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Review of  Public Discourses of Gay Men

Reviewer: Claire Maree
Book Title: Public Discourses of Gay Men
Book Author: Paul Baker
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.382

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Date: Mon, 30 Jan 2006 19:12:22 +0900 (JST)
From: Claire Maree
Subject: Public Discourses of Gay Men

AUTHOR: Baker, Paul
TITLE: Public Discourses of Gay Men
SERIES: Routledge Advances in Corpus Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge, Taylor and Francis
YEAR: 2005

Claire Maree, Full-time Lecturer, Tsuda College


Bringing together sociolinguistics with corpus linguistics, Public
Discourses of Gay Men examines the construction of gay male
identities in the public domain. Taking data from parliamentary
records, tabloid newspapers, television sitcoms, erotic internet texts
and safer-sex pamphlets, Baker sets out to discuss the ways that
discourses of gay men interact and effect each other. The book also
looks at how this in turn interacts with the construction of identity in
contemporary English-speaking societies.


Baker outlines the main focus of his research and methods in his first
chapter. The three issues to be addressed are:
i) the way that ''language is used in the public domain to construct
discourses of male homosexuality,'' the connotations of those
discourse and how they are ''connected to concepts of gender, sexual
behavior and sexual desire''
ii) the ways in which ''discourse surrounding homosexuality differ
depending on the authors of the texts and their intended audiences,''
iii) how those ''discourse exist in relation to each other'' either
as ''dominant of contested'' (p. 21).
To attend to these questions, Baker takes texts from debates in the
House of Lords (chapter 2), tabloid newspapers (chapter 3), a
television sitcom script (chapter 4), erotic narratives (chapter 5),
personal advertisements (chapter 6) and sexual health documentation
(chapter 6). Frequency counts, keyword analysis, collocations,
semantic preference (discourse prosody) and linguistic annotation of
the texts are used in the analysis.

Baker's first analysis is of three transcripts from the House of Lords
debates in to the age of consent (1998, 1999, 2000). All utterances in
the electronic transcripts were annotated according to the position of
the speaker: for, against and undecided. A keyword comparison,
using WordSmith Tools, of pro-reformers and anti-reformers
utterances identifies 41 keywords. Baker's analysis shows that pro-
reformers organise keywords convention, rights and human into a
discourse of tolerance whilst anti-reformers reference homosexuality
as an act causing danger and ruin. Overall, the language of the anti-
reformers portrays homosexuality as behaviour, not an identity
position, and posits anal sex as the prototypical act of homosexuality,
an act that is both dangerous and criminal. Furthermore, anti-
reformers position anal sex as ruinous to both boys and girls, a claim
that supports the position that opposition to anal sex is not
homophobic. However, in contradiction to this, anti-reform discourse
also claims boys are at more risk than girls, and that lowering the age
of consent will lead to demands for further rights for gay people. Pro-
reformers, however, ''argued for tolerance and equality, or warned
that the government would be forced to make the change in order to
fall in line with the European human rights conventions.'' (pp. 57-58)

Chapter three contains analysis of two tabloids (Daily Mail and Mirror,
January 1, 2001 - December 31, 2002) that show a slightly different
discourse. Analysis of articles containing at least one use of the words
gay, gays, homosexual and homosexuals showed that, as with the pro-
reformers discourse discussed in chapter 2, the word used most often
to refer to male homosexuality is gay. However, a study of collocations
and discourse prosodies reveals a positioning of homosexuality
as ''one of many problematic minority groups.'' Furthermore,
collocations show that gay relationships are portrayed as transitory
(i.e. gay lovers). As with the debates described in chapter 2, the
tabloids frame homosexuality as behaviour (homosexual act(s),
activity/activities, behavior, encounters, tendencies). Homosexuality is
linked to words related to crime (gay/homosexual rape) and a
discourse of shame and secrecy (gay slurs, closet gay) whereby those
who are open about being gay are shamelessly so. Gay men are
portrayed are sexually obsessed (gay predator), and as those who do
not operate as individuals, but as a ''unified group'' (p.83)
(gay/homosexual community) to promote homosexuality to children
(gay/homosexual propaganda) and gain political power via
campaigning for rights (gay/homosexual lobby(s)). In his final
analysis, Baker illustrates how the Daily Mail focuses on the
consequences of equality and the effect of so-called gay propaganda
on minors, whereas the Mirror contributes to a discourse of shame
and secrecy regarding homosexuality.

Chapter 4 deals with scripts from the USA hit sitcom Will and Grace.
Using scripts from 107 episodes, Baker analyses words relating to sex
and sexuality, the speech of the two central gay characters (the
leading character Will and his friend Jack) and two central straight
female characters (leading character Grace and her employee Karen).
First, a word frequency analysis of those terms related to sex and
sexuality show that, contrary to the discourse surrounding the age of
consent debates in the UK, here homosexuality is understood as an
identity. Baker identifies a ''be yourself'' moral discourse where coming
out and being yourself is preferred over all else.

A comparison of the speech of the two central gay characters, Will
and Jack, reveals that Will's speech shows urban sophistication and is
more other-orientated. Jack, in contrast, employs a camp (Harvey
2000) style that shows him to be more ''self-assured, self-absorbed
(and) playful'' (p. 115). Analysis of key semantic and grammatical
categories reveals that Grace's speech constructs her as ''needy''
whereas Karen employs a camp style of speech. Baker notes a
difference between Jack and Karen's camp style, namely that Karen's
use of hyperbole, rhetorical triplets, commands and insults ''is witch-
like or queeny'' (p. 125). Baker posits Karen's performance as that of
a drag queen and suggests that she is ''doubly in drag.'' He notes that
perhaps ''(i)n order for a drag queen to be accepted by contemporary
mainstream audiences (and advertisers) she must be played by a
women'' (p.130). Baker concludes that although Will and Grace is the
first long running sitcom to feature openly gay male characters,
consideration of the use of homophobic statements in the scripts
illustrates it remains '''inherently conservative''' by enlarging the idea of
the nuclear family to include gay men only as long as their sex lives do
not come to the forefront of the comedy itself.

Chapter 5 moves to a slightly different and shorter text form: personal
advertisements from Gay Times magazine over four nine year periods
(1973, 1982, 1991, 2000; four). Baker seeks to ''identify the ways
advertisers negotiated gender identities, both for themselves and the
sort of person they desire'' (p. 134) and in particular the negotiation of
homosexuality and masculinity. He considers that gay male personal
ads ''function as a possible site where desires and fantasies
surrounding masculinity are fore-grounded, negotiated and contested''
(p.134). An overall analysis of the texts showed that 60% of advertisers
used identity based nouns to describe both themselves and the type
of person they were seeking: guy, male, man. A comparison of the
adjectives referring to masculinity over the four periods revealed that
there was a higher frequency of such terms in 1991 than in other
periods. The chapter closes with a discussion of why frequency
peaked that way, and why ''definition of gender at this time converged
upon straight-acting and related collocates'' (p.151). To answer this
question, Baker turns to mainstream portrayals of gay men, and points
to discourses of AIDS as a ''gay disease'' and the increase in images
of male heterosexuality in media and advertising. Baker suggests that
perhaps ''as male homosexuality became more stigmatised and male
heterosexuality became eroticised, it is possible that gay men felt the
need to distance themselves from appearing obviously 'gay''' (p.152).

Chapter 6 moves the analysis to erotic narratives. Here, Baker
compares lesbian and gay male narratives taken from an internet
archive of amateur narratives classified under the 'adult-friends' sub-
category. Differences between lesbian and gay narratives were
collated in order to attend to questions regarding the language used
to construct ''ideal sexual partners'', ''discourse of sexuality''
and ''sexually arousing'' language (p. 155). Through keyword analysis,
Baker identifies a common discourse that he labels ''compulsory
homosexuality'' whereby characters in both categories of narrative do
not identify as gay or lesbian, but find the same-sex sex they
experience in the stories as more fulfilling than previous heterosexual
sex (p.162). Supporting this is the portrayal of men as hyper-
masculine and women as hyper-feminine.

Keywords for the gay narratives include sweat, beer and towel and for
the lesbian wine, glass and tea. Furthermore, keywords relating to the
act of sex itself portray gay men as ''emotionless machines''
(throbbing, pumped/pumping) and male sex as work or action
(work/ed, job). In contrast, for lesbian women are ''love and emotions
are strong elements of an erotic narrative'' (love) and ''lesbian love
occurs after a long build-up of desire for a person'' (been) (p.168). In
terms of physicality, through a comparison of keywords Baker's
analysis shows that in the erotic texts, lesbian are portrayed as gentle
and tender (kiss/kissed, soft) whereas in gay male texts the penis is
cast as a weapon (shot/shoot/shooting). In terms of language itself, in
gay male erotic narratives ''men's language is informal, non-standard
and often impolite'', whereas ''lesbian's language is politer, more
affectionate and more standardised'' (p.174). Another difference noted
in the texts is that of confidence, Baker groups his results to suggest
that lesbians are ''coy and shy (giggle/d/ing; asked, smiled, smile),
while gay men are ''confident and assertive'' (get, got). Furthermore,
gay narratives are egocentric in comparison to lesbian narratives
which are more interaction oriented. Baker situates the narratives
analysed sites of ''heterosexual gender (and class) stereotyping - men
are constructed as hyper-masculine/working-class, while women are
hyper-feminine/middle class'' (p. 188). In closing, Baker is careful to
stress that the analysis is one of discourses of ideal sex, rather than
actual practices, and represent a possible ''queering of hegemonic
heterosexuality'' (p. 189).

In chapter seven, Baker turns to safer sex pamphlets and analyses
documentation published by the Terrence Higgins Trust (2000-20003)
that is available on their website. He notes a high degree of ''border
crossing'' (cf. Goodman 1996) whereby information is presented as
entertainment in a format accessible to many gay men. Distribution of
the acronym HIV shows that the term is more likely to occur in the later
part of the documentation which points to another form of border
crossing whereby information about HIV is embedded in that of other
subjects (p. 198). Analysis of the most frequent nouns and adjectives
shows that HIV is the most frequent noun to appear in the texts,
followed by gay and men. In terms of HIV transmission, ''responsibility
concerning passing on HIV (or other infections) is downplayed,
responsibility for (not) getting HIV is made implicit'' (p.203). A high
level of informality is noted in the texts, along with heavy use of
vernacular terms. The use of non-standard language is said to
emphasise ''a form of masculinity associated with working-class
heterosexual men (Trudgill 1974: 94)'' (p.209). Finally, Baker identifies
these safer-sex texts as being conflicted because they must avoid
homophobic discourses yet also engage men who don't identify as
gay whilst focussing on altering sexual behaviours without making this
information too invasive.

The final chapter of Public Discourse of Gay Men offers an overview
of the preceding analyses and general conclusions. Baker identifies a
number of conflicting discourses that indicate a ''reformulation of the
way that western society conceptualises sexuality and gay men view
themselves'' (p. 220). The first contestation involves the definition of
homosexuality itself as either behaviour (i.e. House of Lords
discourse) or identity-based community (i.e. Will and Grace). Another
site is that of homophobia, which is now more often noted via under
representation that moral panics of earlier decades. For example, the
use of humour in newspaper reporting, or a reframing of debates to
appeal to the dangers apparent to children, and even in stereotyping
phrases used in gay friendly television sitcoms. The last area Baker
discusses is that of ''aspiration'' whereby the commodification of male
bodies and commercialisation of gay culture has led to promotion of
conformity to idealised models of gayness: the urbanite, witty
consumer; and the muscular, healthy bodied, perfectly sexed man --
ideals underpinned by modern consumerist capitalism. Baker suggests
that neither of these aspirational discourses are attainable
simultaneously and subsequently pull gay men in opposite ways,.


Public Discourses of Gay Men is a welcome addition to the growing
body of literature that is often referred to as ''gender, language and
sexuality studies''; an area that Baker calls ''language and identity
studies.'' Prefaced by dense explanations and justifications for the
application of corpus based approaches to the field; Baker's research
stimulates further discussion of this complex and still
underrepresented area of language studies. His final analyses on the
different and contested discourse in the public domain are important
additions to the field. For this reviewer, however, there were sections
when the selection of comparative analytic categories warranted
further critical discussion. Space restrictions prevents an in-depth
discussion here, however, I will take up two examples below to
illustrate this point.

In the analysis of tabloid discourse, Baker takes the term ''gay lover''
as exemplary of how gay male relationships are portrayed at
transitory. He writes; ''if a word like lover is used in conjunction with a
sexuality identifier, it is much more likely to be referring to
homosexuals rather than heterosexuals, and this is more pronounced
than other words like 'couple', 'relationship' and 'partner'. The
word 'lover' places an emphasis on romance and sex rather than
commitment and stability'' (p. 73). Although it is difficult to fault this
interpretation, as Baker himself acknowledges, heterosexuality is the
unmarked form in tabloid newspapers, henceforth, readers are left
wondering if a comparison of terms such as ''married'' and ''defacto''
may have been more relevant here. Turning attention to legal status,
rather than only ''sexuality identifiers'', may have revealed something
else, especially since in the list of terms relating to ''political power'' (p.
88) gay/homosexual marriage and gay/homosexual weddings occur
with some frequency.

Similarly, for the analysis of erotic narratives, Baker compares lesbian
and gay texts. Readers will undoubtedly wonder why ''lesbian'' is used
in comparison only at the point of erotica. Not merely because once
again the ''lesbian'' is invoked at the moment of sex, but more
importantly because the concluding remarks maintain ''the characters
in the narratives tend to be gendered as heterosexual ideals who
merely happen to engage in gay sex'' (p.190). In order to support such
a statement, surely a comparison between heterosexual and
homosexual erotic narratives would be more productive.

Underlying the above points is a frustrating lack of attention to key
terms such as ''heterosexual,'' ''desire,'' ''lesbian'' and, at times ''gay
male'' that runs throughout the book. Perhaps in addition to reference
to sociolinguistic classics such as Trudgill (1974), a more critical
inclining towards queer studies and masculinity studies to support (or
contest) critical notions would have been insightful here. Baker,
however, has anticipated critique: he has taken pains to state the
subjective positioning of his research project, questions and
interpretations, and, he even goes as far as to invite counter-
interpretations in the closing chapter. I suggest that diverse critical
readings of Public Discourse of Gay Men will further advance
research in this area, much as Baker has anticipated.


Harvey, K. (2000) Describing camp talk: language/pragmatics/politics.
Language and Literature 9:3, 240-60.

Goodman, S. (1996) Market forces speak English. In S. Goodman and
D. Graddol (eds) Redefining English: New Tests, New Identities.
London: Routledge, pp. 141-80.

Trudgill, P. (1974) The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Claire Maree is full-time lecturer of Multicultural Studies and Japanese
Language Studies at Tsuda College. Her research interests include
the intersections of gender, sexuality and language in contemporary
society, discourse studies and cultural studies.

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ISBN: 0415349737
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