Mary Gray, in the Communication and Culture dept. at Indian U., is giving a talk falled “Beyond online/ofline: information access, public spaces, and queer youth visiblity in the rural U.S.” She’s going to focus on a piece that did not make it ionto her book: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. Why don’t policy analysts think about sexuality except in order to contain it?
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
Her argument is that LGBTQ youth who are negotiating their identities rely on blurring the online and offline. They work out their identities collectively. To do that, they have to be not just visible to one another, but are socially recognizable. They are combatting digital inequalities that structure their access to media, and fighting broader politics of visibilty that frame them as necessarily out of place as if they;re not supposed to be there. For the main part, the media present rural communities as inhospitable to LGBTQ youth.
What’s it like for LGBTQ youth? There are very few studies. But, literature and pop culture frames sexualities and genders and individual mental health issues, as struggles. And they frame rural communities as more hostile than urban environments. They frame LGBTQ-identifying youths as expecting to move to the big city.
Mary did 19 months of ethnographic field work in rural Kentucky and environs (= Appalachia). She worked with 34 young people in depth, and inteviewed 100+ others. She did not start with youths already on line. She used inter-disciplinary approaches, a “kitchen sink” approach that used whatever worked.
There are three assumptions in LGBTQ culture about how visible LGBTQ youth are supposed to be…assumptions that organize legislative action, etc. The first is that there’s a critical mass of LGBTQ folk. Second, there’s a donor base for legislative action. Third, there are accessible “safe” places that are anonymous and low risk — i.e., I can work out my identity in those spaces. “If I run into my boss there, it’s likely we have something in common.” These three form the narratives about LGBTQ life. None of these structures exist in rural places. Rural life is therefore positioned as lacking. Most important, familiarity, not anonymity, is the default in rural communities.
They thus have different strategies for working out their identity, relying on allies and legibility as “locals.” They have to rely on pooled resources; in Ky they are too poor to use money to mobilize. And instead of being able to take advantage of anonymity and self spaces, they build their own “boundary publics,” temporarily occupying public spaces (e.g., Drag at Wal-Mart after the stores have closed, or public parks far away). This is where digital media comes into place; it expands their sense of publicness and visibility. E.g., the photos from drag at Wal-Mart are posted and become central to their identity. Queer identity is crafted collectively, Mary says. Coming up with the grammar for expressing oneself is a highly social process. She’s interested in how situated those grammars are. (She says she’s riffing off Habermas’ public sphere stuff.)
DiMaggio and Hargattai (2001) define digital inequality in a way helpful to Mary’s work. Five dimensions: Equipment access, autonomy of use, skill, social support, and purposes for which the tech is employed. Imagine that we acknowledged how central digital media are to LGBTQ youth’s search for identity…
She gives examples of the five dimensions: Often in her study there was no home access, and if there is, it’s not private. The computers in schools were heavily monitored (by federal and state mandate). Overall literacy was in question. The social support was limited and varied by “power proximities; e.g., the local librarian is a key to access, sometimes repositioning monitors so people can’t see what you’re browsing. Finally, the Net is not presented to LGBTQ youths as designed for them to explore their sexuality.
This is why boundary publics are so important to LGBTQ youths. An example: A public picnic center. A photo of it with a gay rights flag is on the Net, mixing the offline and online. E.g., Queercore at the Methodist Church SkatePark. It was a safe cover for them, protected from parents and peers. The music payed there was streamed online. E.g., AJ’s FTM (female to male) J0urney, a Web site documenting his transition. It had updates, a gallery of testosterone effects, surgery pictures, doctors and prices, links, guestbook, and recordings of the effect of testosterone on his voice. “All of these components both establish his visibility locally, make his queerness a local phenomenon, and also create a sense of belonging.” This counters the lack of a visible community, Mary says. He relied on this boundary public to create a sense of authenticity. It is a space where he can work out the etails of his transition outside of the gaze of his local community.
Conclusions. New media were not about escape but about creating local belonging. These boundary model mpas the entanglements of digital media but also of public visibility. You can’t understand them without understand why a public coming out is so important to LGBTQ youths. They’re not only struggling about coming out, but they also lack info about being visible. And, pollicy analysts ought to be studyhing “:the nexus among media, sexual and gender politics, and broader structures of social inequalities.”
Q: [doc] What percentage of U.S. is LGBTQ?
A: Tough question. 2-10% maybe. It doesn’t think of identity as something constructed. It estimates the number of people who have had same sex encounters. It’s less about numbers than about pushing for increasing youth’s sense of sexual possibilities. I know I’m pushing against the grain.
Q: What’s Drag at Wal-Mart?
A: They dress up and go to Wal-Mart. Why W-M? “Because all the drag attire is right there.” It’s open 24 hours. And they have friends who work there.
Q: [judith] What role does Wal-Mart play in the life of straight kids?
A: Often their straight friends were shopping in other aisles. They had a good sense of who’s going to harass them. There was no stranger danger. They’d plan it around football games so the footballers would be away.
Q: [momin] I have a preconception that rural, conservative places would try to suppress both queer expression and identity, but I’d like to know if this is accurate. What, if any, kind of pushback or resistance do queer rural face, either explicit and implicit? You mentioned the librarian who made the enormously important decision to turn the computer…
A: We vastly overestimated the hostility of rural places. It’s certainly violent, but differently violent that young people face in urban centers. They know it’s risky, so they’re constantly reworking this line of familiarity. “Hey, you’ve known me all my life,” or “That’s just Dale.” The kids who have the hardst type come from outside the community, and there’s a lot of class stratification; middle class kids were on the whole more protected, because their parents are powers in the own. Working clas kids had the brunt of violence directed at them. So, no, it’s not across the board awful.
Q: [bacy] How does this compare to the experience of sexual identity creation in urban areas, especially where kids face the digital divide?
A: I did a study in SF. I was struck by the similarities in marginalization, the resources used (e.g., libraries)…The idea that coming out LGBTQ as central to one’s identity has racist elements in it.
Q: [dong] Is there an online boundary public beyond individual blogs?
A: I’ve structured the rubric of boundary publics that resists the separation of offline and online. I want to say that the online/offline distinction has lost its effectiveness. But you ask a good question. Seeing what MySpace and Facebook do might get me to change my theory.
Q: [me] What does the online bring?
A: Planting a flag that creates a type of materiality to their presence. It’s the equivalent of a standing building only for them. Second, for a number of them, it allows them to participate in the narrative of what counts as an authentic LGBTQ person. They’re bombarded with representations of LGBTQ life in a rural context that end in tragedy. The use of the online allows them to produce a narrative that says that life’s not so bad there.
Q: [sandvig] Ernie Wilson says we should focus on production: if you’re online, are you consuming or production? How common was production in the rural communities you studied? Are people referring to a few productive sites? Or is everyone collaborating?
A: When I did this work, it was harder to make your own website. Usually, there were one or two leaders in the community making the site, and you were sending a photo.
A: [danah boyd] For a long time, the obsession about filtering was about a particular kind of content. Now we want to control certain kinds of production, with the idea that if you put up content, you’d be putting yourself at risk. The rural kids have no models of proxy servers; the rural kids generally don’t.
Q: Talk more about what you learned with the long history of queer folks communicating across distances>
A: See Martin Meeker’s book, Contacts Desired. We don’t have a lot of archives of rural communications.
Q: Maybe look at ‘zine culture.
A: Interesting. Often the circulation was among urban populations. There’s endless work to be done.
Most of these young people are actively constructing distinctions between off- and on-line. I’m blurring them. What are the moments when they’re reproducing the distinction? When is it important to them to feel that a boundary public is on or off line. I’m trying to fuse them to see the spaces they’re moving through, but I’m using distinctions that they may not draw.