In the last semester of my senior year
at Oakland University I enrolled in a new course,
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
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.
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
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
I have some anxieties as well.
Surprisingly, I am actually more concerned “outing” myself as
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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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
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
More important than educating or persuading anyone, my project was
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
telling a story about drag would also include telling my own
My own story about drag can be translated into a story of queering
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
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
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.