We’d like to wish all members of the LGBT+ community a very Happy Pride Month! We caught up with Dr Jamie Lawson, a queer anthropologist whose major research interest is in sex and sexuality, to find out more about his research, Pride, and the path to equality for all.
What was it that first drew you into the exciting world of anthropology?
It was a lucky accident really – I got very bored at school, so come university application time I felt a strong urge to study something new. Archaeology and Anthropology was the first thing in the UCAS course book that fit the bill. I fell in love with anthropology quite quickly, though – I enjoy the freedom of the discipline, and felt a strong pull towards an intellectual tradition that resists being pinned down. It’s a big, sprawling subject with as many definitions and angles as there are practitioners, which is what you might expect from a discipline that’s focussed on understanding people; we’re complicated things, after all. There’s a very thin line between anthropology and activism as well – I think I always found the political engagement of the discipline really exciting.
What was it about sexual minorities and human sexuality in particular that led you to pursue a research career in this area?
I developed an interest in sex and sexuality towards the end of my undergraduate degree, and followed it through to master’s and eventually PhD level. Initially I adopted an evolutionary perspective on the topic, but found that a little too heteronormative for my tastes, and have drifted over the years towards a more phenomenological position, focussed on queer identities and subcultures. This led me to my recent work on the puppy play community. It’s no coincidence that over the same time, I became properly politically engaged with my identity as a gay man, and got involved with activist work, including organising the first Pride up in Durham, and eventually writing my book. I think it’s important to challenge the dominant structures of society which act to marginalise and oppress anyone who doesn’t fit in with the trans- and homophobic, racist and patriarchal norms.
You were involved in the Art of Relationships project at the Open University, which was designed to explore the power of art to engage members of the public with social science research – can you tell us more about that?
That was a lot of fun. The project involved screening a set of short films that had been made to communicate research findings from a large, nationwide project on love and relationships called ‘Enduring Love’. In order to evaluate the impact those films had, I ran a reflexive group exercise called a visual matrix (based on a social dreaming matrix, for anyone who has encountered one of those). The method is designed to tap into group-level, collective ideas and feelings rather than individual, to see what the audience collectively had taken from the films. A visual matrix is a wonderfully egalitarian method which breaks down the distinction, to some extent, between researcher and informants. We used it to see what sorts of ideas had made their way from the films to the audience, to see if it was possible to communicate research findings through art (in this case, films).
June is Pride month here in the UK – what does Pride mean to you?
This is a favourite question to ask queer people around Pride time – I’m never really sure how to answer it. Pride is about visibility, community and celebration, sure, but we should never forget that it was born out of anger. The rights that the LGBTQ+ community has fought for and gained, the space it carved out for itself – that was all the result of anger, focussed against oppression. Pride this year comes at a scary time – the world is in the grip of a pandemic, and the hard right have risen in political power. The protests that are currently sweeping the world as a result of systemic racism and anti-Black violence in the United States are also an expression of anger, deeply and collectively felt. My hope is that we can all come together around that anger and push back against those who want to strip minorities of their rights and turn us against each other. I am a very angry queer, and very proud of that anger.
Last year you released your first book – Rainbow Revolutions: Power, Pride and Protest in the Fight for Queer Rights – which is aimed at children aged 12 and over. What inspired you to write specifically for this age group?
The opportunity landed squarely in my lap. I was approached by the publisher off the back of some consulting work I had done for them on another project, and they asked if I would like to write a book on queer history for children. I said yes almost immediately. The mainstream, cishet world does everything it can to stop queer people feeling connected with each other, including dismissing the idea of there being such a thing as queer history. Being disconnected from your own history makes growing up queer a very isolating thing – you feel lost, untethered in a society that only begrudgingly makes space for you. Knowing that you have ancestors, traditions, that you belong to a group of people who learned lessons collectively and had an impact on the world, that’s empowering and important. I wrote the book for young queers, hoping I might help them feel a little bit less lost.
What is the key message you hope young people will take away from your book, and what impact do you hope it will have?
I wanted the readers of Rainbow Revolutions to understand that queer rights were fought for and won – not given – and that the community has a history of its own , and perhaps most importantly that Black and trans voices inside the LGBTQ+ community have been some of the most important and most powerful we’ve had. As trans people are having their rights stripped away and their lives endangered around the world, and as the Black Lives Matter protests sweep the globe, it’s hugely important that the readers of my book understand how connected we all are, and that none of us are free until all of us are free. I tried to reinforce an idea that collective action – that visibility en masse – is key to liberation and safety. Most of all I wanted them to know that they are not alone.
What societal changes do you think are required to get to a point where we can ensure young members of the LGBT+ community are fully supported, included, and safe from discrimination?
That’s a big question, and there are a lot of moving parts, but if I could wave a magic wand and make one big change (and if I knew there were others out there with their own magic wands) I would disconnect the idea of sex from the idea of reproduction. The idea that “sex is for making babies” is at the absolute core of the oppression of queer people, and the oppression of women (queer or not), around the world. It’s dangerous most of all because it feels like such a self-evident fact, and is so deeply embedded in Western cultures. Alongside that, I’d make white people around the world turn to face the evils of colonialism, and engage with our collective responsibility to dismantle the structures that supported it, of which trans- and homophobia are important components. Big aims, both, but I have to believe they’re possible.
What more do you think could be done as a Faculty – and more widely across the University – to support the LGBT+ community and ensure equality for all?
I think the higher education sector is starting to shift in really interesting and quite radical directions, and that’s what we need here: radical change. If we don’t make active decisions to disrupt colonialist, oppressive structures then they persist. I think the pandemic has forced us to start to think properly about what universities could and should be and how they could and should work, and to confront difficult facts about access and inclusion. Finding new ways to imagine the University will be key to equality for staff and students alike.