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The Student’s Perspective: The Lesbian Rule

Queer ethnographies, we say, seek to reveal the wires and pulleys and supports of the everyday context within which 'the normal' is invented and stage-managed, rendering its strange artifices and carefully wrought illusions evident, naming the ways in which social and cultural life are selectively re-presented to members as stable, reliable, necessary. (De Castelle & Bryson, 1998)

In the last semester of my senior year at Oakland University I enrolled in a new course, Advanced Writing: Ethnography. As a queer sociology student, learning about ethnography as a research method in a course focused on diversity and otherness appealed to me. With the quote, “making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange” in the class description, I expected the course would provide me with a new perspective and challenge my notions of normalcy. At the time, I was also beginning to question and re-examine my own identity as a queer woman. It was under these circumstances that I choose to examine drag king culture in an attempt to construct a self-reflective auto-ethnography to understand for myself the flexibility of gender, and reclaim queerness as a source of identity and power.

More important than educating or persuading anyone, my project was a process of self-exploration.  A Metrotimes (Detroit’s arts, culture, entertainment weekly newspaper) article on drag kings (Bagwell, 2002) I read shortly before selecting my topic included a discussion of performance motivation.  Many drag kings interviewed in the article mentioned performing was about regaining power as women as well as critiquing power relations in a patriarchal and heterosexist society through parody.  One king, Jake the Snake, describes, “It’s like deconstructing the power of these sleazy motherfuckers, she says. “And I’m taking it back.  I’m like, ‘I look just like you, motherfucker, but really I’m a woman underneath all this.  I can try it on and wear it just like you do . . . It’s a coat.  It’s a hat.  It’s whatever.  All those sleazy motherfuckers who yell at me on the street ‘Hey baby, blahblahblahblah, ‘I’ve got ‘em in my closet.”  Her statement resonated with me, as I was beginning to take back parts of myself, my desire and identity after similar abuses. 

During the same time I was working on the ethnography I organized the Clothesline Project (a visual display of tee-shirts made by and for survivor/victims of sexual violence) and wrote “Breaking Silence,” column for the Oakland Post disclosing one of my own stories of abuse (I was raped/assaulted, targeted as an out lesbian).  As the semester progressed I had the opportunity to further disrupt my views of gender and sexuality by dressing in drag numerous times and performing once.  I kept some journals to further document the experiences. On the power of passing, I wrote, “So what’s so appealing about this for me? It’s the double-take. Works every time. It’s in that moment where the lines are blurred. Where preconceived notions crumble, where confusion is the only certainty. When their eyes meet mine searching for answers. I’m making a statement. I’m doing my part.” I began to realize that telling a story about drag would also include telling my own story. 

Through various course readings I began to map out a project that would allow me to examine the social construction of gender and identity in the context of my own experiences.  Margery Wolf (1992) in A Thrice Told Tale drew my attention to power analyses. Through political struggle, Wolf says, feminist researchers have a greater awareness and sensitivity to power as a factor in research.  She continues, “feminist work has always been under suspicion, often for the same things that postmodernists’ critiques now celebrate -- like questioning objectivity, rejecting detachment, and accepting contradictory readings.”  Like feminist work, queer ethnographies face some of the same accusations. This discussion of power also leads to a discussion of authority and voice.  The use of auto-ethnographies can be very effective in telling queer stories and breaking down barriers. 

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In preparing for my own mini ethnography I also found Van Maanen’s concept of Impressionist tales useful.  These stories are written in the first person and often depict events which happened in the field where the writer is pictured as an active participant. As Van Maanen (1988) states, "impressionist tales present the doing of the fieldwork rather than the doer or the done. . . [and are] a representational means of cracking open the culture and the fieldworker's way of knowing it so that both can be jointly examined . . . [by keeping] both subject and object in constant view" (p. 102).  Like Wolf, Van Maanen’s description of impressionist tales includes some discussion that culture and ethnographic field research is not something that can be known once and for all, and is a never ending story.  It appealed to me that they depend heavily on the audience, with new interpretations arising from each reading. I was also aware that I was already known, although not an “insider” with the population (Metro Detroit drag kings) I wanted to research/write about.   I wanted an opportunity to let the work speak for itself and allow for more flexibility.  This knowledge coupled with the coupled with the project's heavy focus on my own experiences in the field, and how they shaped the text, directed my style toward impressionist tales.

De Castell and Bryson mention that “disciplinary practices denying queers’ presence as speaking subjects in ethnographic theory and research secure thereby the centrality of hegemonic heterosexist voices in the academic world. This becomes a subject positioning which becomes visible only as it is challenged by queers researching and writing as queers, and not about them.” This idea had been reinforced in my sociology coursework. My other classroom experiences at Oakland University in Human Sexuality and the Sociology of Deviance reflected traditional social scientific inquiry. Research discussed in these courses positioned the LGBT population as the object of study. Few, if any accounts included research from the queer researcher’s perspective. There wasn’t much room for transgression.

Most reactions by sociology faculty and others to my project or interest in drag were not out-right negative. There were, however, subtle clues that most viewed the project as frivolous or self-indulgent. For example, upon hearing about my project, a former instructor mentioned that if would be much more beneficial to undertake an independent study project using questionnaires to expand my knowledge of survey research methodology. Other faculty and administrators reinforced their support for “diversity” and “inclusion,” but maintained that queerness is a topic better suited for activism then academia.

Working within the computerized classroom also disrupted the traditional roles, responsibilities as instructor/students as well as allowing for more classroom interaction. Looking back I wish there were more postings and interaction. If I could take the course over again I would have engaged more with my classmates. This type of engagement in classroom postings and discussion was difficult. I received some feed back on structure, but almost no comments on content. At the same time, I was focused on my own experiences and self reflections, and wasn’t fully open to discussing or posting much in WebCT.

Even family and friends had reservations about my “research.” Many of my friends enjoyed watching drag, and attended shows with me. They viewed the performances purely as entertainment, and never took my investigation very seriously. My family who still struggled accepting my queerness had concerns about publishing anything on the web.  My mother asked why I needed to come out to the “whole world”. Her concerns are not completely her own. I have some anxieties as well.

Surprisingly, I am actually more concerned “outing” myself as an abuse survivor, than as queer. Although they are not independent of each other because not only am I a woman and a survivor, but also a queer woman survivor. The difficulties discussing desire and sexuality, and at the same time mentioning my rape/assault speak to my own tensions between queerness and normalcy, gay and straight, right and wrong. Sexual assault is an act of violence, a hate crime, and not an expression of sexual desire. Institutions in society still insist on treating this violence as a series of unrelated, isolated incidents. This mentality dictates that we keep of the streets, that when we are raped or assaulted it was because we are queer. This, or course, is much easier to swallow, than the fact that certain groups or individuals are systematically abused, repressed and discriminated against. Constructing a web-text for publication has lead me to examine my feeling of being caught in a catch-22, was I raped because I was queer, or am I queer because I was raped?

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De Castell and Bryson in their article “Queer Ethnography: Identity, Authority, Narrativity, and a Geopolitics of Text” seek to illustrate how Queer ethnography can subvert ethnography proper, providing solutions to some critical, ethical and methodological issues facing ethnography today. This radical inversion can be seen in three areas: subject positioning, measuring difference, and motive. Queers have traditionally been denied presence in ethnographic theory. This inequitable subject positioning becomes clearer when Queers begin to research and write as Queers, not just about them. This brings into question whose accounts count. Queer ethnography is more than inclusion; it is about inversion, and bringing about new centers. In ethnography proper, the researcher is the perfect house guest, “just visiting”, whereas the Queer ethnographer’s field experience is about interruption, and the trouble s/he causes. The authors go on to point out that ethnography im/proper offers solutions to “traditional ethnography’s most troubling claims: the professional outsiders’ access to ‘reality’: the ‘fly on the wall’ paradigm of neutrality in the observational field.” Marginality can provide a new center for cultural theory.

To understand how Queer ethnography can disrupt methods De Castell and Bryson provide the example of the Lesbian Rule. The Lesbian, used by the builders of Lesbos, is a flexible carpenters rule for measuring irregular surfaces, which can serve as model for reformulating ethnographic research theory. The lesbian rule is a strip of metal, bent to the shape of the surface being measured, as opposed to the straight edge ruler, only measuring in a straight line, and the rule of thumb, only approximating. Measuring this way takes difference into account in ways that doesn’t suppress the truth. After repositioning the marginalized subject and providing them with a standard for measuring difference, the article concludes with a discussion of motive.

Queer ethnographers research not because they are interested in the subject, or are working for others on their behalf, but because they are compelled to, they feel they have to. This inverts ethnography proper in that it challenges the ethical dilemmas of relevance, validity of outsider’s perspectives, and the charge that ethnographies of ‘others’ are fundamentally exploitive. The authors turn to bell hooks' writings on Blacks telling stories of whiteness, "our survival depended on an ongoing public awareness of the separation between margin and center…a mode of seeing unknown to most of our oppressors that sustained us." These stories were necessary for survival. They authors conclude that Queer ethnography’s transgressions are its greatest strengths, brining to light the illusion of normalcy, and exposing our social world as Queerer than we know.

Reflecting on this article did provide some insight into my own motives. Affirming my identity as a queer woman and healing from past abuse are about survival. Initially I equated survival with finding safe spaces in society and academia, even within myself, discovering in order to find the those places we often have to create our own. Looking back it seems like I was doing anything but playing it safe, by any definition.

De Castell and Bryson also point out that telling Queer stories can reposition the reader, "not to ethnography’s other, but to themselves, so that they cannot fail to see themselves in accounts in which they must in that same moment question, rebuke, and perhaps even despise themselves." This was the effect my project had on other students/faculty, family and friends, as I was also aiming to make others aware that the boundaries between normal/Queer, gay/straight, male/female are more permeable than most believe.

More important than educating or persuading anyone, my project was a process of self-exploration. Lauren Wells-Hasten writes in Gender Pretenders: A Drag King Ethnography,

I do not deny that I am doing anthropology to study anyone other than myself; rather, I question the notion that it is possible to discover in the 'other,' anyone but ourselves. Feigning no understanding of a foreign culture, I admit instead to a certain bafflement regarding my own, and I feel I cannot truly understand any 'other' until I begin to comprehend myself and the discourses that have shaped me.

When selecting a topic for her master’s thesis, she choose drag kings, what she perceived to be “safe”, to avoid a more personal examination of the cultural taboos of incest. Instead, in doing her queer ethnography, she found that many of her informants spoke of incest, and the powerful transformative aspect drag plays in healing. The fact that in ethnography one nearly always finds what one is looking for could be it’s greatest weakness, as well as strength. I began to realize that telling a story about drag would also include telling my own story.

My own story about drag can be translated into a story of queering oneself.
More than just a story about women performing masculinity, my ethnography has the opportunity to move beyond gay and lesbian studies. Through interactions with the text my friends, family, classmates perspectives on the dominant culture will have been queered, as they look for themselves in the other, and find the other in themselves.

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Bagwell, Jennifer (2002, January 23). "Drag Kings: Sometimes the Best Men are Women." MetroTimes Retrieved 30 May 2004 from

De Castell, Suzanne and Mary Bryson (1998). "Queer Ethnography:  Identity, Authority, Narrativity, and a Geopolitics of Text." In J. Ristock & C. Taylor (Eds.), Inside the Academy and Out:  Lesbian/Gay/Queer Studies and Social Action (pp. 97-110). Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

Hasten, Lauren W. (2002). Gender Pretenders: A Drag King Ethnography." M.A. Thesis. Retrieved 30 May 2003 from

Van Maanen, John (1988). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolf, Margery (1992). A Thrice-Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility. Stanford University Press.