On Wednesday evening I sat down for two hours to speak with Holly Donovan, a PhD candidate in Sociology at Boston University. Holly is conducting interviews with LGBTQ-identified folks in the Boston area as part of her research on sexuality, religion, and community. If you identify as queer and live in the Boston area, check out her call for participants, which she asked me to pass along. For me, it was a unique opportunity to be on the opposite side of the microphone: usually I’m the one asking the life history questions!
|tea is essential for good conversations|
For the next three weeks, I’ll be completing phase two of the project — keeping a journal of observations and thoughts about my experience of being queer in Boston — but for now, I thought I’d share some initial reflections about our conversation.
Life narratives are inherently chaotic on the first go-around. Unless you’re focused on a very specific aspect of your life (and even then, as my OE oral history project shows, things can get out of hand very quickly) it’s fairly impossible to tell a linear story that encompasses all of the salient details of what goes into making a person. Even with the keywords “sexual orientation,” “religion,” and “social interactions” that’s a hell of a lot of territory to cover! I found myself skipping around a lot in time and missing stuff that was probably important. I woke up around 3am on Thursday morning and was mentally adding things to the “remember to tell her next time …” list.
My sexual orientation isn’t a primary identity category for me; being in a sexual relationship was much more of a turning point. This might seem weird, given the amount of time I spend thinking and writing about human sexuality — but I think that’s kinda the point. In my own personal life, there’s feminist politics (of which rights for non-straight folks were long a part of my political interests), there’s queer and sexual history (which I’m engaged in as a scholar), and then there’s the whole my-life-as-a-sexual-being thing. Which is awesome. But doesn’t really have so much to do with orientation as it does with physical experience, with relationships, with how I understand my sexuality as it relates to my ethics, my body, my interactions. In that space, I don’t think of myself as someone with a sexual orientation or identity — I just think of myself as (enthusiastically!!) sexual.
I don’t socialize in primarily queer spaces. Since one of Holly’s questions is about the interactions of queer-identified folks with straight-identified folks, I thought a bit before we sat down about my circles of friendship and the primary spaces where I socialize — both in person and online. Online more than in-person spaces are, I would say, “queer” (inasmuch as “queer” overlaps with “feminist,” which it sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t). But my circle of friends is pretty sexually and gender diverse, and they often overlap. That is, when Hanna and I get together with friends we don’t have our “gay” friends and then our “straight” friends. We have friends. We don’t socialize in spaces that are organized around sexual identity (i.e. gay bars or lesbian book clubs). Possibly because neither Hanna nor I were ever in search of an active dating scene? And I don’t think either of us has ever particularly yearned for the type of social solidarity of “safe” space that gay neighborhoods or social clubs might provide. The one exception to this is our health center, which we picked in part because of its history in LGBT health activism.
This isn’t exactly news, but opposition makes me feel defiant and irritable, rather than judged and cowed. When people are cranky about lesbian PDA, I have the urge to be more publicaly affectionate, not less. I’d argue that both my family background and my long-time singleness both contribute to this. By the time I entered into a relationship, I was much more confident about my presence in the world than I would have been in my teens. You don’t like what you see? Suck it up and deal.
I also don’t have reflexive fear about my physical safety, which is probably a whole tangle of social privileges I’ve experienced throughout my life: class, race, gender presentation, and so forth. Which ties into the idea of straight privilege that I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while now:
“Straight” privilege. I’ve put “straight” in quotation marks ’cause I don’t think it’s a function of being straight so much as being read as straight. Regardless of my own actual sexual desires, about which I didn’t speak about much growing up (except to very close family and friends) I was read as straight, as a single straight woman. I grew up assuming I had just as much right to be in public spaces, to be open about my relationships (sexual or otherwise), to speak up for my politics, as the next person. I think this is a function of race and class too. I’ve heard bi and fluid women talk about this in terms of their relative comfort level at being visibly queer in public relative to a partner who’s been in lesbian relationships longer — that a woman who’s moved through the world in straight relationships for a number of years has come to expect the right to openly acknowledge her partner, the right to kiss him or hold hands or cuddle in public and not only receive little negative feedback but actually get positive social responses. And therefore there’s less reflexive reserve, because they haven’t had to build up that mechanism for self-protection.
My family is awesome. Holly kept asking about negative social aspects of being out, and I couldn’t think of any. Yes, the obvious political/legal discrimination. But in terms of my family accepting my chosen partner on equal terms with my siblings’ partners — that was never a question. The fact she wondered if we were treated differently in my family actually took my by surprise. I mean, I got why she asked (I probably would have, being in her shoes), but that sort of behavior is so out of the realm of the way my family operates that I felt at a loss to explain why that just was never an issue.
My co-workers are awesome. I knew that already, but hadn’t really articulated it before talking with Holly. I’ve never felt unsafe about being openly in a lesbian relationship at work, either with my immediate colleagues or with the higher-ups in the organization. Hanna is my emergency contact, the secondary beneficiary in all my benefits paperwork, if we were married she’d be able to sign on under my health insurance plan, and so forth. People ask after Hanna and there’s no indication that they think of our relationship as any more or less significant in terms of workplace socialization than any of the straight partnerships that come up in daily conversation.
Choosing Hanna changed my relationship to West Michigan. Before Hanna and I got together, I could picture moving back to Michigan if the right job came open … I know how to survive as a political and social minority there (that was the story of my daily life as a child and young adult) but I wouldn’t ask someone else to live with that sort of hostility on a daily basis. Well, that’s everything from my notes thus far. Now I have three weeks of journaling and a follow-up interview. I’ll be back mid-November with “second thoughts” and possibly “third thoughts” as well!
I always wonder, when I hear about these types of studies, about the people they don't interview. I think most people like you who feel their sexual orientation is a minor part of their identity simply fly under the radar of the people conducting this type of research. I wonder if that skews the image of the queer community in the academic literature (and, for that matter, in the public mind) because, I would guess, people with the most accepting families, work places, and communities, would tend to feel the least need to seek out specifically queer spaces to socialize in.
I think you're probably on to something there, GS, which is part of the reason I was quick to volunteer for this study. Holly and I also had an interesting conversation just as she was leaving about the need to track geographic localities of her participants … because she sorted them initially by where they live now (urban/rural) but there have been migrations in both populations as well as people who've gone away and returned and people who've stayed … so mapping those against personal experiences could also be very interesting.
I think there's definitely another whole study to be done about people who live in “gay ghetto” neighborhoods and why … because I imagine you get folks who choose to live there because it feels safer while they're newly out or more vulnerable … and then you'll have people who live there because they're in established networks of friends and it's what feels familiar.