The framework essay outlines the basic ideas to keep in mind while doing observations and reading the rest of the texts. Out of this, I was able to gather a large amount of information, and apply some basic concepts to my observations. First of all, I view most of what I have seen from a constructionist perspective. All the evidence I have points to this viewpoint as the “true” or “right” way to view the world, including class readings, content from previous courses, and real life experience. I chose to conduct my observations primarily in the Pride Office, a location which is technically part of the LGBTQ Resources office. This space is an area where people gather to hang out, socialize, and meet people, as well as a space to casually discuss identities. The space is not simply a social avenue for students, however – people also come here to conduct business with Ric Chollar, the Associate Director of LGBTQ Resources, or to work on homework or projects. I have in my observations seen people in this space “construct” their identities, and this may change daily, weekly, or over a longer time period. Because of the nature of this space as a “comfortable and “safe” location to discuss the “typically taboo” topics of sexuality, it is also a space where people feel comfortable to discuss other things which may not be seen as “okay” to discuss in a general everyday situation, such as other master statuses.
One particular thing about this office is that it seems to have a rule of conversation – if someone else is in the office, and homework is not being done, then conversation needs to happen. When new people walk into the room, they will generally join the conversation that is in progress. Because of this constantly changing conversation, the social dynamics between participants is also changing. When participants assume different identities than those who were previously in the conversation, the flow undoubtedly takes a new direction. This is important to understand so that my observations will have some sort of context – most of them are in the form of face to face group discussions, of which I was sometimes a participant and sometimes a bystander.
Another important concept covered in the framework essay is that of naming. This is again seen in the later readings, and also in my observations. As just mentioned, I observed people identifying themselves, and in this, naming themselves. Although the space is a place where openness and “safety” is promoted, people still feel not only forced to keep themselves within a category or label, but also to publicly disclose this choice of label. Those who do not disclose an identity may be labeled by the others in the office, even though there is a “safe space” statement governing the rules of the space that says this should not be done. These identities are not limited to sexual orientation and gender identities, though they do seem to be the most discussed. Other identities seem to simmer underneath, and come through on occasion when the conversation of the space deems it necessary. However, it seems that each participant in the office conversation is required to state or make known through context clues what their identity is. Numerous times people have had “the race discussion,” where they talk about how they are “black” or “white” or “mixed.” Few people in the office identify as Latino or Asian, and a fair amount identify as Indian (from India) or Middle Eastern.
Personally, I never realized the negative stigma towards people of different racial identities until I took this class. I grew up in a very diverse, yet integrated area. I’ve always had friends of all “races,” and I’ve never cared one way or the other. I also know that I was extremely naïve. Since reading the coursework and participating in our class discussions, I’ve been able to see a large amount of blatant racism that I had never known existed before. I’ve taken more notice to the tone of voice with which people address each other. I’ve watched people force each other to relate themselves to an identifiable race. Seeing all of this is very discouraging, especially when I’ve tried to explain course topics to people around me and no one seems to agree, understand, or care. People seem perfectly content to remain in their boxes of racial identity and perpetuate stereotypes. I’ve insisted that race is a social construct, yet my words fall on deaf ears. Smedley’s “universal human being” idea is one that appeals to me greatly, and after watching people on campus I am discouraged and disheartened.
One observation in particular that strikes me, however, is that many of the people who take issue with racism and as-currently-defined socially constructed racial categories are those who can pass as white. Many of the so-called “white” people in the office find issue with their status as invisible, and feel as though their culture is something more than just “plain”. When one student was asked what race she defined herself as, she responded “white, though I dislike putting that down because I feel like I’m more than just ‘white’.” She comes from a family with a history that is not completely generic European American, as many people do. While it is true that many people have families that have been in America so long that they are unsure where they originally came from, especially in modern society where less importance is placed on lineage, some people who are categorized as white feel that they would be better described by their geographical origin and culture ties.
A separate event is held during pride week each year, and occasionally throughout the year at other times, regarding “queer people of color”. This event is rather secretive and exclusive, marked specifically as “for” them and not about. The only way for someone to gain access to this event is to actively identify as a member of the group “queer people of color” and send an email to the person who is in charge of the event, upon which they will receive information about the date, time, and location of the event. This to me is evidence of aggregation and separation. All people who identify as “queer” and “colored” gather together into one group, and disassociate themselves from the larger group. This helps to perpetuate the idea that non-white people who identify as LGBTQ are essentially different from those who are seen as white, which is simply not the case. As in any situation, this difference is also socially constructed. “Black” people in the community seem to have a sense that their struggle has been harder than their “more accepted” counterparts. This may be due to intersectionality, feeling that their different identities are intertwined and inseparable, which of course is something that can only be determined by the person in question. Another peculiar fact is that “queers of color” seems to encompass only blacks, an idea which perpetuates the stark difference between the way blacks are treated and the way other “colored” people are treated.
In addition to this, part of the population in the office that is often labeled as “colored” by other participants in the conversation, does not feel as though that is an adequate descriptor. One person in particular has often corrected others, saying that he’s not black, he’s Muslim. This may be seen as a subconscious disassociation with blacks, which, as seen in the readings, have negative stigma attached to them. It could be an example of the much-discussed idea that no matter what, blacks are still unequal to everyone else, despite all the evidence to the contrary. However, it could also be seen as pride in his Muslim heritage and religion, and a simple correction and assertion of his own identity. Again, the only way to know this would be to get inside his mind or conduct a case study.
The regular office attendee group includes also a few people with visible disabilities. One attendee is blind, one almost blind, one confined to a wheelchair, and one who is deaf. These people have less of a choice in what they are named or labeled, as far as ability/disability goes. They can, however, hold separate identities regarding class, race, gender, and sexual preference. Regardless of the fact that these people are forcibly named and identified as disabled, they seem to fit into the community easier than “people of color” and they seem more accepted. This is a strange pattern, and one for which it is interesting to form hypotheses. In the readings, authors Audrey Smedley, F. James Davis, Eva Marie Garroutte, and quite frankly most of the authors whose works we have read, all discuss at length the social and historical implications of race. Conversely, the authors who discuss disability (Michael Oliver, Pat McCune, and Liza Mundy) discuss issues of here and now, rather than setting up the historical context or framework through which disability discussion is viewed. To me, this shows that disability is just recently being tackled as something to acknowledge. People have had an easier time accepting disabilities than they have had accepting race, and I have what I think is a valid hypothesis to explain this action. As I mentioned earlier, there are four people with visible disabilities who are regularly a part of life in the office. Out of these four, three are visibly white or could pass as white. To me, this shows that people are more willing to accept someone who is different in any way other than race, be it sexuality, gender, or even a visible disability or impairment. People in America have such strong associations against skin color that even things that are sometimes regarded as “pathological problems” (Oliver, 179) are small issues in comparison. One reason for the ease with which people in the office accept people with disabilities might be the physical proximity to the Office of Disability Services. This office is right around the corner, and faculty/staff from the two offices interact quite frequently.
Regarding non-visible disabilities, such as learning disabilities, these are even less discriminated against. They are easy to hide, and are more widespread and expected. Learning disabilities are especially easy to cloak in a college environment, since most students are procrastinating and doing poorly in school in favor of social events – at least, that seems to be the case based on my observations. The general idea in the office seems to be play first, work later, and since collaborative work is rarely done, problems with learning are even harder to see – it is primarily a social environment.
Within interactions in the pride office, class is rarely discussed. Finding out what sort of class someone falls into is difficult in a college setting, since most students are the stereotypical poor college student, surviving off ramen and other inexpensive foods and purchasing or renting used textbooks. However, I have seen some blatant display of wealth in a manner that seems to say “I am better than you because I can afford this.” A few of the females who frequent the office carry designer purses and wear designer clothing. This contributes to the way they are perceived as snooty and rich. After meeting these people, however, it is clear that they aren’t too much better off than the rest of their peers, but one of them works at a high-end store and gets discounts for herself and her friend. While they do have some privileges, they are a prime example of how perceived income is not equal to actual income, as well as how people use objects to portray the status into which they would like to fall.
Other people, however, are more technological about their class portrayal. Some people in the office have expensive gadgets, the latest computers, music players, headphones, cameras. After a discussion about cameras and how a certain model is a wonderful blend of quality and cost, one individual then went out and purchased the more expensive one, for no obvious reason as I can’t know what he was thinking. From an outsider perspective, it seemed like he was showing that he didn’t need to worry about the price – he had money to spare. This same student, however, is still living at home, and while I can’t know how much of his income is generated by his parents, I do know that he does not have a job. This led me to watch the interactions between other students who still live at home, and came to the conclusion that they are better off financially, which is really no surprise. Indeed, the next time I visited my own family, I was surprised to see how wasteful my mother was being with her money. It wasn’t that she was actually doing anything different than what she had done before, but since I’ve been so frugal and been around others who are equally “poor”, the way she spent money shocked me.
Regardless of the differences, real and perceived, in class and social status, I haven’t seen any sort of relation between that and other statuses. People of all “races” have exhibited behavior that made me think they were both more economically sound and less economically sound. I also haven’t seen any correlation to disability or any other factor but living at home. However, those who are in a better position financially have great power over those who do not. Because they seem to flaunt their so-called “wealth,” they are able to project stigma onto those who cannot and make them feel inferior. I have seen this all over campus.
So far, I have discussed race, disability, and class. However, my observations were done in a space that is dedicated to sexuality and gender. This space provides a wide variety of sexual and gender identities. These identities also seem to be the most fluid. Since the space was designed as a place for those who identify as a member of the lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender community, most of the “inhabitants” of the office do in fact relate to one or more of those terms. This creates a space where people who don’t fall nicely into one of these categories are stigmatized and sanctioned.
For some people in the office, straight people are seemed as an enemy. They are seen as all being homophobic, and the office is seen as the only safe space available to people who are not straight. Straight individuals are the “constructed other,” and gay is the norm. Because of this, it is rare that anyone identifies as an ally to the community unless they are also a part of it. Allies also rarely gather in the office, rather they are friends of those in the office, who occasionally join in certain activities. There is also a sort of disassociation in the disclaimer of “ally” – one can say that they “support” the community without placing themselves in the minority group. It’s akin to someone saying, “Yes, I support black people, but I’m not black.” They need to assure everyone that they still have all of their privilege. This perpetuates the negative stigma of “straight” people in the office, and I hypothesize that some of the people in the office who identify as “bisexual” are actually straight and trying to avoid the negative stigma of associating with the community as an “ally”.
In addition to this stigma, there is also a stigma associated with being anything other than gay or straight. While the term LGBT only includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, many more identities can be observed in the office. This is where the last letter in the more recently accepted term, which stands for “queer,” comes into play. This term has been embraced and means something different to almost anyone who uses it. In addition to this term, two of the common and commonly overlooked identities are asexual and pansexual. Asexual individuals are people who may be attracted to either gender, or both or neither, but not sexually – only romantically if anything. While this does not fall under the term LGBT at all, they generally join the same groups and make the same friends because the “issue” is rooted in sexuality. Pansexual, meanwhile, is similar to bisexual in that pansexual individuals are attracted to both males and females, but they are also attracted to individuals who do not fall into the standard gender norms – that is, genderqueer or transgender individuals.
Both of these identities are another “constructed other.” Pansexuality is seen as a more extreme version of bisexuality, which I believed is best explained in the reading by Bert Archer, even though the term isn’t explicitly or regularly used. Archer describes how is identity and attraction is semi fluid, and when reading I could tell that he felt conflicted and wanted to be able to do what he wanted without putting a term to his “identity,” without being boxed in. From what I have observed, many people who identify as pansexual relate to concepts put forth by Archer.
Pansexuals also end up with stigma against them that is not completely related to their own doing. Since transgender individuals are also widely discriminated against, pansexuals are discriminated against and stigmatized for associating with trans-folk. Furthermore, trangendered individuals who are biologically male but identify as female, neither, or both gender are grossly more discriminated against than biological females who identify as male, neither, or both gender. This plays into the historical views of gender described in the text which explains that males are seen as having “better” qualities, such as strength, while females are of less worth and exhibit less worthy traits (Kimmel). Since women are seen as inferior, it would seem natural for them to attempt to change their status to one with a better association. From what I’ve seen in observations and read in the text, however, I can logically draw the conclusion that males are seen as doing themselves and injustice by trading off for a “lowlier” gender, and thus are more discriminated against.
Asexuals are discriminated against because they can pass as straight much easier than any other member of the community. Because of this, some members of the community have looked down on them as not being a “legitimate” part of the group or said that their input is not worthwhile. There are two people who frequent the office who identify as asexual, and I’ve seen similar interactions from them. In some cases, they identify as “straight asexual,” and in others they identify as “gay asexual.” This basically measures the amount of inclusion they feel among the others with whom they are communicating, and as I mentioned previously the office is a constant conversation. I don’t see any sort of pattern to this, however – it seems to mostly be personal preference and relationship to the people they are around.
While asexuality is chiefly seen as the ability to pass as straight, it can also occasionally be used the other way around. One of the asexual-identified people previously mentioned, when faced with a situation where she was approached by a man who was interested in her, found it much easier to say that she had a girlfriend than to explain the complexities of asexuality. Since modern culture is more and more openly obsessed with sex, the idea that someone might not feel any drive to participate is often harder to understand and more stigmatized than a drive to have homosexual sex. In this case, she was “passing” as homosexual, since it’s less questionable than outright asexual.
Another source of stigma related to LGBTQ status comes from straight people who have found a way into the community. There are a handful of straight-identified people who frequent the office, and there is a handful of stigma that comes from these people. Specifically, I noted a distinct feeling that a certain person is only a part of the group because he can’t make friends anywhere else. He was raised in such a manner that he isn’t seen as masculine. He has difficulty socializing, and so he befriended other such “freaks and weirdoes.” From him comes a distinct air of being better than those who fall under the LGBTQ umbrella, but the nature of the office is that it is a safe space, and as long as he does nothing harmful (which, from what I have seen, he hasn’t) he is completely welcome to stay in the space.
As outlined above, the GMU pride office is a space which is rich in social observation. The way people interact is directly influenced by issues such as race, class, gender, disability and sexual orientation. These interactions help people shape their identities and provide a framework from which they address one another.
Essay 1 from Rosenblum’s class by Marie Hicks, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.