘total linguistic fact’ – that is, the dialectic interaction between linguistic form (struc-
ture), social use (practice), and human reection on the meaning of those forms in use
(ideology) (see also Woolard 2008). This totality makes ethnography time-intensive with
respect to both data collection and analysis, so much so that it often disadvantages schol-
ars in departments expecting rapid publication. And yet for an ethnographer, a focus on
only one or two of these elements instead of three would betray the fundamental anthro-
pological insight that relations between form and meaning are forged in ‘situations of
interested human use mediated by the fact of cultural ideology’ (Silverstein 1985: 220).
For ethnographers of language and social life, ideology is the glue that holds form and
meaning together. When community members ascribe gendered meanings to a certain
sign form – whether a phonetic variable, a taboo term, an intonational contour, or a move-
ment of the body they do so through appeal to local and broader ideologies that give
sense to everyday life, that bring a logic to its messiness. Language ideologies are never
really just about language; rather, they reect the prejudices and privileges of the social
systems in which they are situated.
Participant observation is often held up as the investigative practice that makes ethnog-
raphy unique, but ethnography is inherently a mixed methodology. It involves a methodo-
logical complexity that is in many senses iconic of the complexity of social life (Blommaert
2007). While the eld-based method of participant observation is the bedrock of ethnogra-
phy, it is always used together with a variety of other methods (some specic to sociocul-
tural linguistics; others associated with cultural anthropology or other elds), among them
sociolinguistic interviews, archival research, media analysis, collaborations with eld-based
research partners, recording, transcription, translation, discourse analysis, and eldnotes.
The multifaceted methodologies that result from these combinations are designed to make
the ideological bond between micro and macro discoverable. A central tenet of ethnography
is that more information is always good information, particularly when taken from data
Kira Hall & Jenny L. Davis
sources that illuminate the focus of investigation from dierent spacetimes. For ethnog-
raphers of language, one of the most challenging aspects of this tenet is that the methods
associated with this diversity may lead to contradictory ndings regarding language use.
For example, the method of sociolinguistic interviews may uncover ideas about language
use that are not borne out in an analysis of actual language practice. It is in this disconnect
that ideology is found.
A case in point comes from Hall’s (1995) early dissertation research among Hindi-
speaking hijras in northern India (see also Hall and O’Donovan 1996), a group whose
members identify as na mard na aurat, ‘neither man nor woman’. When conducting socio-
linguistic interviews with members of the community, Hall repeatedly heard the refrain ‘We
never speak like men! We always address each other as women!’. Yet longitudinal partici-
pant observation of hijras’actual speech practices, coupled with discourse analysis, revealed
that they did in fact often use masculine reference for each other and even for themselves.
Why this disconnect between saying and doing?
For ethnographers of language, methods such as sociolinguistic interviews highlight
the ideologies of language and society that background speakers’ discursive behaviours.
Further interviews revealed that hijras, most of whom were raised as boys, wished to dis-
tance themselves from the masculine representations of their youth. This stance was made
stronger by society’s unwillingness to address them in the feminine, which to them indi-
cated a lack of respect. However, in actual language practice, a pattern emerged whereby
these same hijras would use masculine self-reference among themselves when establish-
ing relations of hierarchy. The disconnect between saying and doing is thus explained
as the dierence between a public-facing communal identity that distances itself from
masculinity (‘indirect indexicality’, in Ochs’s 1992 terminology) and an in-group prac-
tice-based identity that deploys masculine self-reference for certain conversational ends
(‘direct indexicality’, in Ochs’s 1992 terminology). Should Hall have stopped at the soci-
olinguistic interview she would not have seen the complexity of identication practices
within the community, where hijras exploit broader indexical links between language
and gender to take stances of hierarchy and solidarity. In fact, it was these shifting uses
of gender morphology that enabled Hall to understand hijra positionality as non-binary.
Davis’s work (2014, 2019) in a Native American Two-Spirit community in the western
United States additionally illustrates how ethnography can explain a contradictory use of
identity labels, in this case through a consideration of local vs. regional social contexts.
In her eldwork, Davis encountered several instances in which individuals identifying as
Two-Spirit (Native Americans who are spiritually both male and female) simultaneously
used and contested a variety of terms for their identity, among them ‘gay’, ‘trans’, and
‘queer’; ‘Two-Spirit’; and tribally specic terms such as nadlé (taken from Diné/Navajo).
Multi-sited discourse analysis revealed seemingly contradictory transcripts, both within
single events and across multiple discourse events, in which terms used as synonymous
in some instances were used with dierent meanings in others. Davis argues that these
terms are contextually polysemous: their meanings change based on factors that include
the audience’s presumed knowledge (or lack thereof) of Indigenous cultures in North
America as well as discourse uses of micro- and macro-categories with which Two-Spirit
identity might be compared.
As in Hall’s research, the disconnect between ideology and practice becomes most vis-
ible in moments when language use appears to contradict community members’ previous
statements. Consider, for example, Brent’s discussion of his use of these dierent terms,
which he shared with peers in a regional Two-Spirit group (Excerpt 1):
Ethnography and shifting semiotics
Excerpt 1
1 Brent: that is actually one of the biggest misconceptions.
2 on on the reservations
3 (.3)
4 all these tribes actually had names for for Two-Spirit
5 people.
6 but how people see them as
7 just like ‘oh they just mean gay’ but there is a deeper
8 root
9 James: ((cough))
10 Brent: um that um for nadhle.
11 I’m sorry I say nadhle more than I say Two-Spirit cause
12 I (hhh)’m just stubborn that way
13 TS Group: ((laughter))
Brent’s justication for using ‘nadhle’ (‘cause I’m just stubborn that way’; Lines 11–12)
indexes a belief that community-specic terms are more automatic or even more ‘natural’
for Native Americans than the term ‘Two-Spirit’. His reluctance to use the more generalised
term echoes Epple’s critique of the broad academic use of terms such as ‘berdache’, ‘gay’,
and even ‘Two-Spirit’, which in her view lack cultural and temporal grounding: ‘current
analytical concepts simply do not accommodate the simultaneous distinctness (identity as
nádleehí [plural]) and uidity (identity as context-dependent) of nádleehí’s self-descrip-
tions’ (1998: 268). It is perhaps for this reason that when group members oered accounts
in a formal presentation of specic historical gures now included under the Two-Spirit
umbrella, they referred to such gures as ‘Two-Spirit’ even as they used the term specic
to that individual’s tribal aliation: for instance, winkte (Lakhota), nadhle (Dine), and lha-
mana (Zuni). Individuals in the group were thus very attentive to using the appropriate local
designation for historical gures as well as for themselves and other group members.
However, it is important to note that these tribally specic terms were asserted in a
regional, multi-tribal Two-Spirit group, not in a local organisation comprised of individuals
from a single Nation. Participant observation combined with the analysis of discourse in
varied settings revealed that these same group members strongly identied as Two-Spirit in
ways that were relevant to their daily lives. The importance placed on local Indigenous iden-
tity labels in the above example in no way contradicts the appropriateness of the Two-Spirit
label as another facet of these speakers’ identities. In fact, the mutual dependence of local
and multi-tribal terms could be observed in their formal presentations precisely because the
presenters were recognised as holding multiple forms of identication that crossed local and
regional lines.
The above examples taken from our respective eldwork sites illustrate what can be
gained by combining participant observation with more specically linguistic methods
such as sociolinguistic interviews and multi-sited discourse analysis. Identity claims are
never simple; like all features of language, they emerge from complex social processes that
inevitably bring semiotic instability. The digital recordings that constitute the gold standard
of sociocultural linguistic data collection are important, but as static snapshots of a much
longer discursive history, they are never enough. At the same time, they are sometimes not
even necessary, as demonstrated by the rich linguistic insights oered by ethnographers who
are asked to refrain from using this method due to a community’s marginalisation, as seen
Kira Hall & Jenny L. Davis
in Borba’s (2018) work on Brazilian sex workers and Gaudio’s (2019) work on Nigerian
‘yan daudu. Although rarely highlighted in language, gender, and sexuality scholarship,
the anthropological method of writing eldnotes is a powerful tool for tracking the shifting
meanings of language across time and space. As qualitative data ideally recorded immedi-
ately after a research encounter, eldnotes can provide important descriptive evidence (both
factual and reective) about the discourse context under investigation. Indeed, as Goldstein
(2017) shows in her analysis of FBI director James Comey’s scrupulously detailed memos
of his interactions with President Trump, eldnotes, when done well, may even bring to life
the behind-the-scenes manipulations of a corrupt leader. The importance of Comey’s note-
taking after his meetings with the President was not lost on the media; in fact, his eldnotes
oered credibility to his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped
break the usual ‘he said, he said’ stasis. This reminds us of the importance of the -graphia
in ethnography’s etymology. In comparison to other approaches, ethnography is especially
concerned with the descriptive techniques of writing that will best display the complexity
of the people under focus, which for sociocultural linguists, also includes their language
This brings us again to the topic of reexivity. We suggest that all of ethnography’s
methods, when adopted and adapted for the needs of a study, require the reexivity that we
often associate with participant observation. Consider, for example, transcription, the work-
horse method used by discourse analysts to represent language practice in written form.
As Bucholtz reminds us, ‘transcription is not solely a research methodology for under-
standing discourse but also, and just as importantly, a sociocultural practice of representing
discourse’ (2007: 785). Sociocultural linguists have hundreds of transcription systems to
choose from, each with their own set of conventions. Decisions about which conventions
to use in a given transcript may be driven by research needs, but they also have ‘potentially
signicant analytical and political consequences’ (2007: 786). In this sense, methods such
as transcription are inherently theoretical (cf. Ochs 1979), a point that leads us to the nal
element in our conceptual triad, ‘theory’.
In an article entitled ‘Ethnography as theory’, Nader reects on key ethnographic texts
across 100 years of cultural anthropology and asserts the following: ‘Ethnography, what-
ever it is, has never been mere description. It is also theoretical in its mode of description.
Indeed, ethnography is a theory of description (2011: 211, emphasis in the original). As we
conclude this chapter, we want to reect on the ways that this claim is also relevant to the
history of ethnographic research on language, gender, and sexuality.
The rst observation to make in this regard is that the eld’s use of ethnography has
evolved in tandem with shifts in theoretical understandings of gender and sexuality. For
instance, early ethnographies of non-Indo-European ‘women’s languages’ and ‘men’s lan-
guages’ in the rst half of the twentieth century (e.g. Chamberlain 1912; Jespersen 1922)
are often characterised as descriptive, but their emphasis on the rigidity of linguistic gen-
der in non-European languages armed colonialist readings of these languages as primi-
tive (Hall 2003). In the second half of the century, ethnography was deployed by a new
generation of scholars to challenge broad generalisations made about women’s speech in
so-called dierence models of language and gender. Research in sites such as Madagascar
(Keenan Ochs 1974), Hungary (Gal 1978), southern Mexico (Brown 1980), a US high
school (Eckert 1989), and a Philadelphia African American community (Goodwin 1990)
Ethnography and shifting semiotics
brought complexity to the eld’s unmarked focus on middle-class white speakers. In the
1990s, Butler’s (1990) theory of gender performativity inspired the application of ethno-
graphic work to non-normative organisations of language, gender, and sexuality in varied
locations (see, e.g. articles in Leap 1995; Livia and Hall 1997). Many of the ethnographies
emerging in this period were positioned as overtly political in their commitment to ‘queer-
ing’ a largely heterosexual and cisgender canon, hence the eld’s name ‘queer linguistics’.
Similarly, the rise of multicultural feminism and its emphasis on intersectionality inspired
a deeper ethnographic consideration of the relationship between gender and race, as seen in
turn-of-the-century work by Jacobs-Huey (2006), Mendoza-Denton (2008), Morgan (2002),
and Zentella (1997).
In our current era of research on language, gender, and sexuality, ethnography contin-
ues to assist this decisively critical turn towards political advocacy for marginalised per-
spectives. Its diversity of method is now dedicated to the task of uncovering how gender
and sexuality articulate with systemic hierarchies of race, class, age, disability, colonial-
ism, imperialism, and geopolitics, among other topics. LGBTQ scholars are now using
ethnography to retheorise binaries (Zimman, Davis, and Raclaw 2014), counter cisgender
assumptions found in previous language and gender scholarship (Zimman 2020), estab-
lish the centrality of the body to sociolinguistic investigation (Calder 2019; King 2019;
Peck and Stroud 2015; Zimman and Hall 2010), and revise the queer theoretical concept
of normativity (Barrett 2017; Cashman 2019; Hall 2019; Hall, Levon, and Milani 2019).
Scholars of race are using ethnography to explore connections between language, sexuality,
and Blackness in ways that challenge the whiteness of previous work on gay male speech
(Cornelius 2020; Cornelius and Barrett 2020) and draw attention to everyday political pres-
sures confronting Black Queer Women (Lane 2019). Finally, scholars of the Global South
are using ethnographic methods to rethink organisations of gender and sexuality in Southern
contexts and thereby contest the dominance of Northern-originating forms of knowledge
production (Borba 2017; Deumert and Mabandla 2017; King 2017; Lazar 2017; Ostermann
2017; Shaikjee and Stroud 2017). This latter body of scholarship is particularly relevant
to our discussion, as it turns the reexivity that is ethnography’s strength onto geopoliti-
cal exclusions in the language, gender, and sexuality canon (for programmatic statements,
see Hall, Borba, and Hiramoto 2021; Milani and Lazar 2017). To return to Nader’s point,
ethnography is never merely descriptive. Like all scientic methodologies, even those held
up by their practitioners as pillars of objectivity, ethnography is embedded in the broader
theoretical questions that motivate its application.
Our second and nal observation concerns the importance of social theory to ethnogra-
phy more generally. Those of us who identify as ethnographers frequently characterise our
research approach as ‘bottom-up’, much like our colleagues in conversation analysis, a eld
that shares our disciplinary roots in ethnomethodology. Our work is focused on the micro-
details of everyday discourse, collected across space and time in our capacity as participant
observers. At the same time, we share with our colleagues in the eld of critical discourse
analysis an interest in top-down questions of power: How are broader social hierarchies
constituted through interaction? As researchers situated between the micro and the macro,
we would never characterise our method as ‘atheoretical’, as conversation analysts often do.
Rather, we make sense of the patterns we nd across diverse sources of data by consulting
the ideas of those who have dedicated their careers to understanding social life, otherwise
known as social theorists. The importance of social theory is perhaps obvious to researchers
in language, gender, and sexuality, particularly given the eld’s long-term intimacy with
evolving traditions of feminist and queer theory (Bucholtz 2014; Kramer 2016; McElhinny
Kira Hall & Jenny L. Davis
2003). And of course sociocultural linguists have also developed their own social theo-
ries, among them the social semiotic concepts of indexical order, enregisterment, style, and
language ideology. Together, such theoretical perspectives carry the potential to illuminate
patterns in our data, to make our claims regarding the workings of language in society more
robust. In addition, by engaging with broader social theoretical perspectives, we may be
able to persuade our colleagues in other socially oriented elds that language, no matter how
small, matters to societal organisations of gender and sexuality.
The authors of the ve chapters that appear in Part II each make use of the triad of con-
cepts we have outlined in this essay: practice, ideology, and theory. Locating their analy-
sis in the practices and ideologies they have observed as participants, they build on social
theory in ways that highlight the importance of language to the constitution of gender and
sexuality. In keeping with the spirit of this Handbook, the authors are reexive about their
methodologies, oering a wealth of perspectives on how ethnography may enable us to see
the workings of language, gender, and sexuality more clearly.
Shaw situates her ‘elite ethnography’ of UK parliamentary contexts within an emer-
gent tradition of scholarship known as ‘linguistic ethnography’ (Snell, Shaw, and Copland
2015), an approach that arose primarily in Europe. Shaw relies on a triangulation of meth-
ods that include participant observation, formal interviews, eld notes, and archival work.
Longitudinal eldwork in a variety of debating chambers revealed the ways that parliaments
share a habitus that prioritises some speakers and not others. For instance, Shaw details how
a ‘full view’ experience from the public galleries enabled a more robust understanding of
the gendered hierarchies that inform interaction in the chamber: Why is the female minister
sitting in a row of male ministers asked to fetch the First Minister a glass of water? This
same habitus appears to explain Assembly Member reactions to a female colleague who per-
formed ‘illegal sustained interventions’ when Cheryl Gillan, the British Secretary of State
for Wales, visited the chamber. Backstage interviews revealed that Assembly Members were
uncomfortable with their female colleague’s contrary behaviour, even as they disapproved
of Gillan’s elite ‘queen-mother like’ demeanour. On the surface, the Assembly Members’
disapproval of the behaviours of both women appears to arm Lako’s (1975) early read-
ing of women’s language as ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. But Shaw’s ethno-
graphic insights oer more complexity, exposing how the responses of the Welsh Assembly
Members (and indeed the female Assembly Member’s own behaviour) are also guided by
a history of tension between Wales and Westminster. Her analysis of how micro-details of
interaction connect to ‘macro questions of exclusion and power’ comes to life through her
reexivity at every stage of the ethnographic process, an approach she views as distinctly
Clark’s chapter also engages the theoretical work of Bourdieu when she asserts the use-
fulness of ethnography for exposing practices of symbolic violence – the unmarked forms of
non-physical violence that manifest in organisations of social hierarchy. Her focus is on the
compulsory heterosexuality found in everyday discourse: How do we analyse something so
systemic in conversation that even participants themselves may not recognise it? For Clark,
the answer to this question lies in ethnography’s ‘sustained engagement’ with the people we
study. Her analysis of interactional data collected over time through her participation on a
women’s hockey team brings to light the everyday grammar of compulsory heterosexual-
ity and its adverse eects on LGBTQ individuals. As seen in other queer linguistic work,
Clark’s use of ethnography in this chapter is overtly political: in her words, ‘a priority for
Queer linguistic ethnography is to reveal instances in which those unwritten rules [of inter-
action] require participants to adhere to a heteronormative framework’.
Ethnography and shifting semiotics
Philips returns the focus to gender ideology as she reects on her ethnographic work in
Tongan courtrooms in Polynesia. In a careful discussion of the ways ‘ideas about women vary
systematically across social domains’, Philips distinguishes uses of ethnography in linguistic
anthropology (her professional eld) as requiring discourse analysis across time and space, a
method she identies as ‘anthropological discourse analysis’. She compares discourses about
‘bad words’ in two dierent domains – the public domain of the Magistrate’s Courts and the
private domain of a women’s work group – to uncover the ways that gender ideology diers
across organisational contexts. Her work thus emphasises the importance of understanding
the ‘larger system’ in which ideologies about language and gender circulate, as the nature
of the activity may shape the way gender ideology emerges in the data. Importantly, Philips
also outlines how her analytic observations arose from collaborations with co-researchers in
the eld who oered key insights as they recorded, transcribed, and translated discourse data
from dierent domains. When these backstage forms of linguistic labour go unrecognised,
ethnography retains its colonialist roots, extending the power relations inherent to eldwork
to practices of description, authorship, and citation. However, when this linguistic labour is
the site of recognised collaboration, it can produce theoretical and methodological models
that better align researcher and community positions. In sum, ethnographic research is made
better – more honest, more feminist, even more insightful – when we are transparent about
the ways these backstage forms of collaboration unfold to shape our ndings.
With Nagar’s chapter, we move to one of our eld’s signature frameworks for the eth-
nographic investigation of language, gender, and sexuality: the community of practice (see
Holmes and Meyerho 1999). Nagar reects on her use of this framework for understanding
meaning-making among jananas, a non-normative gender identity in India. Not all com-
munities have clearly dened boundaries; members of the janana community, for instance,
cannot be located in a ‘common space, profession, or cause’. Rather, they come together
around mutually dened practices, which ethnography, as a method ‘based in practice and
learning’, enabled her to discover. The excerpts she analyses from her conversations with
jananas in 2004 and 2006 suggest dierent and even contradictory views of janana identity,
yet through a diversity of ethnographic methods applied over time, she was able to ‘nd’ the
shared practices that gave these divergent views meaning.
Finally, Varis reects on her research in a discourse environment that has only recently
captured the attention of ethnographers of language: digital media. Her focus on an early
twenty-rst-century online genre known for rapid semiotic shifts in gender and sexuality
– YouTube ‘camgirl’ broadcasts – provides a tting conclusion to our discussion. We men-
tioned at the outset of this chapter that ethnography must be revised to reect the highly
mediatised nature of current social life. Drawing on her immersion in social media cul-
ture, Varis constructs a compelling analysis of why the broadcasts of one female YouTuber,
Hannah Witton, have attracted almost 400,000 subscribers. She seeks to understand why
Witton’s videos of her encounters with normative reproductive practices such as menstrua-
tion and birth control are so tantalising for her viewers. The answer is found not just in the
agentive intimacy Witton displays in these videos, but also in the way her broadcasts are
mediated by ever-shifting online environments.
Varis suggests that digital ethnography is novel in its assumption of a ‘changing media and
communication landscape’, but as we see in the chapters that follow, all ethnographers grapple
with the challenge of following people and their social practices over time (see also methodo-
logical discussions in Goldstein 2020; Hall 2009; Wortham 2006; Wortham and Reyes 2015).
In fact, Philips asserts in her chapter on Tongan gender ideology that we can truly understand
larger systems of social organisation only by examining the ways ‘talk at dierent points in
Kira Hall & Jenny L. Davis
time are related’. Taken together, the work featured in this section reminds us that the strength
of ethnography lies in its ability to consider forms of discourse across time as well as space.
Like all social scientic research approaches, ethnography is imperfect, but its reexivity,
diversity, and staying power are well suited to the elusive nature of social life.
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... Following through, one must then attend in the research context to the gaze that it makes relevant, ideally providing a detailed analysis of the relationality of researcher and researched, in order to explore "…how local knowledges are seen to mediate the knowledges of the researchers (and vice versa), impacting and reshaping the locus of enunciation as such" (Rowlett and King 2022). It is a type of mediated learning that aligns with feminist ethnography's commitment to seeing researchers and participants as partners in discovery (Hall and Davis 2021;. Via this framing it "…turn[s] the reflexivity that is ethnography's strength onto geopolitical exclusions" and by bringing participants' knowledge explicitly into the analysis, research can hope to shed its colonialist roots (Hall and Davis 2021, 101). ...
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This chapter provides a critical reflection, with a focus on the geopolitical aspect of its aims. Two notions of 'geopolitical context' are identified in the chapters. One approach views it as a single political entity of some description (e.g. Australia, Indonesia). The other approach views it as a relational process, a type of politics that crosses borders and reflects global power relations (e.g. Australian-ness and Indonesian-ness merging and/or colliding). A critical set of questions is posed. What is a geopolitical lens, and can geopolitical practices be distinguished from ethnic or cultural practices? Do we need geopolitics? Or do we really just mean sociocultural and national contexts? Might we fruitfully theorize a ‘geopolitical order’ alongside the gender and culture orders explored in the chapters? Finally, it is asserted that a feminist approach to geopolitics is needed, but one that is radical enough to join hands with subaltern geopolitics and decolonizing interventions. We must look away from our 'lens' into the geopolitical mirror, taking seriously the notion that our academic fields are geopolitical apparatuses themselves. We must create permanent ruptures in academic geopolitical injustice while also rupturing the gender order in the workplace. It is a truly feminist geopolitical intervention.
... In this study an ethnographic approach to research was adopted, grounded in sociocultural linguistics and involving a commitment to gaining greater understanding of insider meanings and interpretations (Gaudio 2019;Hall and Davis 2021). The ethnographic approach included the use of methods such as classroom participant observation, focus group interviews, and classroom recordings. ...
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This study aims to develop a more fully theorised concept of biocitizenship as part of the teaching of intersex in critical approaches to sex education. It advances a perspective in which the options of students, as future parents and as biocitizens, are not limited to compliance to biomedicine, but one in which formal education experiences might prepare them to be neighbours and parents who, as allies of intersex family/community members, can engage in political activism to effect change where deemed necessary. Data take the form of classroom talk drawn from a study based in an Aotearoa/New Zealand secondary school, focusing on transgressive acts of citizenship by an intersex activist visiting the sex education classroom and assisting students with social justice projects. Transcripts of audio-recorded classroom interactions are analysed using a version of critical discourse analysis that directs attention to semiotic modes such as visual cues of bodies as well as affect. Findings reveal that biocitizenship can also include those who accept intersex bodies, altering established practices to accommodate those bodies and the people who live them.
... The field of language and gender is methodologically diverse, encompassing approaches that include conversation analysis, corpus linguistics, critical discourse analysis, discursive psychology, linguistic anthropology, and variationist sociolinguistics (Harrington et al 2008;Ehrlich, Meyerhoff, and Holmes 2014;Zimman and Hall 2016;Meyerhoff and Ehrlich 2019). Within this diversity, ethnography has long been a key method for interrogating the social semiotic complexities of gender, securing the field's close partnership with linguistic anthropology (Besnier and Philips 2014;Gaudio 2018;Hall and Davis 2021). In fact, in his review of three historical shifts in the study of language as culture in US anthropology, Duranti identifies language and gender scholars working beyond linguistic anthropology as part of a cohort who "made possible" the field's shift to the third paradigm, citing their attention to "the role of language in establishing gender, ethnic, and class identities" (2003: 332). ...
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The field of language and gender is methodologically diverse, encompassing approaches that include conversation analysis, corpus linguistics, critical discourse analysis, discursive psychology, linguistic anthropology, and variationist sociolinguistics. Within this diversity, ethnography has long been a key method for interrogating the social semiotic complexities of gender, securing the field's close partnership with linguistic anthropology. This historical review outlines the prominent role played by linguistic anthropology in the theorization of gender by highlighting its enduring methodological and conceptual contributions, while also outlining the ways that interdisciplinary scholarship in language and gender has shaped the course of linguistic anthropology.
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Hijra, a category often considered to be beyond the woman/man binary, has been officially recognized as a separate gender in Bangladesh since 2013. However, there has been little research exploring the lived experiences of hijra. This Ph.D. explores what it means to identify as hijra. To do this, I adopted a postmodern framework and conducted 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork. During this year, I got to know twenty hijra who lived in Dhaka. I also conducted two focus groups among NGO workers and undertook four in-depth interviews with government officials. Such an exploration allowed insight into the complexity of hijra categorization, sexuality, gender, and government perceptions of hijra. To assist in the analysis of this primary data, I drew on Foucault's concept of sexuality as discourse and Butler's idea of gender performativity. Based on field data, this Ph.D. has four key findings. First, I found that hijra in Bangladesh are not a homogenous category. Instead, understanding the complexity of hijra identity needs an intersectionality lens. Second, I found that hijra sexual acts and practices can be fluid and, in some ways, are less regulative than heterosexuality. Here I trouble the popular understanding of hijra as 'sexually disabled' or 'asexual' or as having sexual desire only for men. I found that hijra can enjoy a variety of sexual partners and that this does not preclude them from identifying as hijra. Third, I found that for many hijra in Bangladesh, gender is performative, as Butler suggests. Further, gender can involve fun and play and a variety of code-switching from performing as a man to hijra, then hijra to woman, and as hijra to a man depending on what is most strategic for accessing certain rights, and as the situation, context, and circumstance demand. Fourth, I found that hijra is dehumanized in contemporary Bangladesh society and that this dehumanization is, in part, an outcome of the lack of understating of hijra, which has antecedents in Bangladesh's colonial past.
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This article draws from ethnographic research among youth in Delhi's expanding middle classes to call for more sociolinguistic attention to the role played by sexuality discourse in the reproduction of class relations. The discussion highlights the centrality of the middle classes to sustaining as well as shifting sexual normativity, suggesting that sexual norms are in part constituted through everyday discourses that situate middle class subjectivity between two class extremes. Specifically, the article tracks how Hinglish, as a mixed-language alternative to a class system polarized by English and Hindi, came to rival English as the preferred language of sexuality, challenging the elite censorship of “vernacular” languages that began in nineteenth-century colonialism. However, as demonstrated by two case studies of queer speakers at different ends of the Hinglish continuum, speakers of this internally diverse hybrid variety are not equally able to master the sexuality discourse that has become indexical of upward mobility. प्रस्तुत आलेख दिल्ली में विकासशील मध्यवर्गीय युवाओं के मध्य किये गये मानवशास्‍त्रीय शोध पर आधारित है, जो वर्ग सम्बन्धों के पुनर्निर्माण में लैंगिक संवाद द्वारा निर्मित भूमिका के परिप्रेक्ष्य में और अधिक समाजशास्त्रीय-भाषा तात्विक शोध की आवश्यकता की ओर ध्यानार्पित करता है । यह विचार विमर्श लैंगिक मानकता के स्थायी और बदलते मानदंडों की तुलना में मध्‍यवर्ग के महत्‍व को उजागर करता है और इस बात की ओर संकेत करता है कि लैंगिक मानदंड कुछ हद तक उनके रोज़ाना के वार्तालाप का एक हिस्‍सा हैं और मध्‍यवर्ग की यही विशेषता उसे दो चरम वर्गों के बीच ला खड़ा कर देती है । इस आलेख में विशेष रूप से यह बताने का प्रयास किया गया है कि अंग्रेजी और हिन्दी के ध्रुवीकरण में विभाजित वर्गसमुदाय के लिए किस प्रकार एक मिश्रित विकल्प भाषा के रूप में हिंग्लिश अंग्रेजी की तुलना में लैंगिकता की भाषा के रूप में वांछि‍त भाषा बन गई और 19वीं सदी के साम्राज्‍यवाद में प्रारंभ हुई ‘स्‍थानीय भाषा’ की आभिजात्‍य सेंसरिंग के लिए चुनौती बन गई। तथापि विभिन्न स्‍थानों पर रहने वाले हिंग्लिशभाषी भिन्न ‘ ‘क्वीयर’ (असामान्य) युवाओं के बीच किए गए दो केस अध्‍ययन से स्‍पष्‍ट है कि आंतरिक रूप से विभिन्‍न मिश्रित भाषा बोलने वाले लोग लैंगिक वार्तालाप में उतने सक्षम नहीं हैं जो उन्‍नतिशीलता का परिचायक है ।
In this contribution to the special issue of the Journal of Language and Sexuality celebrating its 10th anniversary, I reflect on several key articles in the journal that related to my work in language and sexuality with queer, Latinx and bi/multilingual individuals and organizations, survey the field of language and sexuality today from my vantage point, and propose several directions for the future of language and sexuality studies, namely: to engage multilingualism, to question our ideologies as researchers, to grapple more deeply with intersectionality through ethnography, and to consider age more seriously.
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I focus on the discursive strategies within Two Spirit events and groups that center the definition of ‘Two Spirit’ first and foremost as an Indigenous identity by using both unifying/mass terms (Native American, glbtiq) and culturally & community specific terms (specific tribe names, Two Spirit). Rather than selecting a “right” term, such conversations highlight the constant, simultaneous positionings negotiated by Two Spirit people in their daily lives, and the tensions between recognizability and accuracy; communality and specificity; indigeneity and settler culture; and the burden multiply marginalized people carry in negotiating between all of those metaphorical and literal spaces. Drawing on Simpson’s (2014) concept of the politics of refusal, I demonstrate how Two Spirit individuals utilize available categories of identity, not as either/or binaries but rather as overlapping concepts— differentiated along micro- and macro- scales— to refuse attempts to both reduce the Two Spirit identity to one that is based either in gender or sexuality, and the appropriation of the identity and movement by non-Indigenous individuals and groups within broader national and global queer movements.
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How do we write about people in a way that does not flatten them out? Or write in ways that don’t overrepresent what we know about a person and claim to account for all of their deep motivations and interior thoughts and feelings? Whether I am writing about ordinary people who are subjects of inquiry “in the field” or individuals who are public figures, I have come to realize that one key mechanism of writing involves how we bring together biography and ethnography.
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The rise of India's global economy has reinforced a perception of English as a language of sexual modernity within the expanding middle classes. This article explores this perception in the multilingual humor of Hindi-speaking Delhi youth marginalized for sexual and gender difference. Their joking routines feature the Sikh Sardarji, a longstanding ethnic figure often caricatured as circulating in modernity but lacking the English competence to understand modernity's semiotics. Reflective of the economic restructuring that ushered in the millennium, the humor supports a normative progress narrative that prioritizes an ethnically unmarked urban middle class. At the same time, the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth who tell these jokes—still criminalized under Section 377 when this fieldwork was conducted—shift this narrative by positioning sexual knowledge at modernity's forefront. The analysis reveals how sexual modernity—here viewed as constituted in everyday interaction through competing configurations of place, time, and personhood—relies on normativity even while defining itself against it. (Chronotope, ethnic humor, formulaic jokes, globalization, Hindi-English, Hinglish, media, middle class, normativity, sexual modernity, temporality)*
Across scholarship on gender and sexuality, binaries like female versus male and gay versus straight have been problematized as a symbol of the stigmatization and erasure of non-normative subjects and practices. The chapters in Queer Excursions offer a series of distinct perspectives on these binaries, as well as on a number of other, less immediately apparent dichotomies that nevertheless permeate the gendered and sexual lives of speakers. Several chapters focus on the limiting or misleading qualities of binaristic analyses, while others suggest that binaries are a crucial component of social meaning within particular communities of study. Rather than simply accepting binary structures as inevitable, or discarding them from our analyses entirely based on their oppressive or reductionary qualities, this volume advocates for a re-theorization of the binary that affords more complex and contextually-grounded engagement with speakers' own orientations to dichotomous systems. Each chapter offers a unique perspective on locally salient linguistic practices that help constitute gender and sexuality in marginalized communities. As a collection, Queer Excursions argues that researchers must be careful to avoid the assumption that our own preconceptions about binary social structures will be shared by the communities we study.
This book enters as a corrective to the tendency to trivialize and (mis)appropriate African American language practices. The word ratchet has entered into a wider (whiter) American discourse the same way that many words in African American English have—through hip-hop and social media. Generally, ratchet refers to behaviors and cultural expressions of Black people that sit outside of normative, middle-class respectable codes of conduct. Ratchet can function both as a tool for critiquing bad Black behavior, and as a tool for resisting the notion that there are such things as “good” and “bad” behavior in the first place. This book takes seriously the way ratchet operates in the everyday lives of middle-class and upwardly mobile Black Queer women in Washington, DC who, because of their sexuality, are situated outside of the norms of (Black) respectability. The book introduces the concept of “ratchet/boojie cultural politics” which draws from a rich body of Black intellectual traditions which interrogate the debates concerning what is and is not “acceptable” Black (middle-class) behavior. Placing issues of non-normative sexuality at the center of the conversation about notions of propriety within normative modes of Black middle-class behavior, this book discusses what it means for Black Queer women’s bodies to be present within ratchet/boojie cultural projects, asking what Black Queer women’s increasing visibility does for the everyday experiences of Black queer people more broadly.
This article questions queer theory's investment in antinormativity and anti-identitarianism by applying a queer multimodal discourse analytic approach to the ethnographic context of queer, bilingual Mexicans/Latinxs in the US Southwest. The article explores the complexity of ways that norms are taken up and resisted (or not) in discourse, with particular attention to the activist use of discourses about community and identity. A close analysis of several texts illuminates how language practices and social practices—as seen, for example, in advertising strategies, participation in annual LGBTQ Pride festivals, and activism surrounding the undocuqueer movement—become invested with social meaning among queer Mexicans/Latinxs. (Antinormativity, queer theory, bilingual, sexual identity, community, Latinx, jotería)*