My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

Relevant links:

Archive

The Politics of Queering Anything

Sitting at an academic conference years ago, I was struck by the marginalization of various voices under the guise of inclusion. There were queer panels and race panels and gender panels. In sampling those panels and various other panels, I started to see a trend in the audiences. In short, the audiences attracted to those panels identified as a member of that particular identity group or were allies. And I realized that panels that were not identity-marked tended to not have theories of gender/race/sexuality woven into them. When panels are marked through identity issues, people choose whether or not they should attend based on their identity politics, failing to recognize how critical analyses of race/gender/sexuality are broadly relevant. Thus, in marking panels through identity, this conference fundamentally marginalized the population it was theoretically including.

A few weeks ago, I helped organize a conference; I was one of the program committee members and coordinated three invited sessions. In the wind, I heard that a few folks were disappointed that there were no LGBT-specific panels. The assumption was that queer issues were forgotten. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only did all of the panels that I coordinated have queer-identified panelists on them but they all integrated queer theory into their arguments, whether explicitly or implicitly. I purposely left these issues unmarked in my description of the panels because my goal was to make sure that these issues were integrated seamlessly into a conversation without making identity politics the organizing theme of any of the panels.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m a huge fan of creating safe space to have serious conversations about identity politics, but I’m also determined to bring the lessons from queer theory (and race studies and feminism) into broader conversations. Sure – I’d love to call out these frameworks explicitly and have everyone who should hear the concepts come to the room. But, at the end of the day, I prioritize strategy. So I’ve gone out of my way to integrate these frameworks into my own work without ever calling them out explicitly, specifically so that those who are constitutionally incapable of listening to any argument that involves identity politics will accidentally listen to the underlying theories without realizing it, will incorporate the tenets of queer theory into their understanding of the world without realizing that this is where the roots of those frameworks come from.

At the root of queer theory is a very simple practice: questioning what is “normal” or normative, complicating any simple framework by asking critical questions about who is excluded and what is assumed. Anyone who has studied queer theory immediately gets how this framework is useful beyond analyses of sexuality, yet those who haven’t been trained as such see two scary words: queer and theory. Depending on the audience, either word can prompt a serious phobia. But that framework does more than answer questions about sexuality; it allows us to interrogate any supposedly stable system.

My favorite book in the world is Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. It’s a work of fiction – a novel – that lays out all of the core tenets of queer theory without ever telling the reader that that’s what’s going on. It’s a distinctly queer book, but it’s meant to help those who have theory phobia understand theory without realizing that they’re reading theory. Candy-coated vitamins if you will. One of the lessons I took from reading that book is that, if you want to get a message across, it’s important to recognize people’s anxieties and discomforts at face value and try to present information to them in a way that’s palatable and embraceable. Let them understand through a set of language that they can recognize instead of alienating them with language that terrifies them.

This form of “selling out” is bound to piss off anyone who believes that failing to mark queerness is a sign of weakness, a form of re-closeting, a way of undermining queer experiences, etc. I can totally hear and respect that. But I’m a pragmatist. And I’m more than willing to “sell out” if it means that I can get more people to understand why the core tenets of queer theory can help them understand structural inequality and systematic marginalization. I’m willing to let that go unmarked if doing so helps.

I integrate all sorts of queer theory into my arguments without signaling explicitly that that’s what I’m doing. And I often include queer theory references as “in-jokes” in ways that don’t make them visible to the untrained eye. I recognize that my path has strengths and weaknesses, but I’m also curious how others balance these issues. How do you integrate complex or potentially alienating frameworks into your work so that people can consume them? Or do you refuse to make things palatable? And if so, why? Are you horribly offended by the choices I’ve made?

Print Friendly

30 comments to The Politics of Queering Anything

  • I think there’s a difference between panels that are solely focused on queer content and panels that explicitly and openly include queer content (not just once you’re in your seat but in their description). I agree that some of the most productive conversations are intersectional and address commonalities or differences across issues such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more–often more productive than the single issue conversations with the same old folks.

    That having been said, I find it difficult to get on board with stealth-inclusion of these issues. It may reach people they wouldn’t have otherwise, but it also makes it harder for those living those identities or actively working for a set of issue-specific goals openly. I find the normalizing of the visibility of queer (or feminist or whatever) issues and people, whether or not the on-the-fencers get in the room or not, might have more value in the long run in shifting public opinion.

  • I’m a pragmatist. And I’m more than willing to “sell out” if it means that I can get more people to understand why the core tenants of queer theory can help them understand structural inequality and systematic marginalization. I’m willing to let that go unmarked if doing so helps.

    This reminds me of a debate where I lived years ago, when the local city commission was leaning toward doing something it shouldn’t. A progressive group discussed strategies for influencing the commissioners, and some advocated getting in their face and calling them tools of big business etc. These folks said that using moderate persuasive language would be “dishonest”.

    My response: If you talk to someone in a way that they will hear and understand, how is that “dishonest”? If you use language heavily marked with anger and disrespect, you often won’t succeed.

    Your case seems like the same sort of situation. If people listen where they otherwise would not, and learn what they otherwise would tune out, you’re not selling out. You’re reaching out.

  • I appreciate your thoughts, danah.

    I’m experiencing a similar scenario but in terms of my politics of writing ‘race.’ Like you, I believe in “seamless integration” of identity politics into daily and academic discourse. Though I’ve been enacting a different kind of strategy that seeks to bring more attention to the languaging & constructs of identity politics through disruptive writing practices. Influenced by Gloria Anzaldua, AnaLouise Keating, and more recently, Stuart Hall, I placed scare quotes around racialized terms like ‘race’, ‘black’, ‘white’, etc., in effort to bring about and break down consciousness of ‘race’. I also de-gender terms, a common practice particularly among feminist writers/scholars, for the same reason.

    I too try to operate covertly through my writing but in a way that wishes to jolt the reader into a state of discomforting consciousness likened to Gloria Anzaldua’s theory of nepantla. I also believe that we tend to organize around identity politics (sometimes rightly so) leaving us perpetually marginalized. As a result, I’ve received questions and at times criticism, but all is welcome :-) Like you, I recognize the weakness of this decision, but the payoff of hoping to shift consciousness (my own included) is far more important.

    As academics, scholars, & culture workers I believe we have an obligation to queer our practices keeping in mind the overall strategies and purposes behind our madness.

    Thanks again for the post!

    tara

  • Hooray! I would love to think that ALL our conversations are inclusive of ALL identities at ALL times. Of course, I know this is not the case but I agree with Sara that normalising our conversations to include identity issues and people is the civilised, opinion shifting way forward.

  • I was recently at a two day conference for civic leaders in Toronto, it was invite only (I was there as a supporting artist) and on one day they had a panel about diversity in leadership. The result? It was made up mostly of various minority leaders which (and this is the important point) correspondingly drained the rest of the panels of their diversity. Every other room was a little more male and a little more white than it might have been if the attendants of the diversity panel had been spread out.

  • First, I think the strategy of addressing matters inclusively without the identity signifiers as an organizing principle is brilliant. Well done! I disagree with Sara regarding “stealth inclusion.” I wouldn’t call it that. I would call it normalizing administrative behavior, if I had to call it anything. The otherization implicit in using identify signifiers as organizing tools leads to social silos that are seldom beneficial, except–as you pointed out–in creating safe spaces for those labeled to gather.

    I do have two questions: (1) What is this “theory” of which you speak? (You can infer a wry tone to that.) (2) Are we making any progress in the diminution of need for the “safe spaces?” Has the culture as a whole made any progress in the last 35 years in allowing LGBT&Q people to enjoy uncloseted safety? If the answer is “no” or “not much,” then I think your approach might offer a powerful facet of the solution set.

  • Sounds right to me. A professor once raised the same question about the community created here at Yale, or at similar schools. There are hundreds of clubs and, many of them with specific affiliations, and beyond those there are specific ‘cultural houses’ or the like (Yale Women’s Center, La Casa, the Af-Am House, etc). This is all good for pointing out Yale’s efforts to address minority or other unrepresented issues, promote inclusion into the idea of Yale, all that. But the point was made that these different groups could also serve to atomize the population and then sift them into certain isolated categories.

    That’s not always true in practice, nor does it need to be true in theory – one could have a fun time connecting with certain like-affiliated peers, and then similarly be just as much a part of the community as ever – but it’s true that an overemphasis on any kind of effort, be it specific panels or specific organizations, obfuscates the real issues for many because it conceals problems beneath a veil of institutions. (or it makes something into an ‘X’ issue instead of an ‘everyone’ issue). While I don’t necessarily agree with that comment in the Yale context, or even that it isn’t necessarily a better solution than certain alternatives, I still recognize the problem; I think that your experience with conferences is similar.

    The issue seems easier to resolve in conferences, though. Because these institutions are multi-purpose, it doesn’t make ideal sense to say e.g. that “to promote inclusion, camaraderie, and inter-faith dialogue, we are forcing the closure of the Yale Hillel, St. Thomas More Catholic Center, as well as all Muslim prayer spaces.”

    Thorny problem!

  • As a natural born contrarian, (my favorite fictional character is the backwards riding brave in Little Big Man) I love to go to specifically named seminars because I like to think. I can be sly but not hurtful in my contrarianism. but still, disruption has its merits.

    On the other hand, I love a good potluck. Everybody, lets meet on Sunday, bring a dish. “Smoke a little smoke, toke a little toke.”

    If I had one more hand, I’d say talk more about this queer theory of which you speak.

  • My father, who was a somewhat contrarian pastor, made it very cleaar to me that “preaching to the converted” is almost always a waste of time.

    I can understand your strategy competely.
    By the way, it’s “tenets of queer theory”, although the notion of ‘tenancy’ did set me thinking!

  • I was really interested by this post because it actually brings up a problem I have always had in various queer settings, from feminist philosophy courses at university, to queer festivals I have participated in, to just being on the internet. I am a white, straight, male and most of the time these queer safe spaces are distinctly unsafe for me. I have to watch everything I say or do not because of my words or actions content, but because of who I am.
    I just think this is why maybe we never have much non-queer involvement in queer panels etc. If people are made to not feel welcome they will not come back and then the message will not spread beyond the echo chamber.
    So your organisation of the panels at your conference to just be part of the story is, from my point of view at least, fantastic. The story of people whoever they are can be told without putting them away in a little room with just their own group.

  • I don’t think it’s a question of either/or. I think there should be room for both kinds of conversations, but I like your strategy as far as organizing panels goes. I would, however, be a bit more straightforward about the theories and points of view, and not try to hide them in plain sight when presenting. Social judgment theory (M. Sherif) explains why your strategy is more likely to work with the audiences who need to hear these ideas most.

  • Looooove this article!! Totes queer on soooooooi many levels!
    Challenging the challengers – awesome.
    Sometimes, if not often, to promote understanding is the most effective way to challenge norms.
    Unsettle me!
    Guide me beyond my comfort zone and I’m liberated!
    Yay!

  • In my mind the next phase of queer theory is the destruction of the concept of “straight”, which like the term “white” has long concealed more than it reveals.

    I like Saito’s book, “The Psychoanalysis of the Beautiful Fighting Girl” which probes the visceral repugnance that many people (in Japan and elsewhere) feel to the strange attraction that the Otaku has to the outrageously idealized strong-but-cute (and sometimes sexy) woman depicted in anime.

    Cultural studies and academic identity politics have long served the purposes of the rich W.A.S.P. donors that support the university by causing the academic left to embrace a fragmentizing vision that alienates “the common woman or man” and undermines the ability to create a broad movement that could fight Reaganism, globalization and all that. It’s only fitting that it will destroy itself through fragmentization, creating an opportunity for a relevant politics in the 20th century.

  • I have thought much about these concerns as well, recently in relation to the micro-collective-feature The Owls, the queer, black, lesbian, psycho-thriller I produced. How queer festivals (and to a lesser extent black, and women’s, although these hardly exist anymore while the queer fest circuit still powers on) allow us a devoted and committed audience, and yet how they also guarantee that our film will never be understood to be engaging with non-identity questions (like film form, documentary/fiction, and cinema history).

    In my recent work, I’ve been also interested in trying to think through whether these questions of affinity, difference, identity, identification and safety play out differently in online spaces and off, positing that it’s more critical to unname online since the space is so much less safe to begin with. As annoying as it is to be one of five lesbians (with the gentle straight white man) attending the panel on queer (lesbian) TV, and one of three women (fag hags? AIDS activists?) sitting in the small crowd of gay men at the queer (gay male) film panel, then one of a small number of older feminists in a room of ABDs watching a workshop on feminist blogging (my experience at last week’s SCMS), there is some comfort in enjoying communities of interest, and one makes a beeline to people who truly share interests, language and commitments: an easy way to make friends but not converts.

  • I think this is great. I’m reminded of two SF conferences which I attended in the past year – WisCon and FOGCon. Both had fairly extensive discussions of all of these topics, but they split in exactly the way you indicated; WisCon labels the panels explicitly as race/gender/etc., while FOGcon mostly labelled the panels with broader topics and had people speaking who brought in those ideas. Not only was the result you describe very visible (WisCon’s audience as a whole self-selects towards “theory” people, and individual panel audiences seem to break up more along identity lines), but I think that the mixed conversation turned out to be far more interesting — because the audience hadn’t segregated, there was less of an “echo chamber” effect of everyone in the room having exactly the same background and agreeing on everything except for fine details.

    So after getting to see both in a row, I’m definitely in favor of your approach. It led to much better discussions and more learning on all fronts.

  • I am reminded of something that stood out to me when I was in a film class at UCLA, titled 106: Film and Social Change. One of the films we watched was Cheech Marin’s excellent “Born in East L.A.,” where he said, “The best way to make a statement is you slip it in the coffee so they don’t taste it, but, they get the effect.” He was referring to the film’s excellent commentary on race relations in the L.A. of the 1980s (that eventually boiled over into the riots 1992, the year I moved here). Marin took a ton of crap in his career but I think here, he had it right, and I’ve always tried to remain mindful of that approach.

  • Tasha

    I don’t know much about queer theory and I’ve probably been called hypocritical in my perceptions of universalism on race and gender (as many of us confused fans of low-brow popular comedy who are also social scientists – talk about reconciling the home/work divide!) but the labelling of seminars as ‘queer’ or ‘women’s panel’ etc without addressing the actual issues of those labels seems to me as one poster said – preaching to the converted, or deliberately making ‘echo-chambers’ or sort of ‘cliques’. Especially if then the topics are going to be like some ‘in-crowd joke’.

    Personally, if I went to a seminar on say… feminism in East Asia, and when I got there either a) the panel did not discuss feminism, or b) talked about it to the feminists in the room like a ‘this is our chance to talk amongst ourselves, reinforce our beliefs but not engage with non-feminists in dialogue’, I would think a) were probably semi-incompetent academics and what a waste of my time and b) I would leave after being very offended.

    I can appreciate your working things in subtly, and sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t and you have lost people in that subtlety. Personally, when a colleague says to me ‘I am going to use feminist writings to argue xyxyxyxyxy’, I say ‘why, what merit does looking through that particular lens have for your research and your argument?’ not because I am anti-feminist (although I do have issue with some forms of more extreme current feminism), but because I think it is important to look at your argument foundations and register their applicability. If that makes sense… :/

  • Andrew

    Not only does it dilute diversity in the general population (of speakers et alii), but when the separate-but-equal cohorts reach the critical numbers for group dynamics, they break down into cliques that create a caste system and tiers of internal marginalization.

    I respect the “safe space” instinct, but care needs to be taken to be sure it isn’t used as a convenient excuse for accepting segregation, while nominally protesting it.

    PS: third place I noticed it today…”tenants” should be “tenets”, no?

    Thanks as always, Danah.

  • In the ninties, the small but rapid swing dance crowd with which I hung was treated to an inundation of sex cross over dancing. Men with men, one dance troup of all women dancing both lead and follow. Instruction in the workshops came in all sizes shapes genders and disciplines. It was one melding experience after another. It was all about dance with everyone feeling free to join the conversation, the contemplation, the exaltation.

    Now I am wondering could this have been a natural way of doing what you are recommending? An evolvement. And how does queer theory explain that by the late oughts all that would have changed and now noone seems to be noticing that a sort of mormonized sexy christianity has creepily moved in to take cross genderings place.

  • Melinda

    Well, wait a minute. I think that there needs to be clarity about who your audience is (sometimes queers like to talk with other queers, because -> ) and in particular it strikes me as unreasonable to expect that people on the margins to constantly have to explain themselves (and G-d save us from poseurs who like to describe themselves as “slyly contrarian”). I think you’re heaping a lot of responsibility on the marginalized.

  • Dan

    Hi Dana,
    I admire your work immensely and would not have been able to write my master’s thesis without reading your blog and your master’s thesis on digital identity.
    I have to chime in on this one as I agree with scottbp’s take on this issue. Overt labels and injecting identity politics as a way of “communicating” or being “inclusive” achieves the opposite. As a heterosexual, white male, if I was at a craft fair and there was one booth for creating rag dolls and another for creating Star Wars figures, I would go to the Star Wars booth even if the same skills were involved. If the booths were organized by skills or merit (Best way to a,b,or c), I would be faced with more substantial choices, meaning I would focus on the method or science of the issue, not the “gender”. Identity politics takes away from useful discussions by injecting just that: politics.

  • danah, I assume you’re talking about the DML conference that was held in March. I was the person who organized the Queering DML unpanel (you can see more info about my motives, the unpanel, and its organization at these sites: http://www.queergeektheory.org/2011/03/dml-2011/, http://www.hastac.org/blogs/jennamcwilliams/new-dml2011-unpanel-designing-queer-learning-futures, and http://www.hastac.org/blogs/fionab/queerdml). I sure do wish you had attended the unpanel, because at that unpanel we talked about the exact issues you identify above–that any omission was surely unintentional, that many panelists spoke about queer-focused issues, and that DML is generally an extremely LGBT-friendly venue.

    I also understand your argument about pragmatism. But too often, the result of omitting specific explicit language is that panels that integrate queer-focused issues get folded into the panels that ignore queer-focused issues altogether. In the end, for audience members and panelists there’s no effective way to tell whether identity politics are being addressed in a ‘pragmatic’ way, or whether they’re not being addressed in any way at all.

    I find that to be a problem, and I sure do hope to continue this conversation as the group of queer (and queer-focused) academics and allies that formed around and after the unpanel continue to consider strategies for making these issues more public, more publicly discussed, and more publicly accessible.

    I simply can’t believe that DML attendees would be opposed to identity politics and queer studies issues addressed explicitly. If there’s any arena where this scholarship would, should, and could be embraced, it’s there. And if we have to worry about whether DML folks will be hostile to queer theorists and the issues of queer youth, then we have a bigger problem than any form of ‘pragmatism’ can address.

  • moe

    This is a tough subject-when I go to conferences, I tend to look for the ‘marginalized’ panel topics – so that I know that there will be something worthwhile to listen to. If it’s not explicitly stated, I look at the presenter names to see if I recognize them as being ‘friendly’ –

    I do this because I have found that when it doesn’t explicitly state it, I end up listening to a panel of people whose work is only interrogating a white heteronormative patriarchal society/topic, and ends up excluding everything else, so it becomes simply aggravating, and a waste of my time.

    The idea, as posted by many commentators above, that ‘separate’ panels that are inclusive of multiple marginalities is simply ‘preaching to the converted’ is no different than the always already white patriarchal subject matter / point of view on the majority of panels at the average ‘technology’ conference. Those just don’t say ‘white male point of view’ in the title.

  • Melinda,

    I didn’t say I had a choice in being a contrarian. I just am one. What I meant was that I try not to let that hurt someone else.

    Dan,

    True both styles would have their audience, their own affects, the question of which would be best is subverted by the fact that whatever works to achieve the “super ordinate” is any organizer’s hope.

    All I know is I don’t go to not paricipate. As far as influencing someone by playing chess with their minds, well that’s what sales seminars are all about right? Sell them on the idea that there’s a way of thinking about queerness without letting them know so that when they they discover it for themselves they’ll already being doing what they learned. Wow, that is superordinate.

  • Jenna McWilliams provides a really clear (and respectfully critical) response to this post on her blog: some thoughts on queering DML

    I posted the following comment to Jenna’s blog:

    Hi Jenna! Thanks for providing context to what I was hearing. I didn’t know the roots of the conversation so much as random tidbits from different folks that left me uncertain as to where to begin.

    Let me begin by clarifying some issues you raised. The program was divided into invited sessions and proposed sessions. There were three tracks and each track’s organizer was relatively uninvolved with the programming of the other tracks. So what I’m going to offer hear really only pertains to my track since I don’t have a good sense of perspective on what the other tracks did. I can also speak to the Ignite sessions since I organized them.

    The invited panels were designed to be as broad as possible, to reach as many of the participants attending as possible. We were explicitly tasked with designing three panels that would speak to as many “types” of people in attendance, notably academics and practitioners, people of different disciplines, novice DML attendees and folks who have been in the community for a long time. Panelists for the invited sessions did not write their description in the program; I wrote it. In designing those sessions, I was very conscious of making certain to not only get representation from different perspectives but to make sure that the speakers would complicate any assumptions that existed in the room. The panel that you attended not only had queer-identified participants on it, but was explicitly designed to complicate the predominantly American and privileged experience through the voices and experiences of those who are typically ignored in forward-facing feel-good conversations. The other two sessions that I organized were structured to resist other assumptions embedded within the DML community.

    As for proposed panels… Out of over 250 proposed sessions and ignite talks, there were exactly zero proposals that used “queer” or “LGBT” in the title. (2 mentioned race in the title; both were accepted. 2 mentioned gender in the title; both were accepted.) Why people didn’t propose panels or ignite talks to address these issues is a complete mystery to me. There’s no doubt that the organizers would have welcomed such topics with open arms, but these were not the proposals we received.

    Let’s also keep in mind that DML is not supposed to be an academic conference. Although roughly 1/3 of the attendees are academic, the vast majority in the room are not. And there was a lot of criticism lobbied against the conference for how academic the sessions were. This is something that we struggled with tremendously because the academics were far more likely to propose sessions than the practitioners. And groups like teachers were seriously underrepresented. I organized the ignite sessions specifically to fill in gaps, to provide room for voices that weren’t heard elsewhere in the program. The call for ignite talks was explicitly done very late in the game, when most people had already booked their plans to attend. Still, not a single one was proposed to address the issues that you raise.

    Now, let’s return to strategy. I respect your dismissal of my approach to creating change but I don’t see pragmatic as opposed to radical so much as pragmatic as opposed to idealistic. I very much see myself as a radical pragmatist. I want to open people’s eyes, to make them think, to get them to hear perspectives that will blow their mind. And I’m willing to speak on their terms in order to do it. I spent years showing up to the table with my crazy dreads and pushing people’s buttons and forcing them to pay attention to me and my approach. And I started to realize that it spoke to some people and completely alienated the people that I needed to listen the most. So I changed my strategy, specifically so that I could make room for my crazy self to be allowed in the door.

    The costly challenge isn’t simply one of hostility; it’s one of uncertainty. People who should be allies but who don’t understand what’s at stake. People who feel as though they aren’t welcome in identity-organized environments (and, sometimes, they’re not… but that’s why I purposely separate spaces that are designed to be safe spaces from those that are designed to be external-facing). Queer theory is sooo relevant to folks who don’t self-identify as queer but it’s amazing how that label creates a wall for folks, a wall where they feel as though they’re not allowed to engage.

    I’m not trying to silence movement making. I’m all down with things getting queered in all sorts of ways. And I’m all down with folks taking whatever radical approaches they wish to take to make change. But when it comes to where I’m going to spend my energy and time, it’s going to be making sure that the table is as large as possible, not as narrowed as possible. Politically, I think that we are far too fragmented – even your list of different civil rights movements highlights that. I’m more interested in making sure that gender is in every conversation, that class is in every conversation, that race is in every conversation, that sexuality is in every conversation, and that folks are constantly thinking about marginalization and inequality, regardless of the topic. If folks want to create identity-organized spaces, I’m totally in support, but it’s not where I’m going to dedicate my time. I want to ruffle feathers more than I want to speak with allies. But that’s my strategy. And to each hir own.

  • Thanks, danah! And at the risk of redundancy, here’s the response I posted to your comment:

    Hi, danah! Thanks for your comment. If this weren’t a tricky issue, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about. I’m so thrilled that our culture has made it this far–that we can talk, publicly, about how best to represent teh queer.

    Here’s my take on the button-pushing issue: When I walk into most rooms, most people who are paying attention assume (and rightly so) that I’m queer. Some people have informed me that my hair, my clothes, my body language, my walk, are too “in your face” (read: too obviously queer). They assume, and wrongly, that I’m trying to antagonize.

    I spent the first 3 decades of my life trying to look as straight as can be, and when I finally came out of that tiny, tiny closet I decided to say goodbye to all that. In those 3 decades, I learned that there’s a lot of privilege that comes along with looking nonqueer. (There’s also, by the way, a lot of privilege that comes along with looking white, able-bodied, and middle class–and I present as all three.) Giving up that privilege means sacrificing some opportunities–but, of course, it gives rise to different opportunities and other types of awesome.

    The awesome: I finally feel comfortable inside of my skin. The awesome: I’ve found a fantastic, welcoming group of colleagues who think and write and talk about the issues that matter to me. The less awesome: The wall. The wall is sometimes extremely apparent–someone refuses to make eye contact, someone walks out of a room when I walk in, someone posts antiqueer comments to my blog. Sometimes the wall is hidden behind a veneer of polity, and is far less apparent.

    You know, whatever. We all choose our paths, and we all sacrifice something in exchange for something else. But if you work for the laudable goal of “making sure the table is as large as possible,” then the table has to be large enough for people like me. I’m a fan of Jim Gee’s pair of principles governing ethical human discourse:

    1. That something would harm someone else (deprive them of what they or the society they are in view as ‘goods’) is always a good reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) not to do it.
    2. One always has the (ethical) obligation to (try to) explicate (render overt and primary) any theory that is (largely) tacit…when there is reason to believe that the theory advantages oneself or one’s group over other people or other groups.

    The question is, perhaps, one of balance. If pragmatism, even ‘radical pragmatism,’ leads to increased access of social goods for teh queers, then there is no reason to try a different tack. If, however, this approach makes it harder for ‘people like me’ to walk into a room, step up to the podium, and present my ideas, then the approach may need some rethinking. The same, by the way, is true of my chosen approach: If my identity politics risk harming someone else, then it’s my responsibility to consider changing. This is complex, fraught, and challenging stuff, and it requires the sort of constant dialogue that is evident across media platforms (including at zephoria.org!).

    Now, as for the lack of LGBTQ-focused panels: I sure do wish you had attended the unpanel at the conference, because the attendees did wonder, without knowing for sure, whether it was the case that nobody had submitted proposals that focused on this theme. Having it confirmed can help us focus on strategies to address this. Here’s my theory for the dearth of queer-focused proposals: DML is extremely graduate student-friendly, and lots of the panels, at least those that came from academia, included graduate students and their work. The problem for grad students is that, at least for those in the “learning” side of Digital Media and Learning, they’re typically mentored by faculty who don’t focus on queer studies issues and who may not be supportive of students who want to integrate queer theory into their panels. I’ve encountered many academics who take a similar position to yours, though for what I suspect are different reasons: They either don’t understand queer theory or it makes them uncomfortable. Motives are near-impossible to parse, which is why I feel that it’s important to be as transparent and explicit as possible about the issues that matter to us.

    One last thing about the difference between “queer-identified panelists” and panelists focusing on queer studies work: I think we need to be careful to keep these categories separate. It’s not enough, from my perspective, to include queer folks in panels; this would be akin to announcing to the world: “We are a tolerant group because we have Several Black People in our organization.” (The panel of yours that I attended included one speaker, the deeply awesome Mary Gray, who spoke specifically about her work with queer rural youth; as far as I can remember, the other panelists used non-queer but mind-blowing case studies that complicated our understandings of participatory culture beautifully.) When it comes to moving the work of DML forward, It’s not important, though it’s nice, that DML is queer-friendly; it’s important that DML is friendly to queer studies work. I believe that both are the case, though this time around the queer studies side of things was less apparent than I would’ve liked.

    These are important issues, and I’m just so thrilled to have the chance to talk about them publicly and visibly. And–here’s something even more awesome!–for anyone who’s interested in continuing this conversation, Fiona Barnett has started up a QueerDML listserv that you can join! You can join it by going here: https://lists.duke.edu/sympa/info/queerdml.

  • Lisa Tolentino

    >>At the root of queer theory is a very simple practice: questioning what is “normal” or normative, complicating any simple framework by asking critical questions about who is excluded and what is assumed

    danah, I find this thread topic to be highly related to anything about disability studies. The word ‘disabilty’ causes people to shudder, turn away, or are just plain mum. For some though, the issues are personal, and our culture’s dominant treatment of the subject causes fear, pity, and rage within. Social vs. medical model. Skinner-box behavioral approaches vs. quality of life. It doesn’t matter how disability links to every level of injustice or inequity in policy, education, physical architectures, poverty, institutionalized abuse … no one wants to deal with the core issues because it is not a feel-good issue. Many of my attempts to bring disability studies perspective to the table with those who need to be listening are typically with met with hostility or denial that there is really anything wrong with the bigger institutional picture of special education.

    This being a personal issue for me, I was also struck by how few (if any?) persons labeled with disabilities were present at the DML conference. But again, maybe it is my own bias causing me to scan for stereotypes characteristic of visual stigma.

    I don’t have a solid approach for introducing potentially alienating frameworks into my work. But I have started to go through my written pieces with a fine-tooth comb, to begin to deconstruct implicit deficit model rhetoric. Face-to-face conversations have different challenges, but I am exploring metaphors from performance and experimental arts practice to engage perspectives in a different way. Overall, it’s hard to “name it” without naming it … which makes it so complex. I did appreciate the panel that focused on Futurelab’s work on inclusion, but certainly, the fairly empty room also echoed the unpopularity of such a topic, particularly in the circle of DML-interested folks who were present.

    Anyways, there is much to learn from your approach. I do feel, however, that a deliberate shout-out to the communities we are passionate could help validate those who are in the thick of the fight, while inspiring – and modeling for others, that it’s cool to be outspoken about deep issues if real transformation is to take place. I watched Lady Gaga do that at her concert the other night – she was not ashamed to push her agenda, that a great portion of her touring profits would go to homeless youth in the LGTB community. And I have to say, I have never seen a more diverse or inclusive audience in my life, with an intergenerational and cultural spread (in Phoenix!) that would blow the mind of anyone interested in inclusion. Then again, I wonder how many of those in attendance are able to break ranks at the top of the institutional food chains.

  • Hapto

    I think this conflict is normal. In the simplest sense, it is about how it feels when the “room of one’s own” that you and your community-mates worked so diligently to keep and defend suddenly becomes the world.

    I think it may be a little less of a “thing” except for the idea or gender and sex, race/class/ etc. are also held to structures of desire… That I want x,y,z, for myself, and I will build/seek a community where I can see x,y,z in represented, it makes finding love and commonalities easier because each of the isms, seems to agree that being alone is not ok, and the fear that holds that concept in place, makes me value that exclusion, because with out that room, the chances of living in the well of loneliness are very very high.

  • I think you’re exactly right. You’ve also got some interesting company on this.

    Harkening back to your Berkeley days, but before your time, Herbert Marcuse (Angela Davis’s inspiration) wrote Critique of Pure Tolerance (or maybe it was “Repressive Tolerance”), a Marxian deconstruction of what was really going on in a ‘liberal’ society. He wrote that, by ‘tolerating’ forms of diversity, liberal societies managed to de-fang them by making them just tail-ends of a normal distribution.

    Tolerance thus became a way of putting would-be political outliers into a metaphorical cage and putting a sign out front, inviting mainstream people to marvel at the curious phenomena contained in the zoo.

    I think you’ve put your finger on the same phenomenon, and it’s as true now as it was then. It’s also hard to conceive of the insight as being outside politics–neutralizing the differences of a group can’t help but be conservative and repressive.

  • I think you made a good decision – a positive, or perhaps anti-matter, form of dog whistle politics :-)

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>