Part I: And Now for Something Completely Different

Hello, fellow travelers of the blogosphere!

It has been far, FAR too long since I last shared with you a Detour Thru My Mind.  If I told you that I had been so busy that I just hadn’t had the time then would you believe me?  Thanks – I knew that I could count on you for support.

Truthfully, time constraints are partially the reason but I can’t blame my job, which recently disappeared, for everything.  As some of you may or may not know, after 16 years of being out of school, I started anew on a PhD in the fall of 2012.  It’s a joint program at two institutions of higher education in Urban Systems, which combines the fields of urban health, urban education, and urban environments/planning.

Why, you may be asking, would anyone in her right mind want to do a joint PhD that encompasses three distinct areas when a doctorate at a single institution in only one area is typically challenging enough?  Excellent question!  And when I come to my senses than I’ll let you know my answer!

All kidding aside, I was looking for a program in urban studies because I am interested in learning more about the migration of particular groups of people who have traditionally been located in cities: specifically, sexual and gender minorities (SGMs), otherwise known as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and genderqueer (LGBTQGQ) folks.  There are over 100 different terms for SGMs but I have reduced the alphabet soup down to its saucy essentials (can you tell that I enjoyed watching The Food Network before I could no longer afford cable?).  For those of you who are fairly new to this terminology, let me take a moment to unpack LGBTQGQ for you because I just lumped together two distinct groups of people: those identified by their sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer) and those identified by their gender (transgender and genderqueer).

I’m using the diagram below in spite of the fact that its creator, Sam Killermann, seems to have plagiarized the original 2005 concept; you can read the investigative trail for yourself at the link provided but I still find the infographic useful and I hope that you do, too.  No use throwing out the gingerbread person with the cookie sheet.  Pay particular attention to the differences among identity, attraction, sex, and expression as well as the continuums to the right that attempt to debunk notions of binary identifications within those four categories (“attempt” being the operative word here, as the continuums are still binary – but sometimes social justice educators have to take what we can get!).  I’ll give you a few minutes to explore The Genderbread Person so you can better understand my usage of LGBTQGQ.  Go ahead.  Really.  I’ll wait.


Click on the image to see a larger version – it opens in a new window or tab so you can easily return to the blog.

All done?  Excellent!  Now that I have addressed all of your questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity/expression via one diagram let’s move on.

Sexual orientation and gender identity/expression can be very complex and confusing – ironically, they seem particularly difficult to grasp for those who identify with what Americans consider to be the “normative” sexual orientation (i.e., heterosexual or straight) and the “dominant” gender identity/expression (cisgender or non-transgender).  In fact, without fail, when I do trainings for mixed groups on these issues, straight cisgender folks rarely identify their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression during a standard exercise where I ask participants to make a list of the traits and characteristics that make up their identities.  This is not at all surprising as white people often fail to list their race, middle class folks don’t add that to their list, etc.  When I move on to the next phase of the exercise and ask participants to rank their identities from most to least important than the response for which I’m hoping, which is, “Hell, no!  All of me is important and identity is socially constructed anyway so give me a break!” is rarely expressed.  But, hey, a grrrl can dream.

I did just such an exercise with members of my class this semester on the Sociology of Urban Education, which brings me full circle.  Did you see how I did that?  I went from mentioning that I’m in a PhD program, to talking about my interest in LGBTQGQ populations and migration, to explaining some of the meaning behind those letters, to an exercise example, to the class for which I’m writing the series of blog posts that you are reading right now this very minute!

Yes, it’s true!  Instead of writing the typical research paper that usually concludes the typical graduate seminar, I am blogging.  My professor is a bit unconventional and our final assignment is as well.  I’m the only student in the class, to my knowledge, who is writing a series of blog posts that relate to the content of the course but no one is writing a traditional, boring old research paper.

So, I invite you on this pilgrimage with me, fellow travelers, as I explore some issues that arose for me in powerful ways during my Sociology of Urban Education class.  Now that I have you thinking about identity, Part II will explain my research interests, Part III will explore whether my identities matter in the context of my research, Part IV will take a closer look at the social construction of identity, and Part V will wrap it all up and tie it with a bow.  Read on, my friends, but first take some deep breaths, let them out slowly, and appreciate this piece of artwork that I hope will strengthen you for the next leg of our trip; it’s a mandala that I created digitally from music that I wrote and recorded:


TonalVision X

And if you’d like to comment on this lengthy, multi-part post then please feel free to do so.  My professor will be reading this the same way that you are – online – and I’m sure that she’d be interested in any responses that you’d like to share, as would I.  🙂

Part II: I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want to Research

I am interested in LGBTQGQ migration within the United States.  Preliminary comparative analysis of Census data, including data collected via the annual American Community Survey (ACS), does not contain data on LGBTQGQ individuals – neither sexual orientation nor gender identity/expression are demographic categories on Census or ACS instruments.  But since 2000 the Census and since 2005 the ACS have collected data on “same sex unmarried partner households” and starting in 2013, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of the Defense of Marriage Act, which subsequently allowed the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, the Census and ACS now also allow same-sex couples to identify as “married.”  In other words, Census and ACS data from 2013 forward now contain two separate data categories where one might locate same-sex couples: under the “unmarried couple household” or under the “married couple household” designations.  Researchers then need to query the databases to further break-out the data within those categories to obtain the numbers of “same-sex households” within each of them.

Purposeful Movement

Purposeful Movement

It is fairly easy to get national and state level data on same-sex households of both types, however, it is a very difficult, tedious, and intricate process to break the data down to geographic units smaller than states.  For select cities that I have examined so far (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco), which I chose because they have traditionally contained large LGBTQGQ populations, there is a trend of same-sex households leaving from 2005-2009; I have not yet looked at later years.  I also have national and state level data for specific data points that I have chosen simply to show longitudinal change: 2005, 2010, and 2013.  I have a great deal more work to do in terms of the data mining and analysis to be able to ascertain where these folks are moving to and why but my theory, based so far only on anecdotal evidence, is that same-sex couples of both types, married and unmarried, particularly those who also have or want to have children in the household, are moving from cities to suburbs for a variety of reasons, one of which is because they want access to what they perceive to be “better schools” for their kids.  My dissertation thesis is that the migration of LGBTQGQ households from cities to suburbs (and on a more limited basis, to rural areas) is fueled by the combination of increasing social acceptance of LGBTQGQ people; the passage of national, state, and local laws that support the full humanity and citizenship of LGBTQGQ people; and LGBTQGQ peoples’ internalization of the sense of freedom gained by these recent socio-political victories such that they feel they can now live relatively safely wherever they wish to settle.

States Table

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Part III: Does My Identity Matter for the Purposes of Conducting Research?

I am a white woman who was raised in a working class family in a Connecticut town that is called home by the highest number of Fortune 500 CEOs nationwide.  I identify as both a lesbian and as genderqueer – the first is a reflection of my sexual orientation and the second of my gender identity/expression.  Both sides of my family are of Italian origin; my parents both graduated from high school but I am the only person in my immediate family with a college education.  I started working when I was 10 years old, babysitting for neighborhood children, some very close to my own age, because I matured early and their parents perceived me to be so responsible.  Starting at the age of 13, after school and playing whatever sport was appropriate for the given season, I would ride my bike to a waitressing job at a local pizza parlor.  The owner knew that I was too young to work legally, but he also knew that my family was struggling financially; I would put on makeup to make myself look older and would remove it before I biked home after my shift.  I would get fed at a slow point in the mid-day or evening service, which was extra compensation in my mind.  I used my tiny income, consisting of $3/hour plus one-quarter of the mostly nonexistent tips (“rich people are cheapskates,” my Italian boss would mutter in broken English) to buy clothes and to pay for school lunches.  I hated having lunch tickets that were a different color from the “normal” ones because my family qualified for the free lunch program.  Being working-class in a town filled with prosperity taught me early that there truly was no such thing as a free lunch.

I viewed education as my ticket out – out of my town, away from everyone who knew the “real” me, and more importantly toward the wealth, success, and freedom that I thought education would bring.  So when the owner of the supermarket that I worked in throughout high school offered to make me the manager of the bakery, and to groom me for store management as well as to pay for my local college education, I gratefully declined.  I worked, was an excellent student, played sports, was popular with students in every “clique,” was a leader in extra-curricular organizations, performed community service, played guitar and sang in my church folk group, won many scholarships to college, and most importantly I learned to transgress the boundaries of socio-economic status (SES), which were so prevalent in every aspect of my life.  I also learned, from a lesbian high school teacher, that I should wait until I was in college to come out otherwise it might jeopardize my scholarships.  I am the product of public schools and those schools were excellent; however, most of the children of the super-rich went to private day or boarding schools.  But one of my schoolmates and best friends was from a wealthy family.  Her mother, a women’s college graduate, was so thrilled when I chose a seven sisters school (an active alumna and donor, she’d offered me worry-free admission to her alma mater but I told her that I wanted to get into college on my own merits) that she gave me my first and only string of pearls because, she said, I’d “need them.”  I never wore those pearls in college but it was nice to know that I had them should the necessity have arisen.  And by “necessity,” I mean needing to sell them in order to pay another semester of tuition because college was expensive and the institution still expected me to contribute several thousand dollars per year to supplement my scholarships, loans, and work-study funding.

College was interesting.  Unlike students today at the same institution, many of whom are on some form of financial aid, I was one of a relatively small group of students in that category.  My freshman year work-study position, along with the other freshmen in my dorm who were also on financial aid, was kitchen duty.  Meals were offered in every dormitory and breakfast and lunch were either self-serve or served by student workers from behind a sneeze guard, but dinner was “family style” and waitressed.  My co-workers and I did light food prep, served, restocked, washed dishes, cleaned the dining facilities, and we were waitresses for our non-work-study classmates.  I will never forget when my family came to visit on “Parent’s Weekend,” and they were seated at a table with my friends and their families – everyone except for me, who was waiting on them.  I never discussed that particular experience with my parents or brother then or later because I suspected that either they were too overwhelmed with the entire experience of being on a campus with dorms that were consistently voted “most palatial” by U.S. News and World Reports, or they were distressed by it.  I thought it best to avoid the potentially painful subject altogether.  I graduated from college with a Phi Beta Kappa second prize for a coffeehouse performance in the student center in which I played and sang original songs that told my story; it was entitled, The Journey: One Womyn’s Search for Self.  The president of the college knew me by name; I was one of those students.  I milked college for all that I could get out of it – my grades could have been higher but I traded a perfect GPA for something far more valuable in my mind: expansive experiences that even my young dreamer-self could not have imagined possible.  I went straight, so to speak, into graduate school at an Ivy League university, and then into a second graduate program at a state university.  I left my first doctoral program with a terminal master’s instead of a PhD.  I assumed that I would return in a year or two but it wasn’t until 16 years later that I decided to start all over in my current doctoral program in Urban Systems.  Even without my PhD, I still managed to make my career in academia, which was my goal from the time that I was a child, and I’ve worked as staff, faculty, and most recently as a senior administrator at various institutions of higher education in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey.  Education was, indeed, both my ticket out and toward.

Like many others, I inhabit a wide variety of identities simultaneously, all of which contribute heavily to my sense of self and that make the issue of positionality vis-à-vis my research potentially very complex.  But those identities of which I am most conscious on a daily basis are race, class/SES, sexual orientation, and gender identity/expression.  It seems natural, then, that the theoretical framework for my research depends heavily on intersectionality.  Intersectionality is a social theory that posits that at those points at which a variety of systems of oppression converge (i.e., around issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc.) we learn more about how systemic oppression operates and therefore more about how to potentially dismantle it than by looking at one form of oppression alone.  A growing body of intersectionality research now includes gender identity and/or sexual orientation in the mix (Battle & Ashley, 2008; Carastathis, 2013; Devon, 2013; M. Gray, 2012; Hankivsky & Cormier, 2011; Harr & Kane, 2008; Hodes, 1999; Lewin, 2010; Lewis, 2013; Parker, Barbosa, & Aggleton, 2000; Pérez, Guridy, & Burgos, 2010; Robinson, 2010; Spade, 2013) and it makes the scholarly debate between queer urbanity and queer disdain for the urban all the more interesting (Ebo, 1998; M. L. Gray, 2007; Johnston & Longhurst, 2010; Mezey, 2008, 2012; Tongson, 2011; Wadsworth, 2011).  This is important to the emerging field of LGBTQGQGQ migration because, for example, if same-sex couples move from cities to suburbs when they have school-aged children in the household, then what do they do when those children are grown?  Another segment of my research looks at the recent building boom of low-income housing facilities for LGBTQGQ seniors, all of which are in cities; at the moment these include Triangle Square in West Hollywood, Spirit-on-Lake in Minneapolis, and the John C. Anderson Apartments in Philadelphia with plans for similar facilities in the works for San Francisco and New York.  More anecdotal evidence suggests that as LGBTQGQ adults age, those who left cities return there.  Builders and finance companies, as well as health and social service providers, are counting on just that as they hope to capitalize on the fact that the number of LGBTQGQ senior will double, to three million, by 2030.

A good example of the tension between the urban and the anti-urban is evident in the field of LGBTQGQ health.  Urban areas are often where studies of the health of LGBTQGQ populations are conducted (Browne & New York (N.Y.). Office of the Public Advocate., 2008; Chappin, Tross, Sanchez, Dermatis, & Galanter, 2010; Feldman, 2010; Green, 2008; Grov et al., 2007; Haile, Padilla, & Parker, 2011; Loue, 2008; Rosario, Meyer-Bahlburg, Hunter, & Gwadz, 1999; Sanchez, Hailpern, Lowe, & Calderon, 2007; Tapper, Sauber, & Community Council of Greater New York. Research and Program Planning Information Dept., 1986; Tomassilli, Golub, Bimbi, & Parsons, 2009; Van Leeuwen et al., 2006) although a few rural and urban/rural comparative health studies do exist (Eliason & Hughes, 2004; MacDonnell & Andrews, 2006; Waldo, Hesson-McInnis, & D’Augelli, 1998).  This has implications for suburban health and human services practitioners, who may be very unused to serving LGBTQGQ populations and will need to be fully prepared for the changing demographics of their new clientele (Addis, Davies, Greene, Macbride-Stewart, & Shepherd, 2009; Davy & Siriwardena, 2012).  This is just one case of how research on LGBTQGQ migration can help to inform another discipline and may consequently lead to better health care and better health outcomes for sexual and gender minorities. Other fields may also benefit from the information gleaned from the study of LGBTQGQ migration, including education, law, political science, public policy, as well as environmental/regional/ urban planning, to name just a few.

My research on LGBTQGQ migration is mixed-methods.  I am gathering quantitative data from the Census and American Community Survey, as well as from a survey that I’m designing from some existing instruments and to which I am adding some of my own questions.  I will also conduct individual interviews and/or focus groups in order to add rich qualitative data to the project.  The resulting dissertation will, I hope, reflect elements of all three tracks (health, education, and environment/planning) that are a part of the Urban Systems doctoral program.  It seems appropriate for an intersectional scholar, such as myself, to conduct intersectional research, the result of which will be an intersectional dissertation.  But is it at all problematic that, for example, someone who is a lesbian and genderqueer is doing research with LGBTQGQ populations?  Will my findings be biased because, as a member of the groups that I am studying, I will be unable to maintain a scholarly sense of objectivity and detachment from the subject and subjects of my research?



I have a very distinct memory from middle school, when my class was learning about anthropology and our (white, Western, formally educated, male, etc.) teacher explained how important it was for (white, Western, formally educated, male, etc.) anthropologists to “remain objective” when they were in the field observing the (non-white, non-Western, informally-educated, mixed-gender, etc.) people who they were studying.  I was fascinated by the notions of objectivity and bias.  I thought about it for several days and then I went to my teacher after school one day and talked with him about why I thought that it was silly to think that objectivity was valuable when it didn’t really exist – after all, wasn’t the anthropologist being changed by his field experiences and weren’t those who he was observing being changed by the presence of the anthropologist?  So wasn’t any “pure” experience of observing people in their “natural state” rendered impossible?  Then why exactly did my teacher think that objectivity was so important?  (I expressed this the way that a seventh grader would, rather than how I am writing about it now but you get the picture).  I was suspicious of claims of objectivity from a young age so I don’t put much stock in it at this stage of the game.

Rather than worrying about my ability to maintain objectivity and avoid bias while working with groups of which I am a part, I think that being an “insider” is a boon: it makes it easier for me to access the populations in which I’m interested; the people involved in my studies may relate to and trust me because some aspects of our identities are held in common; and I would never exploit my research participants not only because to do so would be highly unethical but also because I share responsibility with them for the well-being of our communities.

So, does who I am matter for the purposes of my research?  Absolutely.  But not in the detrimental ways that some “pure” researchers might imagine.

Part IV: Identity as Socially Constructed

I suspect that some of you who have your thinking caps on might have a question for me right about now: if identity is socially constructed, as I stated in Part I, then why have I built this mega-blog post and my entire future research agenda around identity?  Isn’t that akin to the little pigs who built their houses out of straw or sticks instead of bricks?  Excellent question, dear readers – you always keep me on my toes!

When I say that identity is socially constructed I mean that identities have no essential meaning outside of the meaning that society ascribes to them.  If a group of diverse human babies were raised on an island in the middle of nowhere by some folks who had no biases or prejudices, none were taught to the children, and they had no knowledge of human history, economics, politics, or culture then would those children ascribe any meaning to the word “race” that might privilege one race over another?  Similarly, would ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, etc., have any meaning that would lead to some humans being considered normative while others were labeled deviant, worthy or unworthy, valuable or without value, superior or inferior?  Not likely.

John Rawls, a now-deceased liberal philosopher, created a theory for how to establish a just society that followed a similar line of thought: humans who were charged with crafting a just society would do so behind a veil of ignorance so they would have no knowledge of their identities or affiliations (Rawls, 1971).  Since Rawls assumed that humans were greedy and self-centered by nature (even behind the veil) then if they had no notion of what their class, race, etc. were then they would create a society where everyone is equal because no self-interested person would create a society where they might be treated inequitably once they emerged from behind the veil (Rawls, 1971).

Social constructionism complements positionality, which I mentioned in Part I.  Since identity has no essential meaning beyond what society ascribes to it then it is fluid rather than fixed.  Positionality uses fluid identity characteristics as “markers of relational positions rather than essential qualities” such that “people are defined not in terms of fixed identities, but by their location within shifting networks of relationships, which can be analyzed and changed” (kgb, 2012).  Knowing one’s place(s) right now within the vast systems and structures of power is key to transforming power relations.  In other words, allies of LGBTQGQ populations can help to shift the social-economic-political-cultural power dynamics that work against SGMs by shifting their own power-positions in relation to SGMs.  The same is true of white people in relation to people of color; middle and upper class people in relation to working and lower class people; members of the “developed” world in relation to members of the “developing” world; and so it goes.  And it also works in reverse – this is not a framework that disempowers or denies full agency to any group or person – so SGMs can shift their power-positions related to straight and cisgender people and help to transform the existing power relations that subjugate rather than liberate them.



Part V: The Party’s Over

Well, fellow travelers, this part of my PhD journey, in which I wrote a series of blog posts to conclude my Sociology of Urban Education course, has come to an end.  I hope that you enjoyed the trip rather than kept wondering, “are we there yet?”  This series of posts represents an expression of my passion as it relates to the course content and to my research interests for my dissertation and beyond.  I thank you for hanging in here with me and I hope that you’ll share your feedback in the Comments section below.

Summer is almost upon me at the Jersey Shore so for my final image, I leave you with the Wildwood Boardwalk, my gratitude, and a sincere wish for a colorful and fun season for you all!




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