I’m here, I’m Queer, how should I speak here? (Insider) Outsider: One Queer Anthropologist’s Encounter with the Growing Weed of Positionality

by Ray Abu-Jaber (they/she)

MRes Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London

rabuj001 (@gold.ac.uk)

Anthways, 2023 © Ray Abu-Jaber

DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.8352712

I’m here, I’m queer

“How does being Queer feed into my research?”, reads the prompt for this issue. A curious question. Being Queer does not just feed into my research, it bleeds into it, drenches it with love, hope and determination. Being Queer and Queer experience is my research. It is all I ever talk about. It’s all I ever see, it is all I ever read about (using read loosely here – at this point I’m more likely to look up a Youtube essay then actually read a book), it’s everything. I breathe it, and so does my work. I am not just a Queer researcher stepping into the field, I am a Queer person, a Queer body investigating, desperately trying to do something, trying to enact change, create something, and use this space of anthropology and the support of my caring, thoughtful anthropology peers and tutors around me in the classroom and on the campus to create something that can reach out to other Queers and our community. At the soul of it, I am trying to use anthropology and the ideas it holds to nurture a little seed called a PhD project that can grow into a beautiful tree of hope and inspire joy. It comes as no surprise then that my research project itself is gay as fuck (it’s literally called “Didn’t Gay Mean Happy Once” – a title I keep using over and over again, wearing it like the pride badges that adorn my jackets). Birthed from Queerness, and the memories of that poor little Queer kid that I used to be who grew up learning that they will never be safe as a Queer person in this world, the kid that constantly worried about their rights being taken away, and a need to do something and be part of a movement that can enact a positive change to make the world a safer better for other Queer kids, it lives in me, evermore flowing through me especially now as I enter my MRes/PhD.

As Audre Lorde understands (1984, p.57) joy can be a powerful thing. For communities that face unrelenting prejudice and discrimination, especially in the everyday, hope can be difficult to find. Hope for change, hope that things will get better, or hope for the future can seem unreachable. And that is why, as projected by Audre Lorde (1984, p.57), reminding people of their capacity for joy is incredibly important. It reminds those people faced with prejudice that their lives are worth living and that they deserve love, joy and happiness. It is a nice flicker of love to balance out the pain that they go through. Part of that joy that Audre Lorde talks about is how, in the face of everything painful, people do not just survive but thrive (1984, p.57). So of course, this celebration of joy is not stepping away, disregarding or ignoring pain. It is thriving despite it. To me, this celebration of joy is exactly what I need to put out into the world to enact that positive change I want to see. So, I actually did the shit. I made things, I wrote, I read, I listened. I hurled myself into a PhD project all about queer joy and how to inspire joy in Queer people.

As it currently stands, my project is all about investigating how tabletop games can facilitate joy in Queer players. How can tabletop games like D&D make people feel good. How do players use games to bring them joy? This is all in the hopes of eventually turning my findings into the creation of my own tabletop game that can spread joy and give Queer players that effervescent light glowing feeling. I just want to make something that can make Queer people happy and remind us of our capacity for joy. And every time I spoke about my project, the energy and light beaming across my face, I felt full. My soul felt full. And that is such a beautiful thing I find myself feeling every time I step into a classroom, conference, or workshop I run, sharing Queer joy with the world around me. But every time I open my mouth, there is one problem…

I keep saying “we”.

How should I speak here?

In my project, my way of speaking was often picked on and questioned. Centred on the Queer community, with myself as a Queer researcher engaging in a Queer topic, I felt a clash between how I would conceptualise my topic of study and my role and positionality as an anthropologist and Queer person. Whenever I talk about my project – creating a game that hopes to inspire and facilitate Queer joy in players, whenever I talk about Queer emotions and experiences, I keep saying “we”. “As Queer people, we…” is a very well used screwdriver or spanner in my brain’s toolbox of things to explain my project. And this is a problem. As Abu-Lughod once asked “Are there ways to write about lives so as to constitute others as less other?” (1991, p.149). In my work, I wanted to do just that. Fed up and uncomfortable with reading some Queer researchers referring to Queer communities with the extracted distance and cold, disconnected, sanitised words of an outsider observing, I made it a point to fight against this in my own work. I am uncomfortable saying “Queer community” like some Queer researchers do, because it feels so detached, clinical, isolated, and puts us under a microscope. Instead, I embraced the activist method for community and bringing together, adopting terms such as “we”, “us” or “my community” to evoke the united visibility Queer activists embody when talking about my project. A method and way of speaking that I now realise has its own issues.

“As Queer people, we are often taught shame around our Queerness, and we expect to be met with Queerphobia at every turn” I remember saying to my sister when explaining the reasoning behind me choosing to work with Queer joy. In doing this, I hoped to distance myself from the far off way that some Queer researchers were referring to Queer communities. I learned from working in a Queer charity, especially when we wanted to secure funding or inspire anyone to actually give a fuck about a Queer charity and the work we were doing, “us” and “we” are useful terms to promote the Queer community as a united front. They were words that allowed non-Queers to see us as a united voice that was worth helping, one that stood together. And they amplified that voice. But is there really such a thing as a united voice? Is one “united” voice more favourable and effective than multiple? What about the multiplicity of experiences, identities, and voices in our Queer community? As Weston (1998, p.205) argues, simply saying “my people” is not inherently an issue. As she explains, identities and communities are somewhat socially constructed, and with each community or identity there comes a different context of its construction that can greatly influence how that phrasing “my people” is used. An activist saying “my people” has a very different context, power, and meaning then a colonialist using that phrase. Whilst that is true, and whilst I use those terms “us” and “we” under the good faith of an activist context, that is no excuse for my use of the terms. As pointed out to me by my tutors, such use of “we” and unifying myself as a researcher with my community of study may raise the volume of the unified activist Queer voice, giving the community visibility, but it can actually silence some voices too. Even though I am Queer, and so is my topic and community I am working with, I cannot speak for all Queers when I talk about my research. I do not want to silence these voices that are not mine. Even the people I do share an identity or label with, they may not feel how I feel. They may not want to say what I say. So I cannot speak for them either. Regardless of my intentions, I cannot let the way I use terms like “us” and “we” silence them. I must actively work not to silence them. I must recognise the outsider aspects of my positionality. And I must grapple with this part of me and my role as a researcher. Maybe this is something other Queer researchers find too. An issue to grapple with, a weed in my growing tree of a project. So what do I do about it? How do I solve this problem?

Learning how to speak here: Attempt One – Autoethnography?

Anthropologists are forever inundated with important, needed debates over ethics and representation. Anthropologists cannot help it. As a discipline that was birthed from colonialism, stealing , and reporting back to so-called homelands about some “exotic other” (a disgusting term and ideology I think a lot of people working in the discipline wholeheartedly resent. See Weston, 1993), anthropology fosters some methods and ways of speaking that have been and still are dangerous. As Kath Weston notes (1993), even early lesbian and Queer studies in anthropology heavily focused on examining and looking for evidence of same-sex relationships and gender difference in cultures outside of the West, deeming such cultures as “other” by forever comparing their beliefs and structures to Western culture’s. Anthropologists in this area would deem such findings “exotic” and exoticize the same-sex relations and understandings of gender they “found” in these cultures, presenting them as unusual or spectacle in their comparisons to Western conceptions and structures (Western, 1993). Thus, Anthropologists need to be wary of their influence and the dangers and harm their ways of speaking can cause. Anyone doing anthropology needs to be careful and actually think about what they say and what they write about. Particularly for myself, focusing on how I write and speak is an integral concern for me to consider, so that I can minimise any harm to the Queer communities I work with, and so I ensure I actively work against anthropology’s dangerous past of othering in my writings. But how can I ensure I do this? There have been voices that tease out and twist around whether or not autoethnography is the way to go (see Browne & Nash, 2010).

Hinged on the analysis of the ethnographer’s experiences, autoethnography inherently brings forth the positionality of the researcher (Waterston, 2019, p. 12). Being an expulsion of the ethnographer’s feelings, thoughts and experiences, autoethnography requires experimentation with writing forms and can become quite unorthodox and chaotic (2019, p. 12). As Waterston explains (2019, p. 12) some forms of autoethnography are much more an experiment in revealing and looking at oneself than trying to represent or understand a community. Indeed Reed-Danahay (2002, p. 423) defines autoethnography as “produced by an ‘insider’ or ‘native’ observer” of their own culture. Therefore, in Waterston and Reed-Danahays’s understanding of autoethnography, you’re just speaking for yourself, using your own experiences to learn from or say something with, and hopefully change the world.

Particularly in Queer work, this form of autoethnography is an incredibly satiating method (see Browne and Nash, 2010). Indeed, as Rooke explains (2010, p.34) “as ethnographers of Queer lives, while we are busy deconstructing the discourses and categories that produce our informants’ subjectivities, we might consider the extent to which we ourselves are willing to be ‘pulled apart’ or undone?”. And it is exactly for this reason that I am keen on employing this form of autoethnography and its methods. If I am going to analyse my encounters with the people I work with, then I need to first apply such scrutiny to myself. To Queer Rupaul’s favourite phrase “if you can’t analyse yourself, how can you analyse somebody else”. This is why I actually really appreciate this self-reflective self-unravelling form of autoethnography championed by Waterston and Reed-Danahay and everything it does. It is me making myself bare as a signal that I too am open to scrutiny and examination.

It can be said that such autoethnography is self-indulgent; revealing and exposing the self for the sake of it (Behar, 1996, p.13), or that self-analysis is too personal and takes away from the communities and people you study with (Behar, 1996, p.22). Revealing so openly and vulnerably your experiences and how these interweave with your views and ways of connecting with the people you study could be said to taint your work as biassed (Behar, 1996, p.10). Indeed, conducting this form of autoethnography as an insider to the community i am working with can bring up its own issues as well. Insider research is the brand of work that revolves around the researcher actually belonging to the social group they are conducting research with, on the basis of shared characteristics (Gair, 2012). I am doing research on the Queer community, and (as I banged on about before) I am Queer (I have pretty much made being Queer my whole personality at this point) so in that way you could consider me an insider. As an insider to the community they are working with, a researcher may find themselves subjected to their own unwanted bias. They may have problems separating their personal experiences, feelings, and ideas from those felt by the people they are working with (Liu and Burnett, 2022, p. 3). This may be true for problems upholding objectivity; as an insider you may feel extremely connected to the people you work with and so may struggle to separate your “objective researcher” lens from your more human one, thus stopping you from doing ethnography or alike entirely for fear of what it might do to that community. In my situation, this lives alongside my penchant for grabbing a metaphorical megaphone and accidentally talking as though I am speaking for an entire community whenever I describe my own thoughts or ideas. In this way, I definitely have problems separating my personal experiences and ideas from those felt by the people I am working with. And what helps me keep this problem in mind is knowing that by the simple virtue of my role as anthropologist, and in my identities within the Queer community, I am also somewhat an outsider.

Although both these issues may be true, I believe there is still a benefit to this form of autoethnography and what I can absorb from it in my pursuits for learning how to speak and how to use/not use “us” and “we” when I talk about my project and Queer experiences.

In an effort to attempt to address my positionality, I conducted an autoethnographic experiment playing a tabletop game known as The Terrific Travelling Trouble shooter with my sister (check the game out, I highly recommend it). Using Waterston and Reed-Danahay’s understanding of autoethnography as a space to make oneself bare and unweave oneself, I followed my feelings as I played the game to attempt to investigate my own bias as a Queer person so that I may stop homogenising my experience. The game’s main role is to generate conversations, using a physical suitcase as a base to guide the players through helping each other. Each of the two players are ascribed a role to play the game, with one becoming a travelling troubleshooter complete with the wonderful suitcase to help you as you cure people of their troubles, and the other a customer who has a trouble or problem to solve – problems can be a real problem or fictional. The suitcase is kitted out with soft knitted objects that will guide the troubleshooter through a conversation with the customer, giving them helpful prompts to inspire solutions to the customer’s issues when squeezed. The moment of play between my sister and I proved to be a good moment to test managing my insider/outsider positionality and my problem of misusing “us” and “we” when talking about Queer experience, as i was at once insider (due to our familial connection and shared history) and outsider (given my positioning as Anthropologist and Queer person in a moment of Queer joy against my sister’s as a non-Queer person experiencing joy). Following autoethnographers’ attempts to explore “people in the process of figuring out what to do, how to live, and the meaning of their struggles” (Bochner and Ellis, 2006, p.111), I found the autoethnographic encounter allowed me to understand my own joy, with the sensorial emotional experience uncovering things i did not previously know, and allowed me to grapple with my insider/outsider positionality by unravelling myself.

The autoethnographic excursion was and acted exactly as that: an analysis of the self(ves). I was the subject in my ethnography. In my autoethnography, I was not an observer speaking for a group or a community. I was simply untangling myself and what my work means for me. If I want to create a game that inspires Queer Joy, I must first detangle, re-entangle, string out, and knot together what exactly Queer joy means to me. How does it feel for me? Where does it come from? I am but a fragment among many fragments that live within the Queer community umbrella. Thus, I can build a picture not by blowing up my fragment to take up the space of a full image that constitutes Queer experience as a whole, but to recognise it just that, a fragment that will be stuck together alongside other fragments from various people to make a beautiful collage of Queer experiences. So I must first start with autoethnography analysis, with my fragment. Then I can carry on self-analysing through autoethnography whilst ensuring I listen to other autoethnographies of the people I work with to see how their experiences have influenced the making of their games. Thus there will be more colours to the fragments of Queer experiences, and I can avoid the all too easy accident of having my own as the sole representative.

The game predicated on me revealing a problem to my sister for us to talk through and solve – something I found very uncomfortable when we played and when I wrote up my autoethnography. In the self-focused autoethnography, I was recounting a personal moment I a Queer person was experiencing as I began to understand why I was so uncomfortable, why I am so closed off and reluctant to be vulnerable around my family, and why opening up to my sister and feeling us connect through her deep care for me has brought me joy. Did this moment of vulnerability taint my work on Queer joy with bias, as Behar warns? Yes. The bias I have that comes out when I explain my project, saying things like “as Queer people, we often don’t experience care, and so it’s important to show when we do” does come from my particular experiences as a Queer person. This is not shared by all Queer people. As advised by Abu-Lughod, generalisations in ethnography are dangerous. As she explains, “When one generalises from experiences and conversations with a number of specific people in a community, one tends to flatten out differences among them and to homogenise them,” (Abu-Lughod, 1991, p. 475). Employing an ethnography of the particular – something that speaks from and represent an individual’s experiences, rather than homogenising various experiences to speak for an entire community (Abu-Lughod, 1991, p. 475) is an effective way of working against the harm that would otherwise come from making generalisations. By centering individuals and individual experiences in anthropological projects and ethnography, anthropologists can avoid homogenising experiences and points of view (Waterston 2019 p.12). Doing so arguably offers more nuanced representations to the anthropologists work (Waterston 2019 p.12). This form of autoethnography works to create accessible ethnography that is grounded on everyday life (Jones and Adams, 2016, p.197). Such focus of everyday life arguably invokes the ethnographies of the particular, effectively echoing the call to focus on individual life and not homogenising experiences to create a ubiquitous “Queer experience”. Choosing to adopt Waterston and Reed-Danahy’s respective autoethnographic approaches to the recount of the session I had playing the game with my sister allowed me to explore my particular individual experiences growing up as a Queer person. Following my own thoughts as we played made me analyse myself in a way I hadn’t before, thus leading me to change the sentence “as Queer people, we often don’t experience care, and so it’s important to show when we do” to “I am a Queer person, and because I am the only one in my family that we know of, I feel distant from them. I feel like I am misunderstood by them, and growing up did not receive the care from them I would have liked. This is why it is important for me in my concept of Queer joy to celebrate when Queer people receive care”. Through this form of self-focused autoethnography I am making clear my bias, interrogating it by making it the focus of my study. Beyond this, I am interrogating myself and my experiences, opening myself up to scrutiny but also unravelling myself so that I may see more clearly the difference between “me” and “my” experiences and my imagined idea of a homogenised Queer experience where “we” all feel and have experienced what I have.

As Behar recounts (1996, p.16), her vulnerable self-exploration moved readers to begin to explore and understand themselves. Her vulnerability allowed readers to feel connected to her, projecting their own problems, experiences and feelings onto their imagined picture of Behar, and so feeling close to her in her ethnographic journey. This allowed them to reflect on their own experiences, making their understanding of Behar’s ethnography deepen through empathic connection. Championed by Abu-Lughod (1991, p.472), such connection in this way dissipates opportunity for othering, as the readers feel aligned with Behar and her recounts of her experiences with the people she studied with. Married to vulnerability, the sensorial and emotional elements of Behar’s work are too aided in creating such connection and opportunity for deeper understanding. As Behar attests “When you write vulnerably, others respond vulnerably. A different set of problems and predicaments arise which would never surface in response to more detached writing” (1996, p.16).

Indeed, such vulnerability within my autoethnography allowed me the space to be honest with myself, leaving everything bare. Thus, such emotionally vulnerable sensorial autoethnography allows for both myself and any reader of my ethnography to understand something deeper about my experiences with joy, and perhaps their own. This self-unravelling method equally allowed me to work from a point of “I” instead of “we”. So, from this excursion, I realise why I see Queer joy the way I do and it now reminds me to only speak from my particular experiences, rather than lump them in with every other Queer person’s by saying “we”. Hopefully, by interrogating myself and opening myself up in my vulnerable autoethnography, any reader may feel inclined to unravel their own conceptions of joy also.

This way of engaging the insider aspects of oneself, and focusing research on untangling how you feel and experience things is but one autoethnographic approach.

Learning How to Speak Here: Take Two – Recognizing and Activating my Insider/Outsider Aspects

As (Jones & Adams & Ellis, 2013) understands, autoethnography is not always carried out by an insider; outsider researchers can engage in this too. Unlike Waterston and Reed-Danahy’s respective auto-ethnographic methods, autoethnography is not always used as a way of untangling the self. As previously mentioned, within anthropology there is responsibility for representation and careful consideration around how an anthropologist represents the people they work with and their topics. Part of that careful consideration is being open, honest, and transparent about your presence as a researcher and making clear your position, bias, and situatedness so that readers know to take your words with a pinch of salt. After all, they are not gospel. One way of doing this is to harness reflexivity in your writing, adopting a reflexive auto-ethnographic approach. Detailing their thoughts and feelings as they become immersed in a community they are an outsider to, some auto-ethnographic methods are intended to reflexively make clear an anthropologist’s bias and situatedness. Simply reminding the reader that you are in fact just an anthropologist writing what you see from your point of view can do a world of good. The inclusion of the anthropologist’s presence in this form of autoethnography conducted by an outsider is used as a way of reflexively detailing their possible bias to ensure their work is not taken as objective fact and as a way to counter bias rather than allow the focus of the piece to be about the researcher untangling themselves.

For me, simply being reflexive in my autoethnographic approach is not enough. With being reflexive, the whole point is to address your audience and make them aware of your thoughts, bias, opinions, and point of view by showing yourself as a multi-faceted human. However, such reflexivity does not speak to nor draw out how the researcher’s own identities and life experiences entwine with their subjects on a deeper level. As an insider/outsider to the community I am working with in my own project, I feel as though it is not enough to be simply reflexive. I can address my bias this way, making the reader or anyone who engages with my work aware of my positionality as a precursory warning that my words may be taken with a pinch of salt, but this does not allow me to dive deep into how I am tied to my research, and how my experiences as a Queer person seeking and experiencing Queer joy emerge in my understanding of such. Telling the reader that I am but one Queer person, speaking in a sea of Queer people does not undo the harm I could cause by silencing voices everytime I say “we” or “us”. I feel like there is a step that belongs before reflexivity and reflexive autoethnography that I need to take first: Recognising my duality as an insider/outsider.

An outsider can be characterised as having different beliefs or identities from the community they are working with (Liu and Burnett, 2022, p. 3). Though this may pose a problem to “gaining access” to a community (a term I am very uncomfortable with as it feels underhanded and invasive. Using this term feels like seeing a community as an object of study that you have to trick into trusting you and gain access to for your own benefit in the name of “research”. And this is a very disrespectful and uncomfortable way of doing things that could seriously cause the community harm), the outsider may have more critical understanding and view with more of an analytical lens than the insider. With no prior knowledge gained through embodied experience of what being within that community means, the outsider has to pay deeper attention to things that may have just been given to an insider. The outsider realises they do not have this embodied knowledge, and so they have to listen more (Liu and Burnett, 2022, p. 3).

I myself am somewhat an outsider to the community I work with. I am a white British, half-Jordanian, Asexual Lesbian women+ from a working-class family. I am also an anthropology student at a university. And so, these parts of me are very particular and give me particular experiences and privileges that I must recognize whenever I conceptualise my project, the way I see it, and how I speak about it. As a white person and as an anthropology student conducting research, I have a certain level of privilege and power that I need to recognize and consider when I talk about my Queer experiences. Being an anthropology student immediately slaps on an anthropologist lens to everything I will view in my project, and so this may separate me from the Queer communities that I am studying with. Furthermore, no member of a community can be a complete insider to it. A “full insider” does not truly exist, as communities have intersectionality. Thus, in this way I am not just an insider but also have outsider aspects to me.

Following this, engaging my position as a somewhat outsider with an insider perspective could potentially circumvent the problem of “speaking for” that I seem to have. If I recognise my part as an outsider, then I am continuously reminding myself of the fact that I am different from the community I am working with and so my experiences and knowledge(s) are not enough to fully understand the people I work with. This simple fact may remind me to listen and not fall into the trap of saying “we” but instead engage the word “I” whenever I wish to share something from my own embodied experience.

Recognizing my limits as an insider could ensure I reduce generalisations and avoid using my own experiences as blanket statements that stand for an entire community’s experiences. Indeed, as Waterston recognizes in her own work that focused on representing her father and her family “I knew I did not have insider access to all aspects of my father’s cultural milieu, since so much of his life experience occurred before my time and in places I did not know” (2019, p.12).

Similarly, I too do not have insider access or embodied knowledge of each Queer person’s experiences with joy, or their need for joy. I am but one voice in a sea of voices. So how many then am I silencing when I represent my own experiences, and yet entangle them with the broader communities when I say “we”. By recognising my outsider perspective and positionality and by autoethnography at times, I can engage the “I”, adding my small fragment of experience to the broader picture whilst listening to everyone else around me and sitting alongside their fragments. Thus, holding these two roles or positionalities in tandem with each-other certainly is helpful for my own psyche when I think about my work. However, I still do not know how to bring these two positionalities into conversation with each-other beyond just thinking about them. What can I tangibly do to address my duality, and avoid accidentally passing myself off as just an insider?

Still Learning How to Speak Here

Emotions, how we think, how we feel; this is what I get to write about. I feel so lucky. As a good friend once joked, I am a professional Queer. Being Queer literally is my work, I would not be on this PhD course without it if I am honest, it colours everything I do. But it’s not just a lens to see through, not just a way of challenging research or doing ethnography, I think for me it’s a type of anthropology that I am connecting myself to. Queer anthropology for Queer audiences done by Queer people. I do not use Queer as the verb meaning to challenge or do something differently as they often do in academia, I use it to mean fucking Queer like the people the community, to signal who it is I am writing for, who I am making for, who I want to join into the conversation and listen closer to.

But to do this, to carry out my project and to make sure it actually does something positive and puts out joy, and adds a little more love and celebration of Queerness into the world as I hope it will, I need to live with this problem of the insider/outsider positionality. I need to sit with this discomfort around my use of “we” and “us”, and not run away from it, ignore it, or look for a quick solution. Nor can I abandon the words entirely (they are useful in some contexts, and they can activate something in some situations). I just need to sit with this and carry it with me as I venture through my project. The best thing I can do is keep it with me as something to always be mindful of and check. I can constantly look for things to help me address it, such as different methods, theories, and ways of speaking so I do not silence anyone. Maybe this is not a problem. Maybe it is a helpful little friend, a nice reminder to take care and think more about my bias and positionality. And, in all honesty, I am excited by this opportunity I am sitting with. This “trouble” I am staying with (Haraway, 2016), as anthropologists like to say.

Now, as I enter my MRes/PhD project, I am elated with these buzzing ideas that I love so much. They are embedded in me. And I get to wake up everyday knowing that what and who I get to research, read, write about, hear, listen to, discuss with, and make is all drenched in love, absolute unbridled love, for my community and for us (there I go again). And that is a wonderful feeling. So being Queer does not just add to my research, it absolutely just is my research. But I need to keep an eye on my Queer positionality in my work, and hold onto the trouble of using words such as “us” and “we”. And I will sign off this little essay with something else that I always find myself saying. When asked the question, what is your research project, what do you study, what do you do, I always say this: it’s just really fucking gay.


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