Queering the quarantine: Space, place and personhood at the queer house party
Francesca Ammaturo and Olimpia Burchiellaro
LGBTQI+ spaces have always provided LGBTQI+ communities with forms of intimacy and belonging beyond the heteronormative precincts of everyday life. In the wake of COVID-19, however, new forms of LGBTQI+ sociality, solidarity and community have emerged. These are in response to the social isolation and economic vulnerability engendered by the crisis but have also exposed some of the limitations of ‘actual’ LGBTQI+ spaces themselves. The ‘queer house party’, a weekly virtual event which takes place on an online video-sharing platform and attracts around 200-300 participants every Friday night, is one such form of community and place -making which demonstrates the different forms of life that develop in times of crisis. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork conducted at these virtual queer parties with the DJs, performers, participants and activists who populate these spaces, the paper will investigate how LGBTQI+ people navigate virtual worlds during COVID-19 and how these spaces reconfigure participants’ relationship to space, place and personhood.
Virtual worlds are understood as places that are inhabited by persons and enabled by online technologies (Boellstorff, 2008). Research exploring virtual worlds and digital media is widespread (Coleman, 2010; Constable, 2003; Moore, 2012; Kendall, 2012; Senft, 2008), including research with looks specifically at LGBTQI+ communities’ relationship to virtual worlds (Boellstorff, 2008; McGlotten, 2013). At the same time, this has been curtailed by two overriding assumptions. The first imagines technology as either our ‘saviour’ or as evidence of our impending doom, restricting our understanding of virtual worlds to the ‘dystopic’ or ‘utopic’ with little appreciation for their nuances and complexities. The second is organized around the (often implicit) distinction between ‘the actual’ or ‘real’ and ‘the virtual’, whereby virtual forms of belonging are seen as “failed intimacies that disrupt the flow of a good life lived right” (McGlotten, 2013, p. 7). At a time in which established flows, certainties, conceptions of ‘normality’ and ‘normal’ experiences of space and time have been reconfigured it is of paramount importance to attend to the relationship between ‘real and ‘virtual’ life in new ways.
COVID-19 and the forms of community emerged in its wake present an unrivalled opportunity to explore LGBTQI+ experiences of virtual worlds as well as the shifting conceptions of space, place and personhood these engender. Indeed, rather than merely being eroded or replaced by the emergence of ‘virtual worlds’, space and place seem to be acquiring new meaning through virtuality, providing participants with a resolutely spatialized and ‘emplaced’ experience that should not by any means seen as weakened by the use of virtual technologies (Boellstorff, 2008; Kendall, 2002). Moreover, whilst pershonhood is, too, increasingly mediated via virtual technologies, this does not simply announce the emergence of ‘the post-human’ as much as reconfigure our relationship to technology in symbiotic ways. Virtual worlds engender new “circulations, reimaginings…and remakings of a range of cultural representations, experiences, and identities” (Coleman, 2010, p. 488). The task of our ethnography is that of tracing how these unfold in practice without determining their shape nor trajectory in advance.
In so doing, the paper contributes to our (present and future) understanding of and range of responses to COVID-10 in three ways. Firstly, by ethnographically shedding light on the reconfiguration of space, place and personhood engendered by LGBTQI+ virtual worlds, it will contribute to our understanding of LGBTQI+ communities’ experiences of the pandemic. Secondly, by demonstrating how ethnography can be put to use to study virtual worlds, it will contribute to a collective re-imagining of research methods adopted in response to COVID-19. Lastly, in attending to the relationship between ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ worlds in all their complexity, the research will offer academics and activists practical lessons for the making of more liveable and accessible spaces.
‘Our every walk is a pride walk!’: Reclaiming ‘places’ through queer networked solidarities
In Turkey, LGBTI+ activists are fighting for their right to publicly exist in places through organizational activism and street protests since early 1990s. As the authoritarian and neoliberal agenda of Turkey’s government had increasingly depoliticized public space, the struggle over place has become more apparent between LGBTI+ citizens and the government. In 2013, Gezi protests marked a significant moment for place-based resistances in Turkey, yet LGBTI+ movement had been at its forefront with a wider coalition against neoliberal urban transformation and police violence. Unsurprisingly, LGBTI+ Pride March during Gezi protests was the largest in history of any Pride in Turkey (Amnesty, 2016). However, the annual Pride March is banned since 2015 and facing police violence every year. The increasing inaccessibility of political places made activists implement ever-more digitalized forms of resistance to obtain visibility and solidarity. Drawing on a digital ethnography from a Turkish context, this study aims to understand how LGBTI+ activists reclaim (de)political places under contestation, and explores how queer resistances are emerged and sustained through networked solidarities.
In order to analyze LGBTI+ struggle over (de)political places, this study takes Istanbul Pride in 2019 at its empirical focus. As it was a contested Pride attracting attention from Turkey and worldwide, and being the target of authorities, this event made interactions of digital activism and place-based resistances visible. I conducted a multimodal discourse analysis on ‘Our Every Walk is a Pride Walk’ (#HerYürüyüşümüzOnurYürüyüşü) hashtag campaign and networked activism of Istanbul Pride Committee on the day of Pride march. From a poststructuralist standpoint, the study takes articulatory practices at its epistemological focus in forming LGBTI+ subject positions and locations of struggle. This ontological relativism is extended to adopt discourse theory approach by Laclau and Mouffe (1985) as they bring political theory and practice together. The analytical point of departure here is, therefore, ‘where’ and ‘how’ LGBTI+ subjects are produced and produce their own truth in this continuous antagonistic struggle of place and identity.
The theoretical discussion of this study challenges the global-local dichotomization of social movements. The study emphasizes localized resistances with a recognition of spatial and particular manifestations of queer culture where place is not only a ground of struggle but capable to (re)articulate communities of struggle (Tilley, 1994; Escobar, 2001). In this regard, ‘politics of place’ is prioritized in forming political practice (Pile, 1996), as unity in identity struggles are produced in locations, and history (Mohanty, 1995). A discussion on political economy of sexuality and place also reveals the neoliberal urban reordering in Istanbul, where LGBTI+ subjects have been historically targeted by gentrification and commercialization policies (Selek, 2011; Unan, 2015). This reflects how neoliberal authoritarianism functions in policing of queer bodies from heteronormative and depoliticized imaginary of the city (Muehlenhoff, 2019).
In this study, the concepts of online and offline resistances are argued in hybridization, rather than being in a state of opposition from each other (Stewart & Schultze, 2019; Lim, 2013). Twitter affords multimodal contents to be united with its hashtag function. The analysis of Pride campaign and march reveals how online and offline entanglements of resistance occurs. In this regard, Twitter as a digital space is contributive to spatial resistance, to tackle the police and protecting each other from being targets of violence. This formation of networked solidarity also visualized violence LGBTI+ subjects are exposed to on a daily basis in Turkey and had shown how affordances of social media can be alternated in developing new forms of resistance.
“Where am I?”: An Analysis of Turkey’s Club Coweed and the Making of Cyberqueer Spaces in Times of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to human rights around the world and marked a period that observed major backward steps in relation to minority rights and LGBTQ advocacy. Many right-wing authoritarian governments have utilized the pandemic as a pretext to demonize their perceived enemies including the LGBTQ+ community. On March 11, Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced the first COVID-19 case in Turkey. Quickly after, on March 21, the Turkey’s Ministry of Interior announced its first total curfew which was followed by series of restrictions on mobility and public gatherings. In the face of these challenges, many LGBTQ people in Turkey had to confine in their family-houses to practice social isolation.
Club Coweed, an Istanbul-based online queer party group, started hosting weekly events via Zoom on March 28. Their goals were simple: to support Istanbul’s queer performers who are deeply affected by the COVID-19 and to offer support to those who are suffering from loneliness. Aside from their vibrant parties with drag performances and DJs, Club Coweed became a community for people experimenting with queer performances, expressing their sexualities and fantasies, and simply exploring ways of sharing virtually mediated intimacies (McGlotten 2013) in the digital space.
The activities of Club Coweed coincided with the moral panic incited with the statement of Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs who blamed homosexuality of “…bringing illnesses,” and warned the Muslim community to protect themselves from “such evil.” Supported by the President Erdogan, this announcement purposefully put the discussion on sexual rights and LGBTQ people on spot at a time of a social crises in Turkey. During this heated period of political homophobia (Weiss and Bosia 2013) scapegoating the LGBTQ people in Turkey at the cost of risking their rights and livelihood, the digital spaces have gained a critical importance as the location of ‘politics.’
The case of Club Coweed could initially be read as a singular example of cyberqueer practices in Turkey. However, by the end of July 2020, many of the events, including Istanbul Pride Week, moved to online platforms. In this article, I will build on my ethnographic study by examining the potentials and limitations of cyberspaces for queer performance and LGBTQ activism at the hinge of the pandemic and the rising political homophobia in Turkey. Considering that cyberspaces and cyber-activism have been instrumental in the growth of Turkey’s LGBTQ communities and activism (Gorkemli 2012; Lukasz 2015), this paper develops research on how intimacy is mediated in the cyberspace and how it leads to changes in the ways Turkish LGBTQ experience belonging and the affective charge of being connected.