This talk was given on the 5 th March 2020 by Prof. Kath Browne to mark the launch of the Beyond Opposition Project. It outlines some key thinking as we set out on the research.
‘I often describe this project as an investigation of people who are worried by, do not support and/or are opposed to the massive shifts that we have seen in sexual and gender legislation, cultures and practices in the 21 st century in Ireland, the UK and Canada.
Whilst this is part of the project, it misses the overall aim of the research, which is to explore, and seek to experiment in addressing, one of the key issues of our time: social polarisation. We might blame social media, or referenda or various other 21 st century events, but it is clear that current social polarisations are dividing us. We might point to Brexit and Trump as political manifestations of social polarisation, or drivers of it. However, none of this shows us the ways it is part of and has effects in everyday lives, or how differing values can impact how we are in different places; at work, at home, in school, in places of worship. It doesn’t tell us about how friendships or family relationships are affected. Thus, we do not have enough scientific research to understand what is happening, or how might be challenged.
These social polarisations are often related to left/right cleavages, but it also includes those who feel that they are losing out in the face of rapid socio-legal change, including in terms of sexual & gender gains.
Catherine Nash and I have been studying oppositions to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans equalities for 8 years (Browne and Nash, 2017; Nash and Browne, 2020). We have argued that rather than being ‘anti-gay’ as was shown in the 1990s, these oppositions, including those who sought a no vote against same sex marriage in the 2015 referendum in Ireland, could instead be classified as pro-heteronormativity. We also noted the ways that the groups and organisations that were our focus engaged in activist tactics, lobbying, protesting, seeking media attention and so on. Heteronormativities are no longer supported and enforced unquestioningly by the state in some places, instead equalities legislation, and broader popular opinion has supported same-sex marriage and abortion rights, in the UK, Ireland and Canada. We developed the concept heteroactivism to name this form of activism and explored it using participant observation and texts produced by heteroactivist groups.
Some of Catherine’s and my work involved going to events. On day two of the first event I attended the beginnings of the Beyond Opposition project emerged. In the morning, the compere offered a case study of parents of a transgender child who did not support their child’s gender transition. My fieldnotes read:
‘Bethany’ (their name) was home schooled and moved into a mainstream school. ‘She’ started a same sex relationship, and now wants to be a boy. The parents want the restoration of family and their ‘daughter’ to grow up to the ‘woman God wants her to be’. The parents feel that they are not listened to and “encouraged by social services” to treat her like a boy. Social services have only known ‘her’ for six months – so they don’t know ‘her’. The parents are told that if they don’t agree to name change that it is neglectful and that ‘she’ is suicidal. The mother argues that ‘we love our daughter’.
As a parent, I wondered how I would feel and what I would do if my children were to reject our fundamental family values with the support of the state. And if I was told to respect their decisions to allow them to become the ‘woman God wanted her to be’.
Oppressor/marginalized paradigms and oppositions are useful political and academic tools. They relate to structures and positionings, but are often personified and personalised, regardless of the academic merit of this (Oswin, 2008). This allows us to point to individuals who are ‘the problem’, as well as whole swathes of people who are simply ‘wrong’. This allows a homogenous enemy to be found and fought. This is useful for uniting specific groups, and fighting oppression; it allows us to identify those who we should hate/avoid/attack on social media. This can be empowering and effective for some forms of social justice. But, as with all activism, it is limited.
These limitations are becoming more and more apparent. A key tenet of this project is how we engage with those who do not agree with changes to sexual and gender rights; who associated feelings of loss with them. And as I often say in the Irish context, how were those who voted No in 1983 – who lost – treated? Do we want to replicate this treatment? Or can we look for a different way of relating to one another beyond winning/losing? (recognizing the problematic assertion that life is better/perfect for all those who are supposed to be ‘winning’)? Is it ok to simply hope that the oppositional paradigm remains in favour of those with whom we agree?
Beyond Opposition is therefore exploring the possibilities of ‘unpredictable discoveries and potentially new modes of interaction with others’ (Keating, 2013: 19). The project is investigating the possibilities of working beyond binaries to create new social, cultural and political possibilities. Gloria Anzaldúa’s work on bridging focuses on “opening the gate to a stranger, within and without” (2002:3). However, all are transformed through this interaction, it “is not just about one set of people crossing to the other side; it’s also about those on the other side crossing to this side” (Anzaldúa, 2002: 4). AnaLouise Keating is clear that this is not about erasing difference and instead finding “complex points of connection” (2013: 19).
This project explores the possibilities of engaging radical commonalities. There may be experiences, and perspectives, that when dismissed wholesale ignore something important. Indeed there may be experiences of trauma, abuse and other areas of that need to be considered on ‘both sides’. Investigating everyday spaces provides new insights and understandings of how sexual and gender changes are experienced, not debated. These experiences might even provide moments of commonality across difference. Our project starts to explore the possibilities and limitations of going beyond the them/us to rethink social polarisations. But this is not easy or straightforward work; it is high risk but it has massive potential to be high gain. It is also only one way to address social polarisation, there are many other options.
Overall, I think complex and multifaceted discussions that refuse easy solutions, and instead deploy academic thinking and research in ways that question, query and engage are an imperative for contemporary societies. Ignoring each other, or creating debates and fights on social media and elsewhere, can feel empowering and effective, but current events and perhaps our everyday interactions point to the need for more. I think (and perhaps I would!) that this contemporary moment needs greater academic nuance, rigour and engagement, beyond memes and over simplified soundbites. I am suggesting slow, difficult work, that is not for all. The bridge metaphor asks for both to move, and for some that is not possible, desirable or important. It is one potential tactic amongst many. It is not for everyone.
Overall this project aims to think about dealing with difference differently. It is not a debate about who is right/wrong, nor is it trying to change people’s core values. The debates in Ireland have been extensive and a third of people voted no to same sex marriage and access to abortions. To me, it is this, as well as on our work on heteroactivism, that showed resistances to, and concerns about, sexual and gender equalities are part of our ‘progressive’ nations. Those opposed to gender and sexual equalities will not disappear, and that ignoring those on the ‘opposite side’ is counter-productive and detrimental for social cohesion. The question that is critical at this moment is this: how do we engage with each other beyond opposition.’
Browne. K., & Nash, C. J. 2017. Heteroactivism: Beyond Anti-Gay. ACME: An International E-
Journal for Critical Geographies, 16(4).
Nash, C.J. & Browne, K. (2020). Heteroactivism. Bloomsbury: London
Oswin, N. 2008. Critical geographies and the uses of sexuality: deconstructing queer space.
Progress in Human Geography, 32(1), pp. 89-103.