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Lavender Languages Conference celebrates 20 years at American University

The Lavender Languages Conference, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year at American University in Washington, D.C., has grown to be North America's longest-running academic conference with a queer focus.

As it has blossomed into a three-day affair attracting scholars from as far away as Singapore, South Africa, Russia, Poland, and Japan, the conference also mirrors sea changes in queer studies, says William Leap, a professor in American University's College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Anthropology and founder and organizer of the Lavender Languages Conference.

The conference, which runs this year from February 15󈝽, is expected to draw up to 150 registrants and many other audience members. The event that attracted 18 presentations its first year; this time will have more than 80 papers.

Sessions will cover a wide variety of topics, among them neoliberal homophobia, varieties of speech in the drag speech community, the LGBTQ reclaiming of slurs, pornography, language use of transgendered men, sex and violence, and language and queer online communities.

Visual artist 2Fik will also present a performance, cosponsored by the American University's Arab Studies Program and the university's Center for Diversity and Inclusion, on fighting society's labels.

Secret to Conference's Longevity

So is the conference's founder surprised by the event's longevity?

"It's surprising in this sense," Leap says. "Lesbian-gay studies has evolved into queer studies, sexuality studies. It's diversified in ways we didn't expect when all this work started in the '90s. Many academic conferences, many academic programs, many presses with prestigious publications serieseven in queer studiesno longer exist. "It doesn't surprise me because we continue to get interest from rank-and-file students, from faculty, and from community persons who are interested in what the conference does."

Conferees are attracted to the event's "no-attitude" policy, meaning the conference addresses issues important to queer people in their daily lives, and people come to the conference to be part of that discussion, Leap says.

That openness makes it okay for undergraduates to approach experts in anthropology and linguistics and for graduate students to discuss their dissertations and educational opportunities.

The conference has also thrived because Leap strives to keep the costs down. Registration, for example, is administered by volunteers on the conference site.

Conference Inspires Scholarly Publications

Many edited collections and books important in the field have come out of the conference, and many others have arisen in response to work at the annual event.

So has a new international publication, the Journal of Language and Sexuality, whose editorial office is located in AU's Department of Anthropology. About half the people on the editorial board have been part of the conference in previous years, and several of the articles in the journal's first issues have resulted from recent conferences.

"When we started there was no queer linguistics," Leap says. "Studies of language and sexuality were barely recognized as a mode of inquiry. The conference has not been the only force, but the conference has been very active in creating a presence of interest in sexual sameness in linguistics. I'm very proud of that, and of the numbers of publications that have come out of the conference, the numbers of scholars who cut their teeth in this work in the context of Lavender and have gone on to do big things, some of whom are plenary speakers.

"It's certainly been the focal point in work I've done in lavender language, gay language, queer linguistics, since that time," Leap reflects. "It's a major part of our department's commitment to public anthropology to outreaching to constituencies and involving them in the centerpiece of whatever kind of anthropological work unfolds."

Contact: Maggie Barrett
American University

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