Imagining New Futures
“The work presented demonstrates a growing interest in inclusive projects in education, health and other institutions, such as consent education, inclusive education and cultural safety in care…”
Jack Kirne, Emma Whatman and Gilbert Caluya
Dr Jack Kirne is a writer, academic and unionist based in Melbourne, Australia. His creative and critical work has appeared in various publications, such as Overland, Meanjin, ISLE and Text. He was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies 2021-2023.
Dr Emma Whatman (she/her) is an early career researcher in Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University. Her academic expertise is in feminist media studies, contemporary children’s literature and culture, and cultural studies. Emma’s first manuscript is under contract with Wayne State University Press and is due for release in 2024. This work builds on her PhD research, where she closely analysed cultural texts to demonstrate how postfeminism and neoliberal feminism shape the dominant understanding of feminism among young people. Emma has presented and published her work widely and is an interdisciplinary research fellow.
Gilbert Caluya is a Lecturer in Gender & Sexuality Studies in the Writing, Literature and Culture Group at Deakin University. His research focuses on the intersections between intimacy and security across multiple cultural sites; including sexual subcultures, cultural citizenship, and everyday cultures of security. He has previously held posts at the University of Melbourne, University of South Australia and the University of Sydney and was previously a recipient of an ARC-funded DECRA fellowship. He is currently completing two joint ARC-funded Discovery Projects.
As World Pride 2023 comes to Sydney, Australia, it’s an unusual moment to be finalising this publication. While recent academic theorising has made us cynical of the corporatised and commercialised mainstreaming of LGBTIQ+ pride events, it is hard not to be affected by its pull. That’s because its co-optation by capitalism (and even some coercive authorities) doesn’t erase the community building, the empowerment, the celebration of our identities, and the alternative culture creation that underpins queer pride and its events. In a period marked by intense fractious struggles around gender and sexuality, not only between the left and the right, but often between progressive groups with differences in approach, it can be hard to remember the positive aspects of minority politics and communities.
Yet Melbourne (where Deakin University and the editors reside) was recently the site for an anti-trans event that was supported by neo-Nazis who ended up giving the Nazi salute on the steps of the Victorian Parliament. Video footage of police protecting Nazis marching by yelling and threatening trans activists and their allies, coupled with this unusual confluence between trans-exclusionary feminists and neo-Nazis, raises questions about the shifting political alliances at the beginning of the 21st century and the future of feminism and queer theory and politics.
How do we build feminist and queer communities in the 21st century? What kinds of belonging can we imagine for our collective futures? And what role can academics play in shaping that future?
The papers in this special edition are derived from conference papers delivered at the inaugural Postgraduate/ECR Symposium of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Research Network of Deakin University on November 11th and 12th 2021. The symposium was overseen by the organising collective composed of Emma Whatman and Gilbert Caluya as co-facilitators as well as Jack Kirne, Hannah Garden, Elizabeth Little, Emily Marriott, Hao Zheng, Garriné Arslanian, Oscar Davis, and Daniel Marshall. Except for Caluya and Marshall, the rest are PhD students and ECRs at Deakin University.
The Postgrad/ECR Symposium was initially conceived to be a welcoming space for PhD students who wanted to bridge the gap between their PhD writing and presenting at national and international conferences. Simultaneously, we hoped the event could provide experiences for ECRs in academic event management and editing. To meet this brief, we held multiple workshops aimed at building these skills. Prior to the symposium, we ran a workshop on how to write a conference abstract and another on how to get the most out of conferences. Inside the symposium, we had a workshop on how to pitch a piece to the Conversation, social media for academics and tips on applying to postdoctoral fellowships.
We conceived of it as a small symposium located at Deakin Downtown campus, hoping for maybe 10-15 speakers and building on that in subsequent years. However, due to the lockdown in Melbourne, Australia (where Deakin University is located) the symposium was moved online and we decided if it was online we could open it up to delegates outside Melbourne. While we thought we might receive a few from outside, we were pleasantly surprised to accept 45 papers from presenters across 4 continents: Australia, Asia, Europe and America.
The original CFP asked PhD students and ECRs about imagining new futures in the context of contemporary crises. The following provocation was circulated in the CFP:
In the midst of the global COVID pandemic, we have witnessed a reshaping of public and intimate life, a deepening integration of the role of technology in work and social participation, shifts in the role of government, an intensification of neoliberal logics of health and self-care, and sharpening inequalities. Lockdowns, masks, quarantine measures and vaccination programmes have become focal points for public hope and anxiety, simultaneously bringing into focus stark divisions within communities as well as new ways of living together. On a global scale, ongoing fears of global warming and environmental degradation continue to shape public concerns about the long-term prospects for the world. At home, the housing affordability crisis, mass changes to employment, the loss of small businesses and rearrangements of care work during the pandemic have changed people’s daily lives. Segments of news media have become outrage machines, generating social conflict for clicks, and across the globe we have witnessed concerted attacks on the critical humanities, particularly around feminist, trans-feminist, and queer studies and, more recently, critical race theory. Despite such troubling events, social justice movements, minority media and feminist/queer communities have continued to grow and reshape themselves to new challenges. Some have recently led to policy and legislative changes protecting sexual and gendered minorities and their rights. We also see a growing interest in inclusive projects in education, health and other institutions, such as consent education, inclusive education and cultural safety in care.
Amidst the persistence of crisis, how can we fashion hopes for the future, and how does gender and sexuality intersect in all of this? What kinds of feminist and queer futures can we imagine? How might the lens of gender and/or sexuality help us imagine or create alternative futures?
To be clear, the conference was open to any work in gender and sexuality studies so there was no pressure to fit their paper to the theme. Yet despite crafting a broad provocation on contemporary topical issues we were slightly surprised at the difficulties we encountered in relation to the theme. We received a significant number of queries about whether PhD students ‘fit’ the conference even though they were researching gender and/or sexuality.
Ironically, the queries raised some important issues about the future of gender and sexuality studies. Despite doing projects about sexual and gender minorities that are clearly ensconced in feminist and queer theory, many PhD students thought that because they were completing a PhD in sociology or media studies or literary studies that they were therefore not in gender and sexuality studies. This suggests an anxiety about academic identification that pits disciplines against fields of research, which could be concerning for the future of interdisciplinary research fields such as gender and sexuality studies. On the one hand, it expresses a misunderstanding between disciplines and fields of research but also about the malleability of these in the context of structural conditions. The structural division of departments and schools often has less to do with intellectual differences than with struggles around funding and the constant existential threat to cut teaching and research programs. Some universities not only enable but encourage interdisciplinary fields of research programs, while others actively discourage or punish such programs in favour of disciplinary silos, which force scholars to articulate to that framework. This gives the incorrect impression to students that sociology and gender studies are separate, mutually exclusive disciplines, and in other scenarios can actually force departments to literally squabble over which discipline can claim which text for their subjects even though those texts are interdisciplinary in nature.
The strength of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies has often come from the interdisciplinary learning environments that allowed students to grapple with how structures of oppression and domination can be embedded across multiple domains of life. In many ways they challenged the very logic of disciplinarity in knowledge production that were central to excluding women’s and subaltern knowledges and experiences from academic study and knowledge production. Can gender and sexuality studies thrive in a context where the value of interdisciplinarity is not manifested at the structural level? More importantly, what kind of an education are students receiving about gender and sexuality when the phenomenon under investigation is radically fractured and truncated by disciplinary parameters?
The event was entirely run by voluntary work. The symposium itself had no funding support and as a result no one received payment for their work. It’s important to recognise this because not all PhD students have scholarships and not all ECRs have full-time academic work that includes workload allocations for service work. Colleagues in these positions have significant limits to doing voluntary work to begin with, let alone in an era of austerity, mass casualisation, wage stagnation, and rising inflation. And minority colleagues are much more likely to be casuals and much more likely to face structural oppression that limits their ability to volunteer.
Recently, Australian universities have been rocked by wage stealing scandals. We believe the future of Gender and Sexuality Studies is intimately intertwined with the future of academia because minorities are likely to face the brunt of any unevenness in job and financial security. If there is to be a future for Gender and Sexuality Studies in universities, it will have to grapple with the reality of precarious academic labour and what solidarity means in these contexts. At the core of these debates is not only what our university sector will look like but what it stands for, what kinds of conversations and contestations it will make possible, and what kinds of collegiality and solidarity it enables.
The Conference Proceedings
The proceedings of this special edition of Writing from Below characterise the multidisciplinary work of the Imagining New Futures conference. The papers draw together work from literary studies, postcolonial theory, management studies, education, media studies and more to investigate how social justice movements, minority media and feminist/queer communities have continued to grow and reshape themselves to new challenges. These discussions of queer difference and feminist subversion are animated by questions of community and locality. From Bianca Martin’s exploration of Melbourne’s Queer zine community to Anika Shah’s critical examination of the experiences of Queer Bangladeshi Women, these papers evidence the cunning potential of feminism and queer politics to permeate and trouble spaces and communities. Together, the collected proceedings investigate how queer folk have navigated the muddy political waters of a hostile world that sometimes extends liberal affordances of legitimacy and acceptance to queer and feminist bodies, often with an insistence on the value and importance of difference. Crucially, they rehearse a tension central to gender and sexuality studies between the need for social and political transformation against more humble liberal values of inclusivity.
The work presented demonstrates a growing interest in inclusive projects in sport, health, education, and other institutions. The cultivation and growth of these projects are rarely easy and sometimes exploitative. Angela Christian Wilkes’ essay on women’s sports media is especially illustrative of these tensions. The paper takes collaborations between independent and mainstream sports media actors and independent media-makers in the context of women’s football (soccer) to investigate the uneasy power relationship between for-profit and community-driven sports media. As Wilkes outlines, the alliance between mainstream and minority producers allows creators to platform and advance women’s football and the communities that attend them in the context of a media landscape that continues to privilege men. These alliances work to platform women’s sport and their communities and expand their reach and legitimacy while affording independent media makers a chance to build a community of commentators who frame the sport’s shape, direction, and story. However, as Wilkes elaborates, much of the labour that sustains this growing community of women’s sport is built on underpaid or unpaid labour, fundamentally calling into question the transformative potential of such partnerships. So, while such projects might be more inclusive of women in sport, they simultaneously reproduce experiences of marginalisation, financial exploitation, and subjugation that they seek to overcome. How women belong and narrate their experiences in sports media is thus rendered uneasy, precarious, and difficult to sustain.
Papers by Sophie Hindes and Samantha Pearson draw our attention to the need for inclusive sex and consent education. Hindes’s research identifies the worrying exclusion of both LGBTQ+ people and positive experiences of sexual communication in research on consent. They outline the limitations of current consent frameworks, and the ways they often rely on normative heterosexual and cisgendered understandings of sex, gender and power. Hindes argues for a queering of sexual agency frameworks that can facilitate more ethical and nuanced sexual communication. Pearson compares two sex education informational picture books that are intended to teach children about bodies, puberty and sex. Like Hindes, Pearson reflects on the limitations of contemporary sex education by demonstrating how the recent 2015 text The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made contains the same concerning representations found in the 1973 Where Did I Come From? The essay shows us how both texts conflate sex and gender and promote heteropatriarchal dominance in describing sexual processes. Michaela Luschmann’s essay shows a similar representation of masculinity but in a Japanese context in their examination of ‘seduction expert masculinities’ in Japanese men’s advice manga series. Like Pearson, Luschmann shows how these texts erase female sexual agency and place emphasis on male authority.
Like the focus of Luschmann and Pearson’s work, a range of papers focused on cultural representations of gender, sexuality and bodies. Dylan Holdsworth and Tom Sandercock’s analysis of traumatised trans-crip ghosts in three supernatural haunting and possession films shows how cripness and transness can intersect in nuanced ways. They trace the abuse of the figure of the trans-crip ghosts to show that the actual horror comes not from the ghosts, but from the trauma, rejection and abuse they experience. In doing so, Holdsworth and Sandercock’s essay calls for a different consideration of these films, where audiences might find complex expressions of gender and trauma.
A central theme across the work collected in this special edition is how the authors narrate becoming and belonging. Studying the writing mode écriture feminine, Oscar Davis’s paper questions the distinction between gender performance and gender performativity by exploring the nuances of an author writing about experiences that diverge from their own subject position. The key provocation here is fruitful: how might ecriture feminine establish a terrain on which femininity can be explored by authors who may not identify as women, and attendantly, how does fictionality, and its provisional subjectivities, democratise selfhood without laying claim to the author’s understanding of their self? Mon Ince’s paper also explores how the self is mediated through writing and posting by considering how social media can facilitate queer and crip counter public-making, identity formation and community building. The essay speculates on these spaces to imagine and organise crip power through Instagram, and how these arrangements (re)claim expressions of selfhood in the digital space in ways that are difficult or inaccessible offline.
Several papers narrate how communities navigate and understand their gender and sexualities under a regime that demands legible, docile queer subjects. James Gardiner’s study of queer youth takes aim at institutional languages that theorise queer youth as a problem to be resolved by affirming the subject. Gardiner asks how queer subjects come to narrate their experiences beyond the narrow band of gendered and sexual difference. Across a series of reading and writing sessions and structured interviews, Gardiner observes how queer youth tell their queer stories through moments of ‘everyday tenderness’ such as walking along rivers and vacuuming the house. In doing so, Gardiner seeks to generate and articulate ‘undetected modes of living well’ of queer childhood and adolescence violently erased in institutional languages that threaten queerness as a pathology to be accepted.
A number of papers raised questions about how the state and our public institutions articulate gender and sexuality and its effects on variously gendered and sexualised minorities. At the level of the state, Christina Pao’s paper uses a comparative analysis of census surveys across the US, UK, New Zealand and Australia to contrast different approaches to capturing gender and sexuality in census data and evaluates their respective benefits and challenges. Shorter and Fenton turn our attention to the institution of religion, which has so often been (rightly so) the target of feminist and queer criticism. Yet many gender and sexual minorities find value in religion, which raises the question of whether we have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Shorter and Fenton, drawing on Sedgwick, practice a reparative reading to think through the limits and future of gender and sexuality in Christianity. In terms of health institutions, Rebecca Howe considers how medial structures and identity categories have and continue to pathologise trans healthcare, even as it makes claims to depathologise. Howe draws together the work of Indigenous, queer, and postcolonial scholarship to reproduce the latent gendered expectations of coloniality. These expectations demand docile and legible bodies that sustain a colonial regime that reigns through biopolitics. Drawing on Rifkin, Howe asks us to interrogate how processes of settlement are developing ethical visions for the future that reinscribe colonial relations and understandings of gender.
Carolina Rezende Moraes and Mariana Prandini Assis’s explore a Brazilian grassroots collective of sex workers and their COVID-19 mutual aid initiative, highlighting the generative possibilities of working outside established institutions in times of crisis. Moraes and Assis show how the Tulipas do Cerrado collective developed a network of care and support for marginalised groups, and in doing so, presented an alternative approach to policy-making in the domains of care and sex work. The authors illustrate how innovative public policy models can challenge the dominant top-down, technocratic solutions for social issues, demonstrating the potential of alternative models developed in solidarity and within collectives.
A notable absence in this collection is a focus on Australia. While gestures are made to the violence of settler colonialism as in Howe’s paper, no specific attention is paid to the state itself. Queerness, in the Australian space, is instead interrogated under the terms of the liberal language of the global north that equates queer experience in Melbourne, New York, Bangladesh, or anywhere else as being essentially the same. Plenty of papers here do hold this colonising language to account, searching instead for ways of understanding queerness that do not erase local differences of what it means to be queer such as in Ankia Shah and Michaela Luschmann’s respective studies of queer Bangladeshi women and Japanese masculinities. It remains notable, given the callout for the conference that gave rise to this special edition, that Australia did not explicitly feature in how young scholars theorised the future.
Interestingly, aside from Moraes and Assis’s paper on Brazilian sex workers, mutual aid and COVID-19, the essays collected here do not pay attention to COVID and its impact on women or queer communities. The pandemic momentarily reshaped queer lives and forms of intimacy, stimulating online communities and the growth of homegrown, self-directed porn. It has also exacerbated family violence, economic disadvantage and homelessness, unemployment, mental health and more (Rainbow Health, 1-4). The fallout from the ongoing health crisis will structure how women and queer people navigate the world going forward and remains a fruitful and necessary vein of research that remains relatively unexplored in the Australian space. In part, this might be because forms of research were effectively suspended during the COVID pandemic. We suspect that future work might shed light on this pivotal moment in global history retrospectively, as well as pay attention to the differential experience of ‘long COVID’.
Collectively these responses represent a new future for Gender and Sexuality Studies where issues of sex and gender are increasingly embedded across all disciplines. The early career academics and PhD candidates featured in the collection represent a portion of the burgeoning interdisciplinary gender and sexuality research, with authors coming from literary studies, postcolonial theory, management studies, education, media studies and more. They also represent a wealth of new experiences that have historically not been well represented in gender and sexuality studies and this can be both challenging and allow us to reaffirm the inclusive roots of the radical theoretical traditions we draw from in both teaching and research, in both knowledge sharing and knowledge creation.
One concern about our collective future is about teaching and research funding for minority studies, including women’s, gender and sexuality studies. There have been significant concerted right-wing attacks on education, educational freedom and teachers (particularly in the US) around minority subjects and research. It is important for senior researchers to defend academic freedom against such conservative attacks and this is harder to do if we are fractured.
Another issue is about continued precarious labour, particularly when it is women and other minorities that are more likely to be vulnerable to precarity. We often come to these areas of teaching and research because we are passionate, but this is also possible to exploit. To discuss power ‘out there’ but not ‘in the academy’ isn’t merely hypocritical, it is failing to take seriously the fact that the material conditions of academic work effects intellectual labour.
The sheer diversity of disciplines, research fields, experiences and identities represented here might be considered by some fractured and disconnected, especially those wedded to an identity politics based on shared lived experience, we feel that these can also represent research ‘lines of flight’, opportunities to mingle in new research milieus, potential for new subterranean connections that could reinvigorate gender and sexuality research with new questions. If ‘belonging’ was a keyword for 1990s critical humanities scholarship, with its attendant connotations of community and territory, one option might be to turn to generative fields of possibilities and opportunities to connect.
The editors would like to pay particular thanks to Hannah Garden and Elizabeth Little for their assistance in bringing this special issue together.
Moraes, Carolina, and Prandini Assis, Mariana. 2023. “Alternative Models of Care and Sex Work: Sex Workers’ Activism Disputing Public Policy in Brazil.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/alternative-models-of-care-and-sex-work-sex-workers-activism-disputing-public-policy-in-brazil/
Luschmann, Michaela . 2023. “Experts of Seduction: Construction of Performable Love Player Characters in Men’s Advice Manga.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/experts-of-seduction-construction-of-performable-love-player-characters-in-mens-advice-manga/
Pearson, Samantha. 2023. “The Amazing True Story of Where She and They Hide: Regulation of Gender and Female Sexuality in Sexual Education Picture Books.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/the-amazing-true-story-of-where-she-and-they-hide-regulation-of-gender-and-female-sexuality-in-sexual-education-picture-books/
Gardiner, James. 2023. “Queer Youth: Articulating Wellbeing Through Reading and Writing Groups.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/queer-youth-articulating-wellbeing-through-reading-and-writing-groups/
Pao, Christina. 2023. “Queering the Census: Demographic Considerations of Adding and Changing Questions on Gender and Sexuality.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/queering-the-census-demographic-considerations-of-adding-and-changing-questions-on-gender-and-sexuality/
Ince, Mon. 2023. “Queer and Crip Instagram Practice: Rejecting Compulsory Cis Het Ability.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/queer-and-crip-instagram-practice-rejecting-compulsory-cis-het-ability/
Christian-Wilkes, Angela. 2023. “Women’s Football.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/womens-football/
Davis, Oscar. 2023. “Fiction as Gender.” Writing from Below. Imagining New Futures. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://writingfrombelow.org/imagining-new-futures/fiction-as-gender/