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.

Why isn’t my professor black?

blackprofessor
A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at UCL called, simply, “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?”. Race in academia and the experience of being a BME academic is something I’m keenly interested in: I’ve written about UCU’s report on race, about intersectionality and some reflections on intersectional experiences in teaching and learning, and the effort one expends entering spaces where I am a research subject rather than a researcher and activist in my own right.

The statistics are shocking: of the 18,550 professors in the UK, only 85 of these are Black – and only 17 of the 85 are women. This panel brought together six Black academics to not only discuss why there are so few Black professors, but to imagine the conditions where Black academics could thrive.

The six academics brought together for the panel were:

Nathan Edward Richards
Deborah Gabriel
Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman
Dr Lisa Amanda Palmer
Dr William Ackah
Dr Shirley Tate

You can watch the full panel on youtube, read the Storify of tweets here and there’s a summary of the event and each speaker’s approach on this blog. Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman‘s talk, “Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong” is online here.

I’ve found a couple of blog responses but would love to add more – if you’ve written something, please let me know in the comments. Yewande Okuleye has a series of posts focusing on contents of the panel discussion, responses from attendees and participants, and her reflections. Leona Nicole Black also has some really interesting reflections on the event.

Predictably, I’m interested in the context informing this. Currently open in my tabs is a Guardian article reporting that only three black applicants win places to train as history teachers, an Irish Times article on the everyday reality of gender imbalance at professor level at third level, a Salon article about why white guys don’t (have to) get it and that is why dominate TV, a NYT piece on racial microaggressions in university, a Guardian article on why many academics are on short-term contracts for years, Nadine Muller’s collection of posts on academia and mental health, research showing that Black and Minority Ethnic communities are faced with double the levels of discrimination and PhD(isabled). As intersectional analyses show us, these different issues interact and compound each other: to be BME with poor mental health is not to experience two separate issues but instead to experience intertwining, inextricable issues that mean that such an experience is different from that of a white person with mental health issues or a BME person without them.

If “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is, Black and minority ethnic academics – particularly women, particularly those with mental health or disability issues, particularly LGBQ people, particularly trans* people, and particularly those whose identities encompass all of these things – are playing the academic game on a much harder setting. And it shouldn’t be this way.

I could make an argument in terms of academic labour – if the academy loses us through neglect and hostility and lack of support, it loses our perspectives. It loses our critiques, it loses our intellectual gifts, it loses what we can bring to the university in terms of funding and prestige and league table rankings. It loses our abilities to engage with and mentor students, which will no doubt be reflected in the National Student Survey.

However, I am more interested in the damage it does to those in this system – the students and scholars who must struggle in ways not expected of anyone else, and who, when we raise the issue, are told that academia isn’t for everyone, and maybe we would be happier doing something else? What does it mean to work in such an environment, and what is it doing to us? What does our labour mean when it is produced in these conditions?

The high cost of researching

Recently I read Pat Thomson’s post about research participants finding the things written about them.

Today, I went to a seminar on Older LGBT people: intersections of ethnicity, culture and religion. As someone who lives in the intersections and who is queer, non-white, has a religious background and family, and who will (probably!) one day be old, I wanted to find people who had a similar set of identities, who might have had similar experiences, and who might be at different stages in their lives. I don’t know what my old age would look like. I wanted to find my elders.

I went to UK Black Pride this summer (here’s my friend Maryam’s post and photos) and it was an amazing, affirming space to be welcomed into with all my identities acknowledged. It was unforgettable to spend the night watching gay Asian men dance to bhangra and dance their own love stories – take the songs of childhood film-watching and make them theirs, fiercely claim that music and movement. It was equally unforgettable to spend the following day hanging out with a queer Bengali friend and allowing his identity as a queer man, as a brown man, as a Bengali man to become intelligible in this space. I felt like a part of me clicked into place when I was surrounded by the joy of my Brown and Black LGBTQ siblings.

However, I am familiar with both the mainstream LGBT community and LGBT research events, so wasn’t too hopeful about this event:

When I got there, I was unsurprised to find that the room was overwhelmingly white. It was a close run thing that I didn’t simply turn around and leave, or that I didn’t leave during lunch.

I enjoyed the presentations, particularly those by Dr Roshan das Nair and Professor Andrew Yip. The discussion was a mixed bag. I think our group did pretty well, and we discussed things like the interaction between non-white and LGBT gendered presentations, invisibility as erasure, the responsibility of making our spaces ready to welcome people before they are there, and the specific healthcare needs of LGB and especially trans people (particularly with dementia).

However, I was struck by the lack of non-white LGBTQ people in attendance, particularly older people. People researching the intersection of age, sexuality and race noted that they’d found it difficult to recruit participants, even when they went looking. There’s an argument that these communities don’t exist, but I argued that just because these communities can’t be seen by white people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Minorities have always been good at hiding; why should older non-white LGBT people be any different?

The intersection of LGBTQ sexuality, gender, religion and age is a difficult one. As one white researcher told us, her Black mentor had rebuked her when she noted that she was having trouble finding Black women for her research: as her mentor said, why would these women trust her with their stories?

As someone for whom this intersection is a tangible reality, going into an overwhelmingly white room feels unsafe – that I cannot share these stories and experience the solidarity of my queer non-white spaces. Instead, I feel like I have become a display object, a teaching moment – that I am there to educate others while being denied the connections I want to make. People seem to expect me to share my experiences at their convenience, and often don’t acknowledge the psychological toll this takes. It’s as a form of self-care that I have become ruthless about which projects I am prepared to engage in; I will not let someone pick at scabs over wounds that are broken open again and again.

I think there’s a conversation to be had about research fatigue in people who are asked time and time again about their experiences. I am tired of half-baked requests and poorly designed surveys being sent to the LGBT groups I help with. I am tired of researchers expecting me to hold out difficult, painful experiences for their scrutiny without giving me a reason to trust them. I am tired of this being a one way exchange.

So while I had some good conversations and met some interesting people, I can’t help but feel a bit dispirited by the day.

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.

Live at Jodrell Bank

Been a bit quiet here, mainly because I’ve been writing and rewriting parts of chapters 3 and 5 and fuelled for the most part by caffeine, discounted creme eggs and irregular sleeping patterns. It’s not been pretty.

However, I did manage to get to Live from Jodrell Bank, tickets purchased for my birthday by my favourite little sister. As the name suggests, it took place at Jodrell Bank and the stage was in the shadow of the Lovell Telescope itself. The Lovell telescope is an impressive structure and seeing it surrounded by people and bathed in glorious sunshine was definitely a change!

Stage beside, and dwarfed by, the Lovell telescopeDetail of the supporting structure of the dish

There were also interesting people wandering around. The chap in the photo below-right was dressed in black, wearing a large crow’s head and clutching two large white balloons. We saw him around all day but didn’t manage to work out what he was doing (apart from looking dramatic).
Man wearing a crow's head over his head holding two large white balloons
The new visitor centre was open and my friend Liz and I had fun playing with something that resembled an old charity money-spinner. It looked like a large black funnel, and you started rolling a ball at the top. The ball would spiral down the funnel until it dropped out of the hole at the bottom. You could then retrieve your ball and do it all over again – multiple times if you’re a small child fascinated by such things or, indeed, two twenty-somethings. It was also fun sending one ball clockwise and the other counter-clockwise and either trying to get them to crash into each other or avoid each other but I’m almost positive this was not the point of the exercise! The point was that this simple model helps we, the general public, understand how black holes work in a fun and hands-on way. People of all ages could engage with it, although the baby we saw there was more interested in chucking the balls straight down the hole!

The map showing different telescopes around the world was striking and really illustrated how the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (JBCA) is part of a global community of researchers. It also offered information on the different types of telescopes and showed how the facilities used by the JBCA, such as the e-Merlin network, fit into a wider context.

The line-up was Alice Gold, The Waves Machines, OK GO, British Sea Power and The Flaming Lips. I was especially looking forward to British Sea Power – there’s an endearingly wide-eyed wonder about the natural world in their music; they’ve written a song about a collapsing coastal Antarctic shelf and light pollution. One of the songs they played was the rather appropriate Observe The Skies which I think they dedicated to the Lovell Telescope. British Sea Power are known for decorating the stage with foliage and the appearance of a large bear. This time there was a bear fighting a robot/microwave.

The Flaming Lips put on an entertaining show, incorporating giant hamster balls, lasers, balloons filled with confetti and close-ups of Wayne Coyne’s nostrils. They wanted to mess around with intros and the audience wanted to sing along so there was a lot of “wait for it, wait for it…wait for it…” going on. I’m far too sleepy to attempt to interpret their lyrics, but Race for the Prize might be about two scientists and Do You Realize?? informs us that we are floating in space.

I was standing just in front of Jen so was treated to the physicists arguing over how they did the lasers and what constellations and planets we could see. Astronomers are interesting people to know when you’re standing in a field at night!

Brightly coloured balloons floating in front of a brightly lit stageBalloons floating in front of a brightly lit stage and lit so they seem to glow

As well as being an interesting and unusual music event, it was also an effective outreach event. PhD and postdoc researchers were on hand with science tricks, there were short talks throughout the afternoon by astronomers and Dr Tim O’Brien took to the stage to talk about the kind of research that takes place at Jodrell Bank. He played recordings of pulsars and people were cheering and clapping in time with them. It’s probably the first time I’ve heard people chanting SCIENCE SCIENCE SCIENCE at a gig. There was something joyfully and unapologetically geeky about it: there was an atmosphere of “we’re at a gig under a radio telescope, isn’t this amazing?” As Jen said in her talk, science is about having that sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe and trying to understand it better. There’s nothing uncool about that.

Of course it made me think about what linguistics could do. While communication is a fascinating thing, we collect our data from people, not the vastness of space. Unfortunately the hard drive where my corpora are stored or a digital recorder aren’t as dramatic as a telescope, especially one as iconic as the Lovell. Instead, I reckon we should reverse it: instead of trying to find a suitably research-intensive location for the gig, I reckon we should make the gig research-intensive and record band-crowd interactions or something.

Space and stars also inspire people to write songs about them. While Massive Attack deserve a mention for “love, love is a verb; love is a doing word” in Teardrop and The Indelicates for “You know exactly how clever sounds, the soft consonants and rounded vowels” in Jerusalem, I’m kind of drawing a blank on linguistic songs. I did, however, find a paper on a corpus analysis of rock harmony so that’s something, right?

Any suggestions for linguistics songs? Are there any for your area? What would your dream outreach event be?

Photos by K. Gupta and E. Kedge

The politics of representation

Because I’m trying to clear some tabs, here’s a useful definition of representation I found and need to read more about:

As Gilles Deleuze […] has argued, the politics of representation which currently predominates is not interested in representing as the term is commonly understood; it is no process of ‘speaking on behalf of’, but rather one of silencing; one of crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power. In this instance, the diverse, plural and problematic identities of those marching have been collapsed into the creation of a majority which cannot speak for itself.

From Anarchists: ‘unemployable layabout scum’? at Ballots & Bullets

One of the difficult things about doing an interdisciplinary PhD is the amount of catchup in other areas you have to do. My background is in linguistics rather than history, politics or sociology. As such, it’s a joy to come across something like this – not only should it lead to a citable text for my thesis (gotta catch em all!), but it also shows that my thinking isn’t completely out of step with theorists in these different areas.

Rod Thornton’s article

It’s hard to know what to write here – there are so many issues of academic freedom, how universities should support their scholars and what constitutes restricted materials it’s hard to know where to start. For those unfamiliar with the situation, here’s a summary by one of the people involved and here are a couple of articles by Rod Thornton on a blog he contributes to. Among other things, he he offers some insight into what the Al Qaeda Training Manual is and is not. I also note that the text the student used was available from the university’s own library, which just adds another layer of weirdness to the wtf cake.

Anyway, here’s a link to the document in question – the one the university is trying to suppress and has suspended Dr Rod Thornton for writing. The first is a summary of his article, while the second is the full article in its 112 page glory.

Jen’s blog

My awesome and fearsomely clever little sister has just started blogging. She researches Active Galactic Nuclei and knows lots of stuff about space, black holes, blazars and ska-punk. She’s also a member of the Jodcast team and has done exciting stuff like interviewing Professor Brian Cox. So yes, read her blog!

http://jengupta.blogspot.com