2015 Winner: Jennifer Ansley

Queer Theories of Place & Space

Queer Theory is a field of study that questions the meanings and values that we attach to different sexual and gender categories. Queer theorists are also interested in how queer subjects—those who are non-heterosexual, trans*, and/or gender non-conforming—make “space” for different ways of living and being in the world. Queer Theories of Place & Space pursues the following inquiries: By examining the concept of “queer space,” what can we learn about how the organizations of different spaces enforce social norms? How do different spaces construct feelings of belonging and exclusion?  My spring version of this course focuses, in particular, on the impact that policing, surveillance, and criminalization have had on LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people of color’s safety in and access to public spaces, including predominantly white gay urban enclaves.

Scholars who are interested in the concept of “queer space” have tended to focus on physical spaces—gay urban enclaves, suburban neighborhoods, or queer rural communities—and built environments—gay bars, bathhouses, and performance venues. In both the spring and fall, the first assignment followed suit, asking students to engage in an analysis of a physical space of their choice and to think about how the organization, discursive construction, and function of that space helps to enforce social norms. In order to illustrate how research should be used to expand and deepen original analyses of our own, the second major writing project in fall 2014 built on the first, asking students to research the history of their space, the economic and policy changes that have shaped that space, and scholarly work that’s been done on the issues at stake. The second major writing project became an opportunity to also reconsider, revise, and complicate conclusions drawn in the first.

In these first two assignments, student projects included an analysis of Cocoa Cinnamon in the context of coffee culture more generally, and argued that while Cocoa Cinnamon creates a politically progressive and LGBTQ-inclusive community space, we should also consider Cocoa Cinnamon’s role in the gentrification of Durham and its impact on low-income communities in the city (see attached). Another project looked at how The Pinhook, a local bar and performance space, supports a music culture that appeals to 20- and 30-something LGBTQ-identified Durhamites and in doing so creates a “safe space” for that community. While I enjoyed the opportunity to watch students’ ideas evolve over the course of multiple drafts in the context of two major writing projects, I was concerned, however, with the difficulty most students’ experienced with considering gender and sexuality in conjunction with differences in race, class, and ability, and found that many students tended to focus on one axis of difference, rather than understanding the intersecting embodied differences that impact people’s ability to move through the world.

This semester, I turned the first major writing project into a short essay, and revised the second major writing project to include an intensive archival research component that more forcefully challenges students to consider these intersections. This second major writing project also gives them opportunity to learn about how LGBTQ activists in the South have articulated the issues of safety and access at stake particular spaces and have been engaged in responding to the cultural discourses and social and economic policies that have shaped various spaces. For example, students are working on projects that examine how the Durham’s former Lesbian Health Resource Center responded to barriers to medical care experienced by lesbian and bisexual women in the 1980’s; how Southerners on New Ground has responded to surveillance, profiling, and police brutality experienced by LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people of color in the South; and how Internationalist Books has, since its founding, functioned as not only a community center, but a node in the broader circulation of information and resources for queer people, creating conceptual community space within the Triangle Area and beyond.

The goal of this more involved archival research, as with the first two major writing projects I assigned in the fall, is to protract the writing process, moving slowly through research, brainstorming, planning, drafting, and revision in order to give them a sense of how a research project evolves, and the intensive, sometimes long-term grappling that goes into a well-developed argument. This archival research project also allows them to learn from people who are directly impacted by issues such as policing, lack of bathroom access, and difficulties accessing public resources, whether those resources be a park bench to sit on, forms of ID with a gender marker that matches their appearance and gender expression (allowing people to move more or less easily through spaces), or basic healthcare.

In addition to considering physical spaces, “Queer Theories of Place & Space” also explores how different genres of writing and new digital communication technologies might create virtual spaces that offer new means for building and sustaining community. To what extent, if at all, do various forms of media—print zines, social media, blogs, online news media and open access scholarly journals—expand our notions of “space” and produce new sites of communal possibility? To what extent do these texts “queer” our notions of academic writing and invite more people into conversation with us?

In the final writing project for “Queer Theories of Place & Space,” students are given the opportunity to produce their own zines, websites, blogs, op-eds, scholarly journal articles and/or other forms of public writing, and are asked to design a ten-minute presentation in which they distribute that text to their classmates; reflect on the conventions of the genre they’ve chosen to write in; situate their text within broader academic and cultural discourses on their topic; and to evaluate the significance of that intervention. The oral presentation is a key component in cultivating their awareness of the choices they make as writers, and an awareness of texts as objects that circulate in the world and mediate conversations about important social problems.

In the context of this final writing project, I ask students to be self-conscious about questions of audience and the relationships of difference between them and the communities they imagine themselves writing for and about; this constitutes not only an writing convention among Queer Studies scholars themselves, who are often careful to lay out their own subject positions and the ways it shapes their perspective, but I believe, is also crucial to teaching students to compose across genres and media. As I detailed in a recent blog post for LAMP@TWP, students in the digital age are writing for increasingly diverse reading publics who they should be considering their ethical responsibility to at the same that they attempt to engage them; in this way, a consideration of how to be in conversation with their audiences is also a consideration of how they share space with others.