On Queer Digital Identities (Hello Culture, June 2018)

This talk was presented a Hello Culture: Identity, June 2018. Full text available below.

On Queer Digital Identities
Today, rather than talk about the ways that queer people are represented, I want to consider how queer people represent themselves. Particularly how this manifests itself in digital contexts, and in thinking about how digital spaces support, create, and sustain queer identities. 

The idea (and I say idea because I’m acknowledging that this is not always the reality) behind the internet is to be a leveling information and communication network capable of transcending physical and geographical barriers to connect people all over the word to information and to each other. it allows for, facilitates, and even thrives on the end user creating multiple iterations of themselves. 

This is something that most of us do, particularly on social media. It’s these multiple representations of identity that offer so much potential to queer people, and particularly to young people at the early stages of developing a relationship with their sexuality and/or gender identity.  

One of the central complications of queer identity is the necessity to be out. Queerness is not always visibly marked – if and when queer people are included in images or media it is not always immediately apparent just from looking – as such our visibility is temporal, and continually at risk. Much of our early experiences are shaped by feelings of isolation, of alienation, a disconnection from ‘normative’ society. From this often stems an inherent fear of rejection, and sense of inadequacy and shame. Whilst there are circumstances in which this invisibility may afford queer people a degree of privilege over other marginalised groups (in that it we are able to maintain our safety/access by concealing ourselves and ‘passing’ – although gender-nonconforming people do not have this option), this easily allows us to remain invisible. We are consistently forced into vulnerable positions where we must repeatedly make ourselves ‘out’, where we actively put ourselves at risk of danger from negative and sometimes violent reactions if we are deemed to have ‘deceived’ someone of our identities. This can make navigating physical environments very difficult and disorientating for queer people, (I will remove my earrings if walking alone, lower the pitch of my voice or silence myself – all in an attempt to appear more straight, to avoid conflict or violence), and these acts of external and self policing contribute to a wider epidemic in queer communities of internalised homophobia, and/or transphobia.

It is these feelings of isolation and regulation that position the internet and social media platforms as such essential tools and lifelines to queer people. Our identities are performative, we demonstrate our queerness either through choice (in the way we present, what we say, what we wear) or by default because our bodies, identities, voices, gestures, partners do not conform to the rigid expectations of a cis-hetero-patriarchy. Digital spaces are a testing ground for our queer identities, for many they are often the first space where a queer iteration of ourselves exists, the same fear that makes me police myself also took my formative explorations of queerness into a digital realm. Many young people chose to come out to facebook or youtube before they can ever speak this in a non-digital space, for trans people social media can often be the first place they are comfortable and able to live as themselves, identified with their correct gender identity and their chosen name – for some, digital encounters will be the first time we ever connect with or even see other queer people. Our relationships to digital spaces are often transformative; they are transgressive spaces where we can experiment, learn, share, and connect, where we have access to information that otherwise we may not. Digital technologies have altered the ways we connect and because of that how we think of ourselves and our identities  – rather than creating digital identities our digital experiences help us to create (or at least to understand) our queer identities.

So why is this important to us in the arts & cultural sector? 

  • Firstly, it’s a background for understanding why positive representation for queer communities, and particularly representation from within our communities, is so important – and the role that we can play in making that happen.
  • Secondly, it’s about finding spaces that audiences (or potential audiences) can connect with you, and about understanding the barriers to access for queer people to venues.  Often digital spaces become places where we can introduce new and alternative discourse into public spaces. They are therefore counterpublic spaces that we can learn about our audiences, engage with them, and from that make venues more accessible, programme more effectively, and develop more meaningful relationships. 
  • Finally, and most importantly, it also demonstrates a need for a different kind of creative engagement. For many queer people, the transition from digital space to physical space is significantly more complex and dangerous – sometimes impossible, particularly for people from traditionally conservative backgrounds, or from some faith based communities. Rejection, shunning, so-called conversion therapies, hate crime, domestic violence, forced heterosexual marriages very much exist and exist within this city. These are real life barriers that legitimately prevent engagement with any kind of queer relevant work (and not just arts, but community work, access to healthcare, seeking legal or police support etc.) for individuals who need it most – it is these communities (invisible even within an in/visible community) who rely on digital content, on the protective anonymity on the digital counterpublics as a resource for survival when physically entering a queer space might identify them as such and put their safety at risk. So I’m issuing a call for digital creation and resource, for open and accessible queer digital content that can be freely accessed anywhere, anytime, by anyone and specifically by those who cannot access it anywhere else.