Queer-positive teaching

Me painting a placard

Photo by Laura Dunn

Last Thursday was IDAHO/IDAHoT/IDAHoBiT – International Day Against Homophobia. IDAHO started as a day to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; it is now a campaign calling for the international decriminalisation of homosexuality and to combat homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (hence the different acronyms). I spent the day with Warwick Pride, first on the panel for a Trans* Q+A and then listening to speakers from Movement for Justice.

Meanwhile, Helen Finch was discussing how we, as academics and tutors, can “foster a queer-positive environment at work” and in research. I’m a tutor – but I’ve also been a Trans* Welfare Officer, am involved with LGBT activism, been involved with LGBT student groups and the NUS LGBT campaign and yes, almost ten years ago, was that rather anxious student feeling very invisible and very alone.

As Paul Baker observes, LGBTQA students face additional pressures at university and are at increased risk of dropping out. As someone who’s been involved in LGBT student welfare from within the student union and has responded to more than a few concerns about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in teaching environments, I was determined to bring this awareness to my teaching. I’ve written about a few key points that I find helpful to remember.

– Assume nothing. Never assume that everyone in your seminar room, lecture hall or lab is straight, cisgendered, or, for want of a better term, sexual. It’s easy to assume you aren’t teaching any LGBTQA students just because they don’t conform to what you expect an LGBTQA student to look like, but I assure you, they are there. LGBTQA students have families and friends, and you might be teaching them too.

– Avoid heteronormativity. Heteronormativity aligns biological sex (itself a problematic concept), sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles into one rather messy whole. It’s a constant and pervasive thing – you probably encounter it every day in advertising, in magazines and newspapers, on the TV and even in things like dress codes and casual conversation with strangers. Heteronormativity isn’t just harmful to LGBTQA people; Meg Barker wrote about it in a blog post and outlines the damage it causes to people inside and outside it. If you can, challenge these norms – but at the very least, don’t support them.
Things you can do include not assuming that all your female students are interested in male partners and all your male students are interested in female partners. Things like jokey comments along the lines of “typical man”, “that’s something a woman would say” or heteronormative assumptions about women all liking shoes and men all liking sports seem harmless, but can be alienating for students who don’t conform to those ideas. If possible, (gently) challenge these if they come from your students. If your examples involve people and relationships, don’t base them all around heterosexuality. I was checking a book (Paul Baker and Sibonile Ellece’s Key Terms in Discourse Analysis) for a definition and saw that the example was “Carol kissed Mary”. The concept it was illustrating – that of semantic role – could just as easily been illustrated by “Dan kissed Mary”. But if “Dan kissed Mary” is acceptable, why shouldn’t “Carol kissed Mary” be acceptable? It’s a small thing, but seeing their identity and relationships reflected in teaching material can be really important for LGBTQA students.

– Avoid cisnormativity – the assumption that everyone’s gender identity corresponds to that which they were assigned at birth, or, indeed, which is on their university records. As one of my many jobs, I work as an IELTS invigilator. Exam candidates have to shade in a box for whether they are male or female, and one of the invigilators I work with used to comment, every time, that “this should be the easiest question of the day” for them. For some people, it’s not an easy question – they may not be out as trans, they may not be able to change their legal gender, or, in the case of non-binary gendered, genderqueer and agendered people, there may not be a legal gender for them to change to. While the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) have revised the way gender will be recorded in their new gender and sex categories for student records within Higher Education, it’s still important to remember that students may ask you to call them by a different name or use different pronouns than those in their student records. To me, it also means bringing an awareness of the fluidity and diversity of gender to my teaching and so acknowledging that these are complicated things.

– Acknowledge queer scholarship – probably one more relevant for arts, humanities and social sciences although I’d love to hear if/how scientists, mathematicians, engineers and others do this. Helen suggested “contextualis[ing] sexuality and gender as discursively formed and historically understood” in literature studies; there’s some interesting discussions in bioarchaeology about “gay” cavemen; there are debates in history about whether various historical figures were gay (and what we mean by “gay”), such as Christabel Pankhurst. One of the seminars I taught this term was on language and gender, and I tried to lead my students from thinking about “women’s language” to thinking about where men and women learn language, then to looking at short extracts from anonymised conversations and guessing what genders the speakers were, then to thinking about the way power was enacted and negotiated in these exchanges and how this affected what gender the speakers were read as. In my case, there’s a rich vein of queer linguistics that informed my teaching and judging from the conversations during the seminar, the students seemed to find it an exciting and challenging way to think about gender.

There’s lots of other issues involved in this; one of the things Helen touched on was whether to out yourself when teaching. In my case, my decision to go to a couple of student LGBT events – I’m still a research student after all – meant that if any of my students were there, they would have seen me. I made a deliberate decision not to go to any drinking student LGBT events, partly because I don’t have time for hangovers but also because I want my students to have fun, do some silly and/or inadvisable things if they so desire, and enjoy their first year at university without worrying about being seen by their tutor. I’d probably feel a bit conflicted if I saw one of them get kicked out of the NG1 toilets or something!

I’m still pretty new at teaching though, so if you’ve got any advice or comments I’d be really interested in hearing them.

Trans media representation

Perhaps unexpectedly, My Transsexual Summer has focused some of my thoughts about representation, power and self-representation.

There are well-worn tropes in trans documentaries – so well-worn that there is more than one drinking game out there, with invitations to drink for things such as “any reference to genital surgery that refers to “becoming a woman” or “finally a woman””, a “close up of dotted lines in magic marker on pale fleshy body parts”, “if anyone uses the phrase “a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or vice versa”, or to just to down the whole bottle for a camera in an operating theatre. This is the kind of representation the trans community is used to.

My Transsexual Summer was greeted with nervous but hopeful anticipation from the trans community. Channel 4 had signed Trans Media Watch’s Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to treat trans issues sensitively and accurately. Trans Media Watch was consulted while making the show. These things are a step forward in ensuring that trans people are not just the subjects of a documentary, but have a say in how they are presented in the programme.

Trans people have also written about the My Transsexual Summer series. Juliet Jacques appraised the show and Paris Lees, who was consulted as part of Trans Media Watch, also wrote about the show. Again, I think this is positive – it’s important that specialist documentaries aren’t just reviewed by non-specialists, but that people who know about the area write about them.

from http://www.thegenderbook.com / @thegenderbook


I don’t want to review the show, but instead want to focus on the representation part.

One of the issues with representation is that it simplifies and silences identities in favour of identities constructed by those in power. This is very relevant for the trans community which encompasses a multitude of genders, both binary and non-binary. These identities can be complex and difficult to understand for people who don’t experience them first hand, and are often poorly understood outside the trans community and gender activists. The illustration (click for a larger image) shows this in a playful way – while there are gender identities that roughly map onto “man” and “woman”, there are different ways of expressing manliness and womanliness. Some people are born in one place and move to another. There are identities that aren’t “man” or “woman” and there are also identities that are fluid and don’t stay in one place. This is a pretty simple explanation but it’s a huge area. I hope you can see how complicated gender identity can get.

There were hints that some of the My Transsexual Summer participants identified or had identified outside the gender binary – that they didn’t identify as totally male or female – but there was little to go on because it simply wasn’t discussed or really raised as a possibility.

Max, one of the participants, writes about his dissatisfaction about how they were portrayed:

Now I am watching the show and I see myself, and Fox reduced to bit parts and supporting roles, I see Karen’s story reduced to her anatomy and I see Donna portrayed as a caricature of her real, intelligent self. I see narratives that focus on boobs, unemployment and surgeries and make up and phallus’ privileged over narratives that deal with achievement, employment, happy families, and diversity of gender, race and belief.

He suggests that this was deliberate – that the complicated bits that didn’t fit a simple narrative were edited out, and instead the documentary focused on the kinds of issues satirised in the drinking games.

There are some complicated issues here about who and what gets presented to a largely non-trans audience as trans, and the relationship of trans people to mainstream media producers. Trans people are effectively in a bind – on one hand it’s important to be in mainstream programmes for several reasons. Mainstream programming reaches audiences who don’t read trans-produced media. It can be a useful resource to direct parents, friends, colleagues and supportive others to. It can be incredibly useful and validating for people only just realising they’re trans to see trans people on TV. In a world where trans stories are often ignored or treated as a freak show, My Transsexual Summer did a lot to humanise the people who appeared in it – it showed people who were trying to make a life for themselves, sometimes in the face of outrageous discrimination. Simply appearing in mainstream media demonstrates that you exist to people who were previously unaware of your presence.

However, on the other hand, there is an unequal power dynamic at work. Trans people are rarely the ones producing, directing or scripting these programmes – on board as consultants, but not the ones who make the decisions about what should and should not be included. Trans narratives and experiences are filtered and mediated by non-trans people – there are probably hundreds of hours of footage filmed for My Transsexual Summer but only four hours were actually shown. As Max suggests, the bits left on the cutting room floor suggest something more complicated but ultimately, that reflected the participants more closely. As Fox notes, “not nearly enough people picked up on the fact that most of the airtime was spent highlighting gender binaries and not exploring the how gender is much more fluid than that”; part of the problem here is that an audience unfamiliar with the trans community wouldn’t know what issues are being avoided or elided. Trans people end up having to make difficult decisions about whether it’s more important to have their experiences presented accurately or whether it’s more important to have a trans voice, albeit a mediated trans voice, visible in mainstream media.

There is resistance to this. Trans people started affectionately mocking the disparity between My Transsexual Summer and their own experiences of the trans community under the twitter hashtag #DIYTransSummer (the @DIYTransSummer account started collecting these). Some of the participants in My Transsexual Summer discussed what wasn’t addressed in the TV programmes more extensively on their blogs, in vlogs and on twitter but the problem there is one of audience numbers: far more people watched My Transsexual Summer than read Max’s blog.

Work to address transphobia and inaccuracies in media coverage of trans people is ongoing. Trans Media Action recently held Trans Camp, a workshop that identified five major issues to work on. Two of these issues specially concern media representation of trans issues; a third concerns “mak[ing] producers of comedy aware of who they are making comedy about”. Trans Media Watch submitted a 31 page document to the Leveson Inquiry arguing that “the highly adverse treatment of transgender and intersex people by parts of the press is a stark and instructive example of what newspapers (often but not exclusively tabloid) will seek to get away with when no effective formal or internal restraints are in place” and offering case studies and detailed recommendations.

As well as challenging the representation of trans people in mainstream media, trans people are also producing their own media. META magazine, a new magazine “for T-people by T-people” has just been launched.

As Juliet Jacques notes, “there’s a sense that the excuses that gatekeepers of mainstream liberal and left-wing spaces have previously used to keep out transgender perspectives — that the issues are too complicated, or that transsexual people somehow undermine feminist or socialist politics — are finally becoming untenable”. I hope this is the case and that trans people can look forward to better media representation but due to the nature of the power dynamic and how it manifests itself, I’m unconvinced it will happen unless trans people are in positions where we have more independence and control over media output. We’re getting there, but it’s a potentially slow process.

BBC: where hyperbole rules and suffragettes aren’t really suffragettes

As a Khasi and as someone who researches the suffrage movement, I was intrigued to see a BBC article titled Meghalaya, India: Where women rule, and men are suffragettes. Unfortunately it’s not a very good article. The photo of the women wearing jainkyrshah is nice though.

Firstly, my criticisms as a Khasi:

Things that it does cover:

  • OH NOES THE POOR MENZ
  • Statements like “As a mother of children by three different Khasi fathers however, she is the first to admit that their societal anomaly has afforded her ample opportunities to be both a mother and a successful career woman” without any kind of background information so it just sounds judgemental by patriarchal Western standards. Well, yes, if you neglect to mention anything about how Khasi marriages are conducted, how Khasi divorces are conducted or how Khasi inheritance works I suppose it does sound a bit weird, but come on BBC, you are based in a country where you celebrate a man who was married six times, had three children by three different women, and killed three two of his wives. That’s weird.

Things that it does not cover:

  • Meghalaya’s ratio of male and female babies born is one of the most equal in India
  • Why matrilineal inheritance was practised and what it implies for tracing ancestry
  • Any sort of detail on how it actually works
  • Any sort of feminist perspective
  • Any awareness that Khasi men aren’t subjected to the same kind of treatment that women experience in other parts of India. It’s not like Khasi boys are aborted, denied access to education, experience poor health, are malnourished, experience domestic violence, or are the victims of ‘honour killings’ because they are boys (link)
  • That there are other tribes that have similar practices such as the Jaintia
  • Any other reasons for alcoholism and drug abuse – for example, poverty

As someone who researches the suffrage movement, I find it a lazy comparison. Is this about the vote? Is this about corverture? Are specifically men working in appalling conditions and have no way to raise their concerns in a political arena? Are specifically men’s health problems routinely ignored? As far as I’m aware, Khasi men aren’t disenfranchised for being men.

However, the suffragette comparison is interesting for a different reason, and that is the history of North-East Indian separatist movements. There is an issue that people in North-East India feel that they lack a political voice because of the area’s geographical isolation and cultural differences – for example, differences between tribal cultures and more mainstream Indian culture. There are underground separatist groups and they do engage in direct action, such as bombs in Assam. I don’t think I’d want to make explicit parallels between the movements, but if I absolutely had to make a dubious, lazy argument I was thoroughly ashamed of, I’d say Khasi men may feel disenfranchised because they are Khasi rather than because they are men.

Anyway, now that’s all out of my system I can get back to marking. Didn’t want my marking to be affected by my grumpiness!

Some blog love

I’ve been ridiculously busy lately (teaching! training! seeing Jen Gupta perform as part of Manchester Science Festival and London Bright Club! linguistics reading group! oh yeah, that thesis thing I’m writing! trying to get my boiler fixed!) so not really had time to think of interesting posts, so here’s a few links to blogs I read:

BAD REPBad Reputation is a collective of writers on a “feminist pop culture adventure”. In the interests of transparency I should declare that they have plied me with cake, but I’d like them anyway because they’re incisive, intelligent and pretty awesome. I particularly like their series of Revolting Women because it contains not one, not two, but THREE posts about the suffrage movement: the Ju-Jutsuffragettes, Dora Thewlis, Teenage Working Class Suffragette and Joan of Arc, Rosie the Riveter, and the Feminist Protest Icon. They also write about films, comics, music and computer games in an interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining way. I actually LOLed at Markgraf’s illustrated review of The Three Musketeers and don’t feel the cinematic experience can begin to compare their final analogy involving pick-and-mix and “an enraged muskrat”.

Robert Lawson is a sociolinguist and brave soul who’s blogged about John Locke’s Duels and Duets in detail – part 1, part 2 and part 3. I’m reading this book for the reading group, mainly because I’m intrigued as to how a book on language and gender manages to cite Deborah Tannen but not Deborah Cameron. In the first chapter Locke cites John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Deborah Tannen’s You just don’t understand, a baffling amount of primate research, and an anecdote from Larry Summers. I almost did the drinking game but I think I’d have to have my stomach pumped. Anyway, you can read Robert’s excellent, informative posts on this book and so avoid reading the primary source. Even if it does mean missing out on the primate research.

Lashings of Ginger BeerLashings of Ginger Beer are a queer feminist burlesque collective who combine “songs, dancing, stand-up and sketches, luxe Victoriana drag with thigh-high fetish-boots, upbeat musical theatre optimism with 21st-century political rage”. Have a couple of videos: Acceptable, skewering Gok Wan, television makeovers, unrealistic gendered beauty ideals and the expense and effort of maintaining this beauty; Dead Girlfriend which comments on TV portrayals of queer relationships and the way the characters involved are punished. The Lashings of Ginger Beer blog posts about events and does link roundups, but also features posts by members of the collective. I was particularly struck by this post examining the different effects of performing with different dancers – it’s a really thoughtful analysis and highlights the experience of the performers.

I was lucky to meet Jennifer Jones when we were both facilitators at Research Practices 2.0. Her reflections on that event are interesting, and have also shaped how she’ll facilitate social media workshops in the future; there are loads of ideas there about questioning the usual classroom hierarchy and enabling a flexible, responsive, collaborative way of learning. Jennifer’s research focuses on the Olympics and offers a much needed critical view on the ideology of the Olympics, which she explored in a recent talk at Tent City Uni. She’s also a very cool lady and it’s a joy to talk to her, whether that be over crappy university coffee, mugs of tea in an occupation or, indeed, over a pint.

Issues in trans language

Earlier this month I, along with two other committee members, spoke to Nottingham Lesbian and Gay Switchboard about the trans social and support group we run. One of the things that came up was the complexity of trans terminology. As someone with some knowledge of the community, as someone who is, in a small way, a trans activist, and as someone with a linguistic background I’m intrigued by the words we use and the way we try to create our stories of flux and change out of these words. Words have immense power in this community; often simply knowing the word for something is an act of empowerment, a realisation that there are others like you and there is a place for you in the world. Words can summon identities into being; words can make manifest inchoate feelings of difference and not fitting in. Words are brilliant.

However, I’ve not read a great deal on linguistics and trans issues. I have an interest in language and gender but all too often I find there’s a disconnect between the linguistic research and what I know as an activist. For example, while reading Benwell and Stokoe’s 2006 Discourse and Identity I came across the following:

The speakers are all ‘women’. They are relatively ‘young’, though not ‘teenagers’. They are ‘white’. The presenters’ accents sound ‘upper middle class’. Jane sounds ‘educated’ and ‘middle class’. We presume they are all ‘English’, and we know Jane is ‘heterosexual’ – she has a male partner.

While Benwell and Stokoe do go on to note that “[e]ach of these categories can be further unpacked”, they don’t make any comment about the fairly major assumption they make about Jane’s sexuality. In the activist communities I belong to, someone assuming that a person is heterosexual just because they have a male partner would immediately be questioned about the basis of their assumption. Jane’s last partner could have been a woman. Jane might identify as queer for political reasons. Jane might be polyamorous and have partners of different genders, Jane might be married to a man and monogamous but also attracted to women. As an academic, I have to admit that coming across this assumption in the book’s introduction made me wonder what other assumptions about identity were being made in the book – how far can I trust their analyses of identity if they can make such a basic assumption?

As someone who uses critical discourse analysis in their research, identifying the context of language use is important to understanding it. There are some issues informing the way trans identities are conceptualised within the trans community – the background knowledge and understanding that makes some words acceptable and some unacceptable or unthinkable.

One of the things that I find most striking is the awareness of queer theory; I’ve had much more interesting and informed discussions about gender and queerness at trans socials than I have at research seminars. However, this awareness of gender binaries, gender fluidity, gender performativity, and the power to reshape, reinterpret and individualise gender inevitably comes into conflict with the idea of having an innate sense of one’s “real” gender. Conceptualising gender and gender identity – where it comes from, how it is formed, whether it is innate or realised through performance – is not a theoretical exercise but has profound implications for trans people. If gender is simply realised through performance, then what about bodies and the desire to change our bodies?

However, gender identity itself is problematic. Some people identify as non-gendered – they do not feel they have a gender identity and framing the discourse in these terms is inaccurate, discriminatory and erases their experience.

There is tension between the trans community and the medical profession. People who seek to change their bodies, either through hormones or surgery, usually have to do this through the medical establishment. While there are ways to acquire hormones without medical supervision, this has risks and, at least in my experience, is not recommended (although obviously this differs according to access to appropriate medical care etc). The medical profession, therefore, also act as gatekeepers and control access to care – in the UK, an individual seeking hormones or surgery on the NHS has to go through a Gender Identity Clinic where a panel decides whether they’re suitable for treatment. Not everyone is deemed suitable, and people identifying as genderqueer or non-binary gendered have had particular difficulty in getting approved (although new WPATH guidelines should change this).

However, this brings in the issue of who gets to decide what “trans” is and, indeed, how it should be defined.
Not everyone who identifies as trans wants to medically transition, not all want to transition between binary genders and not all identify in such a way as to make transition straightforward or, indeed, necessary. I’ve heard Nat of Practical Androgyny discuss the terms transsexual, transgender, trans and trans* and how they’re in a constant process of resisting the medicalisation of trans identities, trying to be as inclusive as possible and creating space for ‘new’ identities to exist. Zagria identifies five meanings of transgender and discusses them in the linked essay.

Language itself can also be problematic. The variety of English I use – British English – doesn’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun. This post outlines some alternatives but they aren’t widely known or accepted outside the queer community – as an undergraduate, I got told off for using ze/zir in an essay about gendered language.

This post highlights some problematic language within trans communities. As the author explains

The stories of our bodies, our experiences, and our identities have traditionally been told from a perspective of assumed cissexual superiority. Increasingly, trans people want to be able to speak to one another or to cis people in our own words–words that reflect our lived experiences and empower us as trans people. That means developing a new, trans-positive vocabulary. It also means re-examining the words we use (and the words cis people use for us), tossing out words and phrases that don’t pass muster, and replacing them with better ones.

There are some obviously problematic terms – calling someone a genetic female or XX boy doesn’t really work when you realise how prevalent intersex conditions are; these terms conflate the genotype with the phenotype, but without genetic testing it’s impossible to know what one’s genotype actually is. Less obvious is the problematic use of terms like female-bodied to describe someone female-assigned at birth – some people within the trans community would argue that a female body is a body belonging to someone who identifies as female. These terms seem to wax and wane in their popularity – female assigned at birth/FAAB, assigned female at birth/AFAB, male assigned at birth/MAAB and assigned male at birth/AMAB are terms that I’ve noticed relatively recently.

So, what might a study of trans language look like?

As a linguist, I’d be inclined to break this into three main categories: the umbrella terms used to describe the diversity of trans identities; the terms used to describe identities; the terms used to describe trans bodies.

There have been surveys on trans language, but as a corpus linguist I’m interested in naturally occurring language – while data elicted through surveys can be interesting and useful for identifying words that might be of interest, ultimately I’m more interested in how these words are actually used. Which are common terms? Are certain words used more frequently in different parts of the community? Do these words have different meanings within the community? When do words start being used and how do they spread out? What’s the effect of the internet (particularly user-created material) on language? Do people use language differently if they’re seeking medical involvement or as that progresses? Happily, there are quite a few trans-related sites, forums, tumblrs etc so there is suitable data out there to include in a corpus.

One of the things I’m interested in is fine-grained use of data. My corpus made up of Times Digital Archive texts allows me to split up the data by year and, using some php, by type of article (Letters to the Editor, for example). There are loads of interesting ways to split up the trans data I’d hope to collect and to an extent it depends on what I’m trying to find out. For the questions I outlined above, it would be good to be able to split the corpus by year the text was produced, site it came from from, and some details about the writer – their age, how they identify, the variety of English they use, possibly some information about any medical involvement they’ve had or are seeking (if applicable).

Sadly this has to go on the back burner for now because of my thesis, but at some point I’d love to do more research into this. To me, trans language highlights the explicit negotiation of language in a community. New terms are coined, defined and disputed. It also is a place where queer and gender theory and practice collide in a way that has incredibly important, real-life implications – these are not the debates of the ivory tower, but affect how people lead their lives and indeed, what sort of lives they are able to lead.

A footnote

LGBT History Month starts tomorrow, and perhaps fittingly I read this footnote a few days ago.

Rosen 1974, footnote on page 209 regarding Christabel Pankhurst’s sexual and emotional relationships:

Christabel may well have been a Lesbian, but the evidence is circumstantial rather than explicit: she never married, and the copious documents relating to her life and career do not allude to any heterosexual involvements. All the available evidence indicates she had stronger emotional attachments to women than to men, and the markedly dominant/submissive character of her relationships with Mrs Tuke and Annie Kenney certainly seems to resemble the psychology of many Lesbian relationships. There is, however, no reason to believe that Christabel’s affection for Mrs Tuke and Annie Kenney ever involved conscious sensuality, and as far as the history of the WSPU is concerned the exact nature of Christabel’s sex-life is less significant than the fact that by 1913 she had grown into a state of mind in which she was completely adverse to any form of co-operation with men.

I find it an interesting footnote for several reasons: the first and perhaps most immediately obvious reason is the speculation as to the dynamics of lesbian relationships. Without further information it’s difficult to say whether this observation has anything to do with the perceived dynamics of butch/femme relationships, but I do find it interesting that lesbian relationships are markedly dominant/submissive, and heterosexual ones are not marked in the same way.

Secondly, it was published in 1974; academic research also has a historical context. 1967 marked the passing of the Sexual Offences Act and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, and this book was published seven years after that. I don’t want to read too much into a single initial capitalisation, but Lesbian suggests something about how that identity was conceptualised – as something static, as something still close to criminalisation and pathology.

Thirdly, as my last post discusses, there’s a transience in how sexual identities are understood. Our understanding of lesbian identities have already changed between Rosen’s 1974 comment and as I write this in 2011 – I think there’s a belief now that same-sex relationships are more equal than heterosexual ones. There’s more understanding of asexual identities and what these can encompass – grey-A, demisexual, homoromantic. But the context, as well as making it difficult for us to understand an individual’s sexuality in our terms, also affects how an individual would have expressed their sexuality. While sex between women was not a criminal offence, it’s not hard to imagine that the early 20th century was not the most lesbian-friendly of times.

Fourthly, I like how it delivers what Dr Lesley Hall describes as a “codslap”. This footnote reads like a response to others’ speculation as to Christabel’s sexuality, and ultimately concludes that whatever her sexuality, it’s less important than how she felt about men being involved with the WSPU campaign.

For me there’s a tension between the importance of acknowledging historical figures’ non-heterosexual identities when we have evidence for them – people like Alan Turing and Edward Carpenter – and not trying to ascribe sexual identities where there isn’t (enough of) that evidence. Short of necromancy or the loan of a TARDIS, we can’t actually know, and besides, sexuality is just one facet of a person’s identity. Other facets exist and may be more important to that person, and perhaps it’s an issue of finding a balance between sexuality being invisiblised and sexuality overshadowing other important parts of an individual’s identity. It’s something I’m still mulling over though, and I definitely don’t have anything conclusive to say.

If you’re a University of Nottingham person, we’ll have a history display in the Portland Atrium tomorrow between 10 and 4 so come along if you want to learn something about LGBT history.

PS if you do have a TARDIS, I have an interesting research proposal for you…

Queering the Museum

LGBT History month is coming up in February, and, in need of a bit of inspiration, I decided to see this exhibition at Birmingham Museum. I’m a bit of a museum geek and part of what interests me about them is who decides and how they decide what goes on display and how these objects are arranged. Some museums try to tell you a chronological story, leading you through different time periods and artistic movements. Some, notably Cairo museum, group similar objects together: sarcophagi there, canoptic jars here, animal mummies down the corridor there. However, curation is not a neutral act; it can support and/or create hetero- and gender normative interpretations of history, art and artefacts. In this exhibition, artist Matt Smith aims to disrupt these readings.

The museum’s description of the event states:

What happens when we stop thinking the world is straight? Through omission and careful arrangement of facts it is easy to assume that the objects held in museums have nothing to do with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

In a bold new project, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in conjunction with ShOUT! Festival, has allowed artist and curator Matt Smith access to their collections and galleries to tell the stories that museums usually omit.

Museums are expected to reflect society and culture. They make active choices about what is kept for posterity and how it is described and displayed. Turning the traditional on its head, a queer eye has been cast over the museum.

Objects have been rearranged and brought out of store and new artworks have been specifically commissioned to uncover, draw out – and on occasion wilfully invent – the hidden stories in the Museum’s collections.

I think the idea is brilliant and I wanted to like it, but its implementation left me rather less dazzled. Queering the Museum isn’t a separate exhibition but is incorporated into the main displays. I approve of this idea in theory – after all, why should queer history be yanked out of context rather than embedded in more mainstream histories? – but in practice, this made it hard to actually find the queered displays. Unfamiliarity with the museum’s layout and a lack of maps didn’t help.

Some of the exhibits were striking. I liked Jacob Epstein’s ‘Statue of Lucifer’, a statue with the body of a man and the face of a woman, queered by holding a cape of green carnations. The green carnation was used as an underground signifier of sexuality by gay men, and indeed lends its name to a book used in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde. Using it was a play on history and hidden histories, of the tension between overt and covert signs; the visitor, if zie understood the significance of the green carnation, is allowed an insight, the thrill of knowing something other people don’t, the pleasure of being able to interpret an artwork in a way not afforded to others. It makes the viewer complicit in the art, and in doing so, reminds zir of the danger possessing such knowledge could have posed. Of course, I then noticed the information placard by the piece explaining the significance of the green carnation.

Other pieces seemed more humorous – figurines of men cruising, or two women with affectionately linked arms (wasn’t totally sure about the butch-femme dynamic in this though). There was an element of playfulness there that I appreciated, and which also served to challenge the perceived seriousness of the museum. I also liked Smith’s technique of creating stylistically similar objects and juxtaposing them with the “real” artefacts – a creative way of not only drawing attention to his pieces, but also inviting the viewer to question the artefacts around them and wonder about their history.

However, other things didn’t really do it for me. One of the things that disappointed me was the lack of bi and trans visibility. These are identities that struggle to be represented in general – a museum exhibition purporting to make the lesbian, gay, bi and trans community visible shouldn’t contribute to this invisibility. However, as noted, it was difficult to locate all the pieces so they may well have been present. This presented another issue: the difficulty in simply finding the pieces seemed to underline how invisible queer history can be in museums – completely the opposite of the artist and museum’s intentions.

I also wasn’t sure about the static understanding of (homo)sexuality that seemed to be presented. For me at least, part of the fascination of queer history is the different ways sexuality has been understood – I think we do an injustice to people if we try to force the way they understood their sexual identities into the way we might interpret their identities. To give an example or two: would an 18th century assigned-male-at-birth cross-dresser still identify as a cross-dresser if zie was born today and had the option of sexual reassignment surgery? Would James Barry have presented and lived as a man if medicine was a career open to women? Such examples can be described as queer – they challenge the mainstream – but are they LGBT?

Overall, it was something I very much liked the idea of, but was less convinced by the way it was enacted. I don’t think it’s an idea to give up on altogether, but perhaps queering the museum and giving voice to different, secret histories also needs a diversity of people behind it.