Content warning: toxic behaviour, gatekeeping of queerness
My mind goes blank when I try to think about queer culture. There isn’t anything particularly emblematic of our culture at large. Is it the spectacle of Mardi Gras? The dialogues of Leftbook?
But if I home in on my experience of university queer culture, specifically in the autonomous spaces, I find insights into queer culture generally. These insights come from a line of constant questioning and investigating. The questions I ask are not uniquely about university queer culture, but the answers I supply come from there. To know university queer culture, we must first answer some fundamental questions.
Who counts as queer?
It’s a very general question, but in the context of university queer culture, there are special reasons it is asked. The first is that universities are, if nominally, places of equity. Queer people suffer systemic disadvantage and admitting people who have not so suffered would be wrong. Secondly, some queer students have faced specific violence from non-queer people and admitting non-queer people would serve as a live danger. Thirdly, universities are sites of queer activism and admitting those without a stake in such activism would be derailment.
Definitive statements of the meaning of, or substitutions for, the term queer have been offered. For example, there are acronyms like “quiltbag” (queer/questioning, unsure, intersex, lesbian, trans, bisexual, asexual, gay/genderqueer). The meaning of queer in “quiltbag” is, of course, still ambiguous.
Acronyms (or initialisms) are often criticised for being rigid; for some, that’s the way it should be. On the other hand, a criterion as broad as self-identification would “let in” undesired people; yet gatekeeping is perceived as the queer community’s great irony. Over the years, I have witnessed polysexual, genderqueer, asexual and aromantic spectra being made the subject of furious debates in queer university spaces.
Resisting inclusion carries immense difficulty. If we exclude certain communities on an equity basis, why is it we never interrogate “valid” queer students on their personal circumstances? Systemic disadvantage is distributed unevenly, with people of a common queer identity facing vastly different outcomes. Should we exclude gay people who have always been comfortable in their skin? Does the validity of a bisexual struggle depend on how closely it matches a gay one? Is the solution to impute a “shared disadvantage” or “lack of oppression” on entire sections of the queer community, regardless of actual experience?
Similarly, we do not generally make enquiries into people’s experiences of violence. And we certainly do not require all queer people to commit to a life of activism. It appears, therefore, that a criterion-based approach leads nowhere.
Yet without some boundaries to queerness, the purposes of queer university spaces seem impossible to achieve. But it is not so. In the first place, we gain entry into these spaces just by making our way in: self-identification is all you need.
The boundary is not your queerness, but the way you behave. Exclusion from a university queer space is a consequence of actions that undermine the purposes of the space. The purposes may be codified in a policy or exist as an unwritten understanding; they may include things that I haven’t mentioned; they may have been defined autonomously or imposed by a body outside of the queer space. Generally, members of a university queer space must refrain from behaviours that reflect systemic oppression of any kind.
In any case, it seems that the membership of a university queer space is defined by people who are willing to accept the rules of engagement, however they are set. Membership is not likely to depend on a specific queer identity or personal experience. Thus, the very rules of a space contribute to the culture of the space.
Who actually uses university queer spaces?
It’s clear enough that not every queer university student makes use of the queer spaces on campus. If there are characteristics which distinguish users of university queer spaces and queer students outside those spaces, such distinctions may reveal who generates university queer cultural knowledge.
My observation is that people who use queer spaces tend to have a reason to stay on campus. It may be to avoid going home, to pass time between classes or simply because there is nothing better to do.
Without judgement, people who use university queer spaces are nerds. We also tend to have hated high school (little wonder then that we gather in safer spaces).
But it is not insightful to say that people come to queer spaces to fulfil the purpose that the queer spaces serve. We covered that ground. More interesting are the reasons why queer university students avoid these spaces.
For some, the queer spaces reflect the same pressures and discrimination that high school represented. People bring their insecurities with them, which manifest in toxic behaviours such as gossiping, social exclusion and deliberately pushing boundaries. On the flipside, it is easy to see that queer spaces are heavily influenced by the strongest personalities within the space; key individuals can shape the culture of the space by protecting people who behave poorly and deterring those who would otherwise fit in.
For others, there is a lack of representation in queer spaces that mirrors the general community. Spaces that are meant to acknowledge intersectionality end up being oppression lite or worse. And given the small size of the queer student community, the best strategy for improving representation is retention, which is no easy feat when we remember the other pressures that drive people out of queer spaces.
It seems that university queer culture is characterised by a tension between a desire to create and maintain safer spaces, and a certain shortfall in practice. University queer culture also seems to have imported the insecurities and prejudices of the wider community, and key individuals seem to have an indirect power to alter membership of a space.
What is meant by culture?
Queer culture is the culture of an environment. On one level, it reflects the beliefs and behaviours which are considered acceptable. Queer spaces should (and it is cause for concern if they don’t) operate on the principle that we accept people’s identity as stated and keep confidentiality. Different spaces likely have different expectations on the use of content warnings and the consumption of alcohol.
On another level, queer culture is about the topics of conversation that arise. We queer students seem to like talking about social justice, queerness in pop culture, politics, studying, working, dating and mental health. We probably rant more than is recommended, and we enjoy sharing memes with one another.
Queer culture is also surprisingly meta. At least in the case of queer students, we love to talk about the content of queer culture. It is why we are acutely aware that hardly any of us drive and why we respond to minor inconveniences with, “Is this queer culture?” The sense, or desire, of belonging has created a culture replete with in-jokes and self-reference.
It makes sense then, why it only takes a handful of individuals to drastically alter the culture of a space. The loudest voices start, steer and stop conversations; they repeat their favourite references and enforce (or do not enforce) the rules.
The culture of a queer space is a large part of why people stay or leave. In turn, it has a great bearing on whether a space is sufficiently safe, diverse and educative.
Does this say anything about queer culture?
So far, my observations have been quite general. It is probably true of queer culture generally that there are rules for certain groups, the spirit of the rules is not always followed, and a minority of individuals create conditions that determine whether people stay or leave. It may even be true of most cultures of a small enough size.
Is there more to say about queer culture then? There is, but it doesn’t get much more specific.
Firstly, there is no one queer culture. Each queer student space is determined by its own purposes and key individuals. Behaviours that are considered appropriate, attitudes towards different marginalised groups, and intersectional representation differ from space to space, whether in the university perspective or more broadly.
Secondly, observations that appear characteristic of queer culture might not actually apply generally. Whether a space is too political, too inaccessible or too insular depends again on the purpose of the space and the activity of key individuals. The good news is that queer university spaces are relatively small, so individuals with enough initiative can agitate for change in one direction or another. Perhaps susceptibility to change is a property of queer culture.
Thirdly, we must accept that queer culture will always be hostile to some people’s experience of queerness. There is no one space whose purposes and rules are agreeable to every queer person. I personally encourage the creation and flourishing of autonomous and other specialised communities, so that every queer person has at least one place where they belong. Claims of “segregation” come from a hollow understanding of the word and a belief that the needs of queer people are less diverse than they actually are.
Fourthly, if a larger queer space is designed to cater for as many people as possible, the culture of the space will reflect decisions about whose interests are preferred in the event of conflict. A space may allow a queer person of colour to internally publish material that condemns white privilege in queer culture at large, even if white people in the space find such material divisive. In this case, considerations of equity prevailed over those of solidarity. Although it is hard to predict how these preferences will arise, they undeniably shape the culture of the space, and we need to have honest conversations about how we set expectations in our spaces.
What usually motivates us to understand queer culture is a desire to connect as many queer people as possible to a community that accepts and celebrates them. If queer culture drives people away, it is often seen as a failure of the culture and the space it inhabits. This may well be the case, where an all-queers space at university is concerned, especially if the culture reproduces the very oppression it tries to avoid.
But where there is latitude, total inclusion may be undesirable or impossible. This might be the case for specific autonomous groups, for example. I absolutely do not mean that a purportedly general queer space should exclude entire segments of the queer community; this would be self-defeating and in all cases a betrayal to the community. Rather, we should acknowledge that there is no single queer space that will effectively celebrate and accept all queer people, even if that’s the intention. But each queer individual has a right to a space that does accept and celebrate them, and it will take thoughtful, deliberate and passionate action to create such spaces.