So this whole process has been a very emotional journey. When you hear about people doing research, your mind doesn’t immediately think of how emotional the research process might be (at least, I didn’t). And I don’t mean emotional in the sense of successfully testing or proving theories, I mean emotional in a “this research is so personal and just listening to these interviews I’ve done is making me cry” kind of way.
I started this fellowship wanting to look at how inclusive creative technology is — in the way they are designed, made, marketed, talked about, introduced and used. I wanted to bring in my experiences and knowledge of care, from working with inclusive tech companies like Limina, production managing intimate interactive live performances, and my understanding of bodies and movement as a trained dancer, into this research.
But I became stuck. One reason for this was how undefined this fellowship is. This was incredible in terms of fostering creativity and encouraging different ways of working, giving all the Fellows agency to control and choose how we want our fellowship to be like. But I had never done research this way before. I was so unused to the extremely malleable nature of this way of working, that I floundered quite a bit. Looking back, I was trying to do too many things. I wanted to make technology inclusive for absolutely everyone, which made the scope of my research too broad and left me feeling like my brain was stretched all over the place. The sentiment was applaudable, but the way I was going about my research wasn’t. Through prompts and encouragement from my Producer, Rachael, and conversations with the team of other Fellows, I began to gain clarity.
"As a genderqueer Southeast Asian person living in Bristol, with a strong background in dance and movement, I am hyper aware of my body and its relation to different spaces."
My research came into focus as I interrogated and challenged myself to think and explore, about what I’m truly passionate about and have lots of questions about. I came to understand my deep-rooted desire to appreciate and improve the lives of different Queer people (by which I mean people belonging to the LGBTQIA+ world, or anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the heteronormative patriarchal perspective). I began asking questions about how dance and movement can be combined with emerging technologies to identify, transform, create and promote spaces where Queer people are not judged or threatened, spaces where we are safe and accepted.
As a genderqueer Southeast Asian person living in Bristol, with a strong background in dance and movement, I am hyper aware of my body and its relation to different spaces. How I view my body and other bodies, and how my body is perceived in different spaces by different people. Historically, since colonialism by white people began, Queer people have been more aware and thoughtful about their bodies compared to cisgender people, as we are viewed as being apart of societal norms. Queer people have been persecuted and still are for being different. Thus, we have had to find ways of understanding and navigating our bodies in cisgender heteronormative societies, and attempting to radicalize and change this perspective.
The same applies to technology. We know that cisgender white men have always been credited more and given more freedom to do what they want. They are also nearly always the ones who feel the most entitled to take up space. Thus we have never-ending streams of new inventions created by this same group of people. The problem with this is that no matter how well meaning they are, and how much research they do, they would never be able to fully understand the experiences of those who are not cisgender, white, able-bodied and male. And if they are the ones who keep being able to and have the resources to create new things, society will just keep getting products and designs and city planning that suits one or a few particular exclusive groups of people.
This usually means spaces that are unaccommodating and dangerous towards Queer people. I had my own notions of what this means, and what safe spaces mean, but I wanted and needed to find out more different Queer experiences and perspectives. Through interview chats with Queer volunteers, I have drawn up some main themes of interest — for anyone conducting research in similar areas, and for my own continuing research beyond this fellowship.
Body & Movement
Being a Queer person, I’ve always felt that Queer bodies and the way we move are inherently tied in with gender identity, expression/presentation, and sexual attraction/orientation. There are varied internal and external factors that influence how we think and feel, and ultimately choose to be. The external states inevitably affect the internal, and vice versa. We are constantly and always assessing our environments, the people we are with, how visibly Queer we are, and how we feel within those spaces. Through the interviews conducted, I have identified several key factors through which Queer people navigate and move in the world in relation to our bodies.
- Bodily Connection
- Body Image
- Gender Identity
These categories are far from being mutually exclusive, they interact with each other in complex ways that I am only scratching the surface of through this research.
Bodily Connection relates to how our mind connects with our bodies. This is linked to our Body Image in how we view our body shape and size, as well as our Gender Identity — whether our personal sense of gender correlates with our assigned sex at birth. All of which affects our Presentation — how we express ourselves in the way we dress, talk and move. Which is inherently tied in with other people’s Perception of how someone should behave based on societal Stereotypes.
As one of the Queer interviewees said, we are all “pushed into boxes based on our given body”. These boxes only adhere to either one of two binary genders: male or female. There are so many preconceived notions, expectations and constructions around how one should act, behave, dress and even feel depending on what body you are born with. So this is the first battle for many Queer people — grappling with society’s preconceptions and stereotypes of what and how one should be. One interviewee who identifies as a cisgender woman says that she was “pushed into the space of ‘woman’ at a very young age” due to puberty starting at age 8. The “male gaze and sexualisation of the female body” has impacted her a lot in the way she expresses her gender. She describes the way she dresses as a “response to the female body shape she is, but also a rebellion against the traditional idea of female” that’s been constructed through recent history. She enjoys a “balance between presenting as masculine and feminine” in relation to societal stereotypes.
There are privileges associated with different bodies and ways of presenting that’s attached to societal norms and perceptions as well. A major aspect of this is the varying degrees of “passing” or not “passing” as straight, i.e. a cisgender heterosexual person (the current societally constructed norm) that each Queer person has to experience, and actively choose to embrace or go against depending on what the consequences of these actions might be. A male interviewee, who is comfortable with “dressing how society deems a man should dress” and expressing himself that way, is extremely aware of how “not being visibly Queer let’s him access spaces that visibly Queer people wouldn’t be able to” and with the knowledge that he “wouldn’t get looks or even beaten up” due to how he dresses. The flip side to this privilege is that he has to “come out” every time and “announce that he is gay to straight people” who make assumptions about his sexuality. Another interviewee notes she is viewed as “very acceptable to society”. Being mixed race and bisexual, she is light skinned, middle class, able bodied, in a heterosexual relationship, socialised white and considered a “model minority”. All of these elements “make her quite inconspicuous” in current societal ideals.
Ultimately, presentation and expression is a way of affecting perception of oneself. As an interviewee puts it, when “other people’s perception matches with one’s own feelings and perception of themselves” that’s when an element of comfort or even gender euphoria happens.
And movement is also a way in which this can be achieved.
For many Queer people, movement is a way to process, digest, satirise and express. To move and dress on our own terms, to fight against the stereotypes, commercialisation, commodifying and threatening attitude society has towards Queer bodies. This can be seen in how historically Queer people, especially those who are Black, Latinx and Asian have developed Drag culture and Voguing a form and way of dancing, as a way to reclaim our identities and bodies.
For a transgender interviewee, mindfulness about her body and the way she moves has helped her hugely. She always thought that her physical body didn’t matter, that she “didn’t care about this flesh carrier” and would instead “project her brain into the internet” living as “a brain in a jar". That was before she realised she didn’t and couldn’t connect with her body, because it didn’t correlate with how she felt and identified. Through movement she has been able to “discover connections with her own body”. Yoga especially, has helped “free her off” from the years of male associated movements that have been socialised in her. Through movement, she has been able to find “a lot more joy in being”.
"We can also see this in digital spaces. Many of my interviewees described the Internet as a source of “exposure to different ways of being” that opened up their world."
The spaces that are created and ones we find ourselves in, has a fundamental and profound impact on how Queer people feel in their bodies and how we move.
My interviews have revealed a crucial element that determines the safety of any given space for Queer people — other people.
Wow, what a shocker, I know (being sarcastic here by the way). It might seem like a very obvious point, or not at all depending on where you’re coming from. But if you think about it, it makes sense. People are the ones designing, manufacturing and producing all the aspects that physically make up a space, and this applies to digital and virtual spaces too. But people are also the one inhabiting these spaces, and through one’s actions and words create the more elusive, but no less impactful aspects of a space.
Visibility of Queerness in any given space is also another vital factor that determines whether a Queer person is safe or not.
Feeling physically threatened is a major contributing factor to Queer people feeling and being unsafe. And standing out as visibly obviously different to societal norms, as Queer, can be and has been mortally dangerous to Queer people. A male interviewee brought up an example of a straight male space, the “boys changing room” in school, and how even though he “wasn’t out or even realised he was gay” at the time, it was a terrifying experience. He describes it has a “lingering sense of being in a space full of men that he knows he doesn’t fit in with and doesn’t belong to”. And let’s not forget the many Queer people who have been targeted by hate crimes and even killed, with trans non-white people being disproportionately targeted.
A female interviewee talks about how she feels the “most unsafe” when encountering “drunk men”, especially “groups of men who are yelling and shouting”. Male presenting people who “take up a lot of space for granted” feels the most “threatening to her body autonomy”. This entitlement of space occurs not just physically being in large groups or “man-spreading” for example, but also in noise levels and taking up “sound space” by being unnecessarily loud, and taking up “smell space” for example ridiculously strong body sprays that invades one’s nose from afar. She finds herself in a “heightened state of anxiety” during world cup season for example, due to this entitlement of space that occurs much more often during that period of time.
This leads onto another point of danger for Queer people, and that is the unpredictability of spaces. A few of interviewees brought up how they don’t like being out in public "spaces they can’t control”. This unpredictability applies predominantly to the journey to and from spaces that are considered safe. Many attacks and murders of Queer people appear to occur more often as Queer folks are travelling from one place to another, usually on their own. For example commuting via public transport, or cycling and walking on the streets. One interviewee describes how he would have to “Google map the most intricate residential way” which means he can “avoid main roads” if he was on his own, and dressed in a visibly Queer way.
This brings me on to my next points about what makes spaces safer for Queer people.
While this is not a be all and end all rule, my interviewees talk about safety in numbers. More people means “increase in anonymity”. This could be with “a group of friends” all presenting as visibly Queer, meaning each individual’s “Queerness isn’t particularly on show”. An interviewee speaks about how he "felt safe” with friends even when they were cat-called on the way to parties while all dressed in obviously Queer ways, Even when they got cat-called, it was able to “bounce off” them. Through their strength of numbers, they were able to “overcome the threat” as a group. Not being the “odd one out” in terms of other aspects other than one’s Queerness is also a contributing factor for safety. For example, not being the only Queer person of your race, or the only disabled Queer person in a space. Numbers can also be in the form of crowds of strangers. A trans woman interviewee discusses how she “crossdressed to the nines, almost daring people to notice” her, because she was in a densely populated city where “no one would say a word to anyone else” as everyone keeps to themselves. This gave her the “confidence” to stride through the city-centre on a weekend night. She essentially made use of “other people’s crowd coping strategies” to create “more personal freedom”.
We can also see this in digital spaces. Many of my interviewees described the Internet as a source of “exposure to different ways of being” that opened up their world. A trans interviewee said they were “glad that the Internet is filled with information on trans/non-binary/gender-fluid” ways of being, and that this representation provides options of what “you can be if you want to”. A mixed raced interviewee described how Twitter and Tumblr were crucial to improving her wellbeing. She was able to “follow more POC (people of colour)”, and have representation that is diverse and broad. For example “more body types”, disabled people, indigenous and Black people, and people with broader features— all characteristics that are deemed unattractive by our white colonialist patriarchal society — seeing these features as beautiful, made a huge difference in changing her perspective.
Another essential feature of safety and comfort for Queer people is the Freedom of space. First is the autonomy to choose whether to be in a space or not. An interviewee talks about how lockdown has “removed the necessity to leave” one’s home, meaning she has not been “forced into the world” for work for example. This “freedom of not being pushed into spaces she doesn’t want to be” has improved her health and wellbeing hugely. Second is the ability to decide how spaces look, sound, smell, and feel like — to “set up one’s own rules and structures” for one’s time and space. This could mean setting up a routine that is healthy for oneself, for example choosing when to be awake and when to work, instead of adhering and “aligning to how the economy wants us to work”. Basically doing what one wants on “own our own terms”. Third is feeling free and expressive in spaces. Being in spaces that allow us to listen to our minds and have a “conversation with our body”, to connect with ourselves and others with methods that suit our own needs. Last but not least, the capacity to actively curate one’s own “moments of visibility as a Queer person”, which boils down to having control in what we do with our bodies. This active curating also applies to virtual spaces, where anyone can decide which facets of themselves to share. This is particularly important to Queer people, because we can decide who we let into our digital spaces, as well as how much we want to share about ourselves in order to keep ourselves safe.
But we can’t control everything all the time, especially when other people are involved. This is where being told what will happen, having an explanation of what to expect is massively helpful. An interviewee described the difference in her experiences of getting her nails done, one for a photo shoot where she had no clue what will happen and no one would communicate to her what will happen, versus another encounter with a Queer owner who was explaining every step of the process to her along the way. Knowing what will happen and being able to adjust expectations and prepare oneself mentally, emotionally and physically, is important to a lot of people, and vital to a Queer person’s sense of safety. Another crucial aspect is “knowing other people will be accepting” and making a deliberate "commitment and effort to be accepting”. For example, not “judging someone” merely based on how one presents, or “assuming pronouns” as someone might have a different gender identity to how they present themselves.
"People who claim this Queer identity have come to it on purpose.” (Anonymous interviewee, 2020)
There is no one way of being Queer, and Queer folks come with different identities, perspectives, bodies and experiences. Yet there is a predominant Queer narrative and culture that is based entirely on white, cisgender, middle class, able-bodied gay men. Particularly around the stereotypes of flamboyance, camp-ness, promiscuity and hyper-sexualisation of this particular group of Queer people. But Queerness is so much more than that. Where do Queer folks who don’t fit into this predominant narrative go? How do we find and create our own spaces?
It’s no secret that Queer history and culture in white English speaking countries such as the US and the UK have been whitewashed. I wrote an article about this, complete with a bunch of resources you can read, watch and listen to. In it, I mention Queer spaces that have sprung up as a response to this whitewashing, such as Black Pride, Muslim Pride and Queer Asia. Being Queer is only one aspect of every Queer person’s life, and we all exist across different spaces and identities. As an interviewee mentions, “being a trans woman is only a small part” of who she is. Another interviewee also talks about how and why “intersectionality is so important” to her. Patriarchy and white supremacy and discrimination towards disabled people or trans folks, are equally if not even more damaging to Queer people who seek sanctuary and safety in Queer spaces, only to be attacked by rampant racism, xenophobia, ableism and transphobia.
Other Queer folks make use of "ugly aesthetics” as a way of expressing themselves and their gender identity. For example shaving one’s head, particularly if you are fem identifying, means you have decided to “literally shed something that is intrinsically tied to beauty and femininity” by current societal standards. A number of interviewees see this “rejection of beauty ideals and societal mainstream expectations” as a very “Queer act”. One interviewee sees this exploration of “ugliness” as a “shift in thinking”. He believes that “ugliness does not mean less value”. So rather than adhering to the pre-existing vertical standard of having ugly at the bottom and beauty at the top, Queering the norm means switching these value judgments to a horizontal spectrum. This means that everyone is “naturally somewhere on the spectrum” of presenting as “ugly" or “beautiful”, and "you can choose” to stay the same or change. Ultimately, as the interviewee explains, it’s all about thinking, “I’m going to stop doing the things people tell me I should be doing, to look what they deem to be beautiful.” To stop thoughtlessly following “decisions that have been made for you” and instead focus on “making your own decisions” regarding the way you want to look, and the life you want to lead.
I can’t write about Queer spaces and not talk about Pride, this annual event that all Queer folks know about, and straight people have at least heard of. For many Queer folks, Pride is an important event that increases our visibility and educates more people about us. It provides a safe space to learn, explore and express ourselves in ways that might not be possible for a lot of Queer people in our everyday lives.
However, dominant Pride events as Queer spaces are not exempt from the problems of whitewashing, patriarchy and discrimination I mentioned above. There are also other increasing issues that have made it unsafe for a lot of Queer folks. This includes increasing commercialisation and severe issues of Rainbow/Pinkwashing such as police marching at Pride parades. Some interviewees have also found Pride’s lessening focus on “protest” and becoming "just a celebration” problematic. This is due to the fact that many Queer people’s rights are still not met, and Pride season as such a huge event, can and should be a platform to advocate strongly for them. An example being transgender folks still being ignored or even prosecuted by governments in the UK and US. To merely “celebrate” feels disingenuous and highly unwelcoming and dangerous for Queer people who are trans, especially when there are certain groups of Queer people (claiming themselves as feminists) who actively spread hatred and transphobia.
There are other problems attached to this gay club-like celebratory aspect of Pride. (One of which is the lessening focus of Pride as a protest in its original form, led by Black, Latinx, Asian Queer and Trans folks. But that’s a whole discussion for another time.) Another one is the increasingly significant issue of non-Queer people, entering uninvited and taking up space in these types of Queer spaces for granted. An interviewee describes how large groups of “straight men and straight woman” would often use Pride or gay clubs as their location of “stag/hen dos”. They would be “joyriding through the space” only taking the “fun parts” of Queer experiences. They would be incredibly “loud” and “take up so much space” with such a level of entitlement, that Queer folks “feel threatened” in these spaces that are meant to be safe for us.
(Sidenote: if you consider yourself straight, and have ever considered or know anyone who wants to do this in the future, please don’t. Please take your bachelor and bachelorette and birthday parties to any of the huge number of bars/clubs that are catered for straight folks. Please don’t be one of those arseholes that gives zero thought to taking up other people’s limited safe spaces.)
This “invasion of Queer spaces” by people who actively identify as cisgender and heterosexual, is not limited to Pride or Queer club spaces. It also occurs in the form of straight people hijacking or cherry-picking elements of Queer culture that they enjoy without acknowledging or benefitting Queer people they have “stolen” from. An interviewee gives the example of how lip-syncing performances from Drag culture, has been appropriated into a mainstream television show that caters to predominantly straight audiences. This “mainstreaming” of Queer culture promotes the commodification of Queer culture and bodies. This is dangerous because it means society views Queer people as disposable and inconsequential, that our only value comes in what straight people think of us, whether they like the things we create, and whether they can make money off us. It’s extremely harmful to Queer folks, and perpetuates the mentality that we don’t matter and what we do aren’t valuable, when we are clearly no less valuable than anyone else.
"This “mainstreaming” of Queer culture promotes the commodification of Queer culture and bodies. This is dangerous because it means society views Queer people as disposable and inconsequentia"
Change & Transformation
So how do we make things better and safer for Queer people? How do we build Queer folks up, and create places that encourage positive mental, emotional, physical health and wellbeing?
The first and most important step is “putting Queer people in positions of power”. As one interviewee notes, too often Queer people especially those of us who are of Black, Latinx and Asian descent and/or disabled, are used as a marketing strategy. We are put in photoshoots, filled with people of "different bodies, race, shape, sizes” and yet when you discover the creative team — entirely white, able-bodied, predominantly straight men. There’s certainly power to these images because they serve as visible obvious representation, letting everyone see us and acknowledge that we exist. But as another interviewee points out, “Visibility without power is a curse."
And “true power, is silence.”
People who “aren’t saying anything, who don’t have to say anything” because they’re working in the background, making all the important decisions. Decisions that have massive impact on everyday life. As an interviewee states, when “offices are filled” with Queer people, with disabled people, with Black, Latinx and Asian people, who are making decisions, "that’s change”.
And this change trickles, spills and pours into people's everyday lives, encouraging everyday activism. For Queer folks, this could mean, “just living well”. A trans interviewee explains that for her it means, “getting on with one’s life as much as one can” and "being present for people in her life”. She discusses how she “didn’t have anyone or any exposure to trans people” when she was younger, which meant she “couldn’t know” she’s trans and do something about it. She wants to be “very there” for the next person who might need someone like herself. Her hopes for cisgender folks is that, “if they see a trans person just getting on with their life, and it not being weird,” then cisgender people would "stand up against transphobia” when they witness it. It is crucial that straight folks adapt everyday activism in their lives. This is a vital form of ally-ship that has profound impact. As the interviewee says, “deeds over rainbow websites” and flags always.
Change also comes with power for Queer people to create.
Queer folks are and have always been creating new ways of navigating the world and understanding our own experiences. And as an interviewee states, when we “collectively” define and create our own language as Queer folks, we have the “language to describe ourselves and our experiences”, to reaffirm each other and ourselves. This enables us to create our own spaces, where we have the autonomy to make what we need and want, with people we have chosen to be in these spaces with. Places where we can be with “chosen family”, which is incredibly important for Queer people, especially those of us who have been rejected by people who are meant to love and care for us. As society changes, the requirements and needs for Queer spaces changes as well, but what never changes is our need to build our own realities and places of understanding, care and belonging. These safe spaces can be physical or virtual. As a trans interviewee notes, she has been able to make her digital space a “safe space”. She did this deliberately by being very vocal in her digital spaces and very visible as a transgender woman, this means transphobes also showed themselves and she was able to “get rid of them”. Thereby "creating a safe space” for herself and everyone sharing this digital space to “ask questions and understand more about themselves”.
This brings me to my next point about taking up space. Queer folks have become used to being on the margins of society, oft ignored, written out of history. Even some of our own spaces have been invaded by straight people who feel entitled to take up any space, as I wrote about previously. A trans interviewee explains how now that she presents as more stereotypically feminine, “men assume that she’s going to get out of their way” when walking down streets. She describes how she “makes a conscious effort” to not only take up space digitally as mentioned above, but physically as well. She describes how she adapts the principle of taking “primary position” from the cycling world, where cyclists take up space on the road rather than “between the yellow lines to the side”, thus motorists have to notice and “deal with” cyclists as another road-user. She applies this principle to her life, consciously making sure she is not “creeping round the edges” and “assume she has as much right” as a trans Queer woman to be in any given space as anyone else. A cis female interviewee also talks about how there are many messages from society telling “women to make themselves smaller”. She talks about how she was “desperate to look pretty and cute” when she was younger, and be a “people pleaser” as is often expected of women. But now she is aware of her power to create and take up space, she just wants be like a “badass empress”.
This is especially true in terms of exposure and representation of Queer folks. One interviewee says it almost feels like whoever is willing to “take up the most space and be the loudest” gets to be “the face” of Queer representation, and these people usually end up being cisgender, white, middle-class, able-bodied, hyper-sexualised men. She talks about watching The Half Of It by Alice Wu, and seeing the “dorky and awkward” Chinese-American main character, which relates to "how she felt a lot when she was young”. She wants “more of this” and different types of Queer stories and presentation, to take up more space in the Queer world.
Seeing yourself and your experiences represented in different media and art forms, and reflected through other people’s lives is a way for us to feel a sense of belonging. Years of imagining ourselves in heteronormative stories and squeezing into the sidelines of the dominant heteronormative culture, often make Queer people feel as if we are constantly “outside of things”. But belonging isn’t just about what one can perceive from the external world. One interviewee explains how she had this “notion of finding spaces with people who are exactly” like her, but everyone exists across multiple different identities and spaces. It’s impossible to find someone who is exactly like yourself with exactly the same experiences. She explains how it has taken a long time to realise belonging is also about how she feels in herself, and that finding “belonging within oneself” is equally crucial.
This belonging within yourself seems small, but the personal is political. Individuals form groups, and groups make up society. Getting to know yourself, to feel grounded in yourself, is a big contributing factor to small everyday acts that can help us and the rest of society begin “enqueering our gaze, our experience and our outlook”. This means resisting and changing “normative values and expectations” that have been constructed and are being still being upheld. All of this is hard work, as one interviewee says, dealing with “the system” that perpetuates harmful and dangerous attitudes towards Queer folks, especially a trans person like herself, is like “pushing water uphill with a rake most of the time”. But she reminds me that you have to “work at it and for it”, this is a “cumulative and mindful process”.
We have to be mindful because so much deliberate thought, awareness and insight needs to be developed, in order to make all of this work meaningful and actually helpful. The identity of being Queer is a deliberate and "positive act” as an interview explains, and we have to be mindful of what this means. Another interviewee says, we have to be mindful that we “don't get out of the mindset of wanting to and continuing to grow and learn” (and “appreciate each other’s experiences”). Because it’s too easy to become stuck and stop doing it, and then fall into the trap of creating things and spaces, that are actually just “based on existing damaging structures”
This research is just beginning. Through this fellowship I have been able to identify something I am truly passionate about. There is still so much more I want to explore, and so much deeper I want to go. After these initial conversations, my next steps are collaborating with Queer people to produce new creations and spaces, through dance and technology that don’t follow pre-existing harmful models. I wish to create places that are safe, engaging and accessible to different Queer people, where we are inspired and encouraged to build each other up, where the status quo is to be understanding, curious and caring. I look forward to amplifying and strengthening Queer spaces that are radically transformative and enqueering our perspectives. And I absolutely cannot wait to gather many of us on this journey and develop whole new worlds and Queer ways of being.