A Pleasant Comfort in the Discomfort of Academia

A Pleasant Comfort in the Discomfort of Academia

SPoD’s 11th Spring Seminar: A Review

L. Alp Akarçay

Held by SPoD’s (Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association) Academic Research Unit, the 11th Spring Seminar titled “A Pleasant Comfort in the Discomfort of Academia”, (Akademinin Huzursuzluğunda Bir Tatlı Huzur) took place on 8-9 May 2021. Each year SpoD (as stated on the seminar announcement) brings together various academics, graduate students, students and NGOs from a range of disciplines and interests such as gender, sexuality, body, LGBTI+, queer, disability studies, critical masculinities, intersectionality, migration and human rights. Taking place online, this year’s sessions centered on queer-feminist methodologies, literature, queer and LGBTI+ studies. Because the seminar was held online, people from outside of Turkey were able to participate in this year’s sessions. Simultaneous interpretations and sign language were made available. I offer a review of the first day opening speeches I attended as a participant to continue and extend the discussions started in these sessions; and to also perhaps provide a launching pad for the contemplation of these issues and to reflect on our own comforts and discomforts as practitioners in higher education.  

In her opening speech, “Scattering Atoms, Electrons and Perceptions”, materials scientist and LGBT+ activist trans woman Dr. Clara Barker from Oxford University shared her experiences in academia and research as an LGBT+ activist and trans woman; discussed why it is important to bring diversity to academia and offered suggestions for ways we can bring change to academia. Dr. Barker started her talk by giving a brief introduction to her work as a materials scientist saying that materials scientists try to change how atoms are arranged in order to change the properties of a film. She then continued her speech on LGBT+ activism by highlighting some brief statistics on LGBT+ rights around the world (71 countries criminalize legal sex change and marriage; in 11 countries there is a death penalty for same-sex activity; and in 15 countries it is illegal to be transgender). Barker also indicated that many of these countries were once a British colony, and emphasized how this actually had an impact on the laws in these countries, criminalizing LGBT+ people.

Drawing on her past experience growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, Dr. Barker mentioned ‘Section 28’, a law introduced in 1980, which made it illegal to talk about LGBT+ people in public spaces. Because she never heard anyone talk about LGBT+ people as a trans person growing up, she said this had a profound and negative effect on her as a transgender woman. Even though the law was abolished in 2003, she pointed out that its effects can still be seen; and illustrated the amount of bullying experienced by LGBT+ youth in the UK (45% of LGBT+ youth are bullied and for trans youth this is higher: 64%). However, despite the bullying, Dr. Barker emphasized that there is progress, that youth are able to be out, compared to her time at school. Still, she also stressed that more progress needs to be made. She pointed out that in a 2018 report by Oxford University, two in three transgender students experienced harassment or discrimination and that 30% of this was from academic staff. She also mentioned another study that focused on academics: that 60% of academics in science believe that they can be out. In another recent study she shared, 30% of LGBT+ respondents said they consider leaving science compared to 16% of non-LGBT+ respondents and that transgender scientists consider leaving STEM often. She added that it gets even worse if you include people of color and people with disabilities.

Dr. Barker pointed out that there are many barriers for LGBT+ academics and shared some of the struggles she faced. She said she left academia, but returned as an out trans scientist. Barker highlighted the importance of positive representation. Being invited to share her story with students in a talk, she mentioned how one student told her that they were going to quit science because they had not seen any trans scientists, but after seeing Dr. Barker they decided they could be a transgender scientist. 

Dr. Barker ended her talk stating that it is important to make academia acceptable for all. By posing questions we can ask to make academia better for LGBT+ people and people in general she said, and offered some practical suggestions for universities: 

●Bathroom distributions (What are the distributions for female – male, non-binary bathrooms?)

●Accessibility (Do you have accessibility for people with mobility issues?)

●University tours and interviews (Who is doing the tours and interviews?)  

●Promotions (Who are you promoting? Promote certain days/months to raise awareness, e.g. LGBT+ STEM day, IDOHOBIT, etc.)

●Panels (Have diverse panels and make sure those people feel comfortable being there)

●Naming building and prizes (Who are you naming buildings and prizes after? Name buildings and prizes after people who are better role models)

Even though Dr. Barker talked about the UK, one can easily see many similarities along with many differences on the issues and challenges LGBT+ youth and academics face in education in Turkey; and find points of relevance for institutions of higher education by understanding the importance of the role and responsibility of universities as pedagogical sites on which a more expansive democratic culture could be demonstrated vis-à-vis explicit diversity and equality politics that are practiced tenaciously. Progressive diversity and equality politics on educational sites matter because the effects ripple outwards, however slow, and help individuals take positions and more agency to address social struggles, inequalities and injustices; and broaden the social imagination that power social change. To see and listen to a trans woman academic talk about the importance of inclusivity, LGBT+ rights and representation in academia was inspiring both as a trans person working in higher education myself and also as someone who values the importance of working in the interests of inclusive education. 

The second opening speech included “The Archives of Feelings in Affect Studies” by Yonca Cingöz, “Transfeminist Struggle in Turkey” by Sema Semih and “Critical Masculinities and Queer” by Atilla Barutçu. In “The Archives of Feelings in Affect Studies” Yonca Cingöz began with a short introduction to affect studies and said that the study of affect emerged in a variety of fields and is utilized as an interdisciplinary theoretical framework. Cingöz also briefly talked about the different approaches in affect studies: theorists following a Deleuzian framework and theorists following a post-structuralist feminist critique of the Deleuzian framework.  Cingöz then focused on Ann Cvetkovich’s theorization of affect, conceptualizations of negative feelings, and approach to trauma. She ended her talk by inviting the participants to think together around the following thought provoking questions: If we utilize a Cvetkovich’s lens, what does this bring to mind about feminist and queer movements in the geography that we live in?; about feeling bad and feeling good in these movements; about the archives these movements create; and how these archives might move us; and what feelings they are able to generate.

In “Transfeminist Struggle in Turkey”, Sema Semih began by locating a 1991 event that led to several discussions and arguments involving trans exclusionary politics. Semih mentioned Nancy Burkholder who was expelled from the Michigan Women’s Music Festival on grounds that she was “not a woman”; and how this event sparked an insurgent feminist activism that led to numerous arguments between cis women and trans activists and the organization of an alternative Trans Camp. This, Semih said, brought about what is known as the TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism) ideology today. Trans feminist politics transpired as a result of these arguments said Semih, and initiated the emergence of a political consciousness for transfeminism within the feminist movement, broadly a feminism that stands close with trans issues and politics. Semih continued her talk by noting specific historical events that contributed to radical feminism and LGBT+ activism developing after the 1980s and trans activism that emerged after the year 2000 as a new form of politics to address trans issues in Turkey. The arguments surrounding the TERF ideology, Semih said, has taken up a sizable space within academia in the last few years. Semih also underscored the fact that even though today there is a strengthening of transfeminist activism in Turkey, transphobia and systemic violence against trans women continues to exist. Semih ended her talk saying that we live in a geography where some people face violence, discrimination and are murdered just because they “are woman” or just because they are “not a woman”; however, the real issue should not be people’s identities but to seek ways to build solidarity and to live in peace.

In “Critical Masculinities and Queer” Atilla Barutçu began by explaining how there are some queer approaches that are actually visible, but are often overlooked in masculinities studies. Barutçu gave an historical overview of masculinity studies and the critiques to theories developed within masculinities studies, mentioning theories on hegemonic, subordinate, hybrid, personalized, profeminist masculinities as examples. Referring to specific theorists, research and critiques in the field, Barutçu explained that the field continues to produce new concepts. Barutçu talked about GEX (gender and sex), a term developed by Jeff Hearn as an alternative to focus on the multiple possibilities under this umbrella term, taking into consideration intersectionality and relationality. In his opinion, Barutçu said that the expansion in terminology does not actually help contribute to the field as these concepts are often ambiguous as to what they point to or are developed without clearly indicating who they encapsulate; however each concept should be a temporary tool to help us understand masculinities. According to Barutçu, the categories should be questioned because they overlook certain things and do not serve as a useful tool for analysis and that instead of focusing on certain categories of masculinities, it might be more helpful to focus on the relationships between these masculinities, performativity and how they maintain hegemony and sustain power relations. Barutçu ended his talk by stating that if masculinities studies are to have a paradigm shift, this should not be removed from queer studies. 

These stimulating discussions provided a refreshing reminder about the significance of critique and the necessity for critical methodologies as valuable tools to analyze social identities, cultural and political knowledge production in light of feminist and queer theories and movements in Turkey. Overall, the sessions provided much food for thought; and what seemed to underlie all the speeches was perhaps the idea that more could be gained by effectively utilizing critical feminist and queer theories. These could broaden perspectives and widen the web of thought towards the appreciation and acknowledgment of all human feelings; striving for ways to build solidarity, and towards questioning the norms that sustain hegemony and configure the politics of performativity. There was much comfort in listening to these discussions focusing on a variety of different locations that host our discomforts.