Decentring love

[content notes: discussion of sex and relationships including consensual kink and non-monogamy. Some discussion of homophobia and transphobia. Non-detailed discussion of sex acts]

I was surprised to find myself so annoyed by Pride in London’s 2017 slogan, “Love Happens Here”. I admit that I am an unromantic grouch, but surely this slogan was harmless? The way in which people engaged with this at a museum LGBT Late during Pride month was rather charming – a map of London with rainbow sticky notes on which they’d written memories of their first kiss, where they met their partner and so on. It was a lovely piece of queer remembering and storytelling. But something troubled, and continues to trouble, me about it.

My problem lies with the word “love”. I’ve recently been thinking about Gayle Rubin’s discussion of social values afforded to different kinds of sexual relationships. She identifies types of relationships that are typically viewed as good/natural/desirable, and other kinds of relationships that are typically viewed as bad/unnatural/undesirable. It is important to note that these labels reflect social values and views rather than Rubin herself labelling them as good or bad.

These dynamics are binaries: so for example, relationships can be monogamous (good/natural/desirable) or non-monogamous (bad/unnatural/undesirable), or they can involve human bodies only (good/natural/desirable) or involve manufactured objects (bad/unnatural/undesirable). Rubin described the good/natural/desirable components as within a Charmed Circle, and the bad/unnatural/undesirable components as beyond the limits of socially acceptable sex. So we have

Charmed circle Outer limits
heterosexual homosexual
married unmarried
monogamous non-monogamous
procreative non-procreative
non-monetised monetised
in pairs alone or in groups
in a relationship casual
same-generation cross-generational
in private in public
no pornography with pornography
with bodies only with manufactured objects
vanilla BDSM

Homosexual sex, therefore, is out of this charmed circle simply by virtue of being homosexual. However, there are other things that we might associate with sexual practices among LGBTQ people: the use of manufactured objects in the form of sex toys; non-monogamy in the form of polyamory, open relationships and other forms of ethical non-monogamy; sex in public through cruising and cottaging; casual sex; non-vanilla sex (which also may include manufactured objects); sex and relationships between people with an age gap.

At the same time, these things are not static. Over time, some practices and types of relationships may become more socially acceptable. Rubin argues that there is an area of contest, a grey area of potentially acceptable kinds of “bad” sex: unmarried heterosexual couples, promiscuous heterosexuals, masturbation, and long-term, stable lesbian and gay male couples (note that this excludes bisexual, trans and queer people). Therefore, homosexuality might be acceptable in some cases – if, in other words, it ticks the boxes for the rest of the charmed circle.

In order to be acceptable to wider, heterosexual society, LG(btq) people must become very, very good at mirroring relationships within this established charmed circle. The charmed circle focuses on stability and love. How should non-heterosexual couples make their relationships demonstrate stability and love? Same sex marriage equality, the ability of same sex couples to adopt and issues of reproductive technology have been areas of public debate, fulfilling the charmed circle needs of “marriage” and “procreation”. There are tensions about assimilation, heteronormativity and homonormativity – issues of how much LGBTQ people should want the same things as heterosexual people, how similar LGBTQ lives should look to heterosexual lives, and what becomes “normal” (and what is excluded from this new normality).

Heterosexual people are increasingly happier about accepting LGBTQ relationships as long as our love is visible and intelligible to them. As long as they can see that our relationships are centred around love (and it is a love which they can identify and understand), they don’t have to think about sex.

I’m uncomfortable with this emphasis on LG(btq) love.

Firstly, homosexuality was only decriminalised 50 years ago. Section 28 effectively banned any teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools for fear it would be perceived as promoting homosexuality; it was only repealed in 2003. So many of us grew up scared and alone – scared of arrest, scared that we were going to catch AIDS because we were told that’s what happened to people like us, scared because we didn’t feel the things we were meant to feel and there was a huge, cavernous silence around what we could be. Section 28 is no more but the Stonewall Schools Report shows that LGBT children continue to be bullied in schools, and that trans students are particularly targeted. LGBTQ people from ethnic minorities and religious communities can face huge pressure to act straight, including being forced into heterosexual marriages.

For too many of us, love is a luxury – instead, our relationships are furtive and fleeting, on hook-up apps or with an expiry date of hours, not recognised by our families or communities, dangerous for us to be in. We are not allowed to love, to luxuriate in settled, loving, married partnership. To be told that your desires are unacceptable but might be tolerated only in the context of a long-term, loving partnership that you are not remotely equipped to build is a cruel catch-22.

Secondly, being on the outer limits of acceptability means that LGBTQ people have had contact with other groups at the limits (or, indeed, are part of these other groups) and have had the freedom to reimagine relationships. Not all LGBTQ people are going to be engaging in non-monogamy, sex work, kink, casual sex, public sex or cross-generational relationships, but I think it’s important that we do acknowledge the hard-won wisdom of people who have experienced these kinds of sex and relationships. We may have learnt to talk about communication and to critique the relationship escalator from poly and non-monogamy practitioners, learnt about consent (and being safe and risk aware) and the importance of communicating our desires and our limits from people into BDSM and kink, experienced non-nuclear families of choice, known or experienced child-rearing through being a single parent by choice, part of a poly group, or as donors of gametes, learnt about boundaries and self-care from sex workers, learnt about sexual health from people who practice casual sex. We may have been able to pass on our knowledge and teach other people.

We may be able to use this awareness to reimagine a binary of good and bad relationships that, as M-J Barker does here, places sex and relationships which are not consensual, not informed, and which insist on strict, non-negotiable gendered roles within sex at the outer limits. They place consent, fluidity, diversity and being critically informed within the charmed circle – something that I think is valuable for all sex and relationships, no matter how long-term, monogamous, vanilla or romantic they are.

We may value love – but also be able to recognise that it doesn’t describe all the queer experiences (histories, relationships, desires) out there.

So here’s to munches and dungeons. Here’s to cottaging and cruising. Here’s to fumbles in gay club toilets and fucking by the bins in the alley. Here’s to kissing on the bus. Here’s to caring, tender casual sex. Here’s to safewords and using them. Here’s to that look, the look that says “I’m sorry about my homophobic relatives” and “I’m sorry they’re calling you my friend instead of my girlfriend” and “let’s get out of this place”. Here’s to Grindr and when it crashes due to the sheer density of gay people in a room. Here’s to whipmarks that say “I love you”. Here’s to love without sex that is every bit as important and life-changing and life-shaping. Here’s to fuck buddies and hookups. Here’s to sex without love because you’re all into it and everyone knows that this is casual and meant to be fun.

Here’s to love that doesn’t have to be visible.

Here’s to love that is expressed strangely and queerly.

Here’s to kindness and communication and consent and community, without which love couldn’t exist.

Here’s to decentring love.

Learning and teaching consent with a parrot

There is a new creature living in my house. She communicates through raised and sleek feathers, eye-pinning, a whole range of chuckles, beeps and squawks (at the moment she’s sounding weirdly like R2-D2). She has a beak capable of biting off chunks of wood. Sometimes I jokingly call her a dinosaur or an alien as a way of making sense of her strangeness, but she is a creature of earth and sky and the present day and I feel uncomfortable suggesting that she is of a different time or space. The problem lies with me and with my lack of familiarity.

So, a bit about her: she’s a parrot, a Bronze Wing Pionus to be precise. She’s approaching her first birthday and I’ve had her for three months. Before I got her, she was kept with other young Bronze Wings so hopefully she knows she’s a bird rather than being so imprinted on humans it will cause her problems when she hits sexual maturity.

It’s a very different experience from dealing with dogs or rats or cats or horses or pretty much any other animal I’ve looked after. I am used to soft fur and touch as comfort. I am used to space-invading snuggles, sleepy mammals piled up on top of each other so you can barely tell where each animal ends and another begins. I am used to being able to pick up and/or easily handle most of these animals. Leia will not tolerate these casual liberties. She’s fully flighted, has never been clipped, and can easily choose to avoid me if she wishes. I am trying to show her that I will listen to her and respect her wishes so she can tell me if she’s unhappy or doesn’t want to do something without resorting to biting. Her ancestors have not been selectively bred for tameness and compliance. She is not hardwired to accept dominance or hierarchy; instead there is flock, and careful, subtle, shifting negotiations within the flock.

We have spent much of the past three months learning about each other and how to understand what the other is trying to communicate. In a way it is an experiment, but only in the same way that all my relationships are experiments. I’ve found a lot of my understanding about consent to be applicable to this wild and clever creature.

My feelings do not override her feelings
I loved Leia before I ever met her. Her breeder sent me regular photos and updates about her. I saw her as a tiny, naked baby; as a downy youngster growing her wing feathers; at weaning; with her parents and clutchmates. I learnt what toys she liked and made sure I got her some. I scoured the internet for a suitable cage and, dismayed at how small and high the majority are, ended up ordered a custom made cage. I went into this knowing the commitment I was making to a bird that might hate me, try to attack me and who I may never touch. I was enchanted anyway.

Leia stepped out of the box she was transported in and erupted into flight. I am much smaller than her breeder. I have darker skin and my voice is different and my movements are different and, horrors, I wear glasses. I am a stranger to her and she needed time to work out if she was willing to trust me. I might have loved her but she had no idea who I was and whether I was an acceptable flock member. I had to let her learn about me on her terms. I couldn’t let my feelings override her autonomy. Forcing my presence on her would have been counterproductive, making me into a thing to be feared and avoided.

She was interested in me and wanted to watch what I was doing. She wanted to sit on her stand on my desk and watch me. She was happy to accept treats and toys from my hands. I had to take things at her pace. It took her about three weeks to accept a headscratch from me.

A “yes” is only as meaningful as a “no”
I ask Leia is she wants a headscratch by making a scratch motion with my fingers above her head, within her sight and crucially, not touching her. If she doesn’t want a headscratch, she’ll either beak my fingers or move away. If she does want a headscratch, she’ll bow her head and fluff up her head feathers. I’m trying to show her that I’ll respect her “no” – that she can tell me “no” and I won’t ignore it and do the thing anyway. I hope to teach her that she doesn’t have to reinforce her “no” with a bite or, worse, feel she has to go straight for the bite as that’s the only thing I’ll understand.

However, Leia sometimes beaks my fingers while I’m scratching her and these seem to have a variety of meanings. I’m now trying to work out if her grabbing my fingers with her beak is a “no, not now”, a “yes, and I’m going to direct you to a particularly itchy spot”, a “stop, I’ve had enough”, a “stop, that was the wrong spot” or her preening me in return. We’re still working out the complexities of that bit of communication. She’s usually pretty gentle even when telling me to stop, and I think that’s because she doesn’t feel the need to go harder. She trusts that I’ll listen.

Consent is everyday
Consent isn’t just about the big things like medical interventions or sex. Asking for, receiving or being denied consent is present in so many of our interactions. I do it when I check with a student if it’s alright to forward information on to someone else, check with a child whether they’d prefer a hug, handshake or something else, and give my students the information they need to make an informed choice about how they engage with difficult, upsetting material. Living with Leia is a masterclass in making these negotiations explicit and visible.

Leia now sits on my knee while I work, and increasingly often hauls herself up my sleeve so she can sit on my shoulder. She has begun to step up onto my arm when she feels like it, but as she steps up nicely onto a rope perch I see no reason to push it. I’ve taught her to target a (chop)stick. We have several headscratching sessions a day, and she preens my hair and has tried to preen my eyelashes with extraordinary gentleness. We are working out how to have contact calls so she knows I’m around even if she can’t see me. She appears to have taught me to retrieve by throwing her foot toys off my desk and looking expectantly at me. Last night I lay on the floor to read, and for part of this I had a small parrot wandering around on my back.

It’s challenging trying to communicate across such a species barrier. She can probably see in UV, and probably uses her feathers and light to communicate in ways I am literally blind to. I am probably just as challenging for her to read, with my mammal ways and glasses covering my eyes and fabric coverings. We are muddling our way through, and beginning to make sense of each other.

we are here (even when we’re not)

Last month I spoke at GENOVATE’s international conference on diversity within research and universities. I am not thrilled about the term “diversity” and find a lot of the discourse around it really problematic, but I do think it’s important to talk about the phenomenon it describes. It’s what happens when reading lists are full of dead white men and the images on the slides never show people like you. It’s what happens when you’re never taught by someone who looks a little like you, when your mentors don’t experience the things that you do and cannot advise you on dealing with it, when you look at the entity that is the university and cannot see yourself reflected back. From my own experiences and from what others have discussed with me, there’s a lurch as you realise that you’re less welcome in this space that you thought you were, or that your fears are confirmed and that this place isn’t meant for people like you.

I drew on Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—‘s “Diversity is a dirty word” to trouble and reject easy ideas about diversity. C— argues that there are four key strands to challenge in diversity: the “what”, the “how”, the “who” and the “where”.

  • The “what” is the Syllabus: the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies
  • The “how” is the Process: the teaching methods and learning activities
  • The “who” are the Participants: the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme
  • The “where” is the Environment: the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially

After my talk, someone asked me a question focusing on the “who”: what if you’re teaching, but your students don’t seem to be “diverse” (meaning, I would argue, that they do not appear to deviate from the straight, white, cis, able-bodied student that we might imagine. The word “appear” is important). I said then that I would teach as if such diverse students were in the room: after all, we cannot assume that they’re not. Here is why.

Students are not obliged to out themselves

Not all identities or experiences are immediately visible. I might be able to guess at some of my students’ LGBTQ, disabled, ethnic or religious identities if my students make them visible. Sometimes, these things are made visible to me by and through university systems; namely, information about disability that affects how a student learns and is assessed. Sometimes, my students have revealed things to me: their mental health issues, a physical disability that is not apparent to an onlooker, their gender identity, their sexual assault. I have then tried to be extra careful about how I talk about these things, extra aware of how the class discussion moves and where it goes.

However, I have certainly taught students who didn’t feel the need to tell me. Given that the NUS has identified that 37% of female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances and the gender makeup of the courses I teach, I am confident that I’m teaching a few women who have had such experiences. They shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me so. Their presence in the room, and my sensitivity to these unspoken experiences should not be contingent in knowing that such students are here.

It sounds obvious, but students should never have to out themselves to be taught in a non-hurtful way. I have heard enough horror stories about lecturers making crass jokes about mental health, disability, sexual assault, gender and sexuality that have had to be confronted by a student saying “look, I’m ____ and that’s really inappropriate” – an especially fraught interaction. I’ve had to challenge a colleague who would always joke before IELTS tests: “fill in the box for male or female – it’s the easiest question you’ll face today!”; for some people (including me), that’s not an easy question.

However, the onus shouldn’t be on students to reveal something that they may consider personal and private in order to challenge us. The onus should be on us to make sure that we aren’t excluding some of our students.

Students are not isolated

Students have families, friends, colleagues, communities. I cannot know whether one of my students’ parents uses a wheelchair, whether one of my students’ brother is gay and their parents have been unsupportive, whether one of my students’ housemates recently came out as transgender, whether one of my students’ step-family is Black, whether one of my students’ friends has autism.

Our students do not shed their relationships at the lecture hall’s door. We never, ever teach people as isolated individuals, plucked out of their community. Our students bring with them their loyalty and their friendships, their sometimes desperate concern and their love with them. I think it’s important to recognise that. For example, teaching that is aware of LGBTQ issues and acknowledges heteronormativity in teaching materials can signal to the student with a queer or trans sibling that this space is an expansive, welcoming one. I would rather create spaces that create room than spaces that exclude.

Students have emerging identities

Inclusive teaching means that there’s space for students to change. I wasn’t even a baby gay when I went to university; I was tentatively working out what “bisexual” meant and whether I was one but I was a very uncertain young queer. Turns out that Catholic schools really don’t give you a lot of help if you aren’t totally heteronormative! I ended up discovering things like non-binary identities and queerness and gender performance and gender fluidity from linguistics. I can point to the exact book in which I first found it, and it was a sort of star to steer by.

I try to remember that sometimes, I’m teaching my students’ future selves. Perhaps my class is filled with the opposite of ghosts, shifting glimmers of lives that could be lived. I’m lucky enough to teach in areas that often explicitly involve identity, and I often wonder what seeds I nourish and what lives my students might be leading in ten or twenty or forty years time.

Some of my students may not be queer or trans or disabled now – but who knows what will happen in the future? I would not want to be the lecturer who contributes to these students’ anticipation of hostility. Instead, I imagine spaces without fear; spaces in which students with diverse backgrounds and experiences are not continuously preparing to flinch; spaces that speak to the uncertain and scared and oppressed.

Ultimately, I am interested in creating and expanding spaces. I don’t shy away from tough issues – my research has examined police brutality, nuclear weapons and violent transphobia – and I expect my students to be able to engage with difficult issues too. I just don’t see the point of shutting out students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and instead aim to create spaces where these students can fully contribute.

Stylistics and grief

[content note: death, especially of loved ones. Descriptions of guts, blood and assorted viscera)

Last term I was teaching a literary linguistics module. Literary linguistics, or Stylistics, basically uses concepts and frameworks drawn from linguistics – so stuff about everything from phonology (sounds) to grammar to lexicology to pragmatics – to make sense of (usually, but not always) literary texts. I went to the Dark Side of linguistics pretty early in my undergraduate career because I adored nerding out over language being used to do stuff and create relationships and manipulate people and summon ideas into being. However, I’ve been an avid reader since I was a small child – I once fell down an entire flight of stairs in an ill-fated attempt to combine reading and walking, and was more cross at losing my place than worried about the potential for injury – and it’s rare that I don’t have at least one book on the go. Stylistics is appealing because it’s very text and evidence based, and ultimately I was on the Dark Side of empiricism before I even got to university.

Teaching Stylistics was also a superb opportunity to immerse myself in something new. Both my PhD supervisor and partner work with corpus approaches to literary texts so I’ve come across a lot of it by osmosis even if I don’t research it myself. It was also a joy to learn alongside my very engaged and interested students. One session introduced students to cloze procedure texts which are basically a way of testing people’s mental associations of words – their internal sense of what words go with which. We might consider these their lexical primings or their internal sense of collocations, and for that reason I like contrasting this approach with corpus linguistics.

One of the poems we used was an extract of W H Auden’s ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ with the following gaps:

He ________ in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the ________ almost deserted.
And snow _________ the public statues;
The _______ sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What _______ we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The _______ ran on through evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the ________quays;
By mourning tongues
The _______ of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and ________;
The provinces of his mind revolted,
The ______ of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the _______,
The current of his feeling failed; he _______ his admirers.

Now he is _______ among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of _______
And be punished under a foreign code of ________.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the _____ of the living

This was a multiple choice cloze procedure text so they had four word options for each slot, they spent some time choosing which word they thought fit best into the gaps, then I showed them the whole poem and we discussed it.

Their choices included things like “An afternoon of nurses and doctors“, “a foreign code of conduct” and “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. They were quite surprised when I showed them the actual poem and the weird, unexpected things it does with words.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) suggests that nurses and should occur with words like doctors, physicians, midwives, patients, orderlies, pharmacists and therapists – people working in medicine or who we may expect to see in a hospital or GP surgery. There are also a few occurrences of other professions, such as teachers and engineers. My students clearly had an internal sense of this collocation and their choice reflected their expectations. However, the poem doesn’t give us what we expect. “An afternoon of nurses and rumours” juxtaposes the concrete noun “nurses” with the abstract noun “rumours”. Reading it is a bit of a jolt, a bit of wrongness.

Again, the “guts of the living” doesn’t give us what we’d expect. The poem is contemplating the afterlife of the poet and where his words live on. We would probably expect this gap to say something about existence beyond the body; perhaps, as my students predicted, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. We expect the missing word to reflect the language of something metaphysical and elevated. Instead, the poem gives us this very earthy noun guts, derived from the Anglo-Saxon guttas.

Gut can be used both metaphorically and literally. Its metaphorical uses describe emotions, particularly bravery and intuition: “they had the guts to put up a sign”, “We just followed our guts” or “he had the nerve and guts and discipline”. When it’s used literally, it’s used to describe a really immediate physicality of intestines and viscera: “The fly and the smell of guts and urine made me want to puke”, “Its guts had been pulled out and strewn across the dirt, no longer wet and glistening”, “these bacteria thrive (or don’t) in our guts” (again, all examples are taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The rest of the poem doesn’t really talk about the actual process of death but instead slightly dodges it; it’s in this line that we are confronted with bodies and physicality and vulnerability.

I think there’s a tension in this poem between our expectations of what to think and feel and say in the event of death, and the sense of bewilderment and confusion and being wrong-footed. We know what we ought to be able to expect: nurses and doctors, codes of conduct, souls. We may try to find solace in that ritual. And yet we feel loss and lost: the rules and knowledge we could predict are no longer there. Someone dear to us is no longer there. The words we expect to come do not come, and something strange and unfamiliar and disconcerting are in their place.

haunting texts

Winchester cathedral graffiti from 1632

Graffiti from 1632 carved into a pillar of Winchester cathedral

Last semester I was teaching a History of English module. With little in the way of previous teaching materials, I had considerable scope to develop my own – and woah, did I have fun with that.

I grew up in a medieval city, its Anglo-Saxon quarters still somewhat in evidence and traces of its inhabitants and their trades and their prejudices echoed still in the street names. The city itself is a palimpsest, post-war layered on Victorian layered on Georgian layered on Tudor layered on medieval layered on Anglo-Saxon and, crouching in alcoves, the city’s old Roman walls. It’s impossible to live there and not let that somehow soak into your bones, just a quiet awareness that your life is one breath against the city’s dreaming stones.

And yet, all of this history is just part of your life. When you grow up playing on castle ruins (destroyed in the English Civil War and never rebuilt) and running around a medieval great hall and there are Roman coins on a table in your primary school because they were dug up in someone’s dad’s field, and you spend your teenage years perched on tombs and ruining tourists’ photos by sprawling messily on the market cross, it’s impossible to be too reverent about the history that surrounds you. As a child, I was enchanted by illuminated manuscripts – and also by the graffiti carved into the cathedral stones. History is real people, real lives – not just stuff to distantly admire.

I hope that this came across in my teaching as I offered them historical context along with linguistics, information about Anglo-Saxon farming methods taught alongside the case system. I wanted them to understand where these texts came from – the fact that manuscripts were heavily used, the physicality of operating a heavy printing press.

Freshly printed Caxton

Freshly printed Caxton

Happily, the university has a massive school of art and one of their specialities is various forms of printing, so off we went to operate a letterpress. Our guide to the process, Naomi Midgley, showed us around the typecase, how to set up a composing stick and had prepared a forme of a text for us to print. Because I couldn’t resist trolling my students a little bit, I chose a extract of Caxton. Then we got to place the forme in the press, ink it, carefully place a sheet of paper over it, place the tympan and frisket over it, roll the coffin into place, pull the bar towards us to lower the platen then push it to raise it, then roll the coffin back out, lift the tympan and frisket and finally lift the sheet of paper to view the new print. It was an important insight into the physical nature of producing a print and what can go wrong as our inexpert hands applied too much ink, not enough ink, applied too much pressre from the platen, not enough pressure, nudged the paper as we lifted it off and smudged the wet ink. It was one thing to read about the process of producing a printed text; quite another to actually do the labour myself. If I could, I would love to apprentice myself to a printer, to learn how to reach into the the typecase without having to look, to assemble formes, to allow the process of operating a press mark my body with ink and callouses and changed musculature.

As a corpus linguist, one of the things I struggle with is the way that materiality is both present and absent in the texts I use. I use large collections of machine-readable texts, stored on my computer or a server and manipulated using a computer program. I don’t go into archives, rarely physically come into contact with my texts. However, they are scanned using Optical Character Recognition and through this, the early twentieth century newspaper texts I use with constantly remind me of their physicality.

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

In these texts, flecks of dirt or ink, smudges, imperfections in the paper and so on are interpreted as salient by the OCR program: spots of dirt or ink become full stops or commas or dashes or part of a colon or semi-colon, flecks of ink mean that o acquires a tail and becomes a p or q or b or d, smudges turn a c into an o or an e and so on. In corpus linguistics the text is both isolated from the way it was physically produced, yet the method of production haunts the text, is a ghost (or perhaps a poltergeist) in my analysis. I often had to return to images of the newspaper text to interpret my concordance lines or manually correct texts for detailed analysis.

I don’t have an easy answer or, indeed, a conclusion. Perhaps all I can do is suggest what I had to do so many times when the smudges and blobs became too much: return to the text with human senses.

Publication Day!

Me with my author copies

Me with my author copies

I am beyond delighted to announce that Representation of the British Suffrage Movement is now available from Bloomsbury Academic. A preview of the book is available through Google Books if you’re interested in reading it.

It’s the culmination of many years of hard work, yelling/swearing at my data, yelling/swearing at my computer, being a constant trial to my loved ones and possibly a plantation’s worth of tea, but it’s finally here! It seems a very long time ago that I drafted a thesis proposal with a sleeping puppy on my lap; indeed, the puppy in question is now eight years old. I don’t think I could have imagined where that thesis proposal would take me. Researching the thesis and then turning it into a book has been an adventure, truly expanding my intellectual horizons, challenging my ideas and assumptions (and patience), and bringing me into contact with some of the smartest and most generous people I could have hoped to meet.

I recieved my author copies a couple of weeks ago. They are incredibly handsome and some have already found new homes with some of the people who have supported and inspired me the most: my parents, my sister and my partner.

So if the suffrage movement, women’s history, politics, protest, corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, newspaper representation, gender and/or direct action sounds interesting, do have a look at the preview. I would love to know what you think of it!

five thoughts (plus one) on same sex marriage

This has been brewing for a while now, but with recent same sex marriage victories in the US and the Republic of Ireland, I think I want to jot down some of these thoughts.

1.
Honestly, I am probably not the best person to talk about getting married. As a child I couldn’t even feign interest in my primary school classmates’ breaktime ceremonies held in the playground. As a teenager, one of my favourite rants was about marriage being an institution of patriarchal oppression trading women’s bodies among men for economic and social gain. Emotional and physical abuse, rape, forced reproduction and murder all happen within marriage. Marriage doesn’t guarantee love and security.

I think LBGTQ critics of the institution of marriage are right to be ambivalent about its heavy history. I worry that same sex marriage buys into the more problematic aspects of marriage in a capitalist society. Now we, too, can have an eye-wateringly expensive wedding and have articles about our spending power written about us! Hooray! Brands, including Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks, Budweiser and Coca-Cola promptly tweeted rainbow images. It feels like a carefully managed publicity stunt; do brands really care about human rights, or is this a ploy to make them seem a bit more human and appeal to us (and our money)? It seems to be a similar issue to corporate presences at Pride marches. HowUpsetting observes that “being seen to be ‘LGBT-friendly’ attracts a progressive sheen which is viewed as separate from the social activities your corporation or government may engage in; indeed, it can serve to largely obscure these for certain audiences”.

2.
I think there’s a temptation for queer activists to see their relationships as inherently radical. If the relationship escalator ending in State-recognised marriage and children is not open to us, how else do we conduct, recognise and honour our relationships? Dean Spade writes on how “interrogating the limits of monogamy fits into […] queer, trans, feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression politics” by examining relationships, capitalism, and the romance myth’s connections with scarcity. Such queer critiques view marriage as assimilationist and inherently conservative.

However, Yasmin Nair rightly points out that sex – queer sex, poly sex, BDSM sex – is not inherently radical. Instead she argues that “the revolution will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm had with your seven partners on the floor of your communal living space. It will only happen if you have an actual plan for destroying systems of oppression and exploitation”. She urges us to “think and agitate collectively around how sex is deployed against the most vulnerable bodies” such as those in prison and sex workers. And she concludes that “Your sex is not radical. Your politics can and should be. Consider the difference, and act upon it”.

3.
Amongst the celebrations, it is impossible to not notice that some parts of our community get less attention than others. There’s a particular poignancy to seeing photos and hearing stories of devoted elderly LGBT couples – this seems to be the only time when we do see them, and hear their stories of determination and resilience. Elderly LGBT people face erasure at best and abuse at worst in care homes, may have been ostracised by their family, and may live with the physical and emotional legacy of violent repression and the AIDS crisis.

Same sex marriage often gets referred to as “gay marriage”. This renders invisible the lesbians who do not identify as gay, bisexual people in same sex relationships, and transgender people (including non-binary people) in relationships that are same sex only in terms of legal documents. Each of these groups face different – often complicated and damaging – issues to the white cis gay men that are so often the face of same sex marriage campaigns and celebrations.

4.
It’s essential that people pay attention to the nuts and bolts of legislation and are prepared to critique it. The UK Marriage (Same Sex) Act 2013 introduced some especially transphobic legislation, as well as further codifying binary genders in law. There are alternatives – Canada, for example, defines marriage for civil purposes as the “lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”. It’s my hope that any same sex marriage bill passed in the US doesn’t further marginalise people, especially transgender people (including non-binary people) and bisexual people. It’s critical that LGBTQ activists examine – and challenge if necessary – the specifics of any legislation instead of simply accepting whatever’s offered.

5.
This is only the beginning. It varies by state, but many LGBT people in the US are not federally offered protection in terms of employment, recognition of hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, discrimination in schools and discrimination in housing programmes. LGBQ people who are also women, of colour, disabled, of faith, immigrants, elders and/or transgender often face intersecting issues that same sex marriage cannot fix. Trans lives and trans rights cannot be forgotten. Since January, ten trans women have been murdered in the US. Others will take their own lives. Others will be denied vital healthcare. LGBTQ undocumented migrants will be detained, deported and die. LGBTQ people in poverty will suffer. Young LGBTQ people will be made homeless. For a lot of people, being able to marry their same-sex partner won’t change a lot.

+1.
However, and despite all my misgivings, I am pleased that the US Supreme Court have made this decision – the alternative would have been worse. Legal recognition of relationships is essential for so many things: immigration purposes, healthcare, rights as next of kin, parental rights, pensions and other survivor benefits. As someone in a long-term relationship with an American, I am pleased that we could marry, move there and that I would be recognised as her partner for immigration purposes – just as she would be recognised as mine in the UK.

I have heard of too many people whose partners were denied space at their hospital bedsides, too many trans people whose partners were shoved aside and who were buried with a dead name on their gravestone. Ideally, these dignities wouldn’t be contingent on marriage, but until that fight is won, I suppose this is the legal framework we have to work with. Let’s see this as a beginning, not the end point, and fight for human rights and human dignity to be afforded to all LGBTQ people.

why I won’t tweet my students’ exam howlers

Another summer marking season, another article in Times Higher Education soliciting student “exam howlers”. This is predictable and wearying and I can’t help but feel that we keep having this exact same conversation about why it’s bad to publicly mock and shame our students. Kirsty Rolfe wrote about talking teaching and making mistakes and I wrote about being someone’s worst student a couple of years ago, but apparently it bears repeating.

There was one respect alone in which Philip was recognized as a man of distinction, though only within the confines of his own Department. He was a superlative examiner of undergraduates: scrupulous, painstaking, stern yet just. No one could award a delicate mark like B+/B+?+ with such confident aim, or justify it with such cogency and conviction.

David Lodge, Changing Places: a tale of two campuses

Like Philip, I try to mark carefully and, being a perfectionist, probably spend far too much time thinking about whether a piece of work should be awarded a 62 or a 64 (let alone a 68 or a 70). Marking can be a joyless task but there’s only one paper that I’ve genuinely been annoyed at marking – one in which the student, in some kind of act of teenage bravado-slash-poor judgement, declared that he wrote the whole thing while hungover and didn’t care. After a week of solid marking, I have to confess that I, in turn, found it difficult to care about this student’s work. But that was a very rare case.

Most of the “exam howlers” seem to be inexpert attempts to apply frameworks and terminology, and while frustrating to see, it’s not something I think should be publicly mocked. I don’t think I have it in me to fault someone for trying – I try to only get irritated when someone truly doesn’t try. And it’s not like the people marking student work have never dropped a stinker themselves. I’ve really liked the #myownexamhowlers hashtag on twitter (storify here).

I don’t remember any specific exam howlers I made – I think I’ve blanked out the entire experience of exams with some degree of success – but a tutor did note that an essay took “a curiously scattergun approach”. I consistently left sweary, abusive messages (e.g. [LOOK UP THE FUCKING DEFINITION YOU FUCKING IDIOT]) to myself in draft chapters I sent to my supervisor (pro tip: use unusual punctuation marks around these to make it easier to use ctrl+f to locate and delete them later). Finally, when I was printing my ~350 page thesis, I dropped the entire thing, hurriedly tried to shove the papers in the right order, failed miserably, and duly presented one of my examiners with a thesis containing a wodge of pages in the wrong order. A true case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Talking about our own exam (and otherwise) howlers opens up a far more interesting conversation. I don’t want to be an unassailable figure of perfection for my students, doing something they can never hope to aspire to. Instead I want to say that I, too, find some things difficult, have fumbled around trying to use the right terminology, have clumsily applied a framework or model, have missed something glaringly obvious. These days I have the luxury of sending my work to knowledgeable colleagues and friends, and my work will be peer-reviewed before publication. Students, especially those working under closed book exam conditions, don’t have that option.

So let’s think a bit more kindly of our students. How many of us working under those conditions, grappling with complex, unfamiliar terminology and ideas that we’d perhaps encountered for the first time only weeks ago, panicky and underslept and stressed, would turn out polished, publishable work? We’ve had years – decades – to hone our academic thinking and writing. They haven’t. If we can’t be kinder, let us at least be more discreet in our unkindness.

Activist academia, academic activism

This is my contribution to a roundtable discussion on trans and non-binary activism at Sexual Cultures 2: Activism meets academia. My co-panellists were Ruth Pearce, Jade Fernandez and Dr Jay Stewart and the facilitator was Dr Meg John Barker.

____

Today I’m basically going to argue that academia and activism inform and enrich each other. There are commonalities between the two: both engage with the world around us, both describe it and seek to understand it. Both ask – and respond – to difficult questions. However, there are also differences: activism explicitly seeks change whereas not all academic work does so. Activism can also take many different forms, and there are different barriers to enter it[1].

Both my academic research and activism are interested in people – how they form the identities they have, how they communicate these and make them legible, how they understand themselves, how they challenge the societies they live in.

My academic work has focused on the newspaper representation of the suffrage movement and, more recently, how trans people are represented in the media. Representation is crucial to changing perceptions of minority and/or disadvantaged groups – it is how people who may never meet us and interact with us learn about us. As my research on the suffrage movement shows, mainstream media representation can over simplify complex issues and debates, conflate identities, and focus on things like property damage to the exclusion of decades of non-violent direct action – all of these are pretty damaging to already disadvantaged groups. We can see this focus on accurate media representation in trans activism through projects like Trans Media Watch and All About Trans. I’ve also found myself contributing to discussions on Black and Minority Ethnic LGBTQ elders and have had difficult experiences at conferences when my intersectional identity means I am seen as the subject of someone else’s research rather than a researcher in my own right.

Academic work allows us to gather, interpret and analyse data. In my field of corpus linguistics, we talk a lot about rigour – can these results be replicated? are they statistically valid? how can I be sure that the things I find are actually there and not simply a case of overextrapolation? These things are necessary to talk about in activism too – how do I know there is a problem? is it systematic? who does it affect? how does it affect them? This is especially important in a context of funding cuts and pressure on services. I’m sure that I am not the only person to have been asked whether there is a demonstrated need for services that support trans, and especially nonbinary, people. There’s a vicious cycle at work where we don’t know exactly how many trans people or nonbinary people there are because surveys rarely ask the right questions to get decent answers, so it’s hard to get changes made that will help us and increase our visibility, so it’s harder for trans and nonbinary people to make their identities clear and be counted.

Nat Titman notes that “Reliable figures show that at least 0.4% of the UK population defines as nonbinary when given a 3-way choice in terms of female, male or another description” before going on to observe that “If gender is asked in terms of frequency of feeling like a man, a women, both or neither then there is evidence that more than a third of everyone may experience gender in a way that defies binary categories”. Nat argues that “If you wish to measure the numbers of people who don’t fit within binary classifications of female/male or man/woman then your choice of question will have a huge effect on the results […] Asking for ‘Other’ in the context of ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ is likely to reduce the number of people identifying outside of the binary to the lowest possible figure, those who feel strongly enough to reject classification with binary ‘sex’ as well as the man/woman binary”.

As Nat makes clear, there is a need for more research in this area – and designing the kind of surveys that can be sensitive to this kind of information is something that academics and activists can work on together.

On a more personal note, my undergraduate essays were possibly an extremely awkward and nerdy coming out process. My first introduction to gender as more complicated than a binary and ideas about gender as a repertoire of behaviours didn’t come from message boards, IRC channels or people I knew, but from an edited collection of linguistic articles. The first time I used gender neutral pronouns was in an essay analysing the linguistic interaction between my student radio co-presenter and me. These concepts blew my mind and started giving me words to describe myself and my experiences. Academia, perhaps weirdly, helped me find my way into activism.

I also believe that activism can enhance academic work. As I’ve alluded to previously, activism can help us ask questions – without the efforts of nonbinary activists like Nat, we wouldn’t have nearly as good an idea about how many nonbinary people there are in the UK and wouldn’t be so aware of the urgent need for more rigorous research in this area.

Some of the academic work I most respect has been from academics bringing their lived experiences and their own activism into their research. As an MA student, one of my formative books was Paul Baker’s Public Discourses of Gay Men. As corpus linguists, Paul and I examine large amounts of text to find patterns in them. These patterns don’t have to be grammatical, but can reflect cultural ideas – and to recognise that they’re present in the first place, let alone analyse them, you have to be familiar with the culture that produced the text. What so struck me about Paul’s work was the way he uses his experience as a gay man to research from within. He does not shed his identity as a gay man in order to pursue an impossible notion of objectivity – instead, it is his very subjectivity that makes it such an illuminating piece of work.

Finally, I believe that activism can help us become more compassionate academics – more open and aware of others’ experiences, more ready to accept others’ realities. Patricia O’Connor argues this when she says “Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus”

I wrote a chunk of my PhD in a university occupation. As an activist, I think I offer a much greater understanding of the frustration when peaceful direct action – petitions, meetings, lobbying – doesn’t get you anywhere. The women I studied for my PhD had campaigned peacefully for over 30 years before developing militant tactics! I got a better sense of the courage it took to take part in protests when it might lead to violence against you. I hope that this is reflected in my writing. It’s easy to judge people or campaigns for not making the same decisions as you would, but my activist experience highlighted what a difficult context suffrage campaigners worked in and the sometimes impossible decisions we have to make.

I’m still developing my new project on trans media representation, but I aim to be the kind of researcher Patricia talks about – connected to the community and using what I find for its good. I want my work to stand up to scrutiny from both activists and academic researchers. As I hope I’ve shown, I believe academia and activism can combine to create something better than their parts.

[1] I expanded on this in the discussion: there are huge barriers to activism in the form of finances, access to transport, access to childcare, education, dis/ability, having an already marginalised identity and more – I’d love to discuss this further in the comments.

References:

Baker, P. (2005). Public Discourses of Gay Men. London: Routledge.
O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan
Titman, N. (2014, 16 December). “How many people in the United Kingdom are nonbinary?”. Retrieved from http://practicalandrogyny.com/2014/12/16/how-many-people-in-the-uk-are-nonbinary/

Where are our elders?

[content warning: discussion of homo-, bi- and transphobia, racism, domestic abuse and suicide. I’ve tried to keep these fairly non-explicit; the reports I link to go into more detail]

This is a write up of a short talk I gave at the final conference of the ESRC seminar series ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps: older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans lives’. The organising team and I have been having an involved discussion since my first post and they were kind enough to invite me to speak as part of the summaries of previous events.

In this talk I discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, Black and minority ethnic (BME) identities and ageing identities. I ask what it means to live at the centre of these overlapping identities and look at how we can extrapolate some issues from what we know about overlaps of age and LGBTQ identities, age and BME identities, and LGBTQ and BME identities. However, this is by no means a perfect solution because it misses that complex intersections bring their own unique issues – there is effectively a known unknown about the experiences of older LGBTQ people from BME backgrounds, and I want to highlight that.

Intersectionality

Very basically, intersectionality is the concept that we have multiple identities and that these identities overlap and inform each other.

age, BME and LGBTQ venn diagram

Here’s a diagram to show these intersections a bit more clearly.There are three coloured circles: a blue circle representing people’s LGBTQ identities, a red circle representing people’s identities as older people and elders, and a yellow circle representing people’s BME identities.

Overlaps of age, LGBTQ and BME identities

When these identities overlap, they create something new. The purple overlap shows the interaction of ageing and LGBTQ identities, the green overlap shows the interaction of LGBTQ and BME identities and the orange overlap shows the interaction of ageing and BME identities. At the very centre is a space where all three factors interact: age, LGBTQ and BME.

We don’t know much about the people who occupy this really complex space. Roshan das Nair talks about “levels and layers of invisibility” and of each factor – age, sexuality and race – all contributing to invisibility. However, intersections change the experience of “being” – of accessing care, of forming relationships with other people, of moving through and understanding (and being understood by) the world. As this seminar series has strikingly shown, being an older LGBTQ person is not the same as being an older heterosexual and cisgender person. And being an older LGBT person from a BME background is not the same as being an older LGBT person from a white background

LGBTQ and BME

While there is a paucity of information on the unique issues faced by older LGBTQ BME people, there is research on ageing LGBTQ people as showcased in this seminar series, on BME LGBTQ people, and on ageing BME people.

Two current projects highlight some of the issues for people who are both BME and from sexual and gender minorities. A Public Health England report on the health and wellbeing of BME men who have sex with men highlighted that:

  • Black men who have sex with men are 15 times more likely to have HIV than general population
  • a third of Asian men and mixed ethnicity men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 compared to one in five of white gay and bisexual men
  • significantly higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental illness

A recent focus group held by the Race Equality Foundation on the experience of being black and minority ethnic and trans* highlighted that people experienced:

  • religious communities overlapped with ethnic communities, and losing one often meant losing the other
  • racism in LGBT communities and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in ethnic communities
  • cultural assumptions and racism when accessing healthcare

The last point had particular repercussions for Black and minority ethnic trans people seeking to access hormonal and/or surgical interventions for gender dysphoria through Gender Identity Clinics (GICs). Respondents to the Trans Mental Health Survey often found it difficult to access treatment through GICs, with one respondent describing it as “a paternalistic gatekeeping exercise where psychiatrists exercise inappropriate levels of control over the lives and choices of patients”. Another described clinics as having “very rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity”. This affects Black and minority ethnic people if genders in their culture do not map onto gendered expectations in white UK culture. BME trans people also encountered assumptions about family (for example, what does “being out to your family” look like if you have a huge extended family or if “kinship” doesn’t neatly map onto “family”?), assumptions about transphobia in their families, and poor understanding of non-binary genders.

Age and BME

Research on older BME people tended to show that people were affected by health issues occurring at different times (e.g. diabetes and high blood pressure). Black and minority ethnic people may have complex issues around mental health and accessing services. Some communities may stigmatise mental health issues. African and Caribbean men are “under-represented as users of enabling services and over-represented in the population of patients who are admitted to, compulsorily detained in, and treated by mental health services”. As this report on older South Asian communities in Bradford discusses, how families live together is changing. However, there is still an expectation that the extended family will care for elders; this role often falls to younger women in the family. This study also reported that South Asian communities often found accessing care difficult for a huge range of reasons – cultural differences, a lack of cultural competency in service provision, language difficulties, attitudes of staff, differing expectations by both service users and service providers, location of services, gender roles within the family and the role of different children and siblings.

It is also important to recognise the diversity of BME experiences. There are some BME communities that have been settled in the UK for decades, if not centuries. There are South Asian people who migrated to the UK as young adults in the 1970s and who are now reaching retirement age. There are older people who accompanied their family members. There are more recent immigrants. There are people who live with the trauma of fleeing their home and seeking asylum. The term “Black and ethnic minority” itself covers a huge range of people from all over the world, all with different experiences.

Extrapolations

As I wrote earlier, there are going to be known unknowns – without talking to people, we cannot know about the unique, unexpected issues created when identities intersect. However, I think that the research on LGBTQ and BME communities, the research on older LGBTQ people, and the research on older BME people can hint at some issues.

Older LGBTQ people report different kinship structures, the existence of chosen families and possible lack of children. I wonder how this works for older BME LGBTQ people whose cultures may strongly support care of elders within the extended family (and who dislike the idea of care homes or care workers coming into their homes) but who may be estranged from their family and don’t have children.

I can imagine that there are really complex issues around mental health in communities that are more likely to experience mental health issues but who may also have negative experiences of accessing services or who may feel shame about doing so.

Older BME LGBTQ people may have complex histories of violence. As Public Health England reports, gay and bisexual men from BME backgrounds are more like to have experienced domestic abuse. Other BME LGBTQ people may have sought asylum due to violence in their home countries. What might their care needs be?

I wonder about older BME LGBTQ people continuing to face racism in LGBTQ spaces and homo-, bi- and transphobia in BME spaces as they age and these spaces change. This seminar series has discussed older LGBTQ people’s fears about prejudice in care homes; older BME LGBTQ people in care homes may fear a double whammy of prejudice.

Where are our elders?

I argue that there is an absence of older, LGBTQ BME voices in research about older LGBTQ people’s experiences. As researchers, we don’t know much about the issues faced by those in this intersection – as I’ve shown above, we can guess some of them. However, the nature of intersectionality means that there are some issues that will be unique to this group and that we cannot predict.

This is not to say that older BME LGBTQ people do not exist – rather, that we have to do better at reaching out to these communities. I suspect that research into the experiences of older BME LGBTQ people has to be carried out by people from BME LGBTQ backgrounds. My experience of younger BME LGBTQ spaces is that community members are fiercely protective of the tiny spaces they are able to carve out for themselves and they do not want to be observed as a “learning experience” for White straight cis people. It is crucial to recognise that, and crucial to be able to respect how rare and precious these spaces are.

This absence of visible older, LGBTQ BME voices also has implications for younger BME LGBTQ people. Out of the many trans people I know, I can only think of three who are BME and over the age of 40. 40 should not be considered old – and yet. A US study reveals that the attempted suicide rate for multiracial transgender people is 33 times higher than for the general population. Andre Lorde’s litany, “we were never meant to survive”, has a heartbreaking resonance.

As a younger Asian queer person, I want to meet my elders. I want to know that it’s possible to be an older BME LGBTQ person. I want to be able to see some of the possibilities, to see that there are people living lives that are true to their identities. I want to listen to their rich histories and hard-won wisdom. I want to know that we can survive.

Our elders are so important, and their lack of visibility is so sorely felt.