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Agency in Borderland Discourses: Examining Language Use in a Community Center With Black Queer Youth

by Mollie V. Blackburn - 2005

This article focuses on the ways in which a small group consisting mostly of Black queer youth makes sense of their use of language to assert agency in a world that is often heterosexist, homophobic, ageist, and racist. The author draws from the work of Gee and Anzaldúa to identify what youth call "Gaybonics," as a Borderland Discourse that is intertwined with Ebonics. The author and youth worked together in a youth-run center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth to analyze the ways that these youth engaged in Gaybonics to elicit pleasure and subvert oppression, and, when their borders were violated, they shifted from this discourse to another to retaliate against hatred. When youth analyzed their use of Borderland Discourses, they came to understand the ways that they engage in such discourses to position themselves as agents and the power they can (and cannot) access by engaging in various discourses. The author asserts that youth need opportunities to explore such access to power through language, particularly in the margins, as conceptualized by hooks. Finally, the author calls for work with youth that not only supports their assertion of agency but also their efforts at activism.

This article focuses on the ways in which a small group consisting mostly of Black queer youth makes sense of their use of language to assert agency in a world that is often heterosexist, homophobic, ageist, and racist. The author draws from the work of Gee and Anzaldu´a to identify what youth call Gaybonics, as a Borderland Discourse that is intertwined with Ebonics. The author and youth worked together in a youth-run center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth to analyze the ways that these youth engaged in Gaybonics to elicit pleasure and subvert oppression, and, when their borders were violated, they shifted from this discourse to another to retaliate against hatred. When youth analyzed their use of Borderland Discourses, they came to understand the ways that they engage in such discourses to position themselves as agents and the power they can (and cannot) access by engaging in various discourses. The author asserts that youth need opportunities to explore such access to power through language, particularly in the margins, as conceptualized by hooks. Finally, the author calls for work with youth that not only supports their assertion of agency but also their efforts at activism.

It was not unusual for me, a white woman in my 30s, to walk up to the red brick row home in the middle of a block on a two-lane, one-way street in Center City Philadelphia and see a group of young people hanging out on the four cement steps with wrought iron railings on both sides and, while walking up the steps, hear one of them say to another, Sup cunt. Typically, although not always, it was a Black young man performing femininity (Butler, 1989) or male-to-female transgendered person offering such a greeting. The first few times I heard this I probably did not understand what was being said, but once I understood, I bristled at the use of the word cunt. Immediately I wanted to tell youth not to use that word because it insulted women. Over time, through many conversations with the youth, I came to understand the complicated ways in which these youth used this and many other words--words and ways of using them that together we came to call Gaybonics.

In this article, I look at the ways these youth made sense of their use of Gaybonics, as they coined and conceptualized the term, for pleasure and subversion in a queer youth center called The Attic, and how, in The Attic, they interpreted their use of Gaybonics in the larger surrounding queer community and in a public bus. By looking beyond the homophobia that queer youth experience in their lives and looking instead at the ways these youth subvert these experiences into experiences of pleasure, I complicate the vulnerable positionality of these youth as victims with their powerful positionality as agents. This is not to say that they are either victims or agents, rather, they are both simultaneously. Because there is significant literature that reveals the former positionality (Britzman, 1997; Eaton, 1993; Gray, 1999; Human Rights Watch, 2001; Murray, 1998; Owens, 1998; Rofes, 1995, Savin-Williams, 1994; Unks, 1995; Youth voices, 1996), I focus on the latter. In particular, I explore the ways in which youth used and interpreted their use of a Borderland Discourse to elicit pleasure and to subvert oppression, and, when their borders were violated, they shifted from this discourse to another to retaliate against hatred, thus positioning themselves as agents.


Queer youth often experience heterosexism and homophobia in the forms of neglect, isolation, and abuse (Owens, 1998; Rofes, 1995), which complicate the identity work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. According to Deborah Britzman (1997), While gay and lesbian youth are busily constructing their sexual identities, they always encounter contradictory and hostile representation of their identity work (p. 194). These contradictions and this hostility require that gay and lesbian youth must rearticulate received representations of heterosexuality with their own meanings while imaginatively constructing gay and lesbian aesthetics and style (Britzman, 1997, p. 195). Queer youth both elicit pleasure from and subvert homophobia with language in this imaginative identity work.

According to sociolinguist, James Gee, language encapsulate[s], carr[ies] through time and space, meaning, meanings shared by and lived out in a variety of ways by the social group (p. 116). However, as Gee (1996) notes, Language is but a piece of the action, a piece that has value and meaning only in and through the Discourse of which it is a part (p. 149). A discourse, Gee asserts, is a way of being in the world, a sort of identity kit which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular social role that others will recognize (p. 127). The youth who I represent here used Gaybonics to recognize and be recognized by those within their predominantly Black, queer youth community, but the flipside of this is that they also used it to avoid being understood by those outside of the community.

The use of a discourse to exclude those outside of a particular community resonates with the ways in which bell hooks (1994) writes about the use of vernacular by those who have inequitable access to traditional notions of power. She asserts that marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover [them]selves and [their] experiences in language. [They] seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English, [they] create the ruptured, broken, unruly speech of the vernacular (p. 175). She goes on to say that vernacular works to do more than simply mirror or address the dominant reality (p. 175), instead the vernacular subverts that reality. For example, she writes about marginalized and oppressed people making English do what [they] want it to do by tak[ing] the oppressors language and turning it against itself and by mak[ing] [their] words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating [them]selves in language (p. 175). Although hooks refers specifically to what she calls black vernacular, a parallel can be drawn to Gaybonics used by the queer adolescents highlighted in this article. Diane Raymond (1994), in her discussion of queer adolescent identities, asserts that the mores, languages, codes, and signifiers, or discourse, of a queer adolescent subculture reflects a kind of knowledge that may be inaccessible to others (p. 116). I show that queer Black youth with whom I worked liberated themselves in language, as hooks says, by making their language inaccessible to their oppressors, as Raymond says, thus eliciting pleasure among themselves and subverting homophobia and other forms of oppression including ageism and racism in particular.

Gee uses the term Borderland Discourses to describe community-based Discourses that allow interactions outside the confines of public-sphere and middle-class, and in this case I would add homophobic, ageist, and racist elite Discourses (p. 162). Gees notion of Borderland Discourses can be informed by Gloria Anzaldu´as (1987) description of borderlands as vague and undetermined place[s] created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary (p. 3). Borders are unnatural boundaries, she claims, that are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them (p. 3). Gaybonics, as it is used by the youth at The Attic, works to create such a border--one that distinguishes safe from unsafe and us from them so that communication among some is facilitated while that among others, particularly potential oppressors, is hindered.

I explored with youth their understandings of Gaybonics in The Attic, a youth-run center for LGBTQ youth in Philadelphia. This exploration was a piece of a larger one (Blackburn, 2001) of literacy performances (Blackburn, 2003) in the center. The youth at the center are almost entirely from urban communities, and although they are diverse in terms of race, class, and gender, among other aspects of their identities, the population was predominantly Black male. All of the youth represented in this article self-identified as something other than straight, and all but two of them self-identified as Black. I focus on Story Time, a literacy-based group that I initiated with my partner and facilitated for three years. I particularly focus on a youth-initiated project within Story Time in which youth in the group created a dictionary of the gay vocabulary.

The project took place over 5 months, during which the project was proposed (AT 9.27.99) and conceptualized (AT 9.27.99 & FN 11.29.99); the dictionary was drafted, edited, and revised (AT 12.27.99 & 1.10.00); and reflections were made about the significance of such a vocabulary (AT 1.24.00, 2.14.00, & 2.28.00). The data encompass field notes (FN) and audiotapes (AT) of the group meetings and documents (docs) shared and produced in the context of these meetings. I collected these primary source data in the context of The Attic. Included in these data are youth accounts of events that occurred outside of The Attic. I did not document these events themselves. As a relatively older white woman, my mere presence would have changed the events, and as an outsider to the discourses, my interpretation would have been inadequate. Instead, I documented the youths accounts and their interpretations of the accounts. These are my primary source data. The events themselves, which are not documented via primary source data, are not the focus of the study reported here. Rather the sense that these young people made of the use of discourses, particularly Borderland Discourses, in these events is the focus of this study.

The data was not only analyzed by me, but also by the youth in that I selected data that I had collected in the group and brought them back to the group in the form of transcripts and documents. I named the data among other texts that we could explore together at the beginning of five meetings. Youth always elected to examine data about the dictionary, when I brought them. Sometimes we even revisited these data at the request of youth in the group. At that time, I had not come to any firm conclusions based on my own analysis. Therefore, I was not, at this point, soliciting member checks of my work, although I did do this much later. Instead, I was collaborating with the youth to make sense of the data that I collected and selected but that represented all of us in the group. This collaboration on analysis was imperative because Gaybonics was not a discourse that I typically used.

Drawing from these data and analyses, I illustrate and examine the ways in which these youth used and interpreted their use of Borderland Discourses to elicit pleasure, to subvert anticipated oppression, and to retaliate against experienced hatred to position themselves as agents in a world that often works against them. While I focus on the use of Gaybonics by queer Black youth, I do not work to make generalizations about the use of language of all gay people or all Black people. Rather, I work to acknowledge the distinct power any given discourse has (and does not have) in any given context. Further, I work to assert that exploring discourses and power with young people can help them develop metacognitive understandings of discourses so they can make conscious and purposeful choices about which discourse(s) to use when and where in order to accomplish what kind of work. According to Katherine Schultz and Glynda Hull (2002), studies in the New Literacy Studies tradition connect microanalyses of language and literacy with macroanalyses of discourse and power (p. 23). That is the work of the study reported here.

The project was first proposed when I wondered aloud how youth learned to communicate with one another in the center; I asked how they learned to read one another (in the Freirian (1991) sense of reading the world, as opposed to the way these youth used it, which I later came to understand as a way of insulting someone). Their responses suggested that indeed, this was something that needed to be learned. Take, for example, an interaction I shared with Trey1 and Shane, two young Black gay men, in Story Time:

Trey: yall should have a class on that

Shane: you should have a group on reading [queer youth in this community], Trey

Trey: yeees

Mollie: tell me what you would do tell me how you would . . .

Group: [laughter]

Shane: chiiiile

Group: [laughter] . . .

Mollie: hold it, wait, tell me how you would teach a class on reading

Trey: chile Id put down different vocabularies first. (AT 9.27.99)

Quentin, another young Black gay man who was a part of this discussion, suggested that people should have opportunities to just throw [their own interpretations] in (AT 9.27.99) to the vocabulary list, conveying his belief that the language was alive, varying from one perspective to another and changing over time, a belief that was confirmed as we edited and revised the dictionary over time.

Although the discussions were focused on the words they used, the youth recognized that communicating with one another was about more than this. For example, in this same meeting, the youth discussed the meaning of the word fierce:

Trey: if I said your hair looked fierce . . . thatd be a bad thing

Group: [laughter]

Quentin: but but your hair could be fierce and it could be a good thing too, like, chile your hair is fierce, like

Trey: I use fierce as a bad way

Shane: thats how I use it

Trey: I use fierce as a bad way

Group: [unintelligible]

Shane: but they will know by your facial expressions

Trey: they be like you be like, oh chile your hair is fierce

Group: [laughter]

Shane: they will know by your facial expressions, that you know like, one track is hanging right here, you know

Group: [laughter]. (AT 9.27.99)

So, even though these youth said they would start teaching people how to communicate with one another by focusing on vocabulary, they acknowledged that communication also includes body language, for example. As we continued to explore Gaybonics together, it became evident to me that we were not just talking about particular words. Rather, we were talking about a particular Discourse or way of being in the world (p. 127), to use Gees (1996) language. I use Treys term, the gay vocabulary, in reference to the words and Shanes term, Gaybonics, in reference to the larger discourse that includes this vocabulary but is much more than that.

It also became clear to me through this exploration with the youth that we were not just talking about one discourse in isolation from others. Not only were we talking about a discourse associated with the queer youth community, we were also talking about this discourse in relationship to a discourse associated with the Black community--that is, Ebonics. I use the term Ebonics even though I recognize the risk of this word being misinterpreted as it was following the Oakland resolution of 1996. By Ebonics I do not mean broken English, . . . sloppy speech, . . . slang, . . . [or] some bizarre lingo spoken only by baggy-pants-wearing Black kids, (Smitherman, 1998, p. 30). Instead, I mean, Linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of African origin (Williams quoted by Perry & Delpit, 1998, p. 209). Theresa Perry (1998) describes the power, beauty, [and] complexities (p. 12) of Ebonics and points to literacy acts associated with it that function for freedom, for racial uplift, leadership, citizenship (p. 14).

In referring to this discourse, I have elected to use Ebonics rather than African American Vernacular English or AAVE for several reasons. Perry (1998) argues that vernacular is only one variety of what she calls Black Language/Ebonics (p. 4). Therefore to use AAVE is to exclude multiple varieties of Black Language/Ebonics, which include oral and written, formal and informal, vernacular and literary (Perry, 1998, p. 10). While Perry describes the vernacular as just one variety of Black Language/ Ebonics, Ernie Smith (1998) argues that Ebonics is not a vernacular dialect of English at all (p. 57). He illustrates that Ebonics is, instead, an African grammar with English words (p. 55). In 1973, a caucus of Black scholars committed to defining black language from a black perspective (Williams, quoted by Smitherman, 1998, p. 29) coined the word Ebonics, which literally means black sounds (Smith, 1998, p. 54). With respect to this commitment and intention in mind, I use the word Ebonics.

Similarly, I use the word Gaybonics because, in my experience, it was coined and used to name language of queer Black youth from a queer Black youth perspective. Although these youth did not elaborate on this particular word choice, and I did not push them to do so, I imagine that both the word Gaybonics and that which it represents are intricately intertwined with Ebonics. Certainly the word, being directly derived from Ebonics, suggests this relationship. Also, the youth at The Attic who engaged in Gaybonics were typically, although not always, Black. Further, like Ebonics, Gaybonics is a linguistic choice that is deeply embedded in feelings and situations of oppression. It has power that is significantly distinct from standard English, or what some consider to be the discourse of power (Fordham, 1999), raising the question of whether there can be one discourse of power and suggesting that different discourses have different power in different contexts. In fact, Signithia Fordham (1999) asserts that Ebonics is a weapon in what she describes as guerilla warfare against racism and for the liberation of a people and reinforce[ment of] their Black identity (p. 288). I agree with her claim and further assert that Gaybonics, as it is used here, is also a weapon against hegemonic oppression, including homophobia as well as racism and ageism. In these ways, the intricate relationship between Gaybonics and Ebonics and between sexual and racial identities is significant, as this article illustrates.

The youth used both Gaybonics and Ebonics in much the same way that Anzaldu´a uses multiple discourses in Borderlands (1987). That is, these discourses exist at the junctures of cultures, cross-pollinating and creating what Anzaldu´a calls the language of the Borderlands (preface). This is evident in the former example, in the use of the word fierce. I have since learned that, in some communities, Black women more typically use the word fierce. In this situation, Black gay men, perhaps performing femininity, used and defined the word. While it is a word that can be associated with Ebonics, its use here--by men instead of women--associates it with Gaybonics. Thus, the word as it is used here is located in both discourses simultaneously. As we worked on the dictionary together, we ran into this overlap repeatedly. Initially we tried to distinguish one discourse from another but eventually agreed that the overlap exists and that to distinguish them was an artificial task (AT 12.27.99). In fact, it seems to me that Gaybonics as it is used here is a subdiscourse of Ebonics because while it is not used by all those who use Ebonics it is not typically used by those who do not use Ebonics at all. While it is not my purpose to neatly locate Gaybonics relative to Ebonics, I pay some attention to times in which youth make or report making stylistic shifts in language to achieve particular functions, or what Blom and Gumperz (1972) call metaphorical code switching.

In particular I consider the relationship between the use of these Borderland Discourses and the identities of the youth who engage in them. Sociolinguist Nikolas Coupland (2001) asserts that linguistic style operates primarily in the expression of identity and relational goals (p. 190). Similarly, A. C. Liang (1999) concludes that the process of negotiation between individuals, intentions, and social and cultural forces illustrates the intimate connection between language and identity (p. 307). While Liangs work is helpful because is focuses on sexual identities, particularly lesbian and gay identities, it fails to consider racial identities. However, Rusty Barrett (1999) studies the speech of African American drag queens. He suggests that race and sexuality cannot be explored in isolation from each other when he states that the complete set of linguistic styles together index a multilayered identity that is sometimes strongly political with regard to issues of racism and homophobia (p. 313). He concludes that the polyphony of stylistic voices and the identities they index serve to convey multiple meanings that may vary across contexts and speakers (p. 327). Building on this work, I analyze different stylistic voices, or what Im calling Borderland Discourses, to reveal and make sense of the multiple meanings being conveyed and what difference these meanings make in the lives of those engaging in the discourses.


As queer youth engaged in Borderland Discourses in this queer youth center, they elicited pleasure through humor and intimacy. Black folklorist, J. Mason Brewer (1978) asserts that humor elicits a feeling of power in the midst of misery, is intended to amuse, and makes people feel better about themselves (p. x). It is this understanding of humor with which I am working here. That the youth engaged in Borderland Discourses to humor one another was evident throughout the three years that I spent at the center, which I illustrate here.

When we worked on the dictionary together in Story Time, the group not only identified and defined words that they considered to be a part of the gay vocabulary, they also performed the words in use. Inevitably the group laughed together as they performed. As in the interaction between Trey and Shane when they explained what fierce meant, Trey performed the word when he said, oh chile your hair is fierce, and Shane complemented the performance with an image of one track of hair hanging in the wrong place. They played off of each other and humored the group, as evidenced by the groups laughter. Through these performances, youth illustrated ways in which language can be used to exert power over others, particularly those who are the objects of the criticism, to make themselves feel better, and most outstandingly to amuse one another.

Examining the gay vocabulary also served to create a sense of intimacy among those who engaged in the discourse. But to engage in the discourse, they had to learn it. When I asked youth how they learned Gaybonics, I was told:

Quentin: you pick it up

Trey: I picked it up when I started coming here when I was like seventeen, I started listening to the vocabulary, and stuff like that . . .

Trey: [Quentin] didnt even think he was going to get the uh vocabulary Quentin: no, he had to teach me, I had to keep asking, what does that mean? How do you use that? (AT 9.27.99)

Here, Trey said that he learned Gaybonics through observation, and Quentin said that he learned it from more overt teaching. This teaching and learning played a significant role in developing intimacy among youth in the center. Janice, a young Black bisexual woman who came to Story Time, talked about the importance of such opportunities to teach and learn the discourse of any given community when she said, I think here, I didnt understand most of the slang, but like people taught me, it wasnt like, like in high school, people werent like well youre not a part of us or whatever, looking at me like Im crazy (AT 1.24.00). Here, Janice implied that being taught Gaybonics at the center made her feel more a part of the community.

However, just as engaging in a particular discourse makes some people feel more included, it makes others feel excluded. According to Quentin, there is definitely a culture at The Attic or a culture among young gay people, if you cant understand [Gaybonics], then you cant really fit in (AT 1.24.00). During this same discussion, Karen, a young Black lesbian who came to Story Time, said that, if the in-crowd doesnt deem you worthy to fit in, then theyre not going to take you under their wing and educate you on the lingo (AT 1.24.00). In this conversation, Quentin and Karen conveyed that the relationship between knowing Gaybonics and being a part of their predominantly Black, queer youth community are integrally intertwined and those who do not know the discourse are excluded from the community. Therefore one could not assume that just because a young person came to The Attic that he or she was a part of the community there.

The use of Gaybonics to exclude some youth at The Attic became evident in a Story Time discussion of discourse and power as it pertained to an event that occurred just a few weeks after the meeting in which we discussed the power of Gaybonics to exclude. The event of focus was a game of When the Wind Blows. To play the game, there is one fewer chair than there are players. The one standing player says, The wind blows for anyone who, and completes the sentence with a phrase that reveals something true for him or her self and ideally for other players as well. Everyone for whom that statement is true stands up and finds another chair. The person without a chair then makes a statement that is true about him or her self, and thus the game continues.

During this particular game, I noticed that some players were using the gay vocabulary in ways that excluded from the game those who had not learned Gaybonics. I mentioned this at the following meeting of Story Time.

Mollie: when we were playing that When the Wind Blows game, when people were using private words I tried to say say what you mean, or define it, because I think that can feel really isolating or outcasting, you know feel like youre on the outside of that community as opposed to the inside . . .

Theo: What do you mean by private words?

Dara: Yeah, I was going to ask that.

Mollie: Uh, wor, ok, like if I asked the que, if were playing When the Wind Blows, you know the game, right?

Dara: Uh huh

Mollie: And I say, um, the wind blows for anybody wearing a gilda, and nobody knows [that gilda means wig]

Group: [laughter]

Thunder: [Is] that what she said? I said that.

Mollie: Did you say that?

Thunder: I feel so bad.

Mollie: No, no, no dont. Im telling you why, but if five people dont know what it is

Quentin: Yeah

Mollie: It kind of makes you feel stupid .. . .

Shane: Out of those five people, like three of them got wigs on

Mollie: Right

Group: [laughter] . . . . (AT 2.14.00)

During the game, Thunder, a young Black gay man, used the gay vocabulary in ways that prevented those who had not learned Gaybonics from playing at least one round of the game. In this way he included some youth and excluded others. In this move, Thunder exerted power over the people who didnt know Gaybonics. The youth who knew the discourse could play the game and those who did not know the discourse could not play the game. Thus, Thunder replicated oppression defined by discourses.

In the meeting of Story Time where the youth explicitly discussed the relationship between Gaybonics and power, Thunder used the gay vocabulary with an entirely different effect. Here, his use of the discourse evoked laughter, suggesting pleasure. There was, however, at least one person in the group who did not seem to be amused. This was Steve who seemed to identify with those who did not understand the discourse. Steve is a young Asian American gay man who came to the center sporadically and never particularly connected with the youth who came more regularly. He said:

people feel that uncomfortable because they dont relate to the same things because theyre not from here, theyre from outside, and there are like things about, I dont really, I find it more interesting the people who dont come here, they come here once and they leave, I generally become friends with them, I relate to them a lot more than the people who are already here. I dont know why that is. (AT 2.14.00)

Admittedly, I, as well as others in the group, assumed a defensive stance in response to his comment. I suggested that he think more about why he did not relate to people at the center, suggesting that he assume responsibility for this disconnect, and one of the youth verbally agreed with me. Another youth asked how his comment connected with the conversation we were having about language, suggesting that his comment was off-topic.

Although Steve did not respond to my comment or the youths question, Quentin and Shane made an effort at locating his comment in our conversation about language. They said:

Quentin: I think that language does [have to do with feeling like an outsider in the center] because there are people here, and I think it happens to a lot of people when they come, um, if they integrate themselves, youll feel like youre speaking two different languages but over the time, youll either incorporate it or keep your own but understand what the people are saying

Shane: I do, I personally do think that the language has something to do with [feeling like an outsider in the center]. (AT 2.14.00)

Then Shane went on to give an example of the ways in which not knowing Gaybonics could hinder a youths effort to develop intimacy with those in the center. Even though the group would not assume responsibility for someones positionality as an outsider, they acknowledged that ones faculty with Gaybonics had something to do with whether one felt a part of the community.

What was not articulated but I believe was embedded in this conversation was the racialized nature of the Discourse. Trey, a Black gay man who uses Ebonics, said he just picked up on Gaybonics. Quentin, a Black gay man who does not typically use Ebonics, and the Black women in the group, said they needed to be taught Gaybonics. However, Steve, who is a gay man but is not Black, who does not use Ebonics, neither picked up on nor was taught Gaybonics.

Therefore, the use of Gaybonics not only worked against Steve by excluding him, but it also worked for those who used the discourse in that these youth could subvert Steves critique and even anticipated oppression. That Steve critiqued other youth at The Attic is evident in his saying that he finds people not from The Attic more interesting than those from The Attic. While this comment could be interpreted as his effort at protecting himself from being rejected by the youth, it could also be construed as his evaluation of the youth as uninteresting. The latter understanding seems to me a more likely one for other youth in the group to have come to. I believe, however, that it was not only Steves critique that some youth were trying to avoid. It was also anticipated oppression. He attended a magnet school in the school district, he talked extensively about his reading and writing of traditional texts, and he made distinctions between discussions that he found intellectually stimulating and those he found boring. Some youth at the center stereotyped Steve as a model minority (Lee, 1996). They associated his values with the values of oppressors. By excluding Steve, users of Gaybonics effectively subverted his critique and oppression. In doing so, however, they also replicated the oppression that they experienced.

That exclusion of oppressors, or perceived oppressors, was one way to subvert oppression was supported in another Story Time conversation about discourse and power. I raised the issue of exclusion by suggesting that the youth used Gaybonics to position some people as insiders and others as outsiders within their predominantly Black, queer youth community. They explained to me that while they did not do it on purpose, doing so did serve a purpose. Quentin told me that the exclusion was not necessarily intentional, but instead it was a part of the culture (AT 1.24.00). Further, Thunder asserted that youth engaged in Gaybonics in ways that constructed borders within their community to practice for other communities where they needed to construct such borders to protect themselves from the homophobia that they experienced, or in other words, to subvert oppression.

Thunder: I feel like the vocabulary, the gay vocabulary is like our way of defense in the straight community.

Quentin: True.

Thunder: When youre out there

Mollie: Say more about that. What do you mean that its your defense?

Thunder: Ok, all right, by you playing around with your friends and you saying stuff oh chile, you tired [ugly], you like a rock [extremely ugly, like a rock]. Yall kiki [joke] and laugh but its like practice its like, you are, how should I say, training yourself for the salt thats to come when you get out there in the real world because, here in The Attic, were here, were comfortable, we can kiki and laugh.

Mollie: So youre developing defense mechanisms?

Thunder: Were developing defense, and you know, it quickens your reflexes to come back up with something more witty and more like uh, gag-nation, you know what Im saying?

Mollie: So its a way of dealing with abuse?

Thunder: Right. (AT 1.24.00)

Here, Thunder referred both to language more typically associated with Ebonics, such as tired, as well as that associated with Gaybonics, such as kiki. He suggested that this language is not only about the pleasure that comes from humor and intimacy within his predominantly Black queer youth community, but it is also about constructing borders within this community as practice for subverting homophobia, or the salt thats to come, outside of this community. However, in addition to being practice for subverting the heterosexism and homophobia that they experience in the world, I imagine that this use of discourse was also a reflection of what these youth practice regularly in their world that is also often racist. In other words, perhaps their use of Gaybonics not only serves to create borders between themselves and heterosexists and homophobes but also between themselves and racists, as some youth at The Attic may have understood Steve to be.

This use of a Borderland Discourse to subvert oppression is reminiscent of Holts finding that Black people in the United States learned that masking linguistic meaning was (and still is) a central weapon (as cited by Fordham, 1999, p. 279). The youth at The Attic revealed that the work of engaging in a Borderland Discourse to include some and exclude others served as one way of subverting anticipated cruelty both inside and outside of the center. Further, this way of practicing with language for protection reminds me of Audre Lordes (1984) discussion of The Dozens, which she describes as A Black game of supposedly friendly rivalry and name-calling; in reality, a crucial exercise in learning how to absorb verbal abuse without faltering (p. 171). These exercises, which among these youth are not only a black game but also a queer game, serve to entertain but also to subvert and retaliate against hatred, as I illustrate and explore next.


That the youth used Borderland Discourses to subvert oppression outside of their queer, youth, and predominantly Black community was suggested when I received a note from a young Jewish gay man who used to come to the center quite often, but, while I was there, he only visited during his breaks from college. He had come to a meeting of Story Time during which we worked on the dictionary, so he knew about the work we had done. His note said that one of his co-workers at a local queer bookstore ran a new LGBTQ etc. magazine, and that he was really interested in publishing a piece dealing w/ that dictionary (excerpts maybe?) (docs 2.00). I read the note aloud at the next meeting of Story Time and asked them how they wanted me to respond to the note. I was surprised when the youth rejected the invitation to publish excerpts from the dictionary. I had imagined that the opportunity to publish their work would be somehow validating, but Karen said, I dont think the dictionary should be in the magazine because then everybody would know the T [truth], if youre talking about somebody, and then theyve read the magazine, then theyre going to know youre talking about them (AT 2.28.00). Thunder and Shane agreed and said:

Thunder: you tell him no, its just not a good idea.

Shane: tell him thanks but no thanks. (AT 2.28.00)

Their response to the note communicated to me how literally Gaybonics offered them spaces in which to communicate outside of their predominantly Black, queer youth community2. I understand their rejection of this offer to publish the dictionary to be less about keeping the gay vocabulary from homophobes, who would most likely not read the publication, but to be more about keeping the language from the older, predominantly white, queer community. In fact, by using the word T to mean truth, a word used in some Black communities, Karen implied that the everybody to whom she was referring was not-Black, rather than not-queer. This meant excluding me, as an older white lesbian, as well. While the youth trusted me enough to create the dictionary and discuss the discourse with me, we did not communicate with each other via Gaybonics, except in a jocular manner. Rather, the youth strategically used a Discourse unfamiliar to those outside of their queer, youth, and predominantly Black community to make a place for intimacy, (p. 175) to use hookss (1994) words.

Not only did the use of Gaybonics as a Borderland Discourse serve to create intimacy, as hooks says, and mutual recognition, as Gee says, it also served to position the users of this discourse as agents who subverted ageism and racism by creating a border that hindered those outside of that border from understanding what those inside of the border were saying, a strategy they practiced within their community. If the dictionary were published, then the border between us and them, between safe and unsafe, as Anzaldu´a says, would be threatened. Those outside of their community would then have information that would facilitate their understanding of conversations occurring inside of their community. Thus, youth would lose some of the privacy that Borderland Discourses offered. By rejecting the offer to publish the dictionary, these youth positioned Gaybonics as protection against via exclusion of those outside of the discourse.

In this discussion of Story Time, youth implied the ways in which they used Borderland Discourses to subvert oppression outside of their queer, youth, and predominantly Black community but within what could be understood as a larger queer community by refusing to publish their dictionary. Next I turn to a discussion in Story Time in which one youth explicitly talks about how he used Gaybonics in an effort to subvert homophobia in the larger community, what he calls the real world.

This discussion was instigated by the groups efforts at analyzing data. I distributed copies of a draft of the dictionary to the group, said that I noticed that many words were about hurting people, and asked what sense they made of this. After much discussion, Thunder offered an account of one of his experiences as an example in an effort to help me understand.

Thunder: So when you get out in the real world you on this, lets say you on the judy-ass 23 [a disliked bus route], and you know

Karen: Oh! The longest ride ever.

Thunder: The longest ride ever.

Group: Where does the 23 go?

Karen: It goes all, its the longest ride in Philadelphia.

Thunder: And, and its like, Im going to give an example. Now, . . . So Im with my best friend and were sitting there were kikiing and cackling [laughing] in the back of the bus talking about stuff, gossip. And trade [masculine men] very graciously get up on the bus at what? Broad and Erie.

Karen: Yes honey.

Trey: Thats ghetto.

Thunder: And they come all the way to the back of the bus. Theyre talking. They stop and listen to our conversation, and we talking talking. (AT 1.24.00)

Here, Thunder used Gaybonics in Story Time to humor the group. Whether or not Thunder actually used Gaybonics on the bus I cannot know. As a relatively older white woman who shares a close relationship with Thunder, my presence on the bus would have probably changed the dynamics among the men. Certainly in my experience with having ridden on buses with Thunder this sort of thing could not have easily occurred because typically we sat and talked together, interacting very little with those around us. However, it is not what happened on the bus as much as Thunders interpretation of what happened on the bus that matters here, and his interpretation of what happened is that Thunder and his friend used Gaybonics as a way of subverting the homophobia they expected to encounter on a public bus, particularly a bus on this specific route.

Thunder did not explicitly state either that the two were using Gaybonics or that they were using it to subvert homophobia, but he implied both of these things by recounting the event in the context of a discussion about Gaybonics in which he claimed that the gay vocabulary is like our way of defense in the straight community (AT 1.24.00) and I asked him to talk more about that claim. Further, he suggested that he and his friend were using Gaybonics by using the gay vocabulary as he described their conversation. For example, he set the scene by saying that he and his friend were kikiing and cackling, instead of using standard synonyms, like joking and laughing.

He indicated that their use of the discourse was about subverting homophobia by calling the men who came on the bus trade. The word trade, according to the gay vocabulary, suggests that although the men appeared masculine and could be perceived as straight, they were, from Thunders perception, gay men who did not want to be recognized as such. Whether they were straight or gay was irrelevant; what mattered was that at least in this context Thunder perceived them as homophobic. Thunder allowed for the possibility that they could have been straight homophobes, or, as Thunder suspected, gay men struggling with internalized homophobia. Either way, their homophobia--not their sexuality--was a threat to Thunder and his friend, who were, at least in this account, out gay men. Thus, the words Thunder used in his description of an event on the bus conveyed that he perceived the context at least to be potentially homophobic and that he and his friend could subvert homophobia by engaging in Gaybonics. Thunder asserted that he and his friend used a Borderland Discourse to communicate outside of the confines of public sphere . . . Discourses, (Gee, 1996, p. 162) even in a public sphere. Whether or not it happened is not the point; rather, the point is that Thunder knows this Borderland Discourse can be used in this powerful way, that is, to subvert homophobia.

However, Thunders continued telling about the encounter points to his understanding of the limits of subversion through Gaybonics.

Thunder: They stop and listen to our conversation, and we talking talking, and we didnt realize that theyre cackling! And you know were talking and then [they] was like, you noticing something? [I] Said, yeah. Why are you all up in my business?

Group: [laughter]

Karen: You said that?

Group: [laughter]

Trey: Did she [he] ever.

Thunder: And they [said], you faggot ass. [And I said,] Is that all you can say, you cunt? Look at your Timberlands, they are leaning like the Eiffel Tower . . .

Group: [laughter, clapping]

Thunder: . . . were talking about the 23.

Mollie: But you are also talking about people hurting people not about boots at all.

Thunder: Well, we were talking about, but he tried it [my patience], and as soon as he said faggot, the defense went schzing!

Trey: Yes.

Thunder: Look at your cornrows. They need to be rebraided. They look like they are hanging by what? A string.

Group: [laughter]

Thunder: And that was it. (AT 1.24.00)

In Thunders account, there was a shift both in the dynamics among the men and in the engagement of Borderland Discourses. The dynamics among the men shifted when, according to Thunder, the men intruded upon his conversation with his friend, not only by listening to but also interrupting it. Thunders use of the word trade to describe the men suggests that they could have been a part of the local queer community and therefore could have had access to the discourse of Gaybonics. Whether or not this was the case, the intrusion, as Thunder described it, suggested that the trade men were making some sense of the conversation, although what sense they made is unknown. Therefore, according to Thunder, he and his friend could no longer subvert the trade mens homophobia with Gaybonics.

In Thunders recount, he responded to the trade mens slur not by engaging in Gaybonics, but instead by engaging in a discourse that, at least in this particular interaction, was more dominant. That is, he responded to the slur with a metaphorical code switch (Blom & Gumperz, 1972). The shift from Gaybonics is particularly evident by his use of the word cunt. In his telling, he did not use it as it is defined in the dictionary of the gay vocabulary, where it is described as an adjective meaning cute, happy or feminine and as a noun meaning a friend (docs 1.24.00). Rather, he used it more like it is used in the mainstream, to the extent it is used in the mainstream, as a derogatory word for female genitalia or women more generally. One thing that Thunder knew about these men is that they were masculine, and he suspected that their masculinity was important to them. From his perspective, he could make them vulnerable by calling their masculinity into question by not only referring to them as women but by doing so in a derogatory manner. By using cunt in this way, that is as a short quick metaphorical jab or snap, he began playing the dozens, which Percelay, Ivey, and Dweck (1994) describe in this way: [t]he dozens illustrates the force of the spoken word, and is the ultimate expression of fighting with your wits, not your fists (p. 23). In this fashion, Thunder went on to ridicule the homophobes shoes and hairstyles thus retaliating against the homophobes, at least in his account of the event. Thus, Thunder shifted from using Gaybonics to subvert homophobia to using the larger discourse of Ebonics to retaliate against homophobia. In this way, Thunder at least imagined and told of using Borderland Discourses to position himself as an agent in the homophobic context of a public bus in a poor urban area of Philadelphia that is populated largely by people of color.

In Story Time, Thunder represented the incident on the bus as somewhat threatening but also as humorous. In fact, the dozens is recognized as a comedic art form . . . [b]orn out of a shared experience of pain and prejudice (Percelay, Ivey, & Dweck, 1994, p. 21). Certainly humor was the tone of the telling in Story Time. Thunders peers supported him with encouraging phrases, laughter, and applause. In fact, I am the only one who made a disparaging remark, which I did when I told him that he was perpetuating a cycle of people hurting people when he criticized the homophobe on the bus. What I did not understand when I made that comment was that while he may have been perpetuating a cycle of people hurting people, he was, at least in his telling, ending a cycle in which the homophobe is the oppressor and the out gay man is the victim. I believe that my initial response was shaped primarily by the fact that as a white woman I have learned to be more comfortable with smoothing over rather than engaging in conflict. While I have worked to unlearn this way of (not) dealing with conflict, in this instance, I was made uncomfortable by Thunders recount, and as a result I failed to recognize the value in the interaction that Thunder described. However, Lorde (1984) asserts that, it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence (p. 44), and hooks (1990b) states:

Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed . . . a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life, and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of talking back that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice. (p. 340)

By retaliating against the homophobes, by refusing to remain silent, Thunder asserted his agency by liberating his voice, even if only in his telling of the event. This retaliation did not eliminate the victimization as he described it; instead, his positionality was complicated and improved by his agency. In Lordes (1984) language he was not only a casualty but also a warrior (p. 41).

According to Thunders report of the event on the bus, he used Gaybonics to amuse his friend, engage in an intimate conversation with him, and subvert homophobia, but when the limits of this discourse in this context became apparent, Thunder shifted to Ebonics to retaliate against the homophobia of the trade men and humor his friend. Whether his account accurately represents the event is unimportant. Instead, what is important is that Thunder described and interpreted his own experiences to illustrate the ways in which Borderland Discourses can be used for pleasure, subversion, and retaliation.


In the book Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (Ferguson, Gever, Minh-ha, & West, 1990), Ferguson (1990) defines marginalization as that complex and disputatious process by means of which certain people and ideas are privileged over others at any given time (p. 7). The book is a collection of essays that explore and deconstruct the problematic binary notions of center and periphery, inclusion and exclusion, majority and minority, as they operate in artistic and social practice (Tucker, 1990, p. 7). This collection includes hooks essay entitled marginality as site of resistance (pp. 341343) in which she asserts that marginality is much more than a site of deprivation . . . it is also the site of radical possibility (p. 341). She avows that marginality is something to cherish because it offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds (p. 341).

In her essay, hooks (1990a) draws from her experiences as a black American living in a small town in Kentucky and then later attending a predominantly white university. Race is integral to her conceptualization of marginalization; however, her notion of marginalization can inform my understanding of the youth at The Attic. Drawing from hookss notion of marginality, I claim that The Attic exists in the margins relative to schools, and as such it offers the radical possibility of new worlds (p. 341).

The work the youth and I did together around the use of discourses to elicit pleasure and to subvert and retaliate against oppression could only have happened in the way that it happened in the margins of school. This is, in part, because Borderland Discourses in general are so undervalued in schools (Fordham, 1999) but also because schools tend to be such heterosexist and homophobic institutions (Britzman, 1997; Eaton, 1993; Gray, 1999; Human Rights Watch, 2001; Murray, 1998; Owens, 1998; Rofes, 1995; Savin-Williams, 1994; Unks, 1995; Youth Voices, 1996). To talk about Gaybonics as a Borderland Discourse would make the users of that discourse even more vulnerable to these forms of oppression, much like publishing the dictionary may have made the users of Gaybonics more vulnerable to the ageism and racism of the older, predominantly white, queer community. Therefore the work we did around discourses and power with particular respect to Gaybonics could not have occurred in schools.

While it was important that our work take place outside of schools, it was just as important that it occur in a place, like The Attic, that is a center that is explicitly committed to serving LGBTQ youth and to working against heterosexism and homophobia. Further, it was a place where Gaybonics, as a discourse, was valued, at least among many of the youth, not only because these youth were LGBTQ but also because the majority of them were Black. As such, it was, in hookss (1990a) words to describe marginality, a central location for the production of a counter hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives (p. 341). In The Attic, as the margins of schools, a counter hegemonic discourse was not only produced but also analyzed and thus recognized as allowing some users in some contexts to assert their agency in order to elicit pleasure and subvert and retaliate against oppression.

Michel Foucault (1990) argues that we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies (p. 100). When youth analyze their use of Borderland Discourses in the margins, as hooks conceptualizes the margins, they come to understand the ways in which they engage in such discourses to position themselves as agents. They come know there is not one discourse of power, despite what they may learn in schools. They come to understand the power they can (and cannot) access by engaging in various discourses. They need opportunities to explore such access to power through language. For example, the youth represented in this paper engaged in Gaybonics to protect themselves from homophobia, as well as ageism and racism. Thus, the discourse did important work for these youth, and to insist that these youth not use this Discourse did and does not make sense. If, however, the discourse is in some way harmful, as in the game of When the Wind Blows and for youth like Steve, it does not make sense to allow the use of the discourse to go uninterrogated. However, this does not mean squelching the discourse. Instead it means talking about what work the discourse does for some youth and against other youth by facilitating discussions with youth about ways of accomplishing the goals of all youth involved. Conversations about the power and problems of Gaybonics helped youth in this study make more conscious and informed decisions about ways of using language to assume agency. When youth define their own words and interpret their own experiences in ways that highlight language use they gain access to power through language. They develop a metacognitive understanding of discourses that allows them to make more purposeful choices in language use so that they can assert themselves as agents, deciding what kind of work they want to accomplish, including but not limited to the elicitation of pleasure, subversion of oppression, and the retaliation against hatred.

However, while agency is imperative, it is also inadequate. For example, in this study, youth articulated a metacognitive understanding that they could assert their agency by using Borderland Discourses in ways that constructed or reified borders that protected them. However, such a move to protect themselves also hindered communication across differences. In other words, while they knew they could position themselves as agents, they did not necessarily know they could position themselves as activists. Youth need to learn to become not only agents but also activists. Chela Sandoval (2000), in her book entitled Methodology of the Oppressed, elaborates on the relationship between activism and the agent (p. 235). She writes about agency as a mechanism for survival and activism as a generation and performance of a higher moral and political mode of oppositional and coalitional social movement (p. 157). I have illustrated the ways in which agency can be asserted through discourses to please, humor, create intimacy, subvert, and retaliate against, but agency can also be asserted to accomplish the work of social and political change. This is the work of an activist. Sandoval asserts that agency and activism, in conjunction, intensify each other. She describes a new morality of form that intervenes in social reality through deploying an action that re-creates the agent even as the agent is creating the action--in an ongoing, chiasmic loop of transformation (p. 157). So, even though the value of change itself is highly subjective, depending on whom the change benefits, the work of social change strengthens the one engaging in the work and vice versa.

Lorde (1984) talks about action as a conversion of anger into the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification (p. 127). Drawing from her, it seems to me that activism is when anger is converted into action toward a better future. I am reminded of the times in which I squelched anger, such as when Steve spoke about how the center was an unwelcoming place for him. I placed blame on him for feeling disconnected, rather than hearing his anger, validating his feelings, and facilitating a discussion surrounding what he had said. If I had, instead, fostered dialogue in which we explored anger and conflict, we could have learned more about one another and ourselves and perhaps about ways to work together for change.

There are times, however, in which an activist stance does not make sense. Lorde (1984) asserts that while anger can be converted into activism, hatred cannot. She claims that anger is among peers who share goals of change but hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction (p. 129). Take for example, Thunders account of the interaction between the out gay men and trade men on the back of the bus. I cannot say whether these men were angry or hateful, but I glean from Thunders description that the out gay men and the trade men did not in this particular interaction share goals, and further, while the men in the back of the bus did not work to destroy one another literally, they did work to do so metaphorically. Thus, this context was not one for activism.

Together, with youth, we need to create contexts where we can be both agents and activists, where we can survive hatred, where we can oppose one another, develop coalitions with one another, where we can be angry, where we can be moved to action, and where we can work for change.

I would like to thank Dr. Carrie Jacobs and all of the youth who were part of The Attic when I was there, particularly those I call Dara, Karen, Janice, Quentin, Shane, Steve, Theo, Thunder, and Trey. Thank you all for making my work and life more meaningful. I would also like to thank Traci Aldstadt, Tammy Glupcynski, Lauren Kenney, Lance McCready, MaryLou Rasmussen, Eric Rofes, and Susan Talburt for their thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to earlier drafts of this article.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 1, 2005, p. 89-113
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11690, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 2:17:46 AM

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About the Author
  • Mollie Blackburn
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    MOLLIE V. BLACKBURN is Assistant Professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the College of Education at Ohio State University. Her research is critical and activist in nature and works to explore the ways in which youth engage in literacy performances to construct their identities and work for social change. She is author of ‘‘Exploring Literacy Performances and Power Dynamics at The Loft: Queer Youth Reading the World and Word’’ in Research in the Teaching of English (2003) and ‘‘Losing, Finding, and Making Space for Activism Through Literacy Performances and Identity Work’’ in Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education (2003).
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