The long walk: Kate O’Halloran on researching queer scenes, spaces and practices

Posted on | February 29, 2012 | 1 Comment

In light of the panel topic, I thought it was appropriate to reflect on my own relationship to this kind of research. While I have been heavily involved in various queer scenes over my formative years this relationship has never been an easy or uncomplicated one. My very first encounter with ‘queer’ was walking into the ‘queer lounge’ at Melbourne Uni. I found my first year of Uni incredibly hard, and found ‘making friends’ with people from tutes almost impossible. So my instinct had been that it might be easier to find friends here. Still, the queer lounge was at the end of a really long corridor, on the 4th floor of the union building, and there were some windows facing out onto the corridor. You could see inside and people from inside could most likely see you. Nothing had ever felt so difficult as walking down that corridor and into that space. Like most difficult things in life, I found I could do it with the help of a friend. A friend and an excuse to be there – which was handing out some flyers. So my friend Owen and I, who both identified as bisexual at the time, made the long walk.

When we did arrive, people were surprisingly welcoming, although when they asked if we would like to stay and if we were ‘queer’ I panicked a bit. I said – and I still find this funny today – that I wasn’t sure because I was ‘half’ queer. Of course people were quick to correct me and explain that ‘queer’ encompassed all sorts of non-straight sexualities and identities, and invited me to a queer women’s group called ‘Girlzone’ in the womyn’s room on Wednesdays. Although I found the name pretty awful, I went, and Girlzone would become an integral part of my time at University and ‘initiation’ into the queer scene.

It’s clear to me that my experiences in the queer scene have influenced my academic life and interests. Although I have an incredibly varied disciplinary background (from creative writing to psychology to cinema studies) I seemed to always write my undergraduate essays on the stock-standard weeks of ‘feminism’ or ‘queer theory’. Yet I often felt that what I was writing about remained wrapped up in a higher theoretical plane that didn’t address the very basic interactions and emotions I experienced within queer spaces. Often, I blamed academia for this – on Judith Butler’s inaccessible writing style, on the course coordinators who assigned our readings or on musty old academics who had no grasp on the ‘real world’. Yet, I would say that the older I get the more I realise how implicated I am in this too.

When given free reign over what to write my postgraduate diploma on, I still chose to do an in-depth analysis of Judith Butler. I guess I felt that to get at what ‘queer’ meant I had to engage with some of the most difficult writing on it, a process which often becomes overwhelming and disempowering, even as you feel like you are making some inroads into it. Of course there’s nothing wrong with Judith Butler per se – only that I was a culprit of what I sometimes felt she was guilty of: remaining locked on a theoretical plane. While my theoretical interests connected with my everyday ones, I still felt that I didn’t have a way to connect the two and felt invariably split in my life – manifest I think in my dual personas of academic and journalist – one who could talk freely and the other who could write about theory.

When I speak in the past tense like this you might be mistaken for thinking I mean a long time ago. But these are issues I still grapple with now and possibly partly why it took my thesis so long to get ‘off the ground’ so to speak. It’s still quite fresh and raw, but one of the things I want to do is engage much more closely with the events and emotions taking place within the queer scene and to question – and bring in somehow – my own relationship to it. So while I am now writing on how the concept of ‘queer’ has been strictly defined, policed and fought over within queer ethical scholarship, I am undertaking an ethnographic approach in my work to get to the bottom of how the same tensions have manifest within urban-based, radical activist communities in Sydney, Melbourne and Berlin specifically.

For example, when “Feminist Futures” happened in Melbourne last year I was quite upset about some of the fights and rhetoric that flew around queer forums about who should or shouldn’t be presenting. Sheila Jeffreys was part of a panel due to present on the topic of sex work, but was subject to a targeted campaign by many members of the queer community to remove her from the panel. She was deemed to represent the ‘past’ rather than the ‘future’ of feminism because of her views on the subject. And so I found myself ‘defending’ Sheila Jeffreys’ right to speak even though I feel politically quite at odds with her. Anyone who has been part of the queer community knows that to defend Sheila Jeffreys is social suicide. When I was invited to a facebook event encouraging me to protest against her inclusion in the “Feminist Futures” program, I felt it was finally time to speak up. But when I held out against the belief that anyone should be able to specify what a ‘future’ feminist looks like, I almost physically felt the blows directed at me in response. It was an extremely unpopular thing to say, and I still find myself avoiding eye contact with those who took me apart online.

So part of what I want to do in my thesis is tackle some of the things that have recently made me feel uncomfortable or unhappy within the queer community. Utilising an ethnographic approach helps me, I think, to ‘bridge’ the gaps I’ve felt between my academic and personal or ‘journalistic’ lives and to raise some of the important insights I have. But because I feel that the community (myself included) is often pressured to ‘band together’ and can be defensive in the face of criticism, this makes my task – and the political stakes – difficult. In many ways, I feel the anxiety of walking into the ‘queer lounge’ all over again. Somehow, although I have been variously embraced within and accepted into queer communities (at one point being a rep on the queer committee at Uni, being a journalist for ‘queer press’ and so on), I still have never felt completely comfortable in queer scenes and spaces, with the impression that I often say the ‘wrong’ thing or am resistant to trends within the community.

Fast-forward to this year and I’m writing a chapter about how arguments about ‘heteronormativity’ have become unhelpful within queer ethical scholarship and the community itself. Against the tide of many of my own friends critiquing the ‘drive to normalisation’ within queer communities, I have argued that the singling out people’s ‘normative’ behaviour for critique has had very damaging consequences. There seem to be very real pressures within the community – with no better way to put it – to be an ‘exemplary’ queer citizen, where ‘queer’ is very specifically and strategically defined against ‘inferior’ subjectivities like gay and lesbian, feminist and so on. Part of my task, then, is learning to draw on my own, and others’, lived experiences of these pressures in my work, something which drives my search for a methodology that can faithfully – and non-judgmentally – represent these pressures and their affective and emotive dimensions.

And yet, once again, I feel the fear of being unpopular in my stance – something that makes it very anxiety-provoking to write this paper. The idea that I could be saying the ‘wrong’ thing is something I’m trying to critique in my own work, but also something that still haunts my own involvement in these scenes and research work. I hope that by sharing some of these thoughts and feelings with you today I can go some way towards addressing my own difficulties in carrying out this research, and for others to share some of their own thoughts about how best to approach researching often politically and emotionally fraught spaces.

This is a slightly modified transcript of Kate O’Halloran’s presentation as part of the postgraduate panel, ‘Researching Queer Scenes, Spaces and Practices’, at last week’s workshop. Kate is a PhD student in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.

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One Response to “The long walk: Kate O’Halloran on researching queer scenes, spaces and practices”

  1. The long walk: Kate O'Halloran on researching queer scenes … | Life Discovery Channel
    March 2nd, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

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