A charitable reading of American history will more than likely include themes of tolerance, progress, and inclusivity. In this reading, social movements have clear lines of demarcation, a discernible beginning and ending. The progress achieved at the end of the movement is often framed as inevitable and is folded into the fabric of our national identity. This reading of American history is often triumphant in tone – Americans fought evil at home and abroad and were always on the right side of history.

When subjected to even the slightest scrutiny, however, this narrative falls apart. The history of the United States, and really of the entire world, can be placed upon a timeline of oppression, violence, and struggle. The mythic inevitability of social movements undercuts the bloody labor its members put into their quest for basic human rights. Indeed, American history is a story of almost continuous revolution – a struggle to find the warmth of the sun promised to all Americans.

One such struggle continues today – the LGBTQIA Liberation Movement. Despite recent victories here in America and around the world, the movement still faces fierce resistance in legal, public, and private spheres. Within this context, Communication scholars approach studying LGBTQIA topics from many perspectives and do so with a litany of critical tools. In this article, some of these perspectives and critical tools are highlighted, and the development of LGBTQIA Communication scholarship is examined, providing future master’s students a basis for pursuing careers and research in the realm of LGBTQIA Studies.

Defining LGBTQIA Communication

To begin to understand LGBTQIA Communication, it is important to first comprehend the terminology common to the field. LGBTQIA is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual people, representing a spectrum of lived experiences that some scholars refer to as the “queer identity matrix” (Howard, 2014).

Within this matrix, people develop conceptions of themselves based upon an amalgamation of media, culture, and society. Part of the Communication scholar’s job, then, is to “interrogate the notion of identity being socially constructed, yet interconnected and shaped by cultural associations” (Howard, 2014). LGBTQIA Communication, then, can be defined as the communicative processes that occur both within and outside of individuals and groups that identify on this spectrum. Indeed, this communication can manifest in a variety of ways.

As such, research that investigates instances of LGBTQIA Communication is varied and multifaceted, helping to create a truly interdisciplinary field. Interpersonal Communication scholars, for example, might examine the communication that occurs between individuals in a same-sex relationship; while rhetoric or social movement scholars might examine the communicative strategies of past or current liberation movements.

Because each letter of the acronym represents and constitutes a unique human experience that can simultaneously be individual and collective, researchers must also attend to these nuances. Because of this, some scholars contend that an overarching definition for LGBTQIA Communication is counterproductive to liberation efforts – as the communication that occurs among and about one group of people within this spectrum can be (and usually is) vastly different from another. The lived experience of a gay teenager in rural Oklahoma is different from the experience of a transgender adult living in Chicago, and thus their communicative strategies and paradigms differ.

This discussion brings to the fore another important term in LGBTQIA Studies – intersectionality. Intersectionality “looks at the relationships between multiple marginalized identities” that allows academics and activists to “analyze social problems more fully, shape more effective interventions, and promote more inclusive advocacy amongst communities” (UC Davis, 2019). In other words, the “one size fits all” approach to studying LGBTQIA Communication has given way to the nuance that intersectionality provides.

Through intersectionality, scholars and activists have been able to better articulate, pinpoint, and prescribe remedies for issues that were once completely silenced or overlooked. For example, violence targeting black transgender individuals continues to rise faster than violence directed at other oppressed groups in recent years. Here, the intersection of blackness and transgender-ness helps scholars and activists uncover why this targeted violence continues to rise. Indeed, many scholars and activists contend that promoting and analyzing intersectionality is crucial to combatting oppression.

With this in mind, there is one unifying concept that makes discussing LGBTQIA Communication as a whole at least somewhat possible – the concept of power and its relationship with discourse. Scholars studying communication that occurs in LGBTQIA contexts continue to highlight the ways power structures maintain control through the use of language – and how the varied LGBTQIA communities challenge this oppression through their language choices.

A (Brief) History of LGBTQIA Studies in Communication

Historically, human beings within the queer identity matrix have been (and continue to be) silenced, made invisible, or disregarded. While academia has certainly become a safer space for oppressed people like those in the LGBTQIA community, significant obstacles still exist. Within Communication Studies, the road to liberation and acceptance has been – and continues to be – challenging.

The National Communication Association’s (NCA) Caucus on LGBTQ Concerns and the GLBTQ Communication Studies Division noted that as “women, communities of colors, students and others began to make their presence known in classrooms and on the streets,” so too did members of the LGBTQIA community. It was not until 1973, however, that scholarship from and about this community was published in an institutionally recognized journal.

Well before their long overdue scholarly acceptance in the 1970s, LGBTQIA “scholars, teachers, students, and professionals had been active since the founding” of the Speech Communication Association (the institutional predecessor to NCA), meeting “unofficially to exchange ideas and make connections” at conferences and panels (“The NCA Caucus on LGBTQ Concerns and the GLBTQ Communication Studies Division,” n.d.). In 1978, the caucus on Gay and Lesbian Concerns was established at the NCA Legislative Assembly meeting, marking another important step in challenging institutional norms within academia. Indeed, set against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQIA forces at work throughout much of the United States, the progress made within NCA and other academic institutions in 1970s and 80s laid the foundation for robust interdisciplinary research that we benefit from today.

Topics in LGBTQIA Communication Studies

In 1981, Communication scholar James Chesebro published Gayspeak: Gay Male & Lesbian Communication. In this “groundbreaking volume” (Yep, Lovaas, & Elia, 2003), Chesebro (1981) argued for a communicative perspective in the study of “the language, nonverbal acts, and symbols of gay males and lesbians . . . and the symbols employed by heterosexuals to conceive of and to respond to homosexual behavior.” Many of the essays in the volume distinguished the communicative practices that occur within the LGBTQIA community from the communicative practices of heterosexual communities, establishing a scholarly rationale for future research.

While certainly an important milestone in the study of LGBTQIA Communication, the “assertion that the” LGBTQIA co-culture “communicates in ways that distinguish it as a unique linguistic community is misleading” given how diverse – and intersectional – the community really is (Neuliep, 2012). Certainly, the academic study of LGBTQIA Communication has evolved, and, with this evolution, several research topics and concepts have emerged. In this section, we highlight a few of these concepts.

Queer Theory: Considered by many to be the closest example of a unifying theory in LGBTQIA Communication, Queer Theory fundamentally altered both the academic and activist landscape. In its most basic form, Queer Theory is about deconstruction – a way to deconstruct the argumentative frameworks of what is considered normal and proper in the realm of sexual identity imposed upon society throughout history and today. As a tool to challenge entrenched heteronormative views, language, and systems, Queer Theory is also used to trace the various histories of sexual social norms.

Put differently, scholars utilizing Queer Theory are tasked with revealing how and why society constructs sexual identity in the mold it does, and how these constructions are used as tools for oppression and othering. In the context of this discussion, othering refers to the categorization of other people as different and separate from oneself in a way that alters one’s perception of these people’s humanity. In many ways, othering is at the root of social, cultural, and sexual marginalization, as it is this designation of people as “other” that can encourage objectification, stereotypes, and prejudice. In addition to examining and highlighting the phenomenon of othering, scholars can also employ Queer Theory to investigate communicative instances where the “deviant” challenges the “normal.”

With Queer Theory, the word “queer” is used in lieu of other, more specific terms in an effort to encompass multiple identities that challenge the sexual status quo in society. In action, Queer Theory can manifest in many forms. For example, a scholar using Queer Theory could examine the response to the inclusion of a gay character in a recent Hollywood film. Narrowing down the focus, the scholar could ask “what was the response to the inclusion of this gay character in this film in white audiences fifty and older?” From there, the scholar could bring Queer Theory in to help explain their findings or to postulate potential changes to the theory.

Media Framing: Of the many nascent topics in LGBTQIA Communication, the concept of media framing is perhaps the most influential – both in the power of its positive potential and in its insidious ramifications. Media framing, or how the news media names or defines an event, shapes public opinion. For better or for worse, this power of the news media abides even in the multimodal way we now consume news.

For the LGBTQIA Community, media framing of its members and events can be a matter of life and death. Brian Ott and Eric Aoki’s (2002) essay, “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder” in Rhetoric & Public Affairs highlights this potential. Ott and Aoki argued that print news media coverage of Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998 adopted what Kenneth Burke, the famed 20th Century rhetorical critic whose “dramatism” helped reshape the field, called the “tragic frame,” and, in so doing, moved the public through four phases: “naming the event, making a political symbol, expunging the evil within, and restoring the social order.”

By adopting this frame, they argued, the media alleviated public guilt over the vicious hate-crime, scapegoated the murderers, and most insidiously, reaffirmed “a dominant set of discourses” that stigmatized the LGBTQIA Community, thus preventing social and policy change from occurring. Perhaps more crucially, Ott and Aoki then prescribed a potential remedy for the news media to adopt – the “comic frame.” The comic frame is “not about seeing humor in everything,” but, rather, is about striving toward the utmost self-reflexivity, the “maximum consciousness” that calls for society to reflect upon their actions.

Queer Representations: Communication scholars, in addition to scholars of other disciplines, continue to research why representation in media and film matters. In the simplest of terms, representation is how media (in the form of television shows, films, and even books) depict members of certain communities. Research across the social sciences and humanities continues to support the argument that representation matters – that seeing a member of one’s community, a reflection of themselves, positively depicted on screen is crucial in developing a healthy view of self and society.

Again, mirroring the rest of society, members of the LGBTQIA community were either not represented in media at all, or they were portrayed in ways that reinforced negative stereotypes for much of the 20th Century. Indeed, many scholars examining LGBTQIA representation point to films like Philadelphia and to television shows such as Ellen and Will & Grace as pivotal moments in queer representation. With the sustained growth of televisual media, particularly in the form of streaming services and the production of their own shows and films, queer representation continues to be studied.

Health Communication: The HIV & AIDs Epidemic that ravaged the LGBTQIA Community in the 1980s further entrenched societal stigmas of the community. Indeed, many of these stigmas linger today and Health Communication researchers are now expanding their focus to examine health issues that pertain to the LGBTQIA Community.

In one such study, Banerjee et al. (2018) probed health care providers’ “knowledge, beliefs, and communication behaviors regarding LGBT patient health care” and assessed their willingness to treat patients of the community and encourage disclosure of their patient’s sexual identities. Overall, the authors found, the efficacy of health care provider communication regarding LGBT patient health is lacking and suggested a more robust training and education in this area.

Advocacy & Political Rhetoric: In the wake of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that finally legalized same-sex marriages across the United States, many scholars examined the rhetoric and argumentative frameworks adopted by involved parties. Despite this legal victory, the LGBTQIA Liberation Movement continued as the resistance to their basic humanity grew and manifested elsewhere.

For example, elected officials in legislative bodies across several states introduced a series of “bathroom” bills that, in effect, targeted transgender citizens. The backlash these laws and elected officials faced ushered in a new phase in the LGBTQIA Movement. Scholars continue to probe the rhetoric employed by various advocacy groups and highlight its presence in American political communication.

Elsewhere, Communication scholars are increasingly intrigued by what many call “twitter advocacy.” This genre of advocacy, as it pertains to the LGBTQIA Community, has been effective in challenging people to be mindful of their use of pronouns when talking with and about transgender individuals. However, this type of advocacy only goes so far, and future research can elucidate how and why this is the case.

Studying LGBTQIA Communication Today

In all, LGBTQIA Communication is a growing, nuanced, and multifaced discipline within Communication Studies. Indeed, the discipline’s import continues to grow as humanity expands its capacity to understand our sexual identities and the influence that media, culture, and society has on that understanding.

Reflecting this, the realms of research that LGBTQIA Communication offers are seemingly endless. As an illustration of this fact, Northeastern University’s Library offers visitors of their webpage a robust list of potential research options for current and future scholars to utilize. In addition to the topics highlighted in this article, some of the topics on their list include: LGBTQIA mental health as it relates to health communication campaigns, queer performance art, violence and bullying of LGBTQIA people and efforts to reduce it, and queer film festivals.

Additionally, NCA and the various regional institutions continue to expand and implement groups, programs, and conferences that reflect the growing importance of studying LGBTQIA Communication. Similarly, journals spanning Communication Studies continue to feature more and more work by and about the LGBTQIA Community. There are also interdisciplinary journals dedicated specifically to LGBTQIA research and promotion.

While we cannot undo the oppression done to the LGBTQIA Community, we can, through research and activism, begin to promote a more just and inclusive society to challenge the forces of intolerance wherever they may manifest.

Sources and Additional Resources

To learn more about research in the field of LGBTQIA Communication and Communication Studies, check out the following resources:

About the Author: Christopher Wernecke is a Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Instructor at Georgia State University, where he is currently studying collective memory and American cancer rhetoric in the Department of Communication. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science from DePaul University, and a Master of Arts in Communication and Media Studies from Texas State University.