Do Ask, Do Tell?

June 5, 2013


(Re)Tiring Sexuality in a ‘Brave New World’

I recently gave a talk as part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) conference, ‘Brave New World’, in central London. Presenters and attendees were encouraged to think of the ways that ‘we’ve arrived’ as out, proud and endorsed queer citizens – now welcome in official ‘seats of power’. Arguably, queer subjects have burst out of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ context as unspeaking subjects, to a telling, asking, speaking, arriving state. The feeling of ‘arriving’ on stage and on the broader social map of State recognition, societal value and cultural distinction is appealing, but also rather disturbing. What is ‘staged’ in these moments of ‘arrival’, where the pull into the room may discord with everyday realities of living and ‘being brave’? What is rendered unspeakable in the telling of ‘sexual citizenship’? It depends, perhaps, on who is inside and outside the conference space, where different doors contain and announce our arrival.


A young female lecturer starting out in her career sits behind her closed office door (observe her dangling on the bottom rung of academia, while ambivalently hopeful, if not expectant or certain of upward climbs). While students bunch and buzz outside, emails are monotonously checked, ever received and she pauses to reflect upon the space she now inhabits with its various freedoms and constraints. Snippets of student chatter are overheard; behind her door they are pausing over whether to choose her course this semester – who knows what she’s really like (one of them, one of us)? How young is she (who does she think she is)? Where does she come from (funny accent)? And what about that hair cut, those clothes (a lesbian??!!). Suspicion, excitement and a dose of caution gather in the corridor; pens linger over her sign-up sheet – what has she and these students signed up for? An official ‘diversity and equality’ email arrives in her inbox, all mainstreamed and official. The university welcomes, actions, promises; an inclusive certainty, a new agenda, a line on ‘sexual minorities’… While she reads and searches, a voice from outside authoritatively declares ‘She IS a lesbian’. Her course, herself – a matter of fact? A threat? An absence? What should she do? She opens the door, heads to the printer, picks up the email, and a few looks along the way…’

Researchers in sexualities studies have long contested the neat, ‘travelling into place’, of ‘arriving’ LGBT subjects, showing instead how victories won in a landscape of Equalities Legislation, Gender Recognition, Civil Partnership and Same-sex marriage, can be easily lost. Doors can remain firmly closed and the corridors of power can still follow fairly straight lines. And still heterosexuality is never placed or positioned as having to be announced or arrived at, instead it is circulated as the automatic, default destination. So who is propelled forward as the brave citizen-conqueror and what’s at stake in claiming and feeling the often still strange spaces we inhabit as sexual subjects? And as variously placed LGBTQ and heterosexual subjects?

Inhabiting, indicating and identifying sexualized positions can still be difficult. Articulating these difficulties in a workplace context – still packaged as ‘public’, rational and ‘objective’ and disconnected from ‘private’, emotional and subjective lives – can result in the ‘brave’ subject being seen as out of place, excessive and inappropriate. My talk on ‘Gay By Degree? Indexing Diversity’ sought to question points of arriving on campus – as the queer campus was Stonewall-endorsed and promoted. The measuring of ‘diversity’ through the arrival of ‘others’ on campus, in ‘scenes’, is somewhat problematic: suggestive of a happy state of smiles, celebration and capitalisation. How to tell of other, perhaps unhappier, states?


What do you imagine of this ‘young academic’? What does she look like, short hair besides? (It does matter, not least to her.) Dressing for work is mostly a casual affair, the wardrobe proud in its choice provisions: jeans, vests, jeans, vests. If this is dressing for success, should she hang up the vest, get another costume (are long sleeves safer)? She strolls along the corridor, outfit on, suited people pause in awe of her: a) hardiness (‘a vest in winter, do you not get cold?!’) b) stupidity (‘you’re a student no more’) c) good taste (unlikely). In the comments, criticisms and doubtful praise, the feminism she knows is disappeared. She glances down, she IS clothed. This wasn’t meant to be subversive…’

The queer subject is increasingly identified in diversity policies. In a workplace context, the messages about capitalising on a ‘diverse’ workforce, where the LGBT subject stands for diversity, is endorsed as making ‘good business sense’. LGBT employees become ‘diversity dividends’. But when subjects are required to ‘stand-in’ for university commitment to diversity, narratives of living a lesbian identity at work may chafe against university rhetoric that ‘welcomes all through its door’ in the name of inclusivity. Indeed, universities can be viewed as significant sites where neoliberal organisational discourses predicated on a politics of heteronormativity may be required and resisted.

We witness a ‘domestication of difference’, which makes diversity respectable and manageable, synonymous with normative, white, middle-class and professional forms of organising, existing, teaching and researching. For universities, the pay off for making queer ‘respectable’ is that sexuality is maintained as a private issue, but one which has profit potential. This also makes some queers complicit in rendering queerness invisible, as she shuts her door…

How might ‘queerer’ places to work and learn be created? Queering the workplace involves bringing to the fore those who identify as ‘queer’, and others who might be willing to labour at the process of queering within their everyday work lives. It is a labour. But one which potentially paves a way forward for addressing another focal point of concern: how we might understand and experience the workplace beyond that which seems obvious, rational, taken for granted, as markers even of promotion.


At the end of her course she distributes module feedback forms, welcoming “constructive criticism” (Teaching Certificate now completed). How will they rate her? The service provided, polished enough? Or excessively threatening, a step out of place? Sociological analysis embodied as ‘personal’, academic authority condemned as ‘niche’. Pressure and promotion, as a personal problem. She’s read the guidelines ‘Dignity at Work’ ,but these words on the page are more insidious. Although she’s situated feminism(s) in their political, social, historical context, teasing out complexity and tension, she sees that ‘it’ (like her) has been reduced as a conspiracy, as a conspirator, as anti-men (her all-female class protest and fear). She conspires, she challenges. And she gets tired.’

I prepared this piece as and for ‘work’; when things are working, academics sometimes get the chance to pause, write and think, to ‘ask and tell’. But sometimes working contexts themselves act as blockages to ‘arrivals’; ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is still woven into the workplace. Let’s not retire the queer worker/citizen to a happier state. Let’s require and demand a broader social bravery for all our ‘new worlds’.

By Yvette Taylor | Author of Educational Diversity: The Subject of Difference and Different Subjects


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