Thoughts on Paris is Burning (1990) and queer methodologies

“An unblinking behind the scenes story of fashion obsessed New Yorkers who created “voguing” and drag balls , and turned these raucous celebrations into a powerful expression of personal pride. The world within a world is instantly familiar, filled with ambitions, desires and yearnings that reflect America itself is an intimate portrait of one urban community, a world in which the allure of high fashion, status and wealth becomes an affirmation of love, acceptance and joy”.

The rest of the film is also online. Jenny Livingston’s film, especially with the ‘behind the scenes’ factor, appears as an ethnography of an existing culture rather than an interpretation or, better and since this is a text and not an academic piece, a representation. Here, the academic world came to dicuss the importance of positionality as an indispensable aspect of queer methodology. Jin Haritaworn (2008) in Shifting Positionalities: Empirical Reflections on a Queer/Trans of Colour Methodology gives an account of the conflict that emerged. Judith Butler‘s ‘Gender is Burning’ (1993) has been criticised (Prosser 1998) as mis-representing the working class trans women of color and this was because she did not reflect on her privileged position (non-trans, white). Haritaworn explains,

“Butler’s ‘inclusion’ of trans identities under the queer umbrella caused particular epistemic violence to the participating working-class MTFs of colour, Venus Xtravaganza and Octavia St. Laurent, whom Butler represented as gay men who merely wanted to pass as heterosexual”.

The lesson learned from this for Haritaworn is that emancipatory projects need to be involved, empirical, personal in order to be political. Knowledge is, in queer methodologies, a joint production of researchers and subjects.

I hardly see this as any different from what feminist methodologies are all about. Apart from that, the question for me here is how far positionality for Haritaworn is a matter of self-reflexivity or a matter of actually being part of what you talk about in order to avoid ‘queering-down’. For Sandra Harding in later versions of standpoint feminism (situated and multiple), the subject of knowledge is the marginal, even as the researcher (or the director in the case of Livingston) does not identify as such.

Clearly here the implications of ‘positionality’ for methodology are confusing. They, to me, have an essence of ‘coming-out’ and a hint of guilt. The essence of ‘coming-out’ is the pressure to justify oneself and their own experiences as a researcher to the wider community, and possibly queer studies community, by giving personal accounts of oppression, relating to ethnicity, race, and, foremost, sexuality. Queering ‘down’ and queering ‘up’ are also confusing terms because they contruct a system of status difference between researcher/ subjects of research, which then Haritaworn tries to deconstruct by emplying the concept of positionality.

I guess the confusion lies at the understanding of the word and the use of the word ‘queering’. Haritaworn concludes:

“Queering can be a shared grammar to communicate a shared experience of being treated differently. It can also be an extension of solidarity to those who are pathologised through gender and sexuality discourses other than homophobia. It is contextual and situational”.

‘Queering’ thus here is used with emphasis on the sharing component- as an identifying tool for the link between people, which adds up to their experience of oppression. To me ‘queering’ as a research strategy has the meaning of keeping distance (Teresa de Lauretis talks about this attitude to research) from practices and meanings in order to understand, analyse and eventually change normativity. Hence the positionality that is needed in a project is actually about the use of ‘queer’, as an identity, like in Haritaworn, or as a methodological tool.

BUTLER, Judith (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge: New York.

HARDING, Sandra (1991), Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

HOOKS, bell (1992), ‘Is Paris Burning?’ Black Looks: Race and Representation, London: Turnaround, p. 145-156.

PROSSER, Jay (1998), Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality, New York: Columbia University Press.


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