Bettina Heinz. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication. 2009.
Sexual orientation emerged as a key issue in the communication discipline over the past 30 years. The topic initially surfaced in the 1970s as an issue brought forth primarily by activist scholars and over time evolved into an aspect of communication dynamics studied within and across virtually every field of communication. The term is typically used to describe the directionality of a person’s physical and/or psychological attraction, with regard to the desired partner’s sex. Sexual orientation is generally conceptualized to exist on a continuum rather than to occur as a discrete category. Scientists see genetic predispositions, environmental influences, and culture as the main contributors to a person’s sexual orientation, acknowledging that individuals may express differently or reconceptualize their sexual orientation over the life span. Less commonly defined as sexual preference because of that term’s implicit notion of choice, sexual orientation has come to function as a gender or sexual identity category, particularly in North American and European cultures. However, in other cultural contexts, same-sex attraction or same-sex sexual behavior are often experienced separate from gender or sexual identity categories. Driven by queer theory, changing generational communication practices, and localized resistance to homogenizing Western values, some are questioning the political benefit and sociocultural relevance of labeling one’s identity on the basis of one’s sexual behavior. At the same time, activists and community members continue to call attention to the power of identity-based social organizing in the continued political struggle for equal rights. The terms sexual orientation and sexual minority are contested, particularly in light of queer scholarship, in the study of nonheterosexual individuals and groups. Today, some communication scholars continue to use the term sexual minority in reference to nonheterosexual populations to call attention to the fact that its members belong to a numerical social minority that continues to be disadvantaged in terms of legal rights and social customs. Researchers tend to estimate the percentage of exclusively gay or lesbian individuals in a given population in a range from 3% to 10% across cultures.
The sexual minority model has been challenged by communication scholars emphasizing that those individuals’ gender identities and sexual orientations tend to change over the life span. However, in light of persisting social and legal discrimination in the United States, some scholars argue that it is more important to study the dynamics affecting people who identify as nonheterosexual at a given point in time than to study the more abstract, cultural phenomena that provide the context for expressions of sexual orientation.
Today, sexual orientation is included in standard communication textbooks and recognized as a variable affecting communication patterns, an issue creating specific communication dynamics (e.g., outing, coming out), a media phenomenon, and a gender-related identity construction co-created in cultural settings.
Emergence of Sexual Orientation as a Communication Issue
Coinciding in time with the emergence of a gay liberation movement in the United States in the early 1970s and its transformation into a broader gay and lesbian rights movement in the late 1970s, scholars and teachers of communication began raising the issue of sexual orientation. Most commonly, the beginnings of the U.S. gay and lesbian rights movement are attributed to the Stonewall Riots, June 27-29, 1969, in New York City, which occurred after a police raid on a gay bar. Since then, social and cultural acceptance of same-sex attraction and sex have increased in the United States. World history accounts for numerous changes in social and legal conventions and understandings of sexual orientation as a moral, legal, personal, private, medical, social, or religious issue. Periods of acceptance within nations and cultural communities have often been followed by periods of social persecution, although it seems that the current global level of nondiscrimination and protection is unprecedented.
The U.S.-based gay rights movement grew out of resistance to the repression, criminalization, and pathologization of same-sex practices as psychological disorders in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. While sexual orientation no longer was commonly treated as an illness following the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, there is no federal legal protection from discrimination on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation to date. Less than half of the U.S. states have adopted laws prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in public and/or private employment. The related issue of discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression particularly affects transgender people, who may or may not identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Diagnostic categories pertaining to the lives of transgender people, such as “gender identity disorder” and “transvestic fetishism,” continue to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Trends in legislation, however, are countered by trends in the corporate world. A record number of Fortune 500 companies offer protection from discrimination to gay and lesbian employees and their partners, and a steadily increasing number of private employers have adopted nondiscrimination policies, diversity training, and benefits designed to accommodate “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer” (LGBTQ) families.
Analogous to the growing disciplinary awareness of the underrepresentation of women or ethnic minorities, several key concerns emerged in the 1970s: the invisibility of non-heterosexual people in communication textbooks and curricula; the pedagogical presumption that all students are heterosexual; the lack of gay and lesbian faculty, and the civil rights concerns of gays and lesbians.
Communication literature from this early time period primarily sought to rectify the legacy of unquestioned heteronormativity—typically defined as the assumption that people are heterosexual and that heterosexuality is the norm—by conducting studies with a focus on individuals who did not identify as heterosexual. The famous Kinsey Reports published in 1948 and 1953 by a team of researchers led by the biologist Alfred Kinsey had fundamentally challenged the notions of sexual behavior prevalent in the 1950s. The Kinsey Reports documented the existence of sexual orientation on a continuum, implying that while some individuals are exclusively heterosexual or exclusively gay or lesbian, many experience varying levels of attraction to the same and the opposite sex.
Initially, some scholars studied the communication patterns and experiences of gay men and lesbians within their own communities; some scholars set out to document differences in communication dynamics between heterosexual and gay and lesbian speech communities; some scholars focused explicitly on language and its role in gay and lesbian communication. With these studies, communication scholars brought to light the differences and similarities in communities resulting from sexual orientation dynamics.
James W. Chesebro was probably the first U.S. communication scholar to explicitly conceptualize same-sex orientation, or the construction of homosexuality, as predominantly a communication problem. In 1981, he edited the groundbreaking collection of essays titled Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication. The volume was prepared through the (then) Caucus on Gay Male and Lesbian Concerns of the (then) Speech Communication Association. For the communication discipline, this collection of 25 essays was unique because of its emphasis on communication within gay and lesbian communities as well as between gay/lesbian and heterosexual communities. The essays explored verbal and nonverbal communication. They addressed the social meanings of the words homosexual, gay, and lesbian, as well as communication within gay communities and the phenomenon of homo-phobia—the irrational fear of, or aversion to, homosexuality or LGBTQ people.
The essays also addressed institutional forces shaping public images of gay males and lesbians, gay liberation as a rhetorical movement, gay rights and political campaigns, and the construction of homosexuality by heterosexual communication practices. The publication of this volume made a substantial contribution to the slowly growing validation and respectability of the study of sexual orientation within communication studies. Communication scholars increasingly began to present competitively referred papers and panel contributions at regional and national communication conventions. But it wasn’t until 1994 that a follow-up volume to Chesebro’s Gayspeak was published.
The text, Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality, edited by Jeffrey Ringer (1994), sought to extend the first contributions of communication theory pertaining to sexual orientation. The essays in this volume examined the rhetoric of gay politicians, the symbols and strategies used during the coming-out process, the strategies used to resolve conflicts in gay and lesbian relationships, considerations about coming out in the classroom, and media portrayals of gay men and lesbians. While the text focused on extending insight into unique gay male and lesbian communication patterns, it moved the treatment of sexual orientation further into the discipline by presenting sexual orientation as an issue whose study can enrich a general, holistic understanding of human communication. Ringer’s goals for the book were to provide current substantive research findings on homosexuality from a communication perspective, to identify how research into gay and lesbian behavior informs communication theory in general, to provide a research agenda for the future, and to provide a supplemental textbook for communication courses. At the time of its publication, sexual orientation was typically not addressed in communication textbooks.
The majority of scholarship generated between the early 1970s and late 1980s did not question the dichotomy of heterosexuality/homosexuality. Like other communication research at the time, it was mostly conducted by white researchers involving white participants; it was predominantly conducted and published in English; and the experiences of bisexual, intersex, transsexual, or transgendered people were rarely mentioned. The experiences of gay men and lesbians were often studied as discrete phenomena. Access to human participants was difficult. The risk for researchers and human participants was substantial and skewed participation to those less affected by social, legal, and political considerations, as examined in Toni McNaron’s (1996) Poisoned Ivy: Lesbian and Gay Academics Confronting Homophobia, which reported on the experiences of about 300 lesbian and gay academics.
Starting with the late 1990s, three overlapping social developments particularly affected the communication dynamics surrounding sexual orientation: an evolving social focus on cultural diversity, communication changes resulting from the popularity of emerging technologies, and trends in popular culture and media representation.
Social Focus on Cultural Diversity
Recent research and scholarship have addressed the dynamics of sexual orientation within specific co-cultural groups, in other national or ethnic cultures, and on a global level. Scholarship involving bisexual and transgender people has increased and seeks to be more inclusive of sexual orientations and gender identities other than gay male or lesbian in communication studies. The phrase lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) was widely adopted, locally and globally, to denote nonheterosexual communities. On college campuses in particular, several groups opted to acknowledge intersex individuals, straight supportive people, and those questioning their sexual orientation and gender identity by including them in group titles and acronyms. Within the communication discipline’s leading academic associations, name changes to sections and divisions reflected the desire to be more inclusive. The National Communication Association’s (NCA’s) Caucus on Gay and Lesbian Concerns changed its name to the Caucus on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns and broadened the title of its Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) Studies Division; the
International Communication Association renamed its Gay and Lesbian Studies Interest Group the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies Interest Group. Scholars in these interest groups pursue the analysis and critique of discourses of sexuality and gender, particularly those that inform the lives of LGBTQ people. Studies examine links to broader social and cultural practices and investigate individual and group identity formation.
Popular Culture and Media Representations
A significant body of scholarship has focused on media constructions and representations of sexual orientation. The (in)visibility of LGBTQ people in the media emerged as a popular topic of communication scholarship in the last decade, prompting assessments of historical developments in the making. In the 1950s and 1960s, mass media portrayals of LGBTQ people were limited to criminalized or diseased characters. L/g/b/t/q people appeared rarely and remained largely invisible; a few portrayals were heavily coded, allowing for in-group consumption only. Such portrayals of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters have been decoded in documentaries and media analyses such as Vito Russo’s (1987) landmark book and film The Celluloid Closet. Russo, a gay activist and film historian, cofounded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media-monitoring group that follows representation of LGBTQ characters in the mainstream media.
In the 1970s and 1980s, portrayals became more sympathetic. Same-sex orientation was typically construed as a problem, however, and the often one-dimensional characters were preoccupied with their same-sex desire. Such sympathetic portrayals were often linked to the gay and bisexual men’s communities that struggled with the spread of HIV infections and AIDS, such as in the 1993 movie Philadelphia, which centers on a gay man suffering from AIDS who is fired from a conservative law firm because of his condition. Portrayals of LGBTQ people changed drastically in the 1990s and 2000s, when gay and lesbian characters began to be cast in recurring characters rather than one-time appearances and were shown as multidimensional characters. Media scholars began to bring to light past underrepresentation and to critically analyze new forms of representation. Sheridan Nye, Nicola Goodwin, and Belinda Hollowes (1994) examined the underrepresentation of lesbian voices on British radio and pointed out the lack of research on lesbian media consumer practices. They suggested that gay men dominated community newspapers, magazines, and advertising media and argued for an active movement to create broadcast channels of communication that would allow lesbian people to address one another and society as a whole.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, bisexual and transgender characters saw greater visibility on television, in the news, and in the movies. The mainstream appeal of transgender characters in movies such as Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica brought visibility to a marginalized community within the LGBTQ population. Since then, hundreds of studies within and beyond communication studies have analyzed the portrayal of LGBTQ and straight characters in television and film. Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus analyzed the portrayal of gay male drag queens in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. The then-highly controversial “coming-out episode” of the show Ellen, which featured the first openly lesbian leading character on prime-time television, was debated and analyzed by communication scholars. In September 2007, readers of the popular gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate voted the actress Ellen DeGeneres as their No. 1 hero in the magazine’s 40th-anniversary issue because of the cultural impact of her television show. Gay and lesbian characters appeared in supporting roles on primetime shows such as NYPD Blue, ER, and Law & Order. The popularity of the sitcom Will & Grace and reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy spawned a flurry of analyses. Television shows with predominantly gay or lesbian characters aimed at primarily LGBTQ audiences such as Queer as Folk and The L-Word became popular. Communication scholars analyzed the portrayals of gay and lesbian characters in textual analyses, questioning, for example, the class status and highly feminine presentation of the majority of characters on The L-Word.
Openly gay and lesbian participants took part in reality television shows such as The Apprentice, Survivor, Idol, and The Real World. Communication scholars assessed the often successful, and in instances, surprising mainstream reception of shows focusing on LGBTQ characters or themes. Didi Herman (2003) argued that shows such as the British Television show Bad Girls succeeded in creating a certain degree of homonormativity—defined as a representation of same-sex desire as normal and unremarkable, which may contribute to increased social visibility and acceptance.
L/g/b/t/q audiences emerged as distinct and popular targets for marketing and advertising campaigns. Research in advertising, marketing, and public relations quickly focused on the ability to reach LGBTQ markets but then expanded to test the inclusion of LGBTQ content in mainstream advertising outlets. Some studies affirmed the effectiveness of clear lesbian interaction (compared with those with veiled lesbian attraction) in mainstream display advertising; others documented the appeal of cross-dressing and gender-ambiguous characters and themes in television commercials. Other studies suggested the effectiveness of implicitly homophobic messages in advertising campaigns. The idealized body images of men and women in advertising geared at LGBTQ audiences came under criticism. Media scholars engaged in discourse analyses and conducted content analyses of advertising and marketing within LGBTQ-oriented media as well as mainstream media, including highly targeted health communication inquiries such as analysis of noncommercial tobacco content in the lesbian, gay, and bisexual press. The communication scholar Larry Gross (2001) chronicled the gradual emergence of gay and lesbian visibility in news and advertising and demonstrated a gradual shift in The New York Times coverage in his book Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. The commercial and artistic success of the 2005 Academy Award-winning film Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, reflected the changes in popular culture since the film focused on a complex emotional and sexual relationship between two cowboys. In addition to mainstream media addressing LGBTQ content, a number of broadcast networks created by, and geared exclusively at, LGBTQ audiences emerged in the 2000s.
The communication scholar Bonnie Dow (2001) offered a detailed contrast of contemporary queer visibility on television and the lack of actual legal and political progress on equal rights. Dow argued, as do a number of other scholars today, that positive media portrayals do not necessarily translate into greater political equity. She interpreted the success of shows such as Will & Grace and Ellen not as a sign of increasing public acceptance of open same-sex orientation in the media but as a celebration of personal honesty, rendering television portrayals personal but not political. She is joined by other communication scholars who point to the interpersonal, rather than political, construction of LGBTQ identities prevalent in media constructions. Some, such as Jeffrey Bennett, caution against dismissing the performance of sexual orientation in a culture that increasingly conceptualizes sexuality as fluid. Bennett analyzed two reality dating programs, Boy Meets Boy and Playing It Straight, which exposed the inability of individuals to determine another’s sexual orientation, regardless of their own orientation.
Communication scholars agree on the documented and unprecedented visibility of LGBTQ people and issues prevalent in mainstream and alternative media today. They disagree, however, on the implications of this visibility. Legal and social policy change in the United States has not matched the pace of increased visibility in the media, and even in the media, the notion of sexual orientation remains cast as an issue. Some scholars note that the current popularity of LGBTQ social and cultural topics in the media is likely to be short-lived and may pass without advancing fundamental actual legal and political representation. Others point to the power of increased visibility to change people’s perceptions and find it asserted in growing social acceptance.
The Influence of Emerging Technologies
The relevance of Internet-based communication, which allowed LGBTQ people to speak for themselves, create their own images, seek partners, and establish communities in electronic space, has greatly affected the relationship between sexual orientation and communication. The medium became so popular with LGBTQ populations in such a short time that they appeared to be the most widely represented demographic group on the Internet in the early 2000s. Internet-based practices such as blogging and creating Web pages facilitated the coming out of individuals to such a degree that the practice became essentially unremarkable. While early Web pages, news magazines, and online community groups by and for LGBTQ people were heavily dominated by an assertion of pride and resistance, within a few years, people began to look for greater diversity and to portray their electronic selves as multifaceted people. For individuals in isolated physical or social locations, the Internet offered the only chance to finding out about a larger community in an anonymous way, a role it continues to play for many in such locations. In tandem with changing personal electronic communication practices, greater representation in the popular media fuelled the increasing visibility of LGBTQ people.
Communication scholars examined Internet portals such as http://PlanetOut.com and http://Gay.com, which are directed at LGBTQ visitors, by focusing on mainstream marketing and surveillance of LGBTQ communities at a time when niche marketing to such consumers was very popular. Others studied the embodiments of cybersexualities by LGBTQ and heterosexual Web users. The popularity of online chat rooms in male gay communities and, to a lesser extent, in lesbian communities, provided ample data for the study of online interaction management; studies also explored the practice of Webcasting in online communities. In addition, the rapid creation and production of online magazines by LGBTQ Web users for LGBTQ Web visitors and readers attracted scholars from various national and linguistic backgrounds to analyze the cultural constructions of sexual orientation offered on globally available Web sites. Jonathan Alexander, for example, interviewed the Webmasters of a gay-affirmative Web site serving Southern Africa, calling attention to the cultural construction of such sites since many Africans do not describe same-sex identities or behavior in terms of gay or lesbian identities. In 2004, Alexander published a report sponsored by the GLAAD Center for the Study of Media and Society on the ways in which LGBTQ youths used the World Wide Web to articulate their personal, social, cultural, and political concerns on self-created sites. Alexander reported on the diversity of content of the sites created, the resistance to commercialism, and young people’s ability to design Web spaces that meet their needs, needs that appear to be markedly different from those of earlier generations of LGBTQ youth.
Sexual Orientation and Queer Communication Studies
During the 1990s, queer scholarship and theory began to manifest itself as a major intellectual movement. The work of queer theorists such as Judith Butler, Teresa DeLauretis, and David Halperin was integrated into communication studies, at first mostly in the areas of critical and cultural studies and performance studies.
Some communication scholars began to identify themselves as queer theorists, regardless of their own sexual orientation, and contributed to the application of queer theory in communication studies. One of the earlier applications of queer theory to communication studies with a focus on performance is Fred Corey and Thomas Nakayama’s 1997 Text and Performance Quarterly essay “Sextext.” The essay, presented as a fictional account of text and body as fields of pleasure, prompted strong responses and controversy, illustrating disciplinary resistance to queer theory as an intellectual framework and the topic of gay male sex as a legitimate topic of inquiry. Within a decade, however, queer theory had established itself as a major recognized intellectual framework used by communication scholars. The communication scholar Judith Halberstam (1996) proposed a notion of female masculinity, situating “stone butch” identities between female masculinity and transgender identities. Halberstam argued that popular language needs to integrate new words that represent the notions of gender variance established in academic scholarship. In other words, scholars have called attention to the fact that thinking about ourselves in static categories, such as “man” and “woman,” “gay” and “straight,” does not reflect the range of gender expressions humans experience. Brenda Cooper (2002) offered a critical analysis of the film Boys Don’t Cry, which she praised for its innovative narrative on female masculinity.
While the prominence and popularity of queer theory has undoubtedly led to greater visibility and support for scholarship on sexual orientation, it has also come under scrutiny for obscuring the need for such scholarship. Many, if not most scholars, acknowledge the value of not contributing to static descriptions of population groups based on one particular aspect of their identity. But some also argue that as long as some members of the population at large do not have the same rights as others, based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity, research on these groups as groups is needed.
From a pedagogical perspective, several scholars have argued that sexual orientation remains a minority and diversity issue that needs to be addressed. Bryant Alexander (2006) not only acknowledged the potential of queer theory but also considered the value of self-articulation as a black/gay man/performer/teacher/scholar. E. Patrick Johnson (2001) sought to reconcile the theoretical benefits of queer theory and the practical standpoints of LGBTQ people of color in a new theory of and for gays and lesbians of color—“quare studies.” James Darsey (2004), who coauthored with Fred Jandt one of the earliest essays on coming out from a communication studies perspective, reviewed three contemporary texts on gay culture and communication. His review of these books on the construction of homosexuality and HIV/AIDS via the media or national communication campaigns focused on the issue of representation. Darsey questioned the critical lens through which queer scholars tend to approach their analysis and suggested that not all readers can be presumed to share the authors’ views of LGBTQ lives.
Sexual Orientation from a Global Perspective
Starting in the mid-1990s, the impact of cultural, political, economic, and social globalization trends began to be reflected within communication studies, including those studying concepts related to sexual orientation. Communication scholars representing previously unrepresented ethnic and cultural minority groups began to study specific communication dynamics to prevent an artificial homogenization of the study of sexual orientation in the communication literature. Frequently, such scholarship sought to integrate the dynamics of national, ethnic, cultural, and sexual identities. For example, Gina Masequesmay (2003) engaged in participant observation of a support group for Vietnamese lesbians, bisexual women, and female-to-male transgender people. Her research sought to show how gender and sexuality interplay in the process in which Vietnamese American identity is established. Frederick Corey (1996) studied gay male interaction in Irish pubs and examined sexual difference, cultural identity, and illegal immigration in Irish America.
Barbara Freeman published a feminist cultural and critical analysis of articles about lesbians in the Canadian women’s magazine Chatelaine between 1996 and 2004. At communication conventions, scholars presented research exploring the particular cultural understandings of sexual orientation and differences in specific communities in diverse nations, ranging from examinations of the media relations strategy of the LGBTQ Tongzhi Hotline Association movement in Taiwan to conceptualization of same-sex sexual behavior on online sites in the Middle East and Africa. Parallel in time, communication scholars began to explore the international and global dimensions of sexual orientation. Driven by economic, social, political, and cultural globalization, a global gay rights movement began to emerge in the early 2000s that centered on advocating for legal rights and protection for LGBTQ people. Globally, a proliferation of legal rulings occurred aimed at either granting legal protection to LGBTQ minorities or at solidifying and legalizing discrimination against such minorities. Supported in part by greater media visibility, legal rights for LGBTQ people appeared to be on the increase from a global perspective. Scholars documented, examined, supported, challenged, and critiqued the emergence of global English as the global gay rights language. Global human rights organizations such as Amnesty International adopted campaigns focusing on discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Sexual Orientation in Social Scientific Research
Communication scholars have studied sexual orientation from a social scientific perspective as a variable or discreet characteristic playing a role in communication and as a cultural phenomenon. Early scholarship on sexual orientation in communication focused on the coming-out processes (intrapersonal, interpersonal, mediated), as well as the politics of “outing” others.
For example, the relationships of lesbians and gay men were the subject of a chapter in a 1995 volume on understudied relationships edited by the interpersonal communication scholars Julia Wood and Steve Duck. In this chapter, Michelle Huston and Pepper Schwartz sought to move research on gay men and lesbians away from a focus on normalizing their experiences. Huston and Schwartz pointed to systematic differences and similarities in gay and lesbian relationships compared with heterosexual relationships. They argued that the study of gay and lesbian relationships is important not only to bring light to understudied types of relationships but also to help communication scholars understand how human relationships are affected by gender, power, and social practices, such as the institutionalization of samesex marriage.
A decade later, communication scholars have moved on from the generalizations about LGBTQ communicative practices and explicitly address the heterogeneity of LGBTQ speech communities. However, the importance of shared linguistic practices as a resource for group cohesion and identity remains prevalent, as scholars of language and communication such as Fern Johnson and William Leap stressed in their work. For example, several scholars have studied the way teenagers use language to express negative or discriminatory attitudes toward others with nonhetero-sexual orientations or variant gender identities. Such language use has been found to contribute to the creation of school climates hostile to LGBTQ individuals. More recently, scholars have also documented ways in which teenage conversations sometimes challenge heteronormativity (where which heterosexual orientation is presumed to be normal) and heterosexism (where heterosexual orientation is portrayed or understood to be better than same-sex or bisexual attraction).
The contentious issue of the legalization of same-sex marriage preoccupied much of the sexual orientation literature; the research agenda during the late 1990s and early 2000s reflected the social, cultural, and political emphasis on this issue. While some communication scholars examined the relational effects of prohibited legal marriage for same-sex partners, others focused on the language practices resulting from such nontraditional relationships and family constructions. Some scholars approached this topic from the perspective that the exclusion of LGBTQ people from access to legal marital rights warrants research and generation of policy recommendations. Others argued that rather than affirming the place of marital rights in society, scholars should focus on studying and generating policy recommendations for separating individual legal rights (e.g., inheritance, taxation, insurance coverage) from marital rights.
The increasing number of individuals outing themselves also contributed to a social and scholarly focus on LGBTQ family constructions. More lesbian and gay couples began to coparent their biological or adopted children openly, a social practice that invited study by interpersonal and family communication scholars. Communication scholars explored symbolic attempts to construct nonbio-logical lesbian mothers as legitimate parents by documenting how family members create special names to acknowledge the presence of two mothers—one biological, one not—within one household. They also studied the general dynamics of fatherhood, motherhood, and parenthood in LGBTQ families and created models of romantic and family relationships for LGBTQ couples and families.
Several scholars have examined the phenomenon and role of self-disclosure with regard to sexual orientation. Self-disclosure carries a primary role in interpersonal communication involving LGBTQ people because, unlike discrimination based on visible (skin color, disability) or audible (accent) characteristics, LGBTQ people often have to choose between passing for a heterosexual or self-disclosing membership in a stigmatized group. Self-disclosure has also been found to play a significant role in interactions between individuals who are affected by HIV or AIDS status.
The construct of homophobia, typically defined as a fear of same-sex-attraction, lesbian, or gay people, has also been studied widely in communication studies. Such scholarly attention is warranted by the observation that a majority of LGBTQ people report having experienced verbal harassment, including physical threats, on the basis of their sexual orientation. Kory Floyd and Mark Morman (2000) had participants complete a questionnaire measuring their levels of homophobia and linked higher levels of homophobia with more negative assessments of affectionate statements between same-sex individuals. This is one of many studies involving perception processes of samesex orientation. Jeffrey Hall and Betty La France (2007) studied how homophobic messages were constructed in a male fraternity and showed that fraternity members who perceived the presence of gay members as a threat to the desired male-male bonding also held more negative attitudes toward gay fraternity members.
Speech communication scholars also conducted controlled experiments to determine what people listen to when judging a speaker’s sexuality, leading to the conclusion that perceptions of sexuality are ideologically linked to other perceptions of personality and personhood. Catherine Gowen and Thomas Britt (2006) examined the joint effects of gay male linguistic variation and sexual orientation on the stigmatization of male students applying for college admission. Gowen and Britt found that participants responded more positively to the gay male speaker when he spoke with stereotypical gay speech than with standard speech but less positively to heterosexual speakers with gay speech. Sexual orientation and gay speech did not predict admission or scholarship decision ratings.
Speech communication experts Mary Gorham-Rowan and Richard Morris (2006) conducted aerodynamic analyses of male-to-female transgender voice production since a feminine-sounding voice is often highly desired by male-to-female transgender persons.
The construction of LGBTQ identities has been an important focus of research on sexual orientation in communication studies. Using social identity theory, scholars have documented heterosexual communication schemas for conversations with gay men. Victoria Land and Cecilia Kitzinger analyzed tape-recorded phone conversations in English lesbian households and found that coming out in phone conversations disrupts heteronormative assumptions. Shinsuke Eguchi (2006) argued that due to current societal situations, gay and bisexual men may internalize homophobia and construct conflict within themselves. Eguchi suggested that a better understanding of external and internalized homophobia would help members of LGBTQ communities resolve intra- and interpersonal conflicts more effectively.
Studies of particular LGBTQ communities sought to demonstrate the group construction of co-cultural identities. For example, Myra Hird and Jenz German (1999) examined the ways in which a lesbian community in Aotearoa, New Zealand, narrowly defined what kind of lesbian they would consider to be an authentic member of their community. They joined other scholars pointing to the negative construction of bisexual attraction, desires to parent, feminine appearances, sadomasochism, and sexual assertiveness within many lesbian communities. Using literary, psychological, and sociological models, scholars from various humanistic and social scientific fields of study have proposed models of gay and lesbian identity development.
Health communication scholars also began designing studies with a focus on greater sexual diversity in the last 15 years. Such studies focused on issues specific to communities engaging in shared sexual practices linked to health risks. In this vein, health communication scholars found that an exposure to a storyline about syphilis in gay men had a positive public health outcome on users of Internet chat rooms for men who have sex with men (MSM). A pattern mirrored in other specialty areas of communication, this particular field began with studies conceptualized by and for heterosexual communities, then saw an effort to design studies focusing on the experiences of LGBTQ communities, followed by an effort to steer away from study designs focusing on sexual orientation. Rather than conceptualizing such studies as geared at gay men, for example, the population construct MSM has emerged as more useful, since it focuses on the practice, which may be engaged in by men who identify as heterosexual, bisexual, or gay.
Organizational communication scholars have also extended their studies to include LGBTQ communities. A series of scholars have examined workplace discrimination and the effects of homophobia on LGBTQ individuals; corporate attitudes toward gay and lesbian employees; and differences and similarities between heterosexual and LGBTQ employees. Michaela Meyer (2004) identified three key tensions that influence the formation and maintenance of community: unity and difference, commitment and apathy, and empowerment and disempowerment. The coexistence of these tensions poses a challenge to community organizing, she suggested, and analysis of these tensions may be helpful to organizing practices beyond LGBTQ communities.
Sexual Orientation in Communication Studies Today
In 2001, an updated bibliography of books and journal articles on LGBTQ topics published by members of the NCA or the International Communication Association included 24 books and an average of five journal articles per year from the mid to late 1990s. For the years between 1973 and 1990, the number of such journal articles in communication journals was estimated to be about one per year. Currently, the Communication and Mass Media Complete database yields about 100 entries with the keyword sexual orientation and about 200 for the keywords homosexuality and gender identity each. However, use of the keywords gay and lesbian generates more than 1,000 entries. Keyword searches for bisexual, transsexual, or transgender yield about 50 or fewer hits for each in this database. The visibility of LGBTQ issues has increased on a general cultural, political, social, and legal level generally and specifically within communication scholarship and pedagogy. In 1999 alone, more than 50 convention papers or panel presentations at the NCA convention addressed lesbian/gay/bisexual or transgender issues. Many of these were sponsored by divisions or programs other than the GLBT Caucus or Division; a panel on homophobia in communication courses was selected as a spotlight panel for the overall convention. At the 2002 NCA convention, the panelists Chesebro and Gust A. Yep identified the historical transformations affecting the communication discipline. The panel addressed how LGBTQ and heterosexual cultures have and should transform each other, and the presentation conceptualized these cultures as co-cultures. The panel members asked provocative questions such as the following: Is it true that gay men can also represent lesbians while lesbians can only represent themselves? Are there misogynous issues involved in how the concept of gay and lesbian communication is used? In what ways and to what degree is gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communication a meaningful concept?
In 2003, Yep, Karen E. Lovaas, and John P. Elia published an edited volume titled Queer Theory and Communication: From Disciplining Queers to Queering the Discipline(s). In several ways, this edited text has been seen as a follow-up to Gayspeak and Queer Words. Yep and colleagues framed their text in the understanding that it’s time to move on from studies focusing on the communication experiences of LGBTQ people as a minority group. Instead, they suggested, scholarship should focus on the ways in which all individuals’ sexual and gender identities shift and vary and how they are intertwined with issues of race, class, and culture. This volume was the first to bring together queer scholarship in communication in a volume. A 2006 reader on sexualities and communication in everyday life edited by Lovaas and Mercilee Jenkins further challenged students to move beyond dichotomous views of heterosexual and LGBTQ identities, further sought to integrate queer theory into communication studies, and assisted in the understanding of the intersections of sexuality with other identity constructions.
Some have argued that despite the increase in the number of studies on LGBTQ issues in the 1980s and 1990s, such studies continue to lack visibility and recognition in the communication discipline. Sexual orientation remains a vital topic of communication study; changing social and cultural practices invariably call for new studies on emerging phenomena. It appears likely that research and scholarship on sexual orientation will continue to overlap, converge, and diverge as scholars from various methodological perspectives study manifestations of sexual orientation. The correction of myths will remain a challenge to research on sexual orientation and communication. It was not until the late 1990s, for example, that demographic assessments suggesting the relative wealth of gays and lesbians were corrected and replaced with studies suggesting that LGBTQ people are likely close to the income average of heterosexual people. With increased visibility and increased awareness of the heterogeneity of 1/b/g/t/q people, it is also likely that more studies will document convergence of communication dynamics in LGBTQ and heterosexual communities.