Friday, 13 October 2017

Becoming a queer scholar

A lot of my recent posts have been about my research on the experiences of LGBT+ people in homelessness services and housing. This post is about what a revelatory journey this has been for me personally. It’s also a sort of late coming-out day post.

Some of you may have noticed that my last post – about getting married – ended up being picked up by The Times and we became national news while in Hiroshima on our honeymoon. The only way I could be more out than that would probably involve riding a unicorn across the pitch during the FA cup final wearing nothing but a gold lamé thong and a rainbow feather boa.

I came out to my close friends at school when I was 15 and was out when I went to university as an undergraduate. That was when I came out to my parents, when I was 19. So I’ve not been closeted, but like many LGBT+ people I always felt awkward; ashamed even. Earlier in the year I listened to Archive on 4 by Peter Tatchell about the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. This included clips from the House of Commons debate about lowering the age of consent between men. I was 12 when that happened in 1994, so just beginning to realise my difference. The hatred and bile that was spoken snapped me right back to the bullying and overwhelming, explicit homophobia of my teenage years. So it’s very little wonder that I was not necessarily comfortable in my sexuality.

So I was definitely not a Queer academic – my identity as a gay man was not part of my research. In fact, when I did my MSc in urban and regional planning in 2005/6, Richard Florida’s work on the creative class was just coming to the fore and my now-husband suggested I might want to do my dissertation on gay places. This was also a time when Newcastle Council had actively planned for the “Pink Triangle” to boost economic development. I rejected this idea.

Why? Well predominantly because I was being quite a bit “post-gay”, in that Nate Silver “ethnically straight”. There was a gay male lifestyle projected to me, through a particular commercial gay male culture, that I did not (and still do not) feel a great affinity too. I was never going to be Stuart in Queer as Folk. I also thought the world was “post-gay” (how naïve I was) and that most discrimination against LGBT people was declining – the fight had been won.

Because of this, my research to date, has been predominantly heterosexual, and thus (I now know) heterosexist. By doing fairly “mainstream” research, I was happily advancing my career. My identity did bump into my work occasionally, such as when I had to come out to my students to point out their own homophobia, but other than that, it did not matter that much. My journey to ending up getting messy with queer theory started with a surprise finding about non-straight people from a project I was doing. Even dealing with that, working out what it meant, and deciding to publicise, left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

The other day I was reading Michael Warner’s introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet (1993) where he writes: "Queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer. (Alternatively many people invest the better parts of their lives to avoid such a self-understanding and the social reflection it would imply.)" The bit in parentheses really resonated with me – this was what I was doing.

In doing my current research project on LGBT+ housing and homelessness I’ve had to confront queerness. On the one hand, I knew I had to engage with lesbian and gay studies, and queer theory, to understand how other people have understood queer lives. Also, I have had to read transcripts from people who have experienced horrible things, including homophobic and transphobic abuse. That was a wake-up call to the amount of work we still have to do to progress equality, and also drove me on to make sure my research helped make the lives of LGBT+ people better.

And that introduction to queer theory has been immensely eye-opening, particularly the concept of heteronormativity – as I suggested when I over-analysed my own nuptials. As ever, with critical theory, as an applied researcher it does leave me in the position of: it’s great to deconstruct society, but how do we reconstruct it again? One of the main recommendations from my research – the routine collection of sexual and gender identity data – is problematic on this score. It is suggesting the imposition of essentialist criteria, created by a homophobic world, onto a queer world. However, here I side with Kath Browne that it’s better to know so we can do something (especially about things such as hate crimes) than to not know at all.

So now, I would say I am a queer scholar. The question which emerges is how much will this impact on my research going forward? Will I queer my wider research programme on broader aspects of inequality? Will I do more research with the LGBT+ community? Will I do simple things like being more out when I present my research or making sure I use pronoun introductions? I need answers to these questions because it’s something I accuse policy studies of not doing enough of in my most recent paper!

To conclude, I am now definitely out of the closet. And I'm happy to be accused of homonormativity. 

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