Using ethnography to study queer identity construction
In 2012, I spent several months doing ethnography with a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth group in Northern England (see Jones 2016). I approached the youth group expecting to see particular interactional patterns that would tell me something about what the youths’ mutual identity was, and how this related to broader ideologies of gender and sexuality. I assumed that the findings of most previous research into language and sexuality would be relevant: lesbian and gay speakers have often been shown to construct a shared sexual identity by indexing their difference to mainstream heterosexual culture (e.g. Queen 2005, Morrish and Sauntson 2007, Jones 2012). However, once I began to spend time with the young people, I quickly learnt that the picture was far more complex than I’d expected.
The first thing I realised was that the young people came to the group out of a real need for a safe space: they all lived in a very working-class, conservative area, and typically experienced homophobia and/or transphobia daily. I also learnt that, whilst their queerness brought them together, they didn’t want it to define them. Indeed, many of the young people took an explicitly anti-queer stance in the data I collected with them; they denounced Gay Pride events as too “in your face”, they expressed their distaste for overtly “camp” behaviour in gay men, and they tried to avoid the sorts of activities that the youth workers encouraged them to get involved with (those concerned with LGBT history, for example). In this sense, they seemed to be aspiring to a contemporary, neoliberal ideal of ‘homonormativity’ (Duggan 2003), driven by a desire to assimilate with heteronormative, mainstream culture.
However, homonormativity reflects a very privileged form of queer culture, such as the sanitised and palatable version of gay identity put forward in the TV shows Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, where discourses of tolerance and equality prevail. In contrast to this, I witnessed these young people expressing their frustration at not fitting into their local community; they shared stories of the abuse and discrimination they’d experienced, and they explicitly rejected labels that they felt positioned them as anything other than “normal”. The more time I spent with the young people, the more I realised that their identity construction was intrinsically connected to their experience of marginalisation. It wasn’t simply about being queer, as I’d initially assumed; it was about surviving their queerness in a world that was intolerant of them. Though they were undoubtedly influenced by the western media representations around them, whereby being queer is often an incidental aspect of a character’s identity, these young people’s queerness was repeatedly foregrounded by others in their lives, and I realised it was this that drove their desire to be seen as ‘normal’.
What my ethnography taught me, then, was how important it is to appreciate not only the gender or sexuality of a particular group of speakers, but also the other intersecting aspects of their identity. In this case, the lack of privilege experienced by these working-class youths, and the marginalisation that they felt from society, directly impacted on their identities as queer people. I approached the research site expecting to find teenagers engaged in identity work that was influenced by recent moves towards equality in the UK, such as same-sex marriage. I quickly learnt, though, that although this had influenced my experience as a gay person – white, middle-class, working in a liberal field, and not being victim to homophobia every day - these young people had considerably less agency and it didn’t frame their experiences. Homophobia defined their identities in a way that I couldn’t fully appreciate until I spent time with them and learnt to understand things from their perspective. I’m so grateful to the young people who took part in my research, then; they not only taught me about their lives, but they reminded me of my own privilege. Without an ethnographic approach, this would have been much harder for me to see.
Duggan, Lisa (2003) The twilight of equality? Neoliberalism, cultural politics, and the attack on democracy. Boston: Beacon Press.
Jones, Lucy (2012) Dyke/girl: Language and identities in a lesbian group. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jones, Lucy (2016) “If a Muslim says ‘homo’, nothing gets done”: Racist discourse and in-group identity construction in an LGBT youth group. Language in Society. 45(1): 113-33
Morrish, Elizabeth and Helen Sauntson (2007) New Perspectives on Language and Sexual Identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Queen, Robin (2005) How many lesbians does it take…: Jokes, teasing, and the negotiation of stereotypes about lesbians. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(2): 239–57.