Locating yourself through language

While traipsing about the internet recently, gathering literature for my senior thesis, I discovered an interesting article written in 2010 by a couple of social workers who were conducting a larger study on LGBT youth identities. These folks became particularly interested in the construction of identity through language that they observed among genderqueer youth, in particular, and returned to their population to do a more focused analysis (Saltzburg and Davis 88). After observing conversations among a group of 10 youth, positioned as “outsider witnesses (92),” the authors made the following observation, among others:

“The social vocabulary used to represent gender does not match how they have come to know themselves, leaving them mislabeled and misrepresented by conversations that do not include them” (Saltzburg and Davis 94).

Saltzburg and Davis explained that the youth look to disrupt and re appropriate gendered language to better fit their non-binary identities (94). They use words such as “femme,” “fluid,” and “genderqueer” to create variations of stagnant terms that are used in mainstream society to modify behavior and identity (94). “Language,” as the authors so clearly put, “constitutes and creates the meanings of our lives” (Saltzburg and Davis 95).

This notion harkens back to Judith Butler’s claim that the experiences of those whose identities are deemed false or unacceptable qualify as “unlivable lives” (218). She writes that although being accused of being a copy is a form of oppression, if one is oppressed than one is, in fact, an intelligible subject. In order to experience oppression, one must exist.  Those people who are labeled unreal suffer from something worse than oppression: “To find that one is fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find one to be an impossibility) is to find that one has not yet achieved access to the human” (Butler 218). Saltzburg and David reiterate Butler’s sentiment in their data analysis, saying, “Absense of social recognition [lack of language] translates as invalidating and dishonoring of their ‘lived experience'” (99). Language is the tool that brings ideas into reality–without the power of language reclamation and creation, genderqueer people do not exist.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Saltzburg, Susan, and Tamara Davis. “Co-Authoring Gender-Queer Youth Identities: Discursive Tellings and Retellings.” Journal of Ethnic And Cultural Diversity in Social Work 19.2 (2010): 87-108. Print.


radical self-love

when i started blogging and video blogging on youtube, and actually i auditioned and got a spot on a little startup youtube collaborative channel called dykeswholikedykes. um, anyway, when i started doing all this, something i had to try and overcome was this feeling of navel gazing. i guess that’s what my dad has always called it. um, and what are you really doing when you’re doing an academic project about yourself or about your feelings? i keep saying to my friends, “oh, i’m writing a capstone about my feelings. i’m doing a project about my feelings.” and i say it in sort of a self-deprecating way that makes it into a joke. but i really don’t think it’s a joke. i was just thinking how i could describe this to you and i remember reading a tumblr post a couple of months back, where the person writing the post was talking about how to practice self love. and they were saying, sometimes what you really need to do is open your computer and open photobooth or whatever application you have on your computer where you can see your reflection or a streaming, back video of yourself essentially? a picture of your face? and just stare at it. just fucking stare at yourself in the computer screen until you like what you see. and, you know, paint your nails while you’re doing it, i think is what this person said. that really spoke to me. because, we are taught, as queer people—or as any people really, regardless of what your identity is or how other people think of you—not to enjoy ourselves, not to enjoy our own presence, not to enjoy being there alone with our minds and staring at our own fucking faces, like, in a computer screen for an hour for two hours until we love looking at ourselves. and so, my response to criticism about this project is, yes. this project is navel gazing. i am gazing at my navel. i am gazing at my face in a computer screen. i am listening to my voice play back to me over a voice recorder and…that is radical self-love. so, i’m not ashamed. and i think more people should research themselves, i really do. that’s one of the things i’m taking away from this.

Trans* teens on YouTube. They exist.

Now that I’ve talked and talked and talked about objectivity and social media and theoretical notions of genderqueerness and what all those things MEAN?!!!??, I suppose it’s time to dive into some analysis, wouldn’t you say? I want to start by talking about a certain article that was posted on Salon.com back in February of this year. The article is entitled “Trans Teens Turn to YouTube” and it was written by Tracy Clark Florey, Salon’s in-house sex and relationships writer. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been following tons of trans* folks on YouTube for…forever. (And by forever, what I mean is approximately 3 years) So naturally, when this article was shared by one of my Facebook friends a while back, I was intrigued and skeptical. I’m used to seeing ignorant, insensitive headlines like “Transgender Teens: Girls will be Boys” orTransgender Teenager Prostitutes to Raise Cash for Surgery to Look Female.” Really? I mean, really?

To my surprise and delight, Clark-Florey treats the experiences of the teens featured in her article with respect and touches honestly upon the very phenomenon that interests me–trans* teens turning to YouTube for advice and community! She describes the experience of Natalie, a 17-year-old girl from New York who uses YouTube to document her transition, reach out to other folks of similar experience, and provide hope to others who might be seeking solidarity. Natalie says:

 “When I was just coming out as transgender, I needed somewhere to show me that being me is OK, and that being different is a good thing…I found that YouTube was really where I belonged, and that the Internet will always be my home.”

Natalie discovered a reflection of her experience on Youtube and decided to give back by providing that example to other youth. The best part about this, to me, is that it’s not an isolated example. Em Korczak, a vlogger I’ve been following myself for some time now, posted a video back in 2011 in which Em described all the positive things about being trans*. Em said:

“I used to be all insecure and stuff, obviously, and there were a couple of people on YouTube who were just themselves and I was like, ‘You know what? Fuck! Cuz these guys are awesome and I wanna be myself. Because they’re not doing too bad and maybe it’s okay to be me!’ And so if I can pass that liberating, wonderful feeling on to someone else…then that’s fantastic.”

Vloggers like Em and Natalie and so many others are contributing to a movement that is changing the way trans* and genderqueer people access information and come to define and embody their own identities. Em, if you’re reading this–you passed that feeling on to me.

Works Cited:

Clark-Flory, Tracy. “Trans Teens Turn to Youtube.” Salon.com. 25 Feb. 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <http://www.salon.com/2012/02/26/trans_teens_turn_to_youtube/&gt;.

What’s all this about gender?

Talking about genderqueer stuff is one of my favorite things to do. Honestly. But most of the time, I’m only talking with myself or people who are pretty much on board with the concept. In this particular situation, I think it might be groovy for a reader who might not have been exposed to ideas of gender fluidity or queerness to have a little bit of background. Hold on to your hats.

Riki Wilchins describes gender as “a system of meanings and symbols—and the rules, privileges, and punishments pertaining to their use—for power and sexuality: masculinity and femininity, strength and vulnerability, action and passivity, dominance and weakness” (Nestle, Howell and Wilchins 28). This is, by far, my favorite definition of gender out of all the thousands of definitions I have read. It speaks to me on a different level than a definition that explains what primary and secondary sex characteristics or behaviors and personality traits are associated to which category of people. Instead of flitting about the surface of our gendered lives, Wilchins digs in really deep–claiming that gender is about power (28). I would say, I have to agree.

All our lives, we have been told that gender is one of two things. You are a man or a woman. A boy or a girl. Gender, as my partner so eloquently put it last night after patiently listening to my ranting for the 1,000,000th time, is presented as a dilemma. A choice between two opposite poles. But people like myself, and Riki Wilchins (among other theorists), are finally breaking out of the box and making a radical claim: gender is no dilemma.

Genderqueer is a term and an identity that challenges the strict categories to which we all are assigned at the moment of our birth. “It’s a boy! It’s a girl!” …the power in those words is just absolutely incredible.  Genderqueer is a word that, for me, signifies the idea that my gender is dynamic and transformative–ever changing. I reject the category that I was given and not just for political reasons. Theorist and activist Kate Bornstein, or Aunty Kate as I so fondly refer to her, wrote:

“Gender identity answers another question: ‘to which gender (class) do I want to belong?’ Being and belonging are closely related concepts when it comes to gender…In this culture, the only two sanctioned gender clubs are ‘men’ and ‘women.’ If you don’t belong to one or the other, you’re told in no uncertain terms to sign up fast” (Borstein 24).

Genderqueer folks are the ones who don’t sign up, can’t sign up, or skip out on the survey all together. I love my gender and I dedicate quite a bit of time to the maintenance of our relationship. I’m not gender neutral, I don’t want to destroy gender. Naming my identity for myself and for society as a genderqueer allows me the freedom to celebrate it.

Works Cited:

Bornstein, Kate. 1994. Gender Outlaw: on Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Anne Wilchins. 2002. “It’s Your Gender Stupid.”             GenderQueer: Voices from beyond the Sexual Binary. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson             Press.

Queer and Young Online

Social networks are awesome. They’re interesting; they’re time consuming; they’re confusing; they’re frustrating; they’re…a whole lotta cool. My guess is that you probably spend about 27 hours a day online participating in some sort of social networking. Perhaps you are even multi-tasking, like me, and networking while cooking, singing, cutting your toenails, and doing other important life tasks. WELL GUESS WHAT?!!? Online social networks are a topic of rising interest among academics too!! Scholars are asking what implications social networking and online living might have for social interactions, capacity for memory, empathy, self presentation, and friendship performance (Keller 2011, Boyd and Ellison 2007).

One popular topic for highfalutin investigation is impression management—the conscious construction of an online persona or identity through networked connections and public displays of personal information, true or false (Donath and Boyd 2004). To avoid falsity or inauthenticity, most platforms encourage authentic representations of self by encouraging users to send messages to other users, comment on posts by other users, and use real photographs of themselves to create a sense of personal connection (Boyd and Ellison 2007). Erving Goffman’s theory of impression management explains that we monitor the behaviors and actions of people we encounter and attempt to see through what we perceive as false while simultaneously trying to project a constructed identity that fits others’ expectations of us and our desires for self-perception (Goffman 1959). Social media theorists have adopted Goffman’s system of “front stage” and “back stage” regions in face-to-face interactions to describe online identity formation (Ytreberg 2002).

You know when you finally work up the courage to send a fanmail message to somebody cute on Tumblr and say something like–“So, um, your blog is really cool and stuff. I have hairy pits too. We should be friends.”–that’s front stage. And the rest of the time when you’re just scrolling endlessly drooling over sexy queers and wondering if you might be able to pull off gold lame short shorts? That’s back stage.

In “The Social Media Bible,” author Sakfo describes how social networks develop trust among group of people with a share interest. He explains how the internet has become a trusted, reliable, friend, providing advice and housing confidential information (Safko and Brake 2009). I don’t know about you all, but my relationship with the internet is more nuanced than at least one or two of my offline relationships. The only person who knows more of my secrets is my dog, and she may or may not be telling.

In an article on the creation of online communities of gay and lesbian folks, Robin Queen discusses the importance of language in creating queer space. She writes:

 “The social differentiation of gender differs significantly between queer and non-queer speakers in that the social categories masculine and feminine map on to queer experiences differently than on to non-queer experiences (if they can be said to map on to queer experiences at all). Queer people alternatively appropriate or distance themselves from the stereotypes associated with men and women generally. However, they may also do the same with stereotypes associated with queer people specifically (Queen 1998).

Stereotypes related to gender and sexuality are largely constructed through the use of specific language and, in the vast world of online communication, it’s possible to carefully choose language that disrupts binary constructs–or dichotomous arrangements that pit identities against one another in a seemingly dualistic arrangement. Members of queer online communities generally share a base knowledge of stereotypical—I would argue binary—language that allows them the freedom to experiment with alternative usages.

In my humble opinion,  some similarities can be drawn between the formation of an online identity and the formation of gender identity. Check out my next post where I talk about genderqueerness in all its glory.

Works Cited:

Boyd, Danah M and Nicole B Ellison. 2007. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of ComputerMediated Communication 13 (1): 210-230.

Boyd, Danah. 2011.“Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning: 119-142.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in EverydayLife. New York: Doubleday.

Keller, Bill. “The Twitter Trap.” New York Times Magazine. The New York Times, 18 May 2011. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.          <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/22/magazine/the-twitter-trap.html?_r=4&gt;.

Lewis, Kevin, Jason Kaufman, and Nicholas Christakis. “The Taste for Privacy: An Analysis of College Student Privacy Settings in an Online Social Network.”Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14.1 (2008): 79-100.

Safko, Lon, and David K. Brake. The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

Queen, Robin M. 1998. “‘Stay queer!’‘Never fear!’: building queer social networks.” World Englishes 17 (2): 203-214.

Ytreberg, Espen. 2002. “Erving Goffman as a theorist of the mass media.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19(4):481-497.

Image Credit:

Nail Biter: http://bit.ly/HU9QIg

Stella: Personal photo

the frayed end of a rope

what i want to do is write, with my face very close to the page, carefully carving out the lines that will tell you what i’m discovering. and then i want to sing you those lines. the ones that fell out of my pen when i tried to do something academic. so here it is. jumbled but honest, just the same.

about a year ago i discovered the internet. well, i knew about the internet. aim turned into msn turned into yahoo and askjeeves and google to myspace to facebook to gmail to youtube to youporn to hulu. i knew about the world wide web. but a year ago, when i was lost in a mess of my own sexuality and dependency and confused, emotional, political, gray space, i started a blog. on tumblr. an extremely quiet blog without my name or my photo and rarely an original thought. and then i slowly began to make my way into the queerest, most liberating, strange space i had ever known. i spent hours a day, scrolling through photos of outfits and landscapes, tent forts and tattoos and fancy cappuccinos. and videos of people’s girlfriends and boyfriends and boifriends and grrrlfriends and kittens and questions and do it yourself beanbag instructions and kitchen herb gardens and hormone updates and advice on everything under the sun. and there was humor and pain and people wrote about their feelings and their breakups and i wrote about my feelings and my breakup. and there was gender. and sexuality. and so. much. fucking. gender. more than i had ever seen. there were boys and women and girls, men, butches, femmes, bears, twinks, androgynes, genderqueer and genderfucked and genderfluid, mtf, ftm, mtftm, ftmtwtf, transmen, transwomen, transfags and dykes and queers and birls and fairies and bdsm and softbutchgrrlylesbois and gays and bis and trans* folks and polyamorous, pansexual, transsexual, omnisexual, demisexual, asexual, all sexual porn. and stories and pictures and names and pronouns and questions and answers and everything in between the certain and the totally fucking uncertain. and it was all right there. on my computer. on tumblr. on youtube. right there behind my screen. and i was on the outside—safely out of reach. safely anonymous, safely in denial, dangerously curious. they inspired me. they confused me. they lit up a sexy little fire in the pit of my stomach that i called…intellectual curiosity. academic interest. research. that’s valid. that’s understandable. that’s safe. something i would later come to realize was kinship. a very painful perfect, deep—rooted secret connection. i had found the frayed end of a rope and i wanted to follow it. but it took me a while to figure out that the anchor on the other end was me.

Why objectivity is not a thing.

Before I can start throwing down any research, I have to be honest with myself and any potential reader about why I’m doing what I’m doing. You see, I have been a student for seventeen out of the twenty one years I have been alive. Those seventeen years have been interesting. They have have been filled with days and weeks and months of classes where smart people (teachers) told non-smart people (students) the “truth” about the world. Don’t get me wrong, I learned many valuable things over the course of those 17 years. I learned how to multiply fractions, identify misplaced modifiers, successfully raise a tank of zebrafish,

thnx Wikipedia

type 78 words per minute, and write a 100% BSed five-paragraph theme. I learned how to win an argument with my teacher about what Shakespeare actually meant when he wrote that Caesar preferred to surround himself with fat men . News flash: he did not just have a particular fetish for fat men, no matter how many years Ms. Doore has been teaching advanced junior English.

Point is, I did gain life skills. What I also gained was a serious distaste for hierarchical education. As I moved on to higher (and more expensive) education, it became absolutely crucial for me to think critically about my relationship to the subjects of my research. I developed a healthy skepticism and then some considerable rage-against-the-machine-type feelings toward notions of objectivity and generalizability. Consequently, like any good radical private school scholarship white queer kid with a chip on their shoulder–I gravitated toward feminist research. Here’s where it gets academic–I give you the shortened version (can you believe it?) of my full feelings on objectivity.

The process of social research is riddled with questions about relationships, value, and power. Many sociologists and researchers from various other fields rely on a positivist approach, gathering facts at a certain point in time to represent the experience and reality of a group of people (Reinharz and Davidman 15). This particular approach leans heavily on notions of objectivity, generalizability, replicability, and impersonalness, creating a distance between the researcher and the subject so as to prevent a bias in the data collected (Brayton). At its inception, feminism troubled this methodology by looking critically at that distance created. As members of a marginalized group historically affected by a male bias in both qualitative and quantitative research (Brayton), feminists began asking: as an academic, is it possible to deliver an unbiased account of another’s experience, left untouched by one’s own social reality and identity? Feminist researchers understand the research process to be relational—drawing connections between relationships and values. Rather than denying or avoiding the ties between researcher and subject, feminist methodology seeks to identify and examine those ties. As Kim England writes, “ The intersubjective nature of social life means that the researcher and the people being researched have shared meanings and we should seek methods that develop this advantage” (82).

Feminist research requires a close examination of the self as researcher (England 82-83). This introspective methodology is based in two ideas: reflexivity and positionality.  Reflexivity can be broadly defined as a self-conscious analysis of the researcher’s role in the research process itself—not only in terms of execution, but also construction and conceptualization. A large part of practicing reflexivity is positionality, or situating the researcher within a particular social reality in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability status, ethnicity, or any number of contributors to social location (Nagar and Geiger 11). Gergen and Gergen stress the importance of considering the place of the research within one’s own life, both on individual and political levels (Gergen and Gergen 81). A responsible researcher must be prepared to ask themself what sorts of borders are being crossed, in whose interest, and whether there is value in blurring the line between self- reflection and social observation. Practicing reflexivity cannot change one’s relationship to the subjects of the study, nor can it erase the power imbalance that accompanies one’s occupation as a student or academic. Reflexivity does nothing to change the realities of folks who are marginalized, discriminated against, abused, pressured, or forgotten. In point of fact, addressing one’s social position and identity as a researcher within written work accomplishes but one single, albeit crucial, task: to reassure the reader and the subject that the researcher is aware of their relationship to the research and has spent the time and effort needed to negotiate power dynamics created by identity and privilege. With that said, reflexivity is not just a disclaimer to be added at the beginning or the end of the research process—it is a constant effort to reevaluate one’s relationship to the subject and should extend far beyond the start and finish lines of any project.

My perspective as a young, white, English-speaking, American, middle-class, able-bodied, genderqueer person who was socialized as a woman affects the way I approach and analyze literature. My commitment to activism also influences my perspective and gives direction to my research. Negotiating my own relationship to gender, social media, and the binary that has played such a large in part in determining my life experiences and shaping my identity allows me to look at my sources with a critical eye, understanding that each author offers something unique based on their own social reality.

So, to make a long story even longer, I don’t think it’s possible to be objective in social research. Frankly, I don’t believe that striving toward objectivity is necessary or particularly valuable. Acknowledge your privilege, acknowledge your experience, acknowledge your goals, self interested or not. Constantly question your position and challenge your personal assumptions. If you consider your research to be activism–which I do–check out this post I wrote on my ten commandments of activism. Then get to work.

Works Cited

Brayton, Jennifer. “What Makes Feminist Research Feminist? The Structure of Feminist Research within the Social Sciences.” What Makes Feminist Research Feminist. 1997. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://www.unb.ca/par-l/win/feminmethod.htm&gt;.

Gergen, Mary M. “From Theory to Reflexivity in Research Practice.” Method and Reflexivity: Knowing as Systemic Social Construction. By Kenneth J. Gergen. London: Sage, 1991. 76-95. Print.

Gieger, Susan. “Reflexivity and Positionality in Feminist Fieldwork Revisited.” Politics and Practice in Economic Geography. By Nicha Nagar. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2007. Print.

Kim, England. “Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality, and Feminist Research.” The Professional Geographer 46.1 (1994): 80-89. Print.

Reinharz, Shulamit, and Lynn Davidman. Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

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