Intellectually and politically, it is both important and rewarding to continually reflect on these evolutions and to think about how our conceptions change, what we come to understand ourselves to be and why, and how we understand ourselves in relation to other people, our friends and associates in society.
Your primary research areas are in policy, society and biotechnology. You have published on subjects including the rise and operation of the life sciences industry, the commodification of life forms, posthumanism, applied bioethics and legal approaches to the regulation of science. All these subjects have the potential to inform current conversations about marginalised groups. What light does your research in these fields shed on LGBTQ+ issues?
I am absolutely fascinated by how our biological selves and our relationship to something that we perceive of as a fixed “nature” are rewritten or reauthored by our engagements with technology. Traditional assumptions about where we think our “natural” bodies end and some “other” begins are challenged by work I’ve done on subjects such as organ donation and medical devices. Other research I’ve done on assisted reproduction also challenges notions about “natural” fertility as many people can’t “naturally” reproduce and increasingly rely on technologies. This forces us to reflect on what all that means for conventional understandings of things like the family and our conception of what constitutes biological relatedness and kinship.
What I am interested in is how our ontological relationship to a thing – how we understand or characterise a thing - leads us to categorise and regulate it in certain ways. If you think about contemporary debates about trans inclusion, such as the question of how we understand who trans people are, we are inevitably led down a pathway of thinking about how we, as a society, classify trans people and what this means for their ‘regulation’ or inclusion. These things have profound societal effects in the end. We are, as a species, continually evolving both socially and biologically. Increasingly, technologies are becoming part of us in new indivisible ways - think about implants, for example - that shape how we understand ourselves, how we identify and how that affects our place in the world. Trans, I think is a way of embracing another kind of interstitial identity. Thinking through how we might all occupy liminal spaces between one binary and another is really important and revealing, as it helps us all to work on points of connection rather than difference.
The current prevalence of transphobia in the UK and globally continues to divide the LGBTQ+ community. Last June, 34 academics signed a letter opposing greater transgender inclusion in UK universities. Over 6,000 university staff members from around the world signed a letter supporting trans inclusion in response. How might awareness of LGBTQ+ history help shape social change and future UK HEI policies, especially those concerning the wellbeing of trans people?
There are important parallels between the changes that have occurred in how people perceive sexuality and gender. We already discussed the binary between “butch” and “femme”, but another well patrolled binary was that between “gay” and “straight”. Scepticism about bisexual people was so normalised when I was in my 20s, they were another crowd who were told to “get in one camp or another”! It took many years to remove that stigma. We are now in a much healthier place re sexuality, and gender, which has historically been equally binarized, is coming to be similarly challenged. My children’s generation take a completely different perspective about trans inclusion than my own generation do, but we can learn!
One should probably not presume too much, too soon, about gender. We have a predisposition to attaching fixed gender roles to human beings very early on and for no particularly good reason, unless we devolve to an essentialist position. If we take that presumption away, it leaves a much more open conceptual field that invites people to come to their own account of how they identify. What do we lose by allowing people to remain in a gender-neutral space for longer? It doesn’t seem to be too threatening when you unpack it like that. Clinging onto a need for everyone to be classified early and neatly is probably more about the perceiver’s anxiety with the idea of not having everything formally placed, as Foucault would say, in an accepted ‘Order of Things’ than anything else!
The theme for LGBT History Month 2020 is “Poetry, Prose and Plays”, which prompts us to consider creative approaches to LGBTQ+ - and, more broadly, human – experiences. In 2011 you collaborated with the artist Ania Dabrowska on Mind over Matter, a Welcome Trust supported photography exhibition exploring attitudes to memory loss and brain donation for dementia research. What value does a creative approach bring to social science scholarship?
The value is huge! That project was one of the highlights of my academic career and I learnt a tremendous amount working with Ania. It is rather reductive that almost all social science research is percolated down through texts. Creative and interactive engagements take work to a much broader audience and are not reductive in quite the same way. They leave more space for an audience to imbue the work with their own interpretation of what matters in what you are showing to them. Academics can be very instructive, but creative approaches teach us to allow audiences to participate; to “co-author” as much as we do.
One of our project interviewees was a potential brain donor whose wife had died of dementia. They used to knit together every evening, so he asked to be photographed in one of his favourite jumpers that he had knitted that has his wife’s favourite dog on the front of it. The picture doesn’t dictate to you what you should take away from it. It is an image that you could look at for a long time though – quite haunting.