Queering a conference – what we can learn from the BSA Queer Studies: Looking Back, Looking Forwards event

By Jo Smith

On 30th June 2017 the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey hosted a British Sociological Association Early Career Forum Regional Event centred around sexualities studies. Presenting keynotes were Zowie Davy (De Montfort University) and Yiu-Tung Suen (Chinese University of Hong Kong), and short ‘lightening’ papers were given by Sebastian Bartos (University of Surrey), Ben Colliver (Kingston University), David Griffiths (University of Leeds), Mia Harris (University of Oxford), Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick), Katy Pilcher (Aston University), Claire Tunnacliffe (University College London) and Ben Walters (Queen Mary University). The afternoon gave attendees the chance to engage in a workshop exploring the challenges and opportunities for researchers working in sexualities, gender, and queer studies.

The conference was a success, which was due in no small part to the thought put into the event by the organisers. They created a space that was inclusive and encouraged participation, which allowed researchers at all levels of their career to engage with each other about the theoretical, methodological and structural challenges working in the field of queer studies. The organiser’s approach to ‘queering the conference’ is something which we can learn from and apply to other academic spaces, in order to encourage participants to engage with the event, to share their work, and to develop networks with other researchers.

‘Queer’ has long been used as a synonym for odd, spoilt, strange or for something going wrong. Something that is ‘not normal’. We are all familiar with the pejorative use of the term. In describing the organisation of this event as ‘queering a conference’ we are embracing the idea that it is okay to be strange, different, not normal. Stepping outside of the expected ways of doing things can encourage us to reflect critically on the successes and limitations of our actions, to create change, and to allow us to explore new and potentially better approaches. In queering a conference we are again reclaiming the word queer as something positive and constructive, and refusing to persist with the familiar, the usual, the ‘normal’ with reflecting on the limits of such.

So how did the organisers queer the conference? One example was their use of the physical space. A relatively plain room was decorated with queer posters from some of the participants. Participants sat around tables, rather than in rows of chairs which encouraged conversation, and also discouraged the separation and hierarchy that sitting in rows might engender – the speaker as the conveyor of wisdom, the audience as passive recipients. Speakers were encouraged to take responsibility and control of timing their own papers, using of an egg timer. Whilst potentially unhelpful for those who want ‘5 minute, 1 minute’ warnings (and to adjust their presentation accordingly), adopting this technique was a way of trying to queer the power dynamics between organisers and participants: attempting to take some (albeit not all) power away from a single individual chair presiding over and controlling the time and space of the room, and giving this power to those presenting papers. Another success was the decision to give participants the opportunity to seek ‘mentoring’ support from Rachel Brooks (University of Surrey).

At a queer studies conference, gender, identity and names are (unsurprisingly) of importance to many of those attending. Name badges were created by participants, giving them control over how they were named, and the organisers made efforts to ask and address participants by their preferred gender pronouns or using gender neutral language, something often overlooked at conferences and in academia generally. Although there were mistakes, is it heartening that these efforts were made.

These (and other) relatively small decisions made a significant difference to the conference. There was a sense that everyone present was part of the event and was being taken into consideration. However, as was discussed during the open space workshop, this event was an overwhelmingly white space. With only one speaker, few of the attendees, and none of the organisers being people of colour, it is necessary to critically reflect on whether the ‘queering narrative’ is a predominantly white and often middle class narrative, the impact that this can have on queer spaces and queer studies, and what can be done to discourage this. This is, of course, not to diminish the efforts of the organisers, who created a positive and collaborative space, as ‘safe’ a space as one can make such events. With these reflections in mind, if we want to see academic events and conferences as a positive and inclusive place for researchers to talk about their work, and to develop networks and collaborations, we could do worse than think about how queering those spaces might encourage participation and engagement.

With thanks to Fabio Fasoli, David Griffiths, Katherine Hubbard, Luke Hubbard, Andy King, and Kirsty Lohman for the hard work you put into organising this event, and to Rachel Brooks for her provision of mentoring support.

This blog post was first published on The BSA Postgraduate Blog available at https://bsapgforum.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/queering-a-conference-what-we-can-learn-from-the-bsa-queer-studies-looking-back-looking-forwards-event/.


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