“One of these days I’m going to have to hang a sign on that door,” Agent Samson used to say. She was probably thinking along the lines of SPEECH THERAPY LAB, though a more appropriate marker would have to be read FUTURE HOMOSEXUALS OF AMERICA. We knocked ourselves out trying to fit in but were ultimately betrayed by our tongues.
— Sedaris (2000)
In the first short story of David Sedaris’s 2000 collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris recounts four months of his 4th grade year, in which he was removed from class once a week at 2:30 on Thursdays to meet with the acerbic school speech therapist he called “Agent Samson” to treat his lisp. Her clients were all lisping boys, he noticed, and none of them conventionally boyish, and he jokes that if there were a sign on her door it should not read “Speech Therapy Lab” but “Future Homosexuals of America.” At this young age Sedaris already has an inkling that speech impediment, in his case lisping, is related to sexuality, a personal affectation continuous with a dislike of sports or a love of making one’s own curtains. Sederis taps into a cultural trend that includes the identification “gay voice,” and that states that one can read sexuality off the voice, particularly the male voice, through how one speaks, what one says, or what one does not say.
With expressions like “stuttering pride” and “coming out of the stuttering closet,” activism by people who stutter explicitly ties its historical struggles and political goals to queer liberation, and queer theory has offered a verdant store of language and concepts for re-imagining dysfluent speaking as a kind of queer form of being in the world. Moreover, these intersections point towards the critical potential of the dysfluency itself as a kind of queer object, an object that presents a problem for sexual and gender norms, as well as conventional forms of reading, expression, and time. I am interested in how the experiences of being queer and a stutterer interpenetrate, and how each informs the other. In the few first-person accounts I read from queer people who stutter I often saw the authors comparing their social encounters as queers and as stutterers. One person notes that homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, but that stuttering or “child-onset dysfluency disorder” remains. Another said that they were encouraged to embrace their queerness but to cure their stutter, and that speech therapy for them amounted to a form of conversion therapy. What I saw were not necessarily similarities but cases in which people embody two marginal positions, where one could have been treated like the other, and was not. How do queerness and stuttering misconnect with each other? Returning to Sedaris: of interest to us in Sedaris’s story is the detail that there was no sign on Agent Samson’s door, and that “Future Homosexuals of America” does not substitute for other language but for an absence of language. Agent Sampson’s is a door with no writing that suggests that as much as her door clearly opens for a certain kind of boy, it offers no clear language for that child, and the name of the certain type of boy who goes through it for a certain type of speech remains in some sense unspeakable. Sedaris is not cured of his lisp, but rather like many young stutterers develops an enormous vocabulary in order to avoid the sibilant s. The s is occulted in Sedaris’s speech, and this haunting, unspeakable s produces not a reduction in language but an excess of language in the form of the enormous vocabulary. How might we think of writers as people who work by suppressing language? This connection between the unspeakable and the excess of language conceptually ties dysfluency to the emergence of male homosexuality as a pathological category in the 19th century.
I've had therapy to help deal with the way my parents reacted when I came out, but the therapist never insinuated that things would be easier if I was less gay. On the other hand, the speech therapy I've had as an adult focused very strongly on how things would be easier for me if I was more fluent.
— Elias K (2015)
Sexuality between men had, throughout the Judaeo-Christian tradition, been famous among those who knew about it at all precisely for having no name – ‘unspeakable,’ ‘unmentionable,’ or ‘not to be named among Christian men’.
— Sedgwick (1985)
The unspeakable transformed in the 20th century to what she calls a “byword” likely most familiar in Lord Alfred Douglas’s phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.”
Like Sedaris forming his vocabulary around the absent s, the unspeakability of male homosexuality did not correspond to a dearth of language about it, but what Michel Foucault famously refers to in The History of Sexuality as “a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex… a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onward.” For the Victorians male homosexuality may have been occulted in the language, but:
Silence itself – the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers – is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies… There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.
— Foucault (1976)
The Victorians implicitly made the connection between homosexuality and stuttering. James Malcom Rymer’s fictional autobiography The Unspeakable: or, the Life and Adventures of a Stammerer, explores this link. Riley McGuire’s research on this novel argues that attaining mature heterosexual masculinity is predicated on attaining a fluent voice.
Freud’s famous diagnosis of stuttering as anal-sadistic is comprised of a few brief remarks made in passing. His more substantive thoughts on stuttering actually come earlier in a case study about woman with adult-onset stuttering and various neuroses. But the psychoanalytic understanding of stuttering as the unresolved frustrations of the narcissistic tendencies of the anal stage has captured more minds. Stuttering, after all, is the most uncomfortable type of shit-talk. But the threat of stuttering to masculinity also appears to be explained by the impediment’s root in anality, with its association with sexual submission, women, and the end of gender. There is a productive queer reading to be made about the threat of stuttering and the moral panic around sexual submission in gay male culture. At the end of his famous essay Is the Rectum A Grave? Leo Bersani finds in fantasies about the rectum “the place where the masculine ideal of proud subjectivity is buried”. Bersani offers a mythological location in which to reimagine the value of sexual submission. Besides being the “death” of male dominance, the anus is also the death of sexual difference, for we all have one.
- Bersani, Leo. (1987) Is the Rectum a Grave? University of Chicago Press.
- Foucault, Michel. (1976) The History of Sexuality. Éditions Gallimard.
- K, E. (2015) Queer Stuttering: A Lesson in Justice. Did I Stutter?
- Rymer, J. M. (1855) The Unspeakable: or, the Life and Adventures of a Stammerer. Oxford University.
- Sedaris, D. (2000) Me Talk Pretty One Day. Little, Brown and Company.
- Sedgwick, E. (1985) Between Men. Columbia University Press.