Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty of Education
Lambert, Karen, Place, sexualities and community: theorising the constitution of 'lesbian' identities, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, 2006. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/1791
This thesis examines, using queer theory - and in particular the work of Judith Butler - the ways in which five women re-construct and re-tell stories of importance to their notions of sexual self. In this process we learn about the complex ways in which they actively story and construct their sexual ‘selves’ over time and place, which in turn exposes the constrictive heteronormative discourses they draw upon in order to make sense of their lives as ‘lesbians’. In short, it explores how significant ‘things’ like coherence, loss and place come to matter to those attempting to live on the sexual margins, and in a world where sexual difference is all too often problematised and pathologised.
Some research in queer theory tends to ignore the more material experiences of ‘queers’ in favour of asserting affirmative politics which seek to rupture normative discourses. Whilst there is little doubt that dismantling the discursive force of heteronormativity is the primary aim of such research, this is sometimes at the expense of those for whom having an identity, and perhaps even desiring to be ‘normal’ is an important aspect of their ‘sense of self’. I take on this paradox by engaging with strongly empirical work in feminist and human geography in an attempt to find a theoretical middle ground capable of working with the complex data collected, and of suitably making an account of both the discursive and ‘real’ matters attached to sexual identity. A particular aim in this thesis is to challenge and stretch what queer theory can do in order to identify broader destructive discourses speaking through the participants’ words.
This approach to theory not only offered alternative ways in which to think about the ‘things’ that mattered most to the participants, but also encouraged creativity in collecting, analysing, and writing up the data. More specifically this influenced my choice of semistructured life story interviewing and poetic forms of representation.
The research reported in this thesis draws mainly upon data gathered from semi-structured life story interviews. The five women recruited were involved for two years, during which time they participated in up to five interviews. The participants were purposively recruited from members of my Sydney Gay Games soccer team of 2002. Each woman was well known to me, and researching friends raised interesting methodological questions explored in Chapter Three and Four. As a focus for each interview, the women were asked to identify three critical moments during their lives in which they were, or became acutely aware of, their sexual identity as not being heterosexual or they sensed their sexual identity to be emerging or developing. These identity accounts were listened to, recorded, and analysed using deconstructive methods associated with poststructural theory. Other theoretical resources were also drawn upon in the design, conduct, analysis, and writing up stages, including psychoanalysis, ethnography, phenomenology, and poetic forms of representation.
From the data collected three ‘things’ came to matter to the participants. Firstly, the importance of affirming a coherent and essential sense of ‘lesbian’ identity as a way in which to survive in a world where coherence is valued, and incoherence is pathologised. Secondly, loss also mattered to these women, and of importance in this research is the ways in which loss is incorporated as a form of melancholic subjectivity. A particular focus in this thesis with regards to loss is working with what remains of experiences of loss, and reconfiguring loss from a position of presence rather than absence. In short examining moments of melancholic agency. Finally, place matters and experiences of and in place appear to be constitutive of sexual identity. Experiences in and with place feature strongly in the participants’ stories with ‘sense of place’ emerging as a useful way in which to explore the mutually constitutive nature of place and sexuality.
By dealing with and acknowledging the material ‘things’ that matter most to these women, this thesis provides a number of unique ways of theorising about, sensing, experiencing, placing, and writing about sexualities and identities within a queer theoretical framework. The criticality of this framework is its focus not only on the discourses of binaries, absence, lack and loss, but also on the possibilities of material disruption, resistance, agency, adequacy, and presence. As such this thesis extends literature in queer theory and feminist geography by providing an understanding of the complex ways in which these women engage with, are ‘made’ by, and deploy particular discourses of power associated with sexuality and gender as active processes of living their lives with pride and respect, and often simply as a matter of survival.