Professor Ralph J. Poole, University of Salzburg, opens up about his career as a gender-queer researcher, here
When it comes to gender studies, I was fortunate. In the late 1980s, I started writing my MA thesis right at the point when feminist theory had hit the American Studies Institute at Munich’s university full force. Women’s studies were ‘in the air’ and I took deep breaths. My thesis was on Margaret Atwood, and I chose a feminist psychoanalytic angle to discuss eating disorders in her work. Anorexia, bulimia and the like were strongly discussed as syndromes particularly relating to the female body, and hence instead of Freud and Lacan and their focus on the father, I rather turned to theorists who emphasised the mother such as Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Nancy Chodorow, and Jessica Benjamin, as well as the French Feminists Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, all of which not only revised and expanded Freud’s theories but put psychoanalysis and their founding fathers on the couch.
At the time, I was not even considering an academic career, but the inauguration of a graduate school at the University of Munich dedicated to the study of gender and literature, revolutionary in Germany in 1991, lured me into applying for a scholarship and starting work on a PhD thesis in gender studies. A paradigmatic shift was on its way, from women’s to gender studies, and at least for me and many of my colleagues there and then the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble felt like a lightning rod. We all were electrified by her understanding of gender as a category both performative and subversive.
We all were electrified by her understanding of gender as a category both performative and subversive.
Critiquing the idea of gender that relies on a universal notion of the woman (or of the man, for that matter), Butler wished to destabilise and denaturalise our habitualised belief in binary gender categories. My thesis turned into a book on Performing Bodies: Transgressions of Gender in the Theater of the Avantgarde (1995), and it grounds on Butler’s rejection of viewing gender differences as biologically given but as being effects of contingent social practices, instead, which ultimately can be reworked and resignified. In researching gender-defying bodies on the theatrical stage of Gertrude Stein and Robert Wilson, for example, I had moved into the realm of the then new and hot academic craze: queer theory. But my shift did not come without costs.
Many feminist scholars have bemoaned the switch to the ‘playfulness’ of the highly theoretical poststructuralist streak of gender and queer studies, claiming an abandonment of the politics of feminism and thus, of the fight against systemic patriarchal oppression (an argument revivified in the recent #MeToo movement and the worldwide women’s marches). My own understanding was quite different. In the 1990s, I shared with theorists such as Eve Sedgwick, Michael Warner and Lee Edelman the feeling that the recuperation of the once derogatory term “queer” signified defiance and empowerment.
Moreover, as an umbrella term it was meant to encompass various culturally marginalised sexual identities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, butch/femme, etc.) and as a critical concept it suggested standing against heteronormative culture, especially in view of the ongoing AIDS pandemic with movements such as Queer Nation raising voices against the bashings of queers.
Trying to ascertain my own gender-queer space within academia, I found myself stuck in a perhaps not surprising, but clearly uncomfortable dilemma: as a gay-identified young gender studies scholar, I was competing for university positions against female colleagues. While I lost this competition for a long time, being invited for job interviews only as “the token male”, even today I find myself often the only male in a group of otherwise like-minded females. Except for my own ‘queerness’, which consistently allocates a marginal position to my academic standing, I am made to perceive myself as a white privileged male.
Experiences of being actively discriminated in both my personal and academic life stand opposed to representing the patriarchal elite, and thus I find myself thrown back to a rigid gender system totally at odds with the research being done producing radical theories of the transgressiveness of gender and queerness. I was the only male in the inaugurating board of the Gender Studies Association Austria (2012-14), I remain the only male researcher in our Salzburg university’s Interdisciplinary Expert Council for Gender Studies, and I am the only male supervisor in our university’s doctorate school “gender_transcultural”. Besides such representational functions and the discriminatory set-backs, it is gender-queer research that I keep being invested in, and two current projects should exemplify my ongoing quest.
Blind spots in research I: Sexualized violence against males
One of my recent research foci emerging from gender studies workshops at Salzburg University has been to tackle the issue of sexualised violence against males as represented in film and television. With the scandals surrounding the Catholic Church but, in its wake, also other institutional settings including hazing rituals in sports, the blind spot of such abuse has finally started to be addressed. It took a long time for the public, as well as for academia to recognise that boys and men can be victims of such violence as well. For at least thirty years, feminist theory on sexualised violence has produced an immense bulk of studies. Research especially on rape, however, has often been declared a ‘women’s issue.’
Research especially on rape, however, has often been declared a ‘women’s issue.’
Part of the reluctance of feminist critics to acknowledge and research sexualised violence against males is the lasting myth that ’real’ men can’t be raped. According to this gender bias, male rapes have often not been recorded, and it needed the change of laws in countries such as the UK and the U.S. to even acknowledge anal and oral rape as crimes. In turn, film and television productions from Deliverance and Cruising to CSI and Mysterious Skin have picked up practices of male-on-male violence, and my research shows that they have done so with at times astonishing degrees of critically challenging representations of such undocumented and illicit violence.
Blind spots in research II: Mobilising transgender
Looking at the fashion world and media celebrities, it has recently been noticeable that female transgender icons such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner are hailed and criticised for displaying a hyperbolic performance of femininity. Conversely, transmale models face a radically different dilemma: the public’s curiosity to know what their body really looks like. Critics have called this “junk politics” by basically assigning transmales a deficient genital status.
transmale models face a radically different dilemma: the public’s curiosity to know what their body really looks like.
Our society’s neoliberal dynamics trick trans* people into confessing their transition stories – ideally with revealing images attached – only to then judge about the success or failure of adhering to optimised gender expectations. But transmale subcultures have turned to rescript and resignify such expectations by successfully posing as sports jocks (Aydian Dowling) and underwear models (Laith Ashely), visually highlighting surgical alterations, and even showing-off detachable prostheses.
Clearly, not every trans* person wants to be considered the avant-garde of gender fluidity, but some do explicitly disengage from normative body images. And this seems even more imperative in times like ours when politicians aim to thwart trans* rights again by resorting back to defining gender as biologically established at birth. #WeWontBeErased is but one reaction to mobilise publics to take note of gender diversity, gender-queer research is another. For me, it has been a long way to professionally acknowledge belonging to the LGBTIQ* community, but becoming a gender-queer researcher continues to be rewarding in many ways.
Ralph J. Poole
Funding: Austrian Science Fund (WWF)
*Please note: This is a commercial profile
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