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Gender Studies: Interview with Dr. Ben Trott

05/22/2017 What does "queer" mean? What is homo-normativity? Why repression still a thing? Visiting professor Dr. Ben Trott talks about gender research and his stay at the Leuphana.

Why did you choose Leuphana and how do you like it here? 

One of the most distinctive things about Leuphana, particularly among universities in Germany, is the emphasis it places on inter-disciplinarity, allowing students to engage with what are usually seen as quite different areas of knowledge while also having a lot of autonomy to design their own course of study. The way that the faculties are organised also promotes inter-disciplinary approaches to research, and there’s a lot of collaboration among scholars working in quite different fields. All of this makes Leuphana a great place to work.
Part of my responsibility lies in further developing the new Gender and Diversity Research Network, and one of its goals is to facilitate greater collaboration among faculty and students working in this area. The Network is only around a year old, but a lot has happened already in this regard.

In 2016 the Network hosted a series of discussions around the role, foci, and the various approaches to gender and diversity research, as well as around some of the challenges it faces. There’s now a 10 Minuten – die den Unterschied machen event every Wednesday, where members of the Network offer a snap shot of their research. And a monthly reading group looks at new critical work in the field that’s likely to be of interdisciplinary interest. The Network also aims to develop connections and opportunities for collaboration beyond the university. It’s joined LAGEN (the Landesarbeitsgemeinschaft der Einrichtungen für Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung in Niedersachsen) which is committed to increasing regional coordination among Gender Studies scholars and those working in related disciplines. Quite a few faculty members spoke at this year’s LAGEN conference in Hannover on The Politics of Reproduction. And the Network is also currently hosting an international lecture series on Work, Gender, and Social Reproduction.

What is homo-normativity? 

It might be helpful if I define “hetero-normativity” first. This was a term deployed by a number of queer theorists in the early-90s to name the ways that heterosexuality tends to function as an unmarked norm. It’s what everyone is presumed to be, unless they indicate otherwise. It also refers to the way that heterosexuality is sometimes cast as an ideal, or is privileged in certain ways. “Homo-normativity” has had a number of slightly different meanings. Initially, it was intended to describe the way that certain gender norms are reproduced – and others are disparaged or excluded – within gay and lesbian contexts. The historian Susan Stryker talks about the term having been used, again in the early-90s, to refer to gays and lesbians who were active in queer politics but hostile to transgender concerns. More recently, though, the notion of “homo-normativity” has mostly become associated with Lisa Duggan’s use of the term. Namely, to describe the ways that queer movements and communities have become increasingly de-politicised, with some gays and lesbians no longer seeking to undermine – but rather support and sustain – dominant assumptions and institutions, often seeking assimilation within them.

Is “queer” something one is or something one does? 

If we accept – for a moment – Wittgenstein’s claim that the meaning of a word is generally its use in the language, then there’s a certain tension here. On the one hand, some people do use the term to describe themselves. And when they do, it usually means that they identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual; or it names a sense of belonging to a community of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex and other people. But on the other, saying that one “is” queer can also be a way of saying that it’s difficult to say what one is. It can be a way of saying that you don’t recognise yourself in the way that you’re told you should, or that there’s no single way your gender or sexuality can be signified. 

Sometimes, the right to be recognised the way that you’d like to be can be very important to a person. Sometimes, though, the requirement to be recognised is something you might want to resist – if only because the options on offer can seem very restrictive. And this is what people sometimes mean when they say queer is something one “does”: moving between, disidentifying with, troubling, or trying to escape what we’re told we are (or need to be).

During the 2016 orientation week there was a quite vivid debate at the University about the pros and cons of an all-genders-bathroom. What is your opinion?

This issue of bathrooms is sometimes seen as trivial; but it’s really quite crucial. Access to bathrooms is part of what makes it possible to access public spaces, and places of work and study. All-gender bathrooms have been introduced at the university in addition to sex-segregated ones, and this sort of thing can help make the place more accessible to those who don’t recognise themselves as male or female, men or women. They’re to be welcomed for this reason alone. But it’s also important to recognise that bathrooms are often places where gender norms are most strongly policed; where trans people, androgynous people, or people with non-normative gender expressions can face confusion or hostility. (Jack Halberstam wrote about all this in Female Masculinity.) All-gender bathrooms can potentially help avoid some of this policing of gender.

It’s also worth keeping in mind, there’s nothing “natural” about sex-segregated bathrooms, and that the issue of whom has access to which bathroom has been key to maintaining various social hierarchies. Terry S. Kogan has studied the history of sex-segregated bathrooms in the US and shows that they were largely about resisting women’s full integration into public life and maintaining the ideology of “separate spheres”, where women’s proper place was really supposed to be in the home. In the US, bathrooms have also served as a tool of racial segregation. And during the early-days of the AIDS crisis, men who appeared to be gay were often kicked out of bathrooms because of irrational fears about contamination. Disability activists and scholars have also done a lot of work to demonstrate how architecture – including bathroom architecture – can exclude certain bodies from using public space. A recent collection of essays edited by Kathi Weeks on “The Politics of the Public Toilet”, published in South Atlantic Quarterly, addresses a lot of these issues.

Is repression still a thing, considering we live in a comparatively tolerant time and community? 

In some ways, I’m sure you’re right that we live in comparatively tolerant times, as far as queer or LGBT issues go. That having been said, full legal equality is a way off in many places, with same-sex couples often still excluded from the right to marry for instance. Many LGBT people also remain subject to various forms of stigmatisation. In Germany and a lot of other European countries, for example, men who have sex with men are banned from donating blood, while others are assessed on the basis of individual risk. And in many places, even despite greater legal equality, violence is on the rise. 

According to questions recently asked in the Bundestag, in 2016 the rate of homophobic crime rose by around 15% in Germany, compared to the previous year. In England and Wales, the police reported a 29% increase in hate crimes related to sexual orientation from 2014/15 to 2015/16. And the British charity Galop describe a 147% increase in hate crimes against LGBT people in the three months after the Brexit vote.

In terms of whether “repression” is still a thing, I’m not sure it’s the term that I’d use. It implies a kind of prohibition, and there do seem to be more people who feel able to come out as LGBT today. But this doesn’t mean things like shame or fear don’t still play a powerful role. Didier Eribon makes a convincing argument in his book, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, namely that gay people live in a word of insults, and that this shapes the way they understand themselves. Insult isn’t just about the use of explicitly insulting terms but also insinuations, allusions, metaphors and certain forms of irony. And for Eribon, insults are “performative”. They assign the person subjected to insult a place in the world though repeated linguistic acts, producing fear and other emotions that create a barrier separating stigmatised people from others. And this barrier often becomes internalised by the person being insulted. “Insult tells me what I am”, he says, “to the extent that it makes me be what I am.” 

A 2013 report by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 90% of the people surveyed described having heard homophobic comments or behavior at school. And it’s presumably the prevalence of insult – as well as fear of violence – that explains the fact that 68% said they’d always or often hidden being gay, lesbian or bisexual at this point in their lives.

Did the process of de-gender-izing work come to a halt? For instance: most soldiers are still men and most people working in a kindergarten are still women.

Occupations and economic sectors do remain quite gender segregated. A 2016 report by the UN Women agency also found that globally women earn on average 24% less than men and are less likely to receive a pension. Race, ethnicity, class, citizenship status, and other factors also continue to shape income levels, the occupations and sectors in which people work, and the likelihood of whether one works in the informal economy – where labour standards and regulations often don’t apply.

Un-waged work remains heavily gendered too. The same UN agency found that, again on average, women do at least two-and-a-half times more unpaid domestic and care work than men. There are significant differences between and within countries, however. And the amount and type of unwaged work carried out by women is also shaped by income, location, geography, class, caste, race and ethnicity, as well as whether there’s public provision of water, energy, healthcare, sanitation and other services. 

What are the possibilities, assets, tools, one can use, nowadays to support the struggle for equality? 

I think that the question of coalition or alliances is perhaps the most important. There’s an urgent need to develop heterogeneous, democratic social and political projects, movements, and initiatives that can address social and political as well as economic hierarchies. These will need to challenge various nativist, racist and reactionary movements. But they’ll certainly fail unless they’re also able to propose and help create new social, political and economic models; new ways of relating to one another, and new narratives about what it means to live well together.

But it’s also worth asking, what is it that we talk about when we talk about equality? We could benefit from thinking about it in a broader sense than we often do. For instance, we need to ask ourselves: how do we address the unequal ways in which various activities are valued, often on the basis of who has traditionally performed these tasks? How do we create a situation, in other words, were crucial things like care work are less de-valued – socially and culturally, as well as economically? 

We should certainly try to secure equal access for LGBT people to social and political rights and economic forms of security. But we should also think about doing this in a way that recognises queer ways of relating, queer intimacies, and queer forms of kinship that are illegible to things like the institution of marriage, and to the temporalities assumed by normative heterosexuality. Equality must also mean an equal right to determine which rights we have a right to.

Thank you for the interview!


Further information

Contact

Dr. Ben Trott
Scharnhorstr.1, C5.330
21335 Lüneburg
ben.trott@leuphana.de


Interview: Martin Gierczak and Marietta Hülsmann, University Communication. News from the university surrounding the areas of research, teaching and study can be sent to news@leuphana.de.