As part of my AHRC Fellowship, I hosted a workshop yesterday on ‘Violence in Queer and Trans Lives: A Dialogue between the Humanities and Health Professions’. Following on from Homophobia Rewritten, a thought-provoking symposium I had organised earlier in the summer, this workshop brought into conversation diverse gender and sexuality scholars and professionals whose work focuses on the difficult, and frequently violent, experiences of people whose bodies and desires do not conform to narrow socio-cultural norms and expectations.
Unlike Homophobia Rewritten, which featured formal paper presentations on the literary and cultural representations of, and responses, to homophobia, the format of this workshop was more open. In line with the event’s main aim – to facilitate explorative conversations between experts who do not normally find themselves in dialogue with each other – the number of invited contributors was deliberately small.
Next to me – I’m a senior lecturer in English & Humanities at Birkbeck currently working on a project that explores how violence shaped the emergence of modern sexual identities and subcultures – the participants included: Monalesia Earle, a social worker and PhD student working with me on a thesis about contemporary queer women of colour representation; Peter Hegarty, professor of psychology at the University of Surrey with special interests in gender and sexuality, and Katherine Hubbard, a PhD student working with Peter on a project about Rorschach tests and the ‘hidden’ homophobic history of psychology; Churnjeet Mahn, a literary scholar from Surrey’s English Department and former collaborator of mine on Transnational Lesbian Cultures, who is now working on an AHRC funded project with young queer refugees, and Vernon Rosario, a UCLA-based clinical psychiatrist – and trained historian of medicine – with special interest in trans, intersex and issues of gender and sexuality more broadly.
It was a privilege to have Vernon in our middle. His experience with children and adolescents who feel in need of medical help because of their gender – or are send to him by parents who think that such help is needed – provided important insights into the everyday realties and difficulties faced by some of the young people whose bodies and desires may be the subject of much social and critical scrutiny, but who do not (yet) take part in these debates.
Much of our discussion focused on how ideas become truths and how to challenge rarefied misconceptions about what science knows about bodies. We argued about the relationship between ‘discourse’ and ‘experience’, ‘theory’ and ‘everyday reality’, and agreed, broadly, about the need for stronger links – new bridges of intelligibility – between the humanities, social sciences and medical practice.
I came away energised and full of new ideas, and with plans to build on the links forged during this event. But it also made me acutely aware of what a rare opportunity it has become in UK Higher Education to be able to engage in critical group conversations that neither revolve around the presentation of polished existing research nor work towards producing a specific new outcome. Yet such speculative debates, and dialogue across fields, are absolutely vital to academic work: for transformative research is never forged in isolation.
8 October 2014. Thanks to the AHRC for funding this event, and to the School of English and Languages at the University of Surrey for providing the venue.