On Orlando, safety privilege, and the politics of death and joy

June 14, 2016 Leave a comment

photo booth photo.jpg

There’s a photo Melanie and I each carry around in our wallets. Technically, it’s two photos. Actually, it’s four. The photos were taken in a photo booth on one of our very first trips together, to Montreal, way back in 2002, less than a year into our now 15-year relationship. You gotta admit, we’re pretty cute. Since then, we’ve traveled many thousands of miles, earned our wrinkles, spent more hours in health than in sickness, in schools than in hospitals, all in relative safety. It hasn’t always been easy, and we’ve certainly had our fair share of challenges, ongoing ones, even, but, at least, we’ve been mostly safe.

Safe. Safety. Unsafe. These words have been bouncing around my brain in recent months as I try to reconcile the discourse that tells me that only two states of being exist in the world: safety and risk. This is a Safe Zone. This is a safe space. This space carries a risk, and this one carries a risk of death, specifically. The reality is, as most LGBTQ folks will tell you, there’s no such thing as safety, even within the walls of our purportedly “safe spaces.” Even in our community centers, our classrooms, our bars and clubs. I attended a community meeting on Monday in our small, Midwestern city where a range of community members were remarking on the loss of safety we’re feeling. To me, this sense of loss is felt as a loss of privilege, rather than a loss of actual safety. “Come on, Clare,” I think in the moments I’m dialoguing with myself. “Do you really think that a white, middle-class, six-foot, friendly-faced queer woman is any less safe today than she was last week?” Perhaps. There are the new efforts to expand concealed carry to college campuses, the possibility that I may be shot in or out of the classroom for teaching controversial topics, the growing animosity in all of our communities that feel like they could, at any moment, trigger a massacre, targeted at the most vulnerable among us. These are real risks and real feelings and a real sense of loss.

I think, though, that part of what’s going on is that I’m waking up to the feeling of unsafety, of persistent risk, that my colleagues, friends, and community members experience literally every day. I know the academics of it: the inequality that exists between LGBTQ people of color and white folks like me, between Muslims and at-least-baptized-if-not-practicing-Christian-but-can-pass-as-one folks like me. Between the young, Puerto Rican gay men killed at Pulse and me, living in a small city, mostly staying at home and finding my community in my teaching, electronic networks, writers, writing, and occasional drinks with friends at the earliest possible hour. Isolated. Quiet. Safe.

Safety doesn’t exist, and it hasn’t existed for LGBTQ people of color. Ever. Since Stonewall. Since ACT-UP. Since the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society. Some of us middle-class white queers, even as we work to make the world better, feel #Orlando as a shock, because this feeling is relatively new to us, or we’ve forgotten, or we’ve minimized our identities as not really core to who we are. We’ve been able to lull ourselves into a sense of safety, or, as one community member put it on Monday, “complacency,” having a vague awareness of inequality and discrimination against QPOC, but not really feeling it in our gut, in our bones. Why would we? Our culture is so staunchly opposed to honest, difficult discussions about inequalities, about racism, about class, about gender that it takes work to keep these well-researched, persistent systems in mind at all times.

I want to be clear, here: this is not a story of guilt. It’s a story of embodiment. It’s feeling the gut punch of fear, of a risk of death, that many members of our community have been feeling for years, decades, for life, since the dawn of colonization. It’s painful, because we ask ourselves, “How could we? How could we have missed this?” If we’ve been reading the sometimes-helpful discourse percolating on the Facebooks, we’re starting to get the message. No, it isn’t new. No, this is just the latest, albeit large-scale and sudden, expression of fear and hatred of a group of capital-O Others. This hatred has played out in gay bars in the past, as any scholar of gay dating apps or the gay dating scene or gay or lesbian bars will tell you. Not even safe, even in the spaces that are supposed to be ours. There is not a neat line between “this is a safe space,” and “this is a risky space.” Perhaps we’ve had a whiff of safety in a moment in a bar or a club, moments I’m seeing strung together in all of the heart-rending narratives about feelings of belonging, of family, of life in my friends’ and colleagues’ first gay bar, first lesbian bar, first community space. Those stories are as beautiful and imperfect as our own communities.

I was trying, badly, to explain the idea of “necropolitics” to Melanie on a walk through the woods a couple of weeks back. It’s a term coined by political scientist and philosopher Achille Mbembe, building on Foucault’s idea of biopolitics, and for the non-academic among us, what I get from this idea is that states are interested in maintaining some people in a state of living death, while others are invested with life. It can be a little abstract, hard to grasp, if we’re not accustomed to thinking this way. The classic examples of necropolitics in practice are institutions like concentration camps, death camps, and genocidal states bent on eliminating swaths of their populations. But Mbembe himself expands this idea, describing “the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead [emphasis in original]” (2003: 40). Maybe this seems a little science-fictiony, a little monstrous, a little zombified, a little unreal. But consider: what kind of life is it to be shouted at, jeered at, physically threatened, attacked, beaten, and shot as you go out to the corner store, to get your groceries, to meet friends for dinner? Systematically, by individuals, by institutions, by administrators, by the police? What kind of life is it to work three, four jobs and still find yourself in lifelong debt? Others have made this connection more clearly than I’m making, in this moment, but there’s a relationship here between the idea of necropolitics, the idea that there is systematic investment in death of some groups, and the ideas being circulated (and with which I generally agree) that the Orlando massacre is the latest manifestation of an individualized, misogynist, heterosexist American culture hell-bent on destroying queers, especially queers of color, or at least making life not worth living. We have seen this process play out for transgender folks who are at tremendous risk of suicide. I imagine that being a queer person of color might feel like living in a “death-world,” whereas the institutions that support me are generally interested in supporting me living, my life, because I’m seen as a “productive” (Marxist reference intended) member of society by virtue of my class and skin color and age.

There are a thousand examples I could offer to demonstrate the ways that institutions and, importantly for these days, whole-cloth cultures are invested in death. Let’s talk about the state of gun policy, and gun policy discourse in the U.S. What clearer demonstration of necropolitics could there be? Let’s talk about discourse around welfare, and the efforts to deny poor people the basic human ingredients of life: food. Let’s talk about health care, health insurance, and the impossibly complex administrative gauntlet through which humans must run to get access to life-sustaining services. Let’s talk about how the queerest POC among us are bullied, harassed, made to feel inhuman, on a daily basis. That must be what it feels like to live in a death-world.

Again, I don’t want to over-simplify what it’s like to be an LGBTQ white person these days. No doubt, necropolitics rears its head in myriad ways for the poor among us, the young among us, the rural among us, those who are vulnerable and yet still strong. But I can’t help but think about this moment of feeling that many of us are having right now. It’s a feeling of loss, of losing access to the world of life others haven’t had since forever. It’s a familiar feeling, to some of us. And for 49 members of our community, for 50 people (and, yes, I’m including the shooter, because I don’t buy into the “mental illness” paradigm so popular among folks these days, and I think he was a specific product of American culture), that world of life is a permanent impossibility. For 50 people, largely Latinx LGBTQ folks, necropolitics isn’t just a clever theory that describes a mode of existence. They are dead, their futures rendered invalid in a hail of legally-obtained, very American bullets. I’d like to hold them in my heart alongside the queer and trans women of color who’ve been killed, not all at once, but just as systematically. I’d like to keep them in mind as I consider the rural queers who are followed by groups of men in swerving trucks. I’d like to locate them in an expansive history of “mass killings” including the destruction of Black Wall Street, of Wounded Knee. These are the American necropolitical histories with which we must reconcile.

I am tempted to end here and let this discomfort weigh heavy on our hearts, on our consciences, on our souls, but I also need to honor that young, activist me, the one from the picture with which I started this post. We look pretty joyful in that photo, don’t we? Perhaps what we need is a hedonipolitics as a way of thinking about the systematic creation of joy, of pleasure, in resistance to the oppression of politics. There is joy in activism, in coming together, even as an imperfect group. As for my local community, we’re planning a vigil for Sunday evening where we’ll ask community members to physically hold the photos of those killed, hold them in our hands. And I’ll continue to do what I do. My activism looks different these days, as an academic. I teach, I write, and I organize largely from the background. There have been lots of suggestions circulating about what we can do, from donations to education to events. Even as this embodied feeling, this realization that safety is and has always been a fiction, this momentary connection with necropolitics blooms like a fetid flower in our minds and our communities, it’s important to take a step. It needn’t be a uniform step, but some kind of forward motion, a hedonipolitical move, seems to me to be essential.


Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Picador.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

Who gets to feel their feels? On the power and politics of academic emotions

May 29, 2015 Leave a comment

I want to begin with a full disclosure: I am not going to do this topic justice in this ill-structured blog post[1]. My inclination here is to dash off a quick response to a few points, and to try to do so thoughtfully and in a way that acknowledges – rather than invalidates – the Feels in circulation. I’ve been mulling over Laura Kipnis’ most recent article, and, if there’s one thing I find a little contradictory in Kipnis’ writing (and there’s more than one thing, but see earlier comment about “not doing this topic justice”), it’s the assumption that faculty feelings of fear are more, what? Trustworthy? Valid? Worthy of attention? Alliterative? than students’. And that assertion, academic concepts aside, really rubs me the wrong way.

I promise you I’ll get to Kipnis’ most recent polemic. For now, I want to point out three concepts you should have rolling around in your head as you’re reading, and I’ll touch on them later. I wrote about them a little bit more in-depth in a book chapter in a forthcoming book, part of a new series on Queer Studies and Education, so you can keep an eye out for that, if you’re so inclined. The three concepts are: power, politics, and emotions. I will not argue that I can handily define these ideas here. My academic colleagues will no doubt be eye-rolling at my glib introduction of concepts upon which entire disciplines have been founded, but I’m starting as simply as I can, in this moment.

What I’m struggling with here, even as a sociologist who thinks about stuff like the social construction, or institutional roots, of emotions on a regular, is how to keep the critiques focused on the politics of institutional forces and broader cultural changes, rather than individual people’s experiences and responses to them. One of the things I learned in my own feminist and sociological education is to believe that when people say they’re feeling something, they’ve actually felt it. Because (among other things) Standpoint Theory. Because Sociological Imagination. This gets difficult when people have feelings that challenge my politics, or my values, or how I feel the world should be approached. This is, of course, not a new problem.

Let me give you a hypothetical teaching example I’ve been chewing around for a while, now. Let’s say – again, hypothetically – that two students have approached me after class to claim that a class discussion about sexual assault and “rape culture” has made them uncomfortable. Let’s say that one student identifies as female, while the other identifies as male. Let’s say that the female student is feeling triggered by some of the imagery we considered as examples of rape culture. And let’s say that the male student is feeling upset because other students questioned whether he participated in that culture. What do we actually do, in the classroom? Kipnis’ and, in an earlier post about trigger warnings, Jack Halberstam’s arguments suggest that we should essentially tell both students that education is there to challenge them, and it’s not our job [2] to coddle them. Just deal, students, and stop being wimps/whining/insert other gendered language about emotions. Or, more kindly, your feelings derive from the new, neoliberal university. So, you know, still. Suck it up.

Now, I’m more or less in agreement with Kipnis’ and Halberstam’s critiques of the neoliberal university, at least in theory. But, yet, the way they both approach students, distinct from the institutions in which we’re all embedded, makes me flinch. And maybe my wincing has something to do with the relative privileging of research and theory over teaching, which has the effect of invalidating questions about pedagogic practice. And maybe it derives in part from my experiences supporting sexual assault survivors. Hell, maybe it comes from my parents, who were both so careful to teach me that other people’s experiences of the world are worthy of respect. I can’t separate out thinking on this subject from my own biography, with all of its limitations and privileges (and here I was trying to stay focused on the level of institutions! Fail!).

But I can try to challenge their – and my own – thinking with a series of questions. Annoyingly, I’m not going to propose answers to these questions. Consider them research questions, questions on which sociologists, social scientists, and cultural critics have no doubt written at length. These questions come, for me, out of my own thinking about gender, sexuality, and teaching and out of my dual identities as a feminist and queer researcher. And they relate to the hypothetical example I proposed above, to which I’ll return briefly in a minute.

So, questions.

On power:
Who holds the “power” in the classroom – professors or students? There is evidence presented on both sides of this debate. The Good Sociologist in me wants to keep the focus on institutions (plural, meaning colleges and universities) to argue that, really, it depends on the institutional context. In other words, there are probably better ways to do it than we’re doing now. If a specific institution buys into the discourse that students are consumers who must be placated at all costs, then students probably do have more power in the classroom than professors. But is that actually true? In other words, what is the evidence (systematic evidence here, which is why I decided on sociology as a career) that this is the case? I don’t know. I also think that, as professors (future professors, in some cases), we often forget that we have developed analytic skills that most students don’t yet have. In other words, we can, and do (professionally, many of us) deftly weigh the complex workings of power and privilege on a daily basis. For many of our students, emotions may be a first signal that they’re struggling with something complicated. And maybe that’s ok.

Relatedly, what are the implications for students and professors when this power is wielded in the extreme? (I know, I know. Foucault is relevant here, and we would do well to remember that neither students or faculty are individually responsible for the disciplinary practices at play.) If a professor hypothetically bullies or harasses a student right out of their classroom or campus, the implications for the student are dire: they may never return to college, and their career path is inevitably altered. If a student hypothetically bullies or harasses a professor right out of their classroom or campus, the implications are similarly dire: they may lose their job and be similarly blocked from their career path. I have no doubt that both of these scenarios happen (although, again, I’d make a call for evidence here). But how do we weigh them, when they do occur? How do we know who has the power to do what?

On politics:

I find myself wondering what kinds of political strategies students and professors should be employing in response to the challenges the neoliberal university introduces. Is engaging in discourse – a favorite strategy of faculty – as effective a strategy for making social change as deploying Title IX (arguably, a “master’s tools” strategy) or engaging in public, symbol-laden protest, strategies institutions and students have used? What are the implications of each strategy? And should we be surprised that they’re being leveraged as they are? Survey says: probably not.

Ok, ok. Admittedly I don’t have a lot of questions about politics that I haven’t already articulated in the “power” section, above. Honestly, this section is meant to be more of a call to those who research politics, the law, and institutions to weigh in here. I don’t know enough about the history of Title IX, for example, to say anything useful, except to ask whether the “problem” Kipnis and others identify really inheres in Title IX itself or in its application in specific university and college settings. Are there types of educational institutions that tend to interpret Title IX in a particularly limiting or invalidating way, for faculty *and* students? How would we know? Surely there is someone working on this very issue right now.

On emotions:
How do we deal with feelings that may result from institutional pressures, shifts, changes, or forces (if we do anything at all)? If our students are feeling triggered as a result of institutional shifts, pressure, or forces, does that mean that their feelings are invalid? Conversely, if I and my colleagues feel pressure to keep my proverbial mouth shut in my writing or in the classroom, or fearful of speaking out, and those feelings are institutionally-generated, how should we deal with those feelings? There’s a gendered dimension to feelings here, too (see footnote 2).

And how do we know when feelings are productive and when they are limiting? If students should (as I’ve said myself in my own classroom) experience discomfort or emotional challenges throughout the learning process, who gets to determine whether that discomfort helps them learn or hinders their learning? I want to return to the above hypothetical example and argue that location and context matter here: my own values suggest that acknowledging emotional challenges is always important, but I admit that I struggle with what to do when they reflect a power differential among my students. I believe that students’ struggles acknowledging their own privilege and the inevitable pain that comes with that process is indeed valuable, while the pain of a microaggression, say, or a reminder of a marginalized status is more exhausting than productive. As someone who occupies multiple identities, some privileged and others marginalized (as is the case for many, probably all of us), I’ve experienced both kinds of emotions. So what do I say to the student who is uncomfortable recognizing his own privilege? And to the student who feels triggered by classroom content? I’ll leave that for another post. I have some ideas here, but I want to keep readers’ eye-glazing to a minimum.

For me, where the rubber meets the road is how I apply all of this analytic discourse, these complex articulations of the workings of institutions, power, politics, and emotions, in my research and teaching practice. I’ve been talking about teaching throughout my reflections, but I also believe there are serious implications for sociologists, for researchers, and for academics, more generally. How do we weigh the narratives of our interlocutors? Whose stories do we believe, and how do we locate them, or validate them, in the cultural contexts in which they’re embedded? How do we determine who “really” has power, in a given context? How do we measure the effects of neoliberalism in a way that acknowledges its complex applications and workings? And how do we remember the humanity of the actors involved, faculty and students (administrators, too?), in the face of what often feels like a tsunami of fear about students as consumers, the limited job market, the adjunctification of the academy, the gutting of public education, and the general waning interest in respectful, critical discourse?

I think it’s time for me to find another therapist.

[1] If y’all have time for another research project, what I would do here if I did want to “do it right” would be (in addition to intensive literature reviews on power and politics in higher education, neoliberalism, emotion work, and feminist and queer pedagogies) a full-on content analysis of Kipnis’ writing and responses, in conjunction with Halberstam’s writing and responses, and ways their arguments have been wielded (or refuted) in specific university settings. This could be a qualitative and/or quantitative project. But, you know, that’s after I finish this dissertation.

[2] There’s a gendered dimension that goes rarely acknowledged in this discourse, despite claims of feminist representation on all sides (or claims that feminism should be dismantled, or abolished, which I won’t address here). There are two ways gender appears in this discourse: first, most obviously, in the assumption that it is or isn’t professors’ jobs to “coddle” students (I wonder whether, when I eventually earn my PhD, it’ll actually be in “coddling”). Second, slightly less obviously, is the assumption that “coddling,” or emotion work, or care work – feminized work, in itself – is less valuable than the “harder” work of “sage on the stage”-style conceptual conveyance.

Considering “Transparent”

October 4, 2014 Leave a comment

I meant to watch only the first couple of episodes of Transparent last night. I really did. It was a long week, and I wanted to see what this much-lauded show is all about. As with many shows the entire seasons of which are magically available online, however, I found myself compelled, frustrated, elated, and Feeling all the Feels, so I binge-watched the entire season. Like you do.

In my defense, each episode is a half-hour, so it was a (somewhat) minimal commitment.

As with most things, I felt ambivalent about the show. Some things really irked me, and others I really appreciated and enjoyed.

First, the irks (and I’ll try to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, so you should be ok to keep reading, if you plan to watch the show). The first irk is simple and obvious: the show is overwhelmingly white. The very few people are color are peripheral and largely vehicles for the main characters’ self-development. You could argue with me about one of the characters, a young woman, although she arrives later in the season, and, if the show continues for a second season, it’ll be interesting to see how her character develops. It’s worth noting here that the Pfefferman family is Jewish, their interpretation of which plays an important role for at least a one of the characters later in the show. So, there is some hint of cultural diversity, at least, but framing and critiques of race, specifically, felt notably absent from the show.

A second significant problem is the fact that the main trans and queer characters weren’t played by actual trans and queer people. This matters for lots of reasons, but I see two main issues with this:

  • I can’t imagine that there isn’t a transwoman who could have played the role of Maura, and played it better, and more authentically, than Tambor. It’s incredibly important for trans folks to actually play trans characters (and, for the record, lesbians to actually play lesbians), although, of course, no single trans person (or trans character) can capture all trans folks’ experiences. This critique (and others) was also applied to Dallas Buyers Club, a movie about which I felt similarly ambivalent. It’s interesting to me that Jill Soloway, Transparent’s creator, claims that she worked to employ other trans actors in a kind of “trans affirmative action” on the show (and, to be fair, there is another trans character who is played by an actual trans person), but I don’t think that those efforts give the show a free pass in terms of being trans-affirming. I understand Soloway’s assertion that Tambor brought viewers to the show who might not have otherwise been interested in the life of a transwoman, and that may be true, but that doesn’t negate the disservice that employing a cisgender, straight man to play the role of a transwoman does to trans folks, more generally. Ambivalence. It’s a Thing.
  • I really don’t like the way cisgender and straight folks get major props for playing characters that are seen as “so far” out of their realm of experience. I haven’t yet watched interviews with Tambor, so I can’t say how he’s conceptualizing his relationship to the main character, Maura, but it really bugs me that he benefits professionally from playing the presumably edgy character of Maura (and, relatedly, that Melora Hardin benefits from playing an asshole lesbian). I feel like all of the positive reviews of his portrayal of Maura contribute to the fetishization of trans folks (transwomen, in particular). Admittedly, this is a hypothesis; I haven’t read the reviews extensively, and, if time and resources were unlimited, I’d do a content analysis of the reviews of Transparent to see exactly how Tambor’s portrayal of Maura is described. It’d be interesting to do a comparison of TransparentDallas Buyers Club, and Orange is the New Black to see how each trans characters’ acting is (or isn’t) lauded. I wish those benefits would accrue to actual trans folks, as in OITNB.

In terms of other irks, I didn’t find the representation of the main lesbian relationship to be particularly authentic, at least, from my perspective. It felt flat to me, kindof an add-on to generate drama, and an excuse to show a little bit of hot lesbian sex. Now, there’s plenty of other sex happening on the show, but I think I might have sprained an eyeball as I rolled them throughout the lesbian relationship narrative. Part of the issue is that I didn’t buy Melora Hardin as a lesbian (practiced swagger aside), and, come on, people, why couldn’t she have been played by an actual lesbian? See above.

One more irk that is simultaneously a not-irk: the way that non-trans characters in the show talk about trans folks both reinforces overarching stereotypes about trans folks and probably reflects how most people actually think about trans folks. Horrifyingly. I think the hope is that the show, overall, will shift how these “most people” think about trans folks, and, in that way, maybe introducing and then challenging these stereotypes is productive.

Now, there are a few things I really liked about the show. First, I squeed a little when I spotted Tig Notaro and Ian Harvie in several episodes. Harvie’s character, in particular, is interesting, and how his character is framed as a vehicle for another character’s self-knowledge concerns me. That said, I ultimately liked the way the show lent texture to his actual life, if only briefly, especially (without giving too much away) in the way that his house is portrayed. I’d love to write more here about portrayals of trans folks in space (in terms of living spaces, queer spaces, public spaces…), but I don’t want to give too much away. Really, Harvie’s role in the show is relatively small, but it’s thought-provoking. Always good to have Thinks as well as Feels.

Hands-down, my favorite character in the show is Ali, played by Gaby Hoffman. She is unapologetically awkward and queer, and, while I don’t think she’s entirely a sympathetic character, she is both confused and confusing, confounding viewers’ assumptions about what it means to be straight and/or queer. I’m looking forward to seeing how her character changes (or not), assuming the show continues.

I’ll conclude with probably the least interesting thing I enjoyed about the show: the family dynamic and the drama therein. Beyond individual characters, what largely compelled me to stay up until 1am watching the whole series is the relationships and their related unfolding, wince-inducing conflicts. Part of what makes Transparent a pleasurable show to watch is similar to what made Six Feet Under and United States of Tara (both shows in which Jill Soloway was involved) enjoyable: the unfolding family drama. Transparent feels to me similar to these two shows and, if you’ve seen and enjoyed those shows, you’ll likely also enjoy Transparent. While, on balance, I’m glad I watched the show, and I’d recommend it (highly, in some ways), my tempered thumbs-up doesn’t negate my critiques. As with everything, I strive to keep both the positives and the negatives in mind at the same time. No show is perfect, or perfectly captures the experiences of actual people, but I like the way that Transparent induced me to write about it, and I hope the ensuing dialogue around the show is culturally generative and transformative, rather than flattening.

Categories: films, gender, race, sexuality, sociology

on the roots of racist rudeness and the politics of privilege and politeness

September 11, 2014 3 comments

I really enjoy taking the shuttle home from campus each day. It’s effectively the only public transportation available in this small town, and I appreciate that it’s there, even if I initially found it rather jarring. I’m accustomed to larger-city public transit, which involves as little eye contact and conversation with bus drivers and other passengers as possible. In Chicago, I always valued the brief moments where I’d connect with a fellow passenger in a non-creepy way.

But the shuttle in this town essentially mandates conversations. It would be odd for me to board the shuttle without having a somewhat extensive conversation with fellow passengers (mostly students), if not the driver himself (and, thus far, the drivers have been white, older men). I’ve had some interesting conversations, have observed some conversations that made me wince (intrusive questions from a driver about a passenger’s relationship status, comments from a driver about which local houses have the most “girls,” and perfect examples of “fag discourse” from two presumably straight, white, first-year men).

The conversation that so far has left a troubling impression on me, though, had to do with the idea of midwestern “nice.” Let me explain.

I was talking with a student – a Black, first-year woman – about her experiences here. I often find myself asking students “how it’s going so far,” and, as I’m trained to do, I ask follow-up questions when they seem appropriate. It’s essentially my job to talk to people, and I try not to be too intrusive and let people tell their stories. This student started telling me that, despite the fact that she was told that “people out here are so nice,” this hasn’t been her experience. She shared a couple of stories about how she and her friends were treated rudely by fellow students – male students, in both cases – both on and off campus. She kept using the word “rude” to describe their behavior, and I started thinking about microaggressions and racism. I asked her, at one point, whether she thought it might be racism, and she said she wasn’t sure.

“That’s the problem with racism,” I said. “It’s often really implicit these days. When someone’s rude to you, you’re always wondering if they’re racist or just rude.”

Honestly, I think I fumbled the conversation. I was trying to make a connection to gender that was pretty inadequate, and I made some comment about how I get the same feeling sometimes when people are rude to me. I wonder if it’s because they see me and think “lesbian” and are being rude because they’re homophobic (or heterosexist, if you prefer). But those experiences are few and far between for me, I’m guessing far less common than for this young woman from Chicago. Being white allows me to access the kind of midwestern, small-town “politeness” that this woman doesn’t experience. That said, being a woman also seems to entitle other people to an expectation of politeness from me. That’s another blog post, but it’s related, here. I wonder how gender and race intersect for this woman, around expectations of politeness.

When I arrived home, I noticed that my neighbors – white men and boys, mostly – were playing hip hop loudly enough for me to hear it through my open windows. It pissed me off and, while there may not be a direct connection between my neighbors and this young woman, my thought was: “ugh, you can listen to hip hop but when it comes to treating a woman of color with respect, you can’t manage that? WTF?” I had the feeling that white people get sometimes, but not often enough: rage that racism still exists, and a feeling of helplessness about changing the system, mixed with a little bit of guilt that the rage isn’t more persistent, that I’m not doing enough to change things.

So, what to do? I don’t think anyone would be surprised by the reality that racism exists on this, or any, campus. The good news is that I’m working at a gender and sexuality center and am involved in planning programming, so I’m going to have a conversation with my fellow center staff to figure out how we can put together something that addresses “rudeness” aka racism, sexism, and heterosexism.

And in terms of my own research, and my own thinking, more generally, I find myself wanting to completely disavow the word “rude.” Rudeness is never “just” rudeness. People are never “just” assholes. Rude behavior, it seems to me, is always rooted in structures of race, gender, class, sexuality, and others. Sometimes, rudeness is specifically about race or sexuality, as in the racist or homophobic slur shouted from a car window. But just because rude behavior isn’t obviously about race, gender, class, or sexuality doesn’t mean it isn’t about those things. I think the concept of microaggressions captures what I’m trying to say here. But what I want to add is that part of what makes the implicit racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism so frustrating in rude behavior is the sense of wondering I noted above. It’s exhausting to perpetually wonder, “wait, was that about race? Gender? Sexuality?” Perhaps it’s easier to dismiss rude people as “just rude,” as the woman I met on the shuttle was doing. I don’t want to deny her that strategy. But I’m thinking that maybe there’s no such thing as a “just rude” person because, at least for me, the energy of wondering and worrying about why someone is being rude to me is significant. It’s energy I could be spending on something else (like writing more blog posts! Ha!).

Similarly, “politeness” is never “just” politeness, and “niceness” is never just being nice. I find myself asking who has access to polite behavior, and under what circumstances is polite interaction denied. It’s an interesting question, and one I’ll be thinking about as I observe the interactions around me in this new town (again, this is what I’m trained to do!). I have access to politeness, most of the time, because I’m white, and a woman, and tall and scary-looking, so I intimidate people into politeness. <insert mean face> Just kidding. But part of white privilege (and class privilege), for me, is about an expectation of politeness. It’s the idea that I’m entitled to the politeness of others. My sense is that folks here would say that everyone is entitled to politeness from everyone else, but I think the reality is, as with so many other things, not everyone has equal access to politeness. Here, too, I’m thinking that Arlie Hochschild’s theories of emotion work are relevant. More specifically, it’s the idea that some people are entitled to particular emotions or emotional expressions from others, and others must engage in “emotion work” to produce the desired “nice” interaction. And it’s about power: usually the folks who can expect niceness from others “have” more power than those who are doing the emotion work. Think of the Starbucks employee who, for hours on end, must engage in chipper, cheerful interactions with surly customer after surly customer.

I think the worst thing I could have told this student is that “some people are just rude, and that’s that. You should ignore them.” This comment smacks of the kinds of dismissals I’ve heard all my life: “you’re over-thinking things. It’s not really that bad. Why are you so angry about this? It’s just one person.” Etc. etc. ad infinitum. For me, as a sociologist, rudeness is patterned along the obvious lines, as is politeness. I want to dismiss the idea that anyone is ever “just rude,” or that rudeness isn’t always connected to power and privilege in some way. The trickier part of this idea, at least theoretically, is how politeness and niceness fits in, and what people mean when they say that “everyone in the midwest is so nice.” I wonder: to whom? And when? Under what circumstances? And what kind of interaction might we encourage to replace politeness, or niceness, if anything?

For now, I’m wondering if this student will stay on my campus or transfer to another school. I’m not sure what I would suggest to her. Sometimes, the best strategy for survival is moving to a less hostile place. That said, I’ll be working on programming and research to shift the discourse around niceness, politeness, and rudeness just a little bit toward understanding the ways in which everyday interactions are rooted in structures of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Maybe you can join me by reflecting on how and when you do and don’t have access to niceness, or politeness. Maybe you can work a little to respond critically to the idea that “some people are just rude.” Maybe, but, as I’m suggesting above… maybe not.

“but she says [I’m] just a friend”: euphemism and dysphemism in everyday interaction

March 26, 2014 1 comment

I’ve been thinking about euphemism and dysphemism lately, probably because I’m working on a paper on the subject. You’ve likely heard of the concept of euphemism, but dysphemism may be a little less familiar. Here’s the gist: if a euphemism is a word or phrase that hints at a stigmatized concept with less stigmatized language, a dysphemism does the same work using more stigmatized language [1]. So, for example, a sex worker might be described as a “woman of ill repute” (a euphemism) or a “moral degenerate” (a dysphemism). An orgasm might be similarly be described as a “climax” (euphemism) or a “little death” (a dysphemism).

This is all very interesting, in an abstract way, but I’ve been thinking specifically about how to apply these concepts to a rather innocuous term. It occurred to me, after hearing this word repeatedly used to describe me, that this may be an example of a word that functions either as a euphemism or a dysphemism, depending on the context. In other words, it may be intended as a euphemism, on the part of a speaker, but perceived as a dysphemism, on the part of the listener.

That word? “Friend.”

Let me explain. I started thinking about this term after listening to a song called “It’s a Very Queer Christmas” from Erin McKeown’s holiday album [2], which begins:

Well, hello, it’s good to see you
Though we wish you’d come alone
But since you brought your friend
It’s a very queer Christmas
Let me show you where you’ll stay
See these separate, twin beds?
One for you and for your friend
It’s a very queer Christmas

If you haven’t heard the song, I’d encourage a listen; it describes the frustrating, sometimes painful experience of many LGBTQ folks who travel to their natal families’ homesteads over the holidays [3]. The use of the word “friend” in the song is particularly noteworthy, for the purposes of my argument here; it carries a sarcastic, admittedly humorous inflection, when sung by McKeown, but it begs the question: how is the word “friend” being used by family, in this context?

I was again thinking about this term when a professional person in an institutional context referred to me as my partner’s “friend.” I found myself wondering: whose discomfort was she trying to alleviate? Mine or hers?

Some work on euphemism and dysphemism (and other connotative concepts like metaphors) argues that meaning is constructed in the very moment when a euphemism or dysphemism is stated [4]. But what happens when that meaning isn’t clear, or is interpreted differently, or, notably, when that meaning is harmful in some small way to the listener? In my case, I suspect that the term “friend” was intended to be a euphemism on the part of the speaker, indicating her discomfort with the fact that she was referring to a relationship between me and my female partner (which, it’s worth noting, we’ve had for more than a decade). And yet, also importantly, it felt like a dysphemism to me because it trivialized our long-standing relationship. So, whose interpretation won out?

This question brings me to the “who cares?” part of my post. In other words, why do we care about language and interpretation, particularly around the concept of a “friend?” One thing I find interesting is the persistence of the term “friend” to describe relationships that are uncomfortable to particular people; “friendship” is still, it seems to me, often used to describe specifically LGBTQ romantic partnerships, or, perhaps, unmarried straight partnerships. Using the word “friend” as a euphemism for “partnership” (or whatever term couples use to describe themselves) operates as a euphemism that ensures comfort, on the part of the speaker, but it operates as a dysphemism that prompts discomfort, frustration, or (as in my case) anger, on the part of the listener. These distinctions aren’t trivial, in their effects, regardless of their intention (and I maintain that the intention of the speaker is typically to protect their feelings, rather than the feelings of the listener) [5].

To take me back to the moment when my partnership was described as “friendship,” I could have corrected her language. In that immediate context, I didn’t. I probably should have, although I think it’s important to note that it can be difficult to do so, in some institutional contexts like schools, hospitals, prisons, or governments. So, questions we might ask ourselves are: what kinds of institutional contexts enable or require euphemisms, and who do these euphemisms protect? In what cases are euphemisms also dysphemisms, and what are the effects of these terms? What does thinking about euphemisms, dysphemisms, and the possibilities of words to function as either or both tell us about the workings of power? Finally, who gets to decide what terms are euphemisms or dysphemisms, and whose interpretation wins out, in the moment, or in the longer term? Again, in the context I described, I don’t want to argue that I was powerless, but some aspects of that context (and, to be fair, my personality) made it difficult for me to challenge the euphemistic tinge to the term “friend” and reframe it as a dysphemism. That overarching pressure about language is indicative of a power structure, of some kind, one that’s probably more directly and painfully experienced by LGBTQ folks and straight folks whose partnerships continue to be labeled “friendships” by their own families.

In the end, it’s true that my partner is my best “friend,” and I might mobilize that term to describe us, in some moments. But thinking about “friend” as a euphemistic and dysphemistic term in particular institutional contexts says something, I think, about the ways people negotiate discomfort, in everyday interactions, and the effects of those negotiations. It’s worth thinking about the terms we’re using to protect our own discomfort, why we’re using them, and what their effect might be. For example, my aunt once described a distaste for the term “passed away” as a euphemism for death, and, for her, I’m guessing that “passed away” functioned as a bit of a dysphemism that trivialized her experience of her partner’s death. I’ve always thought carefully about the terms I use to describe death, as a result, and this strikes me as just one more example of a term that serves to protect the speaker (as a euphemism) but not necessarily the listener (as a dysphemism). What other terms might operate this way?

[1] For a solid, decent definition of euphemism and dysphemism, check out the internet (obvs), or, for those with access to a library: Chamizo Domínguez, Pedro J. 2009. “Linguistic Interdiction: Its Status Quaestionis and Possible Future Research Lines.” Language Sciences 31(4):428–46.

[2] McKeown, Erin. “It’s a Very Queer Christmas.” F*ck That! Erin McKeown’s Anti-Holiday Album Album. TVP Records, 2011.

[3] I feel inclined to note that I’ve been lucky in this regard; I can’t honestly recall a time in recent memory when my family has referred to my partner as my “friend” or treated her as anything other than family. Thanks, y’all!

[4] See, for example:

Allan, Keith. 2007. “The Pragmatics of Connotation.” Journal of Pragmatics 39(6):1047–57.
Allan, Keith, and Kate Burridge. 2005. Forbidden Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crespo-Fernández, Eliecer. 2008. “Sex-Related Euphemism and Dysphemism: An Analysis in Terms of Conceptual Metaphor Theory.” Atlantis 30(2):95–110.
Halmari, Helena. 2011. “Political Correctness, Euphemism, and Language Change: The Case of ‘people First.’” Journal of Pragmatics 43(3):828–40.

[5]If you’re wondering how to refer to partnerships of LGBTQ folks, or straight folks, even, I find it’s best to actually ask people what their preferred terms are.

Categories: family, friendship, sexuality

a few inadequate thoughts on recent tragedies

December 15, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s the holiday season, and things are not looking good. Truth be told, though, things haven’t been looking good for a while, and no amount of self-induced holiday cheer can scrub away the feeling that something is very, very wrong in this country. You may be thinking that I’m writing about the shootings in “bucolic” Newtown, CT, and you would be partially right. But I’m also writing about three interconnected conversations we keep trying–and failing–to have, with disastrous effects.

But let me back up. On Wednesday afternoon, I let our dogs out to run around in our backyard. My neighbor from two houses down spotted me across the two chain-link fences that separate our yards, and she waved and said hello. I waved back and asked her how she was doing.

“Well,” she said, “I’m not doing too well.”

I asked her why, and we proceeded to have a conversation about the series of shootings in our neighborhood over the last few months. She told me how nervous she was for her kids, for her community, and how she was “pacing the floor at night,” worrying about her own children and the kids who’ve been shot and killed recently. She grew up in this neighborhood, she said, and she confessed that she didn’t feel safe here. She said she had a really bad feeling about how things have gone lately, and she didn’t understand why people can’t talk through their difficulties.

My responses to her, I felt, were woefully inadequate. I hadn’t known that there was yet another shooting in my neighborhood recently, in addition to the high school freshman, Dajae Coleman, who was shot and killed back in September. All I could do was listen, express my own outrage and confusion, and hope that, somehow, we would find a way to a better community conversation about how this kind of violence continues to happen.

Two days later, Newtown, CT happened, and I can’t help but notice a pattern. The scale of the Newtown shootings was without question horrifying. I’m not sure I can add much by way of sympathy that doesn’t sound trite and repetitive, but I’ll say what I need to say, anyway: my heart goes out to the families of the adults and children killed and injured there. What happened was tragic and heartbreaking. Period.

In the ensuing media din, I find myself extremely frustrated at the three conversations we keep trying and trying to have, and we keep failing and failing at them. The reasons we keep failing feel both obvious and elusive to me. So, in what follows, I’m attempting to work through how at least I am thinking about these three conversations. I’m not sure if it’ll clarify anything other than my own frustrations and what I need to do next.


On how “visiblity” works in national conversations about gun violence

I am certainly not the first person to remark on the politics of race in national conversations about gun violence. It is interesting to me the way that Newtown has been described in news reports as a quintessential New England (read: white, middle-class) town. There is something about how the killings in Newtown and other, similar locales have been described that give me an icky feeling. It’s the idea that killings in white, well-off places are somehow more deserving of national sympathy, of national discussion than the killings that happen every day in browner, poorer communities. There’s something about individual and community innocence and guilt, about who should and shouldn’t be subjected to violence, and about expectations around what sorts of people are violent and what sorts of people aren’t that is all about how we think of race in this country. We have these discussions badly, if at all.

My instinct here is to assert that I in no way mean to detract from the tragedy in Newtown. But my simultaneous instinct is to ask myself: why do I need to make that disclaimer? Is thinking about the Newtown tragedy versus more ongoing, local tragedies a zero-sum game? Must we choose to focus on one tragedy over another? My question here is, again, persistently: why? Why can’t we have a simultaneous conversation about short-term mass-killings like the one in Newtown and the longer-term mass-killings in Evanston and, at an even larger scale, neighboring Chicago? Why can’t we talk about race and visibility and violence at the same time? Don’t we owe it to the residents of Newtown and the residents of Evanston and Chicago to try to talk about violence and visibility differently? 


On “mental illness” and individualized explanations

We’re also busy struggling to have a conversation about how we deal with mental health–and mental illness–in this country. I am completely unsatisfied with the simplistic assertions many people are making about how mental health services would have prevented this tragedy. And I keep calling it a tragedy because I can’t think of a better word. I’m sorry; words fail me now (as my terrible writing illustrates!).

Probably the least helpful assertions are that the shooter was “crazy” or “evil” and simply needed to be institutionalized. These claims assume that the world can be neatly divided into the crazies and the sanes, the goods and the evils, and anyone who has thought deeply about how people get to be who they are should dismiss them out of hand. Sorry, folks; people are complicated, and what people do may be good or bad, but there is no universal ledger that marks people as obviously on a path to malevolence or benevolence.

Do we need to destigmatize mental illness? Undoubtedly. Do we need better, more accessible mental health services? Without question, we do. And I agree with the claims that insurance companies and, more broadly, the way we do health care in this country are badly broken. But I am not at all convinced that “better mental health services” would have prevented the Newtown tragedy, in particular; I’m no mental health expert, but it seems to me that the shooter in Newtown was the kind of man who would have more access to mental health services than, say, the folks in my community. 

The thing that worries me about the “mental health” conversations around the Newtown tragedy is that these conversations may be used as a way to individualize the problem. And we’re well beyond the time when we should be thinking that these kinds of shootings are just (white) individual problems, in the same way that we’re well beyond the time when we should be thinking that shootings in Evanston and Chicago are just (black) community problems. Saying that the Newtown shooter “was crazy” or, its more PC cousin, “just needed better mental health services” removes the Newtown tragedy from the broader social context. And the broader social context here is that the Newtown shooter fits a pattern: that of white, often middle-class men going on shooting rampages. What I am getting at here is that the twin problems I am framing as Newtown and Chicago are part of the same damn system. The problems may be manifested at an individual level, or even at a “community” level, but they are connected along lines of race and class. It seems to me that we have a crisis of white masculinity in this country. 

No matter how hard we try to keep it out, race and class keep coming back into these conversations. 


On gun violence and gun laws

Returning to my conversation with my neighbor, she asserted that guns are not the problem, that guns in the hands of a “strong man” are appropriate, but that guns should be kept out of the hands of people who… this part was unclear to me. People who get into arguments? People who are angry? Gender politics aside, here is where I part ways with my neighbor, sharply. 

I keep thinking of a series of reports I heard on WBEZ about the difference between gun violence in Toronto and Chicago. I strongly suggest listening to the reports, but there are a few things that stick out to me. In the initial report, he reporter, Rob Wildeboer, talks about Toronto’s “year of the gun” as being one of the worst years for gun violence. Here’s what he said: 

So here’s the thing about Toronto’s “year of the gun.” That year there were 79 homicides, 20 more than usual. By contrast, here in Chicago which has the same population as the city of Toronto, we had 448. And that was a banner year for Chicago; murders were lower than they had been in decades.

A little later in the report, Wildeboer describes how Wendy Cukier, a professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, analyzes the differences in gun-related deaths:

Here’s how Cukier explains it: In countries where there is little gun crime, people are shocked into action when there is gun violence. Meanwhile, Cukier says Americans are unfazed, or numb to gun violence because there’s so much of it. The “terrible irony” is that as a result, Cukier says, Americans don’t demand an end to gun violence even though they suffer from it more than people in other industrialized countries. To put it another way, the more violence there is, the less attention it gets. Cukier compares Americans to a lobster in a pot of water that is gradually being heated.

CUKIER: When you’re in the pot you don’t recognize that you’re going to boil to death.  And it’s just shocking, I think, to most people around the world that Americans do not realize that the conditions under which they live are comparable to conditions in developing and third world, post-conflict societies, that most people don’t have to worry about their children being shot when they go to school.

Lobster reference aside, Cukier’s last comment is striking given the recent shootings in Evanston and Newtown. Not only are the gun laws in the U.S. deeply flawed–and I believe they are–but it seems to me that gun culture in the U.S. is lethal. And we’re so accustomed to it, we can’t see how our lives could be, should be different. 

I’m sorry, gun-loving friends, but I part ways with you, here, too. I’ve seen folks make the claim that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” that “guns are tools,” and that we can’t keep guns out of the hands of criminals, but those claims feel hollow to me and don’t ring of evidence. It is interesting to me that the guns used in Newtown were procured legally. It is also interesting to me that countries with much stricter gun laws actually have significantly fewer gun-related deaths. I don’t think it’s a simple correlation here; I do think there’s a causal element between restrictive gun laws and gun-related deaths. That said, I, like others (here and here), am losing hope that we’ll ever be able to make any progress in this conversation. I’m not sure that American gun culture is reversible  We’ve been boiling ourselves for too long. But… I feel certain that the solution cannot be more, and more lethal, guns. I have yet to see a well-reasoned response to these multiple, ongoing tragedies that adequately deals with gun laws and gun violence in the U.S., more generally. I am open to these kinds of responses, from gun-toting and gun-averse friends alike.

However, I see that there’s a gun buyback program happening right down the street from me, just two blocks away, right now. I wonder whether that is an effective strategy (and how would we even know?). In theory, fewer guns in circulation means fewer gun-related deaths. But I also don’t think that the causal arrow here is as direct and clear as it seems to be. 


On what’s next

I am just not sure what to do next, other than keep thinking and keep trying to have public conversations. A blog is most certainly not the best way to achieve this goal. One thing I can say is that small-scale conversations are a start. I am hoping to teach a short course on gender and society to Evanston high-school students who are transitioning to college this spring, and that’s a place for me to start. What about you? What kinds of conversations are you hoping to have, where, and how? What do you think would help? And where have I gotten things completely, utterly wrong? It seems to me that only by articulating our thoughts, concerns, and confusions can we begin moving the heavy, heavy wheel of social change. It’s an inadequate start, I know.

Categories: Uncategorized

families, marriage, bureaucracies, and other bees in my bonnet

September 4, 2012 2 comments

Nearly two weeks ago, I was stung by a bee. It flew up into the leg of my jeans as I crossed the lawn to play with the dogs. It became agitated and stung me, and you can probably imagine the bee-in-my-pants dance I performed while trying to get the dang thing away from my skin. And, now that I think about it, it probably was more hornet than bee. It was a tiny, tiny bee-like insect, and, in my experience, smaller bee-like insects produce more painful stings. The good news is that the itchy, painful rash bee-sting site has shrunk from the size of a (very red and itchy) dollar bill to the size of a (more pinkish and marginally irritating) quarter.

Why am I telling you about a minor health problem? Actually, a bee sting is a fairly apt analogy for what I feel when I encounter the kinds of definitional bureaucratic limitations that make me go all red and itchy. Here’s an example: my university requires me to fill out the FAFSA every year, despite the fact that I am not applying for federal aid. Fair enough. I’ll fill out a form if it’ll allow me to retain my funding for another year. But when I try to be honest about the nature of my little “family,” the form gets all agitated and sting-y:

It says: “Error Found. The following error(s) have occurred: You said that the student is not married, and the student does not have children or legal dependents, but you reported that the student’s number of family members is greater than one. Change one of the following answers.”

So, now I am faced with a decision: do I change my marital status, or do I report that my “household” is comprised of more than one person? It’s worth noting a bit of slippage in the FAFSA definition of household and family. That is, although I didn’t take a screen shot of it, the question that caused the error asked me to report the number of people in my “household.” The error message seems to equate household with “family,” which is an interesting problem itself.

This strikes me as a perfect example of what Max Weber describes in his sociological tome, Economy and Society, as the ways in which bureaucratic processes come to construct our social knowledge, our knowledge about how societies should be organized and run. Others [1] have made and developed this point both within sociology and beyond, but I was reminded about how bureaucracies create social experiences and realities in everyday life as I was filling out the form. The message from the U.S. federal government is: sorry, bub. Your family doesn’t count here [2]. And, so, I fly into a temporary rage, trying to get the bureaucratic bee out of my proverbial pants, trying to figure out a way to represent the family I have chosen.

And, yet, I’d like to add another bee-like experience here to remind us (me) that, while bureaucracies certainly do construct individuals’ lived realities in very concrete ways, their impacts also vary based on social location. Here is where I simultaneously laud and critique the radical and/or queer politics that offer solutions to the above scenario, and to governments and politics more broadly. The radical queer folks I know (and I mean “radical” in both senses of the word) are anti-same-sex marriage, anti-marriage more generally, and they work to create models of families and communities that defy the kind of cultural limits the above error message make visible. I was reading a blog post recently that seems to suggest that radical queers have a point: that same-sex marriage efforts are part of a broader, normalizing movement that effectively recognizes only certain kinds of (married) relationships as the bases of family. In this post, Jonathan Wynn asserts that “gay marriage” [3] actually limited the options for partnership recognition in his home state, essentially forcing him and his (female) partner to marry. Setting aside the radical, if difficult, possibility that they might have decided not to marry at all (and, thus, forgo the 1,138 federal benefits to which married couples are entitled), there are two things that stung me about this post:

1. The very last line of the post: “If you look at it in a slightly different way, you could say we’re happily gay married.” After reading this line, I turned to M and said: “No. No, you aren’t actually gay married.” Gay married in this country means that your marriage is recognized differentially by different states, if at all, and you don’t really get to enjoy those federal benefits. And responsibilities. I guess you miss out on those, too.

2. On the other hand, and in line with my critique of radical queer politics, there are plenty of same-sex (and, opposite-sex, natch) couples who also want access to those federal benefits. Not all of those couples fit the normative model of white, middle-class, home-owning, children-having, picket fence-constructing, church-going, homonormawhathaveyous. As much as we loathe bureaucratic limitations, the fact is that they exist, and they structure individuals’ and couples’ lives in ways that are very real to them. I am a firm believer that people are not simply cultural dupes, that people do the best they can with the information and resources they have, and, for some couples, marriage offers a viable way to protect the families that they value.

And, yet… yet… I find myself oscillating between individual experiences and structures in these kinds of questions, in questions about marriage and family and how we should organize ourselves in the moment and for the future. As I see it, there are two fundamental questions we must ask ourselves:

  1. How do X people want to live their lives today, in the current moment, given all of its structural oppressions?
  2. How do X people move forward in imagining and creating a world that minimizes these oppressions while acknowledging their stickiness?

Critical to both of these questions is how we define our X’s. As a sociologist, I must always keep in mind the groups of people I am studying, referencing, engaging with, and, ultimately, representing. And I need to honor where they–where “we,” when I consider myself part of these groups–are located socially, culturally, structurally. And I need to simultaneously acknowledge the limitations of our social locations.

So, back to family and bureaucracy. I believe strongly in radical queer models of families, particularly the concept of chosen families. Of course, not every birth family[4] is a haven in a heartless world (ugh, I can’t believe I’m linking to this book), particularly for queer folks of various stripes. And, yet, I wonder whether we (here I mean “radical queers”) might consider pursuing bureaucratic opportunities for acknowledging queer families as institutionally legitimate, e.g., via local [5] same-sex marriage initiatives or by changing census forms. This is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t consider less normative queer work, or that we should set that work aside in favor of efforts to uphold heteronormative, patriarchal institutions. We each need to decide which work we think is best (and, for me, in case it isn’t obvious, that work is teaching [6]). But I am calling for a more pragmatic approach in which we can incorporate a) radical queer (or our own radical) visions of the future and critiques of the present with b) the lived realities of individuals and families of all kinds now. This approach requires a simultaneous strategic tweaking and persistent critique of the very bureaucratic structures that make up our social lives. It’s a way of working on the honeycomb while keeping the honey in mind.

But what does that look like? I’m not sure. I can say that I am most impressed by grassroots, collective work that seeks to meet people where they are and provide them with the resources they need to succeed in ways that change hearts and minds in the long run. Admittedly, that sounds idealistic. And, sometimes, this work is located within institutions that have problematic histories. But it strikes me that the only way forward is exactly this kind of piecemeal, imperfect, cobbling-together-what-we-have, lurching-forward-in-an-old-jalopy approach. And perhaps my job is to call out the speedbumps as I see them.


[1] My personal favorites are Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott and Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon.

[2] And, yet, note the helpful enthusiasm conveyed in the above image. “Keep going until your name and confirmation number appear!” And the side-bar “Help and Hints.” It’s a friendly bureaucracy, after all. Someone must–or should–be writing about the emotional labor bureaucracies perform on their citizens. There is Viviana Zelizer’s The Purchase of Intimacy and How Emotions Work by Jack Katz–both excellent reads–but that they aren’t quite what I have in mind.

[3] The term “gay marriage” really bugs me, probably for obvious reasons: it makes relationships between women invisible. “Same-sex marriage” doesn’t perfectly capture the panoply of genders represented in romantic relationships, either, but I think it’s marginally more useful.

[4] Personal disclosure: I grew up in an amazingly loving and supportive family (hi, Mom!). However, my own lived reality doesn’t preclude me from choosing my own families in adulthood.

[5] In my view, supporting the HRC is not the way to go. Perhaps this is another blog post.

[6] And for those teachers among my two readers: I am always surprised at how little my undergraduates understand about the state of same-sex marriage in the U.S. I don’t expect them to have the states in which SSM is legal memorized, but few of them have understood the distinction between state- and federal-level recognition of marriage. They’ve never heard of DOMA, and many of them think that same-sex couples can get “fully” married in the U.S. (in some states) today. I’m not sure why I’m surprised at this lack of knowledge about the state of marriage. I suppose it isn’t an issue that most of my students have faced.