Mary Robertson

Growing Up Queer is an ethnography of a U.S. LGBTQ youth drop-in center that explores the social construction of sexuality and gender, or how we become sexual, gendered persons. Its timeliness is appealing to readers as the youth in the study represent a new generation of young people who have come of age in the context of a vibrant sexual and gender rights movement. Not only has the LGBT rights movement changed the way young people become sexual and gendered, young people themselves are transforming desire and identity, particularly in terms of resisting binaries in exchange for fluidity.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what are the questions do you still have?

Robertson: I’m very interested in learning how sexuality (and by proxy, gender) are influenced by social contexts. Biological, psychological, and medical models of sexuality too often emphasize essential characteristics, suggesting that we are born with a particular sexual orientation. Yet the way we understand sexual orientation, identity, desire, and behavior, largely revolves around socially shared meanings and labels. The concept that one is a heterosexual or homosexual person—as opposed to people engaging in heterosexual and homosexual behavior—is a relatively new one, historically speaking. Some of the young people highlighted in my book are more comfortable with the ambiguity and fluidity of their sexuality and express frustration with the failure of traditional labels to describe their identities.

That said, I don’t attempt to dissuade readers from the idea that we experience our sexual desires as innate. While I believe very strongly that social contexts matter when it comes to our understanding of what is socially acceptable when it comes to sexuality and the labels we use to talk about our sexual desires, it would be disingenuous of me to deny that many of the youth I spoke to described their sexual desire as something that had always been there. This question of the relationship between the social and the physiological is one that I continue to wonder about, both in terms of sexuality and gender.

NOTCHES: This book speaks to themes of the history of sex and sexuality, but what else is it about?

Robertson: The theme that guides the overarching message of the book is that of queer orientation, which is a concept I borrow from feminist scholar Sara Ahmed. I use the idea that some of us are queer—meaning we stray from the straight lines of society and that some of us are made queer—society disavows us access to the mainstream or the normal, to suggest that as same-sex desire and sexuality becomes more acceptable and therefore normal, there are still those queer members of society who are not accepted or acceptable. I want to complicate the idea of the LGBTQ subject to show that while acceptance is occurring for some, there continue to be queer bodies and people left out. In particular I talk about how this often is connected to intersecting identities like race, class, nationality, and ability.  In other words, one’s sexual desire or gender expression and identity may or may not be the queerest thing about them. I ask how do systems of oppression in addition to the more obvious homophobia and transphobia complicate LGBTQ youths’ lives? In addition, the book explores how transgender phenomenon is changing the way gender is understood for all of us, how queer media is a counterhegemonic tool that challenges lack of queer representation in mainstream media, and how for some LGBTQ-identified young people, disclosing queer identities to family members may be getting easier.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book?

Robertson: I used ethnographic methods to conduct the empirical research on which the book is based. Data include 34 life history interviews with young people who frequented an LGBTQ youth drop-in center and hundreds of hours of participant observation in my role as an adult volunteer and researcher in the center. The theoretical foundations of the book are situated in the sociology of sexualities and queer theory. And the book is in conversation with literatures based in sociology, women’s and gender studies, and LGBT studies.

One of the most unexpected findings was the youths’ interest in erotic anime and fan fiction and the way those media filled a gap for queer youth who don’t find representations of their sexuality and gender in mainstream media. This was just something totally unexpected and unfamiliar to me, so I enjoyed exploring these media and learning more about their queer origins.

The most challenging aspect of this research is the ethics involved in qualitative and ethnographic research with human subjects. I found it very challenging to negotiate the value of sociological research, the social justice mission of the center, and the very real, lived experiences of the youth who participated in the study. All three of those things are deeply important to me, but in some ways they all three have competing interests. As this was my first ethnographic research project, I’m not sure that I fully understood how complicated this methodology is, particularly as I fancy myself a feminist scholar, which requires me to pay particular attention to power at the site of knowledge construction. The process of conducting ethical, feminist ethnographic or qualitative social science research is terribly difficult. I’m not sure that people really grasp that fully until they’ve done it themselves.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Robertson: The book is lacking the voices of cisgender girls and women. This has been a shortcoming of the project since the beginning. The best explanation I have for this lack is that—as I understand it both through my own experience and looking at other research—LGB-identified ciswomen are simply less likely to use public resources like an LGBTQ youth drop in center. One reason for this might be that sexual minority ciswomen, butch non-binary people, and transmen don’t suffer the same social sanctions for transgressing sexual and gender norms as cismen, femme non-binary people, and transwomen, so they simply may not be as in critical need for support. But women’s sexuality in general is excluded from the public and kept private in a way that men’s sexuality is not, so I think sexism is also an explanation for why there weren’t more cisgender girls and women in the space. Ciswomen may feel less entitled to take up space for their needs as sexual persons in a visible, loud, and public way. Finally, it may just be the case that at the particular time I was doing my research in this particular center, ciswomen and girls weren’t frequenting the place.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Robertson: I think the book is going to appeal to undergraduate and early graduate students because as young people themselves, students will be able to identify with the youths in the book; they are also members of this generation that I point to. As an ethnography, the book tells a compelling story, which makes it accessible to non-experts and can engage readers new to sociology and these concepts around sexuality and gender. The whole book is appropriate for Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies courses on sexualities or LGBT studies as a way to explore the concept of social construction. Parts of the book would be useful in in various ways as well. For example, Chapter 3, “‘Let’s Be Trans’: Going beyond the Gender Binary” would work well in a survey course on gender, and Chapter 4, “‘Google Knows Everything’: Finding Queer Media” could be assigned in a communication course. The book would also be appropriate in Psychological Counseling, Social Work, and Human Development programs for students who are likely to be serving queer populations in their occupations.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Robertson: I’m currently working on a research project that uses as data true storytelling assignments my students complete in my courses on gender and sexualities. Using Kenneth Plummer’s work on the sociology of storytelling as a starting place, I’m looking at how stories young people tell about gender and sexualities can help us to understand about becoming sexual.

Mary Robertson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University San Marcos.

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