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Discursive representations of same-sex unions in the speeches of British and Italian Prime Ministers

Dear IGALA community!

Spring has officially arrived here in Italy, from where I (Angela) write, and with it the newest contribution to our super IGALA blog.

This month we welcome a post from Carmen Serena Santonocito, Research Assistant in English language and linguistics at University of Messina, Italy. Serena earned her PhD at the University of Naples “Parthenope” with a thesis entitled "Same-sex unions in the speeches of British and Italian PMs. A Critical and Queer approach". Her research interests include political and institutional discourse with a focus on the discursive representation of neglected dimensions of gender and sexuality. In her studies, Serena, tends to take a Critical and Queer approach, complemented with corpus-assisted tools. She published on the discursive representation of gender in right-wing populist parties, on the representation of same-sex couples in the speeches of British and Italian Prime Ministers, and on the dissemination of gender-related terms within the European Union.

If you want to know more about Serena’s work you can check out her university or ResearchGate page. You can also follow her on Twitter.

We aim at publishing posts on our IGALA blog regularly, if you want to share your research or thoughts about any language, gender and sexuality-related topics don’t forget to send me an email (!

Discursive representations of same-sex unions in the speeches of British and Italian Prime Ministers

By Carmen Serena Santonocito

The divergence between diversity-friendly moves at supranational levels and homophobic practices perpetuated against disempowered gendered groups has always spurred the gendered perspective in my research path. If we confine this controversial mismatch only to the European landscape, it is not only extremist groups but also politicians sitting in governments that facilitate homophobia and discrimination. However, abundant scholarly research demonstrates that today anti-gender animus has an alarming global reach (Balirano and Borba 2020; Corredor 2019), accompanied by simultaneous and contrasting attention in incorporating gender inclusiveness at all levels.

Eager to understand the dynamics underlying this discrepancy, in 2018 I started with the investigation of discourses on LGBT* people, which culminated in a paper. Then, the thriving debate on same-sex couples (SSC) legislation (Turner et al. 2018; van der Bom et al. 2015; Love and Baker 2015; Bachmann 2011) provided a push-off point for my PhD thesis. In fact, during the 2010s discussions and, in some cases, subsequent laws on the recognition of SSC gained a momentum they still seem to enjoy. An example of such ongoing resonance is the official recognition of SSC in as distant areas of our planet as Mexico and Slovenia, where this legalisation appeared only during the last part of 2022, and after long heated debates.

Intentioned to delve into this existing discussion, but willing to promote not uniquely the investigation of English speaking contexts, I chose to conduct a cross-linguistic analysis on the discursive construction of same-sex couples in Italy and in the UK. I restricted my dataset to Prime Minsters’ speeches, selected for their socio-cultural resonance and formulaic unidirectionality (Fowler et al. 1979).

At the time of writing my PhD, the cross-cultural analysis fell on the linguistic landscapes of UK and Italy not only for my own personal interest but also for the almost opposite position of the two countries in the 2018 ILGA Europe Review of Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People. In this ranking Italy was the twenty third country, while the UK was third; both out of twenty-eight. In my opinion, what was mind-blowing was that, despite the ILGA ranking under my nose and the many inclusive messages by state officials, literature acknowledged that both countries bear androcentric and patriarchal heritage. Some striking examples are government officials still adhering to grass-root groups (i.e., Agenda Europe at the pan-European level) crusading against laws that regulate same-sex marriage and abortion. All the more reason for a cross-linguistic investigation to examine first the words used in institutional contexts to represent SSC, then the ideological constructs underlying such divisive reality, and, lastly, differences and similarities in the discursive representation of SSC in these controversial contexts.

From a theoretical and methodological point of view, my work draws on Critical and Queer Discourse Studies (C/QDS, see: Koller 2019) and Corpus-assisted Discourse Studies. The combination of traditionally quantitative (corpus-assisted) and qualitative (Critical and Queer) paradigms follows the way paved in recent works on gender and sexuality (Paterson and Coffey Glover 2018; Motschenbacher 2018). Notwithstanding the much debated criticism addressed at each paradigm (Marchi and Taylor 2018), the synergy of quantitative (guilty of over-relying on number crunching) and qualitative (blamed of excessive introspection) analyses helps to ground controversial findings with evidenced data collection that can confirm the initial hypothesis or redirect the discussion. In choosing this hybrid methodology I simultaneously address the constitutive and cumulative role of language and discursive formations (Fairclough 1992; Stubbs 2001), and their performative and interpretive process averse to strict categorizations, thus echoing with the norm-relativizing intent of Queer Studies (Leap 2015). Starting from the tenet that ideological messages can be disseminated through the attentive use of expressions and other discursive features which evoke but leave untroubled ideology (Fairclough and Wodak 1997), I report here only on the level of lexicalization (i.e., the provision of a word, a verbal designation for a concept) of SSC in the discourse of PMs in Italy and in the UK.

By looking at lexicalization of the legal institution recognizing SSC, we can highlight that same-sex marriage in the UK, and unione civile (civil partnership) in Italy do bear not only the understanding of two distinct civil matters but also very different intertextual inferences. It goes without saying that the very act of lexicalizing this legal institution as a marriage or as a civil partnership brings forward distinct social representations and conceptualizations of the world. If we confine ourselves to the realm of linguistics, the English term same-sex marriage allows for intertextual references within the field of gender and sexuality, while the Italian term unioni civili prompts mere reference to the rule of law. We can get a glimpse on the repercussions of institutional labels if we shift from linguistics to more pragmatic matters: while in the UK same-sex marriage is centred on the regulation of a number of civil rights uniquely for SSC, in Italy also different-sex couples can enter unioni civili. However, in the boot-shaped peninsula the same juridical institution restricts family rights only for SSC. For example, SSC in a unione civile cannot access to joint adoption or in vitro fertilisation, among others.

As for my dataset, the findings reveal that the Italian case lacks effective lexicalization, while vagueness and imprecise use of euphemisms – such as, person* che (person/people who), chi (who) – prevail. The British case, more productive at the lexical level but still not prompting specific inclusive forms, shows more lexicalization with explicit reference to the sphere of gender and sexuality, as is the case in gay couple*, samesex couple*, samesex married couple*. However, in both cases the minor presence of inclusive lexical choices – such as, reference to lesbian or intersex couples – and the resort to vagueness calls for the need of a deeper discussion. Indeed, from the results of this study we cannot deny that institutional designations for non-aligned sexual and gendered realities currently confront with an uncomfortable level of awkwardness.

That said, by adopting the C/QDS paradigm, my study concedes that the findings on the low lexicalization of SSC reveal the fluctuation and instability of terms related to the field of gender and sexuality, inherently escaping fixation. Following this Queer mindset, can we upgrade the current discussion on inclusivity?

I do not have a clear cut answer. In this paper, by advocating the Queer shift of perspectives, lexis and discourses, I argue for a reformulation of the current divisive and constrained construction of SSC. Part of this reformulation could start from reworking the current notion of inclusiveness that has revealed its numerous fallacies by enacting – as far as this analysis is concerned – vagueness, erasure and awkwardness. For this reason, I wonder if, instead of clinging to this problematic inclusivity, we could revolve to what has not been taken for granted in order to ground a real understanding on how to address SSC for the spreading of a more authentic message. While there is still much to do at the socio-political level, I would like to propose further research that could contribute to linguistic and discursive reformulations that do not bring forward a (hetero)normative inclusivity, but rather the creation of a discourse of co-existence where current non-normalized individuals, such as SSC, can share the same linguistic and discursive possibilities of more traditional models.

How is this evolving from my part? I am working on my dataset to enlarge it, including challenges to access to past PMs’ speeches. My intention is to provide a more comprehensive investigation on discursive (mis)representations of SSC that could shade further light on current discrimination, and mobilize an effective creation of a discourse of co-existence. Surely I can do just a tiny part of this arduous task, but everyone can give their own contribution to this. On the tiny bit I am trying to do, I would like to hear comments from those interested, share experiences, and advice.


Bachmann, I. (2011). “Civil partnership – ‘gay marriage in all but name’: A corpus-driven analysis of discourses of same-sex relationships in the UK parliament”. Corpora. 6.1: 77-105.

Balirano, G. and Borba, R. (2020). “The (Anti)gender Discourseof the Global Far-right. A Way of Introducing”. Anglistica AION. 24.1: 1-7.

Corredor, E. (2019). “Unpacking ‘Gender Ideology’ and the Global Right’s Antigender Countermovement”. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 44.3: 613-638.

Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fairclough, N. and Wodak, R. (1997) “Critical Discourse Analysis”. In van Dijk, T. (ed.) Discourse as Social Interaction. London: Sage, 258-284.

Fowler, R., Hodge, B., Kress, G. and Trew, T. (1979). Language and control. London: Routledge.

ILGA Europe (2018). Annual Review of Human Rights Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People in Europe, [last accessed: Jan 2023].

Koller, V. (2019) “Critical Discourse Studies of Language and Sexuality”. In Hall, K. and Barrett, R. (eds). The Oxford Handbook of Language and Sexuality. Oxford Handbooks Online: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190212926.013.5

Leap, W. (2015) “Queer Linguistics as Critical Discourse Analysis”. In Tannen, D., Hamilton, H. and Schiffrin, D. (eds). The handbook of discourse analysis. Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons, 2nd edition, 661-680.

Love, R. and Baker, P. (2015) “The hate that dare not speak its name?”. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict. 3.1: 57-86.

Marchi, A. and Taylor, C. (2018) “Introduction: Partiality and Reflexivity”. In Taylor, C. and Marchi, A. (eds) Corpus Approaches to Discourse: A Critical Review. Oxford: Routledge,1-15.

Motschenbacher, H. (2018) “Corpus linguistics in language and sexuality studies: Taking stock and looking ahead”, Journal of Language and Sexuality 7(2): 145-174. Doi:

Paterson, L. and Coffey- Glover, L. (2018) “Discourses of marriage in same- sex marriage debates in the UK press 2011-2014”. Journal of Language and Sexuality. 7 (2): 175-204.

Stubbs, M. (2001). Words and Phrases: Corpus Studies of Lexical Semantics. London: Blackwell.

Turner, G., Mills, S., van der Bom, I., Coffey-Glover, L., Paterson, L. L., & Jones, L. (2018). “Opposition as victimhood in media debates about same-sex marriage”. Discourse & Society. 29.2: 180-197.

van der Bom, I., Coffey-Glover, L., Jones, L., Mills, S., & Paterson, L. L. (2015). “Implicit homophobic argument structure: Equal marriage discourse in The Moral Maze”. Journal of Language and Sexuality. 4.1: 102-137.

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