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February 24, 2009

Action Needed: Stop the University of Minnesota from Adopting a New Policy that Discriminates against our Same-Sex Domestic Partners

The University of Minnesota Senate will be considering a motion in it's March 5, 2009 meeting. The agenda item is pasted below. What this agenda item does not mention is that the health care savings plan will NOT be accessible to the same-sex domestic partners of University employees. It will, however, be accessible to heterosexual married partners of university employees. This is due to federal tax law that the University does not control; however, in adopting this measure the University will be even further out of compliance with its own anti-discrimination policies. I plan on opposing this measure adamantly and vocally in the March 5 senate meeting, and I encourage all University of Minnesota Faculty Senate members to join me in doing so.

Health Care Savings Plan
Action by Faculty Members Only
(10 minutes):


That the Faculty Senate advises the President that it revises its motion of May 1, 2008, which read as follows:

"The Faculty Senate recommends to the President that the University adopt a Health Care Savings Plan for the faculty that uses the 0.5% of the 2.5% faculty contribution to the Faculty Retirement Plan. If there are questions about the details of the plan, the administration will consult with the appropriate Faculty Senate committees and the Faculty Senate."

To now read:

The Faculty Senate recommends to the President that the University redirect 2.0 percentage points of the 13% points the University currently contributes to the individual's Faculty Retirement Plan to the individual's Health Care Savings Plan.

Approved unanimously January 27, 2009, by the faculty members of the Faculty Affairs Committee and the faculty members of the Finance and Planning Committee at the Faculty Affairs Committee meeting

Endorsed unanimously January 29, 2009, by the Faculty Consultative Committee


At the urging of a number of constituents, the Senate Committee on Faculty Affairs (SCFA), in conjunction with the Senate Committee on Finance and Planning (SCFP), revisited the Health Care Savings Plan (HCSP) option for faculty. In brief, the HCSP is a vehicle to allow employees, group by group, to save money for health-care expenses after they leave the University or retire. It is the only fringe benefit program that allows tax-exempt contributions and tax-exempt withdrawals. Because it is a tax-free vehicle, it allows retirees to save substantial money, but the plan must be the same for each employee in each group (by federal law). Civil Service employees have already adopted an HCSP.

It is estimated by Money magazine that a person retiring in 2016 may need savings of $200,000 to cover Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs. HCSP savings may be used for a wide range of expenses from aspirin to long-term health insurance to traditional reimbursable costs. HCSP savings never expire. Both SCFA and SCFP believe that it is in the best interests of the faculty that HCSP accounts be established through the redirection of 2.0 percentage points of the University’s contribution.

February 19, 2009

And you were there, and you were there, and you were there

Listening to someone else's dreams is, well, a real snoozer. This is unfortunate, because I have extremely vivid dreams. Some mornings I wake up with the thrilling feeling that I have just flown through the air, spent time with long-dead relatives, and traveled far away. It's really interesting.

Last night's dream was no exception, but it did have one very exciting twist that had never happened before. I was in a small vaguely European-looking town (though the surrounding landscape was clearly the South Island of New Zealand). There was a large group of people, at least three of whom were Stefan Frisch, Richard Wright, and Kevin Burk. We stopped in front of a pub and decided to go in. When I went in, I immediately said "oh, we've been here before. We had some really good Lambic beers." In the dream I then had a memory of going into that bar and having Lambic beers.

Now, l have never had a Lambic beer outside of my own home. There is no way I could have an actual memory of having had a Lambic beer in a vaguely European pub in a small town surrounded by the wilds of the South Island of New Zealand. Yet in the dream I felt myself remembering this invented event. It was almost a dream within a dream. It was just wild.

A Classic Blog Entry from February 22, 2006: Return to Houston

I vowed I would never return.

It was August, 1992. I had just moved to LA a few months prior, and had joined ACT-UP LA. For those of you who don't remember, ACT-UP stands for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT-UP is a grassroots political action group that was instrumental in transforming the country's response to the AIDS crisis. In 1992, long before the advent of organizations like, ACT-UP was a potent political force. ACT-UP LA decided to send a delegation of sorts to the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas, to conduct a series of 'actions' to raise awareness about AIDS related issues, and to demand a more intensive and comprehensive federal response to the AIDS crisis. I was in that delegation of sorts. I was 20 years old. My action was to go, along with four confederates, to a $1,000 a plate breakfast at which the then-president (this was August, 1992) was speaking. Other guests included Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a spate of other names that aren't quite as familiar--when was the last time Georgette Mosbacher came up at a dinner-table conversation? We were able to get into the press box. At a key moment in the President's speech, the five of us, who had split into a group of three, and a group of two (another guy and I) started shouting slogans. The first group couldn't be heard very well by the President, but my companion and I shouted loudly and clearly. Our question: "what about AIDS?"

Needless to say, I was immediately arrested. Fortunately, we were in the press box, and the cameras were clicking away. This was good insurance against a rough arrest. I was handcuffed and taken to a police station. I was booked, my mug shot was taken, and I was put in a holding cell. I spent one night in a holding cell somewhere in downtown Houston, and three nights in Harris County jail. I ended up pleading guilty to a class B misdemeanor, disrupting a public meeting. I was on the local news stations. When I was released, I had a late-night dinner at a Luby's cafeteria, slept about 2 hours, and got on the next plane out of there. I vowed I would never return.

Barring extraordinary circumstances, that vow will be broken a week from today, when I will go to Houston to deliver a colloquium in the Rice University Linguistics Department. I want to go back to the Harris County jail and look up at the ninth floor. I was in 'tank' 9D6. (A 'tank' is group of about 12 cells, and a common area with two showers, two toilets, some tables, and a TV. This is where we spent our entire time, at least when we weren't in court.) We were with a lot of transvestite sex workers. Everyone was reasonably friendly. I never felt threatened by any of the other inmates. My lawyer was named Greg Gladden (Gladdin? Sounded like Glad-In.) There was also a public defender named Paige something who was really nice.

I have clear memories of the entire ordeal. I remember in minute detail the way that my cell-mate and fellow ACT-UP activist, Michael Morrissey, looked. I wonder what happened to him. I remember calling the UCLA phonetics lab and talking to a variety of people (including the late great Peter Ladefoged) from the Harris County Jail.

After we returned to LA, ACT-UP LA went through an implosion of sorts. The older members were dog-tired, and the younger members were so optimistic that Clinton was going to change everything that they let down their guard. (Big mistake.) I don't have any real tangible mementos of the occasion, with one exception. Because we were in the press box, a picture of me made it on the AP wire. In fact, it showed up in my hometown newspaper, the Buffalo News. Here's the picture. By the way it was wonderful to have a picture of myself in my hometown newspaper over the headline "Gays Bash Intolerance of Republicans."


It's not the greatest looking picture, but it's the greatest picture ever taken of me, because it commemorates the one thing I have done in my life that I'm most proud of. It took planning and commitment. I think it made a small but lasting difference. I'm happy I did it.

I vowed I would never return, but I'm actually kind of excited.

Brotherhood of the Flaming Pants

Confused about the title? Just think: what kind of people are generally characterized as having their pants on fire?

In response to a letter from a group of University of Minnesota Regents' Professors protesting the dissolution of the graduate school, "University spokesman Dan Wolter said in an e-mail that the administration consulted with deans, faculty, and past and present directors of graduate studies about the reconstruction and that the issue has been discussed regularly for a number of years."

This bold claim is from an article in the Minnesota Daily, the link for which is below:

In case you're wondering, I, Benjamin Munson, am the Director of Graduate Studies in Speech-Language-Hearing Science, Speech-Language Pathology, and Audiology, and I am the chair of the Graduate School's Education and Psychology Policy and Review Council and, as such, am a member of the Graduate School Executive Committee. I was not consulted.

Now you know.

February 16, 2009

Where are my anthropomorphic helper-mice?

There is much to like and much (potentially) not to like about the Disney films. We can argue until the cows come home the extent to which the Jungle Book had an underlying thread of racism and anti-miscegenation. We can question whether the aesthetic triumph that is Beauty and the Beast is ultimately a cop-out about an ambitious and intelligent young woman sacrificing her dreams to be a wife to an emotionally needy monster who turns into a bland Disnified bo-hunk.

One Disney image that does go through my mind time and time again is from the film Cinderella. This is the scene in which Cinderella is told by her evil stepmother that she can go to the ball if she gets all her work done first. Of course this is a ruse. The stepmother piles on so much work that there is no way that she could ever prepare for the ball. Fortunately, the anthropomorphic mice that live in her room make the dress for her. For a moment it looks like she might go, though her step-sisters attack her and tear the dress to shreds, the only part of the film that comes even close to the macabre nature of the original fairy tale that (distantly) inspired the film.

Why am I thinking of singing mice? It seems like so much of my life as a professor is like Cinderella on ball day. I have so many things I want to do. These are things that I think are of great value: writing up papers on data that my students and I collected ages ago. Writing grants to fund my students' and my work in the future. Writing blog entries, like the entry describing the despicable behavior that the university senate and president Bruininks displayed when our plan to offset the imputed income tax increased related to same-sex domestic partner health and medical benefits was brought forward. Writing a blog entry warning the university GLBTQ and Ally community that another measure discriminating against same-sex domestic partners is coming through the senate, and that it will pass handily if we don't organize.

Why, then, am I not doing this? Simply put, hours and hours and hours and hours of perfunctory work intervene. Endless committees. Strategic plans. Answering memos. Things that consume a huge part of my day and do nothing other than take time away from the things that I received my Ph.D. to do, and the things that have in the past contributed most to the productivity and stature of my students, our lab, and me. The things that the university recognizes are crucial to its success.

These kinds of mismatches between what people know they have to do and what they actually end up doing are why there are so many 'time management' books out there. Businesses that thrive are ones that let their employees work on what they are best at, not ones that tie their hands with bureaucracy and menial tasks. In this time when the University is told that it must run like a business, I urge people to realize that a good business would recognize that the people who do the primary work of the business (the students who are here to learn, and the professors who are here to do original scholarship and to help the students in their scholarly and professional development) should be protected from everything that keeps them from doing those tasks. Nobody will win if a University acts in the name of efficiency to take students and professors even farther away from the activities that they are here to do.

...and then, of course, I could write that strident blog entry. Stay tuned.

February 12, 2009

An interlude: April 20, 2006: Desert Island Novels

Dear Blog-Readers:

As I write part 2 of 3 of the Domestic Partnership Saga, please enjoy this classic blog entry from April 20, 2006

On the eve of moving in with Kevin Burk (yup, we're taking the plunge--hold your breath), books are at the front of my mind. I suspect that this is because a fair chunk of the 1,300 square feet in our new apartment is going to be dedicated to storing all of our books. Seriously, books are one of the things that brought Kevin and me together. I shouldn't be complaining that we have so many. (I can, however, legitimately complain that I'm almost certainly going to bear the responsibility of putting together our new Ikea bookshelves.)

If I were stranded on a desert island and I could only have a handful of books with me, what would I choose? I'm glad you asked, because I've written a blog to answer just that question. I tried to make the task easier by considering only fiction books. I might write a nonfiction list sometime in the future.

Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison). With all due respect to Oprah and the folks who give out the Pulitzer, the genius of Toni Morrison is best seen in this book, not in Beloved. Sure, Beloved is a triumph of symbolism, and its story of the ghost of slavery being embodied in an actual ghost is both powerful and ribald. I only wish it rated higher on the readability scale. It's so baroque. On a visceral level, it is Song of Solomon that I go back to again and again. Its protagonist's quest to find his roots just resonates with me, and the book has perhaps the second-best last line of any book, ever.

Dancer from the Dance (Andrew Holleran). If you are gay and have not read this book, then I would like you to now bang your head on the wall in self-punishment. Is your forehead bloody yet? No? Then keep banging. This is the definitive portrait of gay life in the 1970s, told without the speculation and judgment that movies like The Boys in the Band and Cruising gave us. (It doesn't, unfortunately, have Al Pacino's awful dancing.) Read it, read it, read it.

Continental Drift (Russell Banks). I want my epitaph to read "extremely flawed, but consistently ambitious." The same could describe this book. It attempts to deconstruct the American dream by telling two parallel stories, one about a many moving from New Hampshire to Florida, and the other about a woman emigrating to Florida from Haiti. A number of scenes—including the climactic scene—go terribly awry, but the characters are uniformly engaging, and the book's flaws end up being more interesting than cringe-inducing. I wouldn't consider an eternity of desert-island loneliness without it.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). Oh baby, baby, never let me go. If I had to pick only one author to take to a desert island, I might choose Ishiguro. His six novels are so wonderfully subtle and understated that it's hard not to enjoy them. (Well, at least five of them are, and even though The Unconsoled was an uneven novel, it made a great movie as The Saddest Music in the World.) NLMG was an unexpected treat—his crowning achievement. The less said about the plot, the better. Sufficient to say, he took a plot that could have been nothing more than a string of clichés and made it high art.

Goodbye to Berlin (Christopher Isherwood). Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome. Every desert island needs a set of short stories, and they don't get better than this. Forget that these are the stories that inspired Cabaret. Read them as a fascinating picture of life in German between the two World Wars.

Mildred Pierce (James M. Cain). Sure, snicker away at the stereotypically gay man and his love of the book that most people only know through its Joan Crawford-starring film adaptation. If that's the only way you know Mildred Pierce, then I feel sorry for you. The book is a sublime critique of sexism and classism. And you thought Veda was a witch in the movie? Brother, you don't know the half of it.

The House with a Clock in its Walls. (John Bellairs). I feel sorry for kids whose favorite childhood books are in the Harry Potter series. If you want a children's book that is so macabre that it would give Stephen King nightmares, then look no further. An awkward kid (who, I swear, is suppose to 'read' gay) actually raises the dead in an attempt to impress a bully. Then, his warlock uncle and witch neighbor (both of whom are single, which just gives the book even more of a GLB subtext) have to defend him. It's absolutely riveting, impeccably written, and very, very, very scary.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson). Another deliciously macabre choice. I particularly like this ghost story because it clearly is meant to take place in upstate New York. I can imagine places in the Southern Tier around Taylor and Corning where Hill House might be located.

Death Comes to the Archbishop (Willa Cather). I've heard people say that this story is a meditation about loneliness and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the world around you. Maybe that's true. I just like it because it describes parts of the old west that I really enjoy (Northern New Mexico). Its episodic structure makes it feel sort of like a Robert Altman film.

Mockingbird (Walter Tevis). I picked up this book as a bit of a curiosity. I wanted to read a book by Walter Tevis because I was, at the time, pretty good friends with his daughter Julia Tevis McGory. I picked it up in a bookstore in Chicago when Julie, Elaina Frieda and I were there for an ASA meeting in June '01. (If Julie or Elaina is reading this, that was the day we got lost because we were on the brown line instead of the red line.) This book has it all—its central section reads like a road movie. Better yet, it's a road movie with an android and a cat. Most importantly, though, this book has the best final line of any book, ever, period.

Suitable Substitutes: Jane Eyre, The Sheltering Sky, The Great Gatsby, Bastard out of Carolina

February 10, 2009

Same-sex domestic partner benefits: separate and unequal (Part 1 of 3)

Dear Blog-Readers:

Did you know that I take home about $1,500 less than others with the same job and the same base salary? The only difference is that this hypothetical other person is heterosexual and has a married heterosexual spouse who is on his/her University of Minnesota medical and dental benefits, while I have a legal (in New Zealand that is) same-sex domestic partnership and have my same-sex domestic partner on my benefits. Thanks to prejudicial tax code at the state and federal levels, the University's contribution to my partner's benefits are treated as additional taxable income. The University of Minnesota has a non-discrimination statement that includes sexual orientation. It would make sense, then, that the university would be eager to remedy this clear inequity.

I brought this issue to the 2007-2008 Senate Committee on Equity, Access, and Diversity. After months of meeting with members of the university staff, debating among members of the committee, and consulting with other committees, we brought the following document forward to the senate. This document was authored by the entire committee, though I do proudly take responsibility for a great deal of the text. Miriam Krause gave very valuable comments on the very first draft. R. Lee Penn (Department of Chemistry) edited it line-by-line and contributed in a very meaningful way. Naomi Scheman (Departments of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies) helped to craft the tone and message in ways I never could have done alone. The document is as follows, in bold.

Background information for the
Proposal to Offset Imputed Income Tax Related to Same-Sex Domestic Partner Benefits
Authors: 2007-2008 Senate Committee on Equity, Access, and Diversity
March 25, 2008

Our University's academic strength comes from breadth and depth of scholarship and diversity of schools of thought, modes of inquiry, academic disciplines, and social communities. We strive to support our community of diverse personnel, sometimes at great institutional cost. We support a university day care center, though many of us do not have children, as the day-care center facilitates the full participation of working parents. We support mechanisms for our international faculty and staff to receive the documentation needed to work equitably alongside members of our community who are U.S. Citizens. By investing in these and other activities, we ensure that our university's status as a model public research institution will continue to grow.
One way in which our University has demonstrated its commitment to building a community is by providing medical and dental benefits to the committed, same-sex domestic partners of faculty and staff members, just as benefits are provided to husbands and wives of legally married faculty and staff. However, the mechanism by which this is accomplished has resulted in a substantially unequal taxation between heterosexual married employees and employees whose same-sex partners hold university benefits. Specifically, the university's contribution to the cost of the partner's benefits is treated as taxable income. This inequality occurs because federal and state laws deny committed same-sex partners the right to marry. The university's contribution to married spouses' benefits is not taxable; hence, heterosexual married employees do not accrue a tax burden. Because of this asymmetry, an employee whose same-sex partner receives benefits may get a substantially lower net salary than a married heterosexual employee whose base salary is identical. Moreover, the additional taxable income that the university provides may move an employee into a higher tax bracket, given the current state and federal progressive taxation practices. This affects faculty and staff at all income levels, and is particularly burdensome on those whose incomes are at the lower end of the distribution. The burden is so big that some staff and faculty may opt not to provide benefits for their partners, as the additional taxes would take away from income that they need to pay for more immediate necessities for themselves and their families.
The asymmetry between the tax burden on married heterosexual and committed same-sex domestic partners greatly undermines the university's mission of being a true equitable community. Indeed, we are compelled by our University's own non-discrimination policy, as this unequal taxation runs sharply contrary to the policy that we have adopted. A mechanism is needed to remediate this inequity. Four principles drive the specific mechanism that we recommend the university adopt. It should maintain the confidentiality of faculty and staff who receive these benefits; it should require the least special effort on the parts of the faculty and staff who receive this benefit; it should be able to be implemented by the University quickly; and it should be publicized by the University to anyone who works here or who might take a job here. The mechanism that we recommend is that additional money be added to individuals' gross income, using a formula that would assure that the net income that the individual receives is identical to what she or he would receive if the same-sex domestic partner benefits were not taxable. This policy of ‘grossing up’ is used widely in the private sector in cases where, for example, a company wishes to provide a performance bonus of a pre-specified amount to an employee. This would not change the individual’s base salary, and would be added on solely to offset the tax burden.
In addition to remediating the existing inequity, this proposal is an opportunity for the University of Minnesota to set a national trend in providing full access to employees in committed same-sex relationships. Currently, no other universities provide this type of mechanism. The innovative nature of this proposal will set our university apart from its peers, and will contribute to our common mission of advancing our status as a leading public research university. Moreover, it is our hope that this mechanism will provide additional momentum for proposed state and national legislation to eliminate this problem altogether by mandating that domestic partner benefits not be taxed. The University of Minnesota's leadership role in addressing this situation may thus help to eliminate the problem altogether, and to create a more just and equitable society outside of our University.

It was brought to the University of Minnesota Senate on April 3, 2008. Installment 2 will talk about that meeting.

February 9, 2009

Another Classic Blog Entry from August 22, 2007: Film Directors

I haven't been sleeping well lately. I lay awake at night (correction: I sometimes lay in bed, and sometimes I pace the room, and sometimes [Sunday evening] I bolt out of bed at 11:30 pm and start beating my fits on the walls out of frustration, but I digress) thinking of all of the things I should be doing that I'm not. Call it a mid-life crisis, a mid-career slump, or just self-pity, whatever it is, it's keeping me awake at night (and the fist-wall-beating thing, the less said about which, the better. My eight-year-old temper tantrum tendencies have returned, OK?).

As I was falling asleep last night, I was thinking that I would write a blog entry today, to give the illusion of productivity. What does a person write when he has nothing intelligent to say? A list, of course! I was going to write a blog entry parodying the books "1001 X's you have to Y before you die." We have a few of these in our household: 1001 movies you have to see before you die (which omits such greats as Short Cuts and the Honeymoon Killers), 1001 albums you have to listen to before you die (which seems to focus on a fairly narrow set of genres), and 1001 novels you have to read before you die (the editors of which seem to have dedicated their lives to the worship of McEwan and Coetzee). I was going to write 1001 meals you have to eat before you die, like "Cassoulet and Rabbit tartine," "lamb vindaloo", and "tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich."

Well, today I read the dumbest list ever, and it pretty much took the wind out of my list-writing sails. The list can be found at It's a list of the 100 best film directors ever. Boy, is it atrocious. Horrible. I hope that the film-lovers in my readership (where "readership" seems to be defined as "my sister, my dad, Molly Babel, Erdem Durgunoglu, and Ryan Johnson) will take a look at it, just to see how bad it is.

Let's highlight just a few of the crap-tacular choices made on this list:

(1) David Fincher is #10! That's right, the man who directed Alien^3 and Panic Room is in the TOP TEN. And why? On what is this based? It seems to be based on one movie, the enjoyable and interesting but hugely overrated Fight Club. Give me a break! One interesting movie--the most interesting aspects of which are largely from the source material.

(2) Billy Wilder is only #13 (behind Fincher, AND Peter Jackson AND the most over-hyped, hive-inducing, jerk in cinematic history, Quentin Tarentino). Did I read that correctly? Billy Wilder is one of the most significant artists of the postwar period, regardless of medium. He should be in the top three. Living proof that whoever wrote this list doesn't know squat about historic context. I weep at their stupidity.

(3) Woody Allen is only #19, and he's behind not only Fincher and Jackson and Tarentino, but also Steven Soderbergh and David Cronenberg! OK, I admire Soderbergh, and I love Cronenberg's surrealist style--heck, I'd love to be able to insert videotapes into my viscera--but Woody Allen clearly has much more to say about the human condition than both of them combined.

(4) Altman is at #26. I vomited when I saw this.

This moronic list not only made me scream with rage, it put me off list-writing forever. I should just quit the blog right now! What else do I have? Cute kitty stories? Not likely--she's as fat as a hippo and twice as surly. Baby pictures? Well, yes, plenty of those, but blogs are supposed to be a textual medium.

Maybe I should just get to work and stop screwing around writing blog entries.

The gay lishp: Stefan Frisch's suggestion and my response

I posted on my Facebook page that people should visit my new blog. Stefan Frisch dutifully did so, and posted the following response to the entry on the 'gay lisp'.

Stefan wrote: "OK. So I did. And was wondering whether you think the /s/ perception work shows anything other than non-canonical = gay in a gay/straight forced choice. (Your actual answer was somewhat lengthier, suggesting people both knew the "real" distinction as well as were likely to apply the stereotype. I suppose my suggestion is just an application of the Disney stereotype "not like us" = "bad")"

To which I responded: "Yes, yes, yes, Sara Mack and I considered this at one point, and we actually created stimuli with a Jane Stuart-Smith-style Glaswegian working-class young girls' /s/, but never included the stimuli because of length constraints. For those who don't know, that's an /s/ with a *ower peak frequency than the canonical /s/, so it's both a non-typical /s/ but also neither a stereotypically gay /s/ nor an authentically gay /s/. I need to get an undergrad to run this crucial condition."

Stefan's point is well-taken, and my offer to farm this out to an undergraduate student looking for a magna or summa thesis is not in jest (though it would have to be an SLHS or linguistics student at the University of Minnesota). One reason I suspect that Stefan's (implicit) hypothesis will be supported is from an article by Elisa Huff and colleagues. They examined ratings of sexuality of a trained speaker reading a passage with an apico-alveolar /z/, a devoiced /z/, and a lateralized /z/. The two passages with non-canonical /z/ in them were rated as more gay-sounding than the one with the canonical /z/, despite there being no stereotypic (to my knowledge, at least) association between being gay and either devoicing or lateralizing /z/. One fairly substantial drawback of Huff et al.'s design was that they did not report on other characteristics of the samples. That is, we don't know if the trained speaker (a radio DJ) altered other aspects of his speech in the devoiced and lateralized samples that cued the judgments of sexuality. An even bigger issue, of course, is that of the meaning of 'gayness' that listeners invoke when they do these tasks. There is undoubtedly multiple pathways to hearing gay and sounding gay, and simply a finding that all non-canonical fricatives elicit judgments that someone sounds gay doesn't support Stefan's hypothesis unconditionally. Mack, Munson, and Kuntz (forever in preparation) discuss this explicitly. If we could only get that paper submitted!

February 6, 2009

The Gay Lisp, and Getting a Taste of my own Medicine (A classic blog entry!)

FEBRUARY 6, 2009: It has been almost a year since I first posted this on my old blog. Let's take a trip down memory lane (shall we?) for the first in our 'classic blog entries' series.

I received the following E-Mail on Wednesday, February 20, at about 3:30 from Jason DeRusha, a reporter at Channel 4:

I'm a reporter from WCCO-TV, doing a segment tonight on Accents.
As part of my work, a friend asked about the fact that many homosexual males tend to speak with a lisp, and was wondering why that is, and how that came about originally.
I was told you'd be a good one to ask.
Any thoughts?

Of course I have thoughts on the topic; Are you nuts? In the past, I have not been particularly enthusiastic to talk to the popular media about this topic, because it seems to uncover a lot of people's misconceptions about the nature of human language. Worse yet, it does so in the context of a topic that people have many preconceptions and negative attitudes about, on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I am averse to getting caught up in discussions like those had in the media in about 1997 about African-American English related to the Oakland School District's policies regarding AAE and literacy.

In this case, though, I thought it was right to respond. Why? Well, first, I yammer on incessantly in class that it is our responsibility to be civically engaged, and to work for the greater good. If someone from the community asks me a question about a topic on which I have some expertise, I suppose it is my duty to respond. It's just the right thing to do.

Second, however, it seemed like not doing so would be a little hypocritical, this week in particular. The basic gist of the question that I was being posed was to write about a technical topic for an educated and interested lay audience. I had just collected an assignment in Speech Science in which I asked students to explain analog-to-digital conversion to an educated and interested lay audience. How could I ask my students to do one thing, then shy away from doing the same thing when someone else asked me? I know that my "rateyourprofessor" comments imply (through the clever use of asterisks) that I'm a jerk (I can only imagine that the four asterisks describing me refer to that, and not to some other four-letter word), but I'm not going to apply a double standard. If I ask my students to do one thing, I should do the same when it's asked of me.

So, I responded. The prose flew off my fingertips fast and furious. I was fortunate enough to have Hannah Julien stop by during the middle of my writing, and she copy edited paragraph by paragraph. I hit "send."

Then it didn't show up on the air. No matter. I had a nice E-Mail the next day from Jason DeRusha saying that he appreciated the depth of the response. He said that he would talk about it in his blog. I indicated that I would post the full text of my response to him in my blog, and that, if he liked, he could add a link to my blog in his text.

So here goes. My original response is blow, in bold

Thanks for your question. Indeed there is a strong popular culture stereotype that gay men lisp, at least in English-speaking countries. An immediate challenge to evaluating this stereotype comes when considering what it actually means to lisp. The term 'lisp' has generally been abandoned by speech-language pathologists (people who assess and treat disorders of speech and language). However, we can presume based on older definitions and popular-culture descriptions that a lisp involves some sort of an errored production of sounds like "s". When children produce errors on those sounds, they often produce them either with the tongue protruding between the teeth, making words like "sigh" sound like "thigh," or with air flowing out of the sides of the mouth, making a word like "sigh" sound somewhat 'slushy', almost like "shly." We will call these protruding and slushy productions 'misarticulations.'

Do gay men lisp, in the sense of producing misarticulated "s" sounds? The short answer is No. The long answer is even more interesting.

Previous studies have examined this topic two ways. First, people have compared the "s" productions of self-identified gay and heterosexual men to examine whether the stereotype that gay men lisp can be substantiated. Second, people have played samples of words containing "s" to groups of listeners and asked them to make inferences about the sexuality of the person who produced them. In general, these studies have found that SOME (but definitely not ALL) gay men produce "s" differently from their heterosexual peers. However, the specific characteristics of these distinctive "s" productions are very different from those of misarticulated (i.e., 'lisped') "s". Indeed, at least three studies report that the characteristics of "s" in some self identified gay men is in the opposite direction of what we would expect if the these talkers were producing a 'lisped' "s." They were actually closer to the productions of a hyper-correct, carefully produced "s". Let's call this "clear s". These production patterns are not the inevitable consequence of a person's self-stated sexuality. Though there is a stronger tendency for gay-identified men to produce the "clear s" variant than heterosexual men, some gay-identified men don't produce this variant, and some heterosexual men do.

Perception studies have shown that listeners are sensitive to the relationship between "clear s" and men's sexuality. When people hear one of these "clear s" productions, they tend to label the talker who produced it as gay-sounding. This is true even when they are played audio-only signals of content-neutral speech, i.e., when they hear a production of a single word like "sack", and they don't have any other information about the speaker, like a picture or a video clip. Perceptual studies also show that listeners are sensitive to the stereotype that gay men lisp. People are more likely to label a talker as gay-sounding if they are played a word with a misarticulated "s" than if they are presented with a correctly articulated "s". Put more succinctly, participants' behavior in perception experiments suggests both a knowledge of the actual relationship between "s" production and sexuality ("clear s" talkers are rated as gayer-sounding than talkers who produce a plain "s") and the stereotype (talkers who produce plain "s" are rated as more-heterosexual sounding than those who produce misarticulated "s").

So, we have an interesting dichotomy. Gay men don't lisp. If anything, the speech they produce is far from 'lisped', at least insomuch as we can define 'lisp'. Nonetheless, people seem to believe they do. Why, then, did this stereotype arise? Nobody has a definitive answer to this question, but a few reasonable conjectures can be made. The conjecture starts out with the valid observations that stereotypes about gay men are overwhelmingly pejorative, and that many people hold very negative views about gay men. Maybe the "lisp" stereotype arose as part of a broader popular-culture belief that gay men were somehow weaker, more ineffectual, and child-like--after all, children lisp. We can find some evidence for it by looking at portrayals of gay men in film, particularly in the middle of the last century. Gay male characters were often portrayed as weak and ineffective. Part of this portrayal was often a lisp. Perhaps the lisp was intended as a cue to the audience that they should view the character as child-like and weak. I emphasize that this is just one conjecture about the origin of this stereotype.

You might come back and ask "why do gay men produce especially clear instances of the 's' sound?" If you were to ask this, I would immediately come back and invert your question and ask "Why would anyone--gay or straight--NOT produce especially clear instances of the 's' sound?" After all, a clear "s" would presumably be easier to hear and to understand, particularly in the presence of background noise. Put differently, why do we treat the variant associated with gay-sounding speech as the distinctive variant that requires a special explanation, and not the variant associated with heterosexual-sounding speech? The answer to this question is no less complex than the answer I provided in the last paragraph. One of the hallmarks of human speech production is that it is highly variable. One of the hallmarks of human speech perception is that it is, well, less variable. People can do a good job of understanding lots of different variants of sounds--like plain "s", "clear s", "lisped s", etc.--as instances of a single category, "s". This means that humans are free to use different variants of sounds to construct their social identities without worrying about compromising speech communication. Some groups can use one particular variety of a sound to show--either intentionally or unintentionally--that they are members of a particular social group, and another group can use a different variant. The question of sexuality and "s" isn't unique here. Look around the Metro. Some people have traditional Minnesota pronunciations of words like "boat"--you know the pronunciation I'm talking about--and others have other pronunciations. Think of how a Californian might say "boat." Why is that? Well, certainly some of it relates to where the person is from. If the person is from far outstate, then chances are that they say the traditional Minnesotan "boat" because that's how it was said by everyone who they heard growing up. But once those people move to areas with a little more linguistic diversity, there is nothing keeping them from changing their pronunciation of "boat" to something less Minnesotan-sounding. Why would they continue to produce the Minnesotan "oa" in "boat"? Maybe it's a way of showing--either consciously or tacitly--their identification as someone who is from outstate. And since we're mentioning it, linguistic variation isn't the only way that people can construct social identities. There are lots of different types of clothes that people can wear (though on these cold Minnesota days, one is ill-advised to attempt shorts). Why am I sitting here in jeans, a maroon v-neck sweater, and brown sport coat, and not in a grey wool suit? The answer is that I'm using the permissible variation in clothing to show different aspects of my personality: a sport coat to show I'm a professor, a maroon sweater to show my allegiance to the U of M, and jeans to show people that I'm at heart a casual person. Through my words, my actions, and my clothes, I use permissible variation in human behavior to construct and convey my unique identity. I'm not alone here. We all do.

Thank you for your question. It's an interesting one, and the locus of a great deal of misunderstanding in our culture. I hope this answers helps to clarify your friend's understanding of the topic, and that the WCCO viewership finds it interesting. I appreciated the opportunity to talk about this topic.

Not too shabby, eh?

Welcome Back

My blog is back.

One night (January 20) in a fit of pique, I deleted my old blog. "How stupid" you might say. Stupid, indeed. Also self-destructive.

Fortunately, nothing ever gets deleted from the internet, EVER. If you are interested in seeing my old blog, just go to and it's all there! Amazing. You will also be happy to know that every embarrassing picture of you that was ever on Facebook is still on the web. In fact, Dick Chaney is scrolling through them right now trying to find incriminating evidence. You have been warned.

Of course, I would be a selfish fool to ask you to go back to this site just to see my old blog entries. Truth be told, not all of them were worth reading (it's hard for me to imagine that, too). So I'm going to be posting some old, "classic" blog entries on here, interspersed with new entries.

It's exiting. It's invigorating. It's a work in progress. Join me on this journey, won't you?