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Visualizing Community: Design & Creating Queer Female Space in DC

Visualizing Community: Design & Creating Queer Female Space in DC

This semester in Professor David Ribes' Ethnography & Archival Research: A Grounded Theory Approach course I have been studying the way local factors specific to DC, such as professionalism, leadership, money, resumes, and spatial gentrification, inform how LGBTQ-identified females negotiate, construct, and perform their online & offline identity. This project is turning into my thesis project, which has five goals: (i) to understand how social media (online space) functions in DC's female LGBTQ community, (ii) identify & visualize invisible tensions and connections between existing networks, (iii) empower and give a voice to community leaders that create online space, (iv) discover opportunities for better community development, and (v) to bridge and create more reciprocity between the academy and the community. This reserach about the DC female LGBTQ community is a fragment of a larger set of (micro)practices within the field of work that explores the way LGBTQ identified individuals use social media tools to seek pleasure, express their identity, and "meet" up in urban spaces. I specifically seek to unpack the imporant factors that exist in the discursive properties of DC's community and whether or not the online social tools, designed to brings queer identifed individuals together, actually translates into physical "offline" bodily interactions. 

Charmaz, "Constructing Grounded Theory," Main Text for Course

Grounded theory involved collecting data, coding data, memoing, sorting, theorizing(Abstracting codes), and writing. It does not have to be in that order, of course, but grounded theory involves constant analysis and immersion - going back to the data and then going back into the field to cross-sample emerging codes. Over the course of the past 4 months I've studied/observation several sites (i) online websites, DC LGBTQ SNS sites, DC LGBTQ online social calendars, and facebook pages, (ii) physical spaces, I've attended a variety/diverse mix of 'lesbian' events in DC, (iii) personal interviews, I've interviewed ~12 female dc leaders that were involved in creating online/offline LGBTQ spaces. I will continue to visit these sites over the course of the next year as I write my thesis project. One of the most useful methods for my research has been "co-presence." Anne Beauleiu (2010) refers to co-presence as the ability to investigate many sites at once as there is no longer just one site of knowledge production, but values and ideas emerge across highly mediated and distributed networks, and in this case networks produced by lesbians in DC. It was also important for me to establish co-presence in the commmunity, as a member myself, by posting on the sites and making sure the community members were aware of my project and its goals. 

 

Sample Questions to my respondents:

(i) What inspired you to create the sites? 

(ii) What have been the major challenges in maintaining the site's presence?

(iii) What are your goals for the community in DC? 

 

Rather than overlaying queer theory or other forms of scholarship overtop these sites, I let the theories/emerge from the sites. I didn't fully know what my research question was until about the beginning of March -- the urban local factors, such as resume & gentrification, emerged from my respondants themselves -- and became important parts  of the way they went about planning and creating events for the community. 

Terms - Queer females? Lesbians? LGBTQ - What Terms to Use? 

This paper moves away from the traditional textbook definitions of what lesbian and queer means, and highlightst the way media, specifically online networks, impose a prescribed meaning of what or should be defines as "gay "lesbian" "queer." Several of my respondents use "lesbian" and "queer" to refer to their sexual identity, but in order to not exclude particular identities I will refer to my respondents as female LGBTQ members. Moreover, defining identity is not the goal of this paper, but instead it seeks to reveal the important aspects that make up the DC LGBTQ community by examining both online & offline sites. 

Just in the past 6 years, 5 majors female LGBTQ websites have emerged to help diversify the scene and create spaces that are more inclusive.

"Community" Goals from respondents:

"Now there is a lot more regular stuff going on, you start seeing the same people out at all the events...It's my goal to have a scene where its an actual community and not just people at bars." 

"Because the truth of the matter is, that going out and meeting people at clubs is fine and dancing is fun, but I don't know if it really gets to the guts of what a community is, where you are meeting older people that can mentor you." 

Going about creating an "inclusive" and "safe" community space, however, is not easy, and by no means linear. Three major themes have developed, from my research, which requires that women work within the existiing (i) politics of DC to (2) create spaces both online & offline in order to gain (3) visiblity to create consistency (See Figure below). 

 

Visibility

Visibility includes fashion/appearances, as well as the aesthetics of the online space. One of my respondents notes, "It's kind of just the next step in the process of people becoming more comfortable with being out in general." There is now a "queer" design movement, in which, women are trying to use design to not exclude, but include everyone, no matter what sexuality. This means moving towards design that throws away the presence of the rainbow "signifier."  Yet, in offline spaces you still have people segregating into community events based on race, class, and style. One respondent notes, "I have friends that go to their events, I don't because that is just not my type of crowd."

Politics

In terms of Politics, female LGBTQ members have to work within existing powerful LGBTQ organizations in DC to gain a voice - most of their sites and events are produced as their "side jobs" - thus money is a huge concern. Becoming a successful leader in DC, means that females need to network and show up at events regularly to gain trust from existing LGBTQ members. A respondent notes, "There is defnitely a lot of challenges, and I think one of them is being a young feamle business owner, whether you are gay or straight, it doesn't really matter...I was literally out 4-6 days of the week, always out showing my face, always introducing myself to people...it felt like establishing those relationships with people that are very well connected in the community." 

Space

DC is a transient city - people move in and out. As a result, it is hard to create established female LGBTQ spaces when people are in constant flux. In addition to "physical" spatial movement, several of my respondents agreed that another reason why it is hard to create a consistent and inclusive lesbian space is due to set "lesbian" spatial metaphors. For example, "nesting," the term for coupling up with a partner and becoming "invisible from the scene" is one of the spatial behaviors. Also, living outside the city, in Maryland & Virgiina is another factor. There are also geographic reasons, such as women only going to parties within a region of DC, Black parties (NE) and White parties (NW). However,  the latter segregation is starting to change through the emergence of these inclusive social networking sites. 

This research is will a work in progress and this summer I will doing independent studies to further explore the history of LGBT politics. Next question is: How has the macro-history of LGBTQ politics in DC and urban gentrification informed the micro-practices of curent LGBTQ community development DC? This will involve more archival research, but will not mean that I will discontinue my co-presence and interviews. 

I'd love for any comments or suggestions on my work so far :-) I'm currently working on thesis proposal and IRB approval for future data. 

 

 

 

 

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1 comment

Jennifer -- I link your reference to the 3-tier architecture, which is often used in computing as a three-way interaction in a client/server environment. It's a good metaphor/frame I think for community development.  The (i) presentation tier (realtes to the visibiltity of online LGBTQ interfaces), (i) business logic tier (politics/resume building DC within the community), and the (ii) data tier (Space, where all the interactions take place and are stored online). 

 

thanks!

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