Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘personal’

My Experience of the PhD Viva

“Don’t wear a suit, just a nice shirt is fine”. This was one of the last pieces of advice my primary supervisor, Sally, gave me prior to the viva. That PhD event so formative and significant, and approached with such trepidation by some that one might expect a crack of thunder whenever the word is uttered. My viva was scheduled for 10.30 am on Wednesday 14th December (2016), and so despite living only a 15 minute walk from campus I was naturally up and pacing at 8.00 am – just in case. I tried on several shirts and smart-casual trousers but I could not feel comfortable. “If in doubt, dress up, not down” my father had always said – and so whilst it might’ve gone against the advice I received, I really felt much more comfortable in a suit that morning. With a waistcoat, because why not, it was cold.

I met with Sally 30 minutes before kick-off, for a cup of tea and general encouragement. It had previously been communicated that my internal examiner would come and collect me from my supervisor’s office. Sally would be sitting in – as a PhD student you’re allowed to have one supervisor (silently) observe your viva, if you so wish. Regardless of your choice, a supervisor always has to be available, just in case an examiner wants to discuss something before or after. The ‘mock viva’ I’d had the week before was an informal affair – just a chat really, that for me, sparked the recognition that I needed to avoid trying to answer every sociological question about gender at the same time, if being asked a small point about how I’d contributed towards scholarship on this, that, or the other.

My viva preparation in that single week simply consisted of re-reading the thesis. Those who’ve done a whopping piece of scholarship will know how hard this can be when you’re very close to a large piece of writing, and so I’d deliberately avoided looking at the document since I’d submitted it. This helped a great deal, and I found I was able to bear reading myself (yet again) much more easily than when I was agonizing over the final edits. I highlighted and made notes on things like how I had contributed to scholarship, what original turns-of-phrase I’d deployed, why I’d made certain practical choices or focused on particular bodies of literature over others. Whilst one can’t predict what will come up, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having things covered which you could expect to be expected to answer. I put sticky labels to divide up the chapters and put it all in a ring-binder to take in with me. I also wrote a few bits on the inside of the folder, but nothing much.

The viva itself was… also, seemingly, an informal affair! I took my cup of tea in with me. My examiners were candid, friendly, and made a point of initiating that the viva should be approached as a peer-to-peer conversation about the details of the thing that no-one in the world is more familiar with than you. A bit of nerves is only natural given the symbolic importance of the day, but really, in the scheme of the PhD, it’s going to be the exception, not the rule, where the viva is make-or-break, and you’d be likely to know this weeks ahead of the fact if this were the case.

Probably the most difficult question I received was actually an ethical one, which surprised me, as I felt much more likely to fall foul of some complex theoretical niggle than simply how I did stuff. It was exciting in a way though, to consider a dimension I hadn’t considered in that way before. It also demonstrated (after the fact) that your examiners can disagree with you about something, and yet your position can remain entirely defendable. They’re not looking for perfection because there is no such thing – simply the necessary contributions.

The whole experience took about 90 minutes. My examiners asked my supervisor and me to step outside – we hadn’t managed to walk down the corridor before being called back in, due to a chance encounter (and frantic whispered dissection) with my second supervisor, who was passing. On being called back in, I was particularly humbled to receive no corrections, which did have me shed a tear of relief (just the one). In the haze of endorphins and surreal emotional diffusion that felt like a balloon letting out all its air, I was given a little information on what would happen next (which I’d already obsessively poured over in the ‘Guide to the thesis examination process’ document I had looked up).

In a way, (cynically), the result of a PhD pass is the same for everyone – more work, of one kind or another! Thus, one should not fear failure – your supervisor shouldn’t let you be going in there if that’s on the cards. Everything else is details, for the vast majority. I put a lot of energy into maintaining my well-being over my PhD, because ultimately, nothing is more important. Beyond survival, everything else is for happiness, and one should do the best one can to construct the PhD experience in a way that allows you to be. As one gains experience and confidence, this can increasingly empower you to tread your own path, even in small ways (like wearing a suit). Approaching the viva as an experience to enjoy rather than an ‘exam’ was certainly constructive. And whilst I couldn’t shake the idea that ‘it could all be taken away from me’ until the result was unequivocally stated, I was able to focus a little so as to ignore that irrational doubt.

The viva is a paradox, because it’s an ending and a beginning at the same time. No two are the same, and yet there’s overwhelming similarity in the way people describe their pre-viva nerves and post-viva relief (and subsequent collapse – put time aside for this!). Ultimately though, it’s yours – and it can be a pleasure.

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On the Liminality of Sexuality and Gender: Personal Reflections

I like the word liminality. It’s a bit obscure, but really useful in certain contexts. Originally in reference to rituals observed by anthropologists, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage […] when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete”. To be liminal positions you on the border of the definition of something, or on both sides. There is an uneasiness and a complexity to defining where liminal things sit, without a sense of ‘hm, yes, but…’.

It might be pretty easy for some people to see how this relates to sexuality and gender. In the familiar cultural process of coming out, be that as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, or anything else, there can be a period in which you’ve at least vaguely got to grips with accepting a label, but you haven’t told anyone. Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe it’s too scary, or dangerous, or complicated. So say if, like me, you came out as a gay guy. you feel that that’s what you are, so you don’t identify with ‘straight’ any more. But no-one else knows this, and if asked ‘are you gay’? there would definitely have been contexts where I would’ve said no. I was transitioning, getting to grips with things. My visibility as gay (and I’m not referring to my style of dress or other aspects of presentation) was nil. I wasn’t even out and proud in some contexts whilst not in others, so the identity label as gay didn’t hold any public significance to me at all. Because of my personal, internal processing of myself I didn’t fit as straight, but I wasn’t yet ready to take on a ‘gay identity’, and wasn’t ‘positionable’ as such by anyone. I was liminal.

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Some might argue that regardless of my self-awareness or comfort, I was always gay. I don’t think this is the case. There would’ve been times that I would’ve been very distressed or disturbed if someone had tried to convince me of this. Of course this is a product of heterosexist cultural factors,  which make camp, queer, or variant children prime targets not only for bullies but for social disciplining of adults and society alike (“boys don’t cry”, “only girls wear pink!”). Also to think about labels pragmatically, in the case of sexuality and gender, it can really foul things up when you try and force an essentialist definition of labels – that is, “if you do X, you are Y, end of story” – rather than considering how and why people label themselves the way they do.

Regarding gender, things can be more complicated, and non-binary people experience particular challenges. Because gender is socialised as very much ‘one or the other’, there is no way to obviously present as non-binary. Plus, there is no ‘one way to be’ non-binary either. Not that there is one way to be male or female, but because of how things are culturally coded, if pushed people can say ‘they have a masculine walk’, ‘that top is quite girly’, and conglomerate these things into an overall picture. People don’t even have to think consciously about it – made especially easy by the majority of people ‘doing’ their gender in ways that plonk them obviously into the categories of male or female.

Queer scenes  and spaces can mean that clothing and style choices especially can take on new significances, due to the knowledge and understanding people in these spaces tend to have, which means they read people in different ways. There are lots of different ways to have a ‘queer uniform’, but when you’re familiar with such spaces you might recognise dapper, AFAB individuals (or people you assume to be or read as AFAB) in jackets with bow ties, undercut hair dyed all kinds of colours. AMAB (again, assumed) people wearing makeup with an alternative style – who may not ‘appear’ to be gay men, but also not making it obvious that you should assume they are a trans woman and that you should use feminine pronouns. This highlights an important point that isn’t the one I’ve set out to make – that it’s dangerous to make assumptions about people’s genders (and therefore pronouns) and that presentation doesn’t necessarily tell you anything, especially in queer spaces.

The reason why I needed to set all that up in order to get to some personal reflection is this – I don’t really identify as gay anymore (gender, I’ll come back to). This is partly a conscious, social decision in that I don’t strongly identify with a movement that has become predominantly cisgender, white, middle class, and increasingly apolitical or, unrecognising of its comparative privileges. Racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming, and homonormativity are all common enough for me to find alienating. Secondly, my queer relationships have made me critically engage more. I can be attracted to and engage romantically and sexually with trans men, trans women, binary and non-binary people. Does any of this mean I can’t identify as gay? No, absolutely not (or you’d be back to not only ‘if you do X you are Y’ but also ‘if you do X you CAN’T be Y’ which is shitty and breaks down very easily). But I feel much more of a resonance with the label ‘queer’. It’s a word that doesn’t pin a person down. It leaves ambiguity, in a way that I find to be confident, defiant, and mischievous.  It also doesn’t require me to have a clear cut understanding of my sexuality. I’ve thought about it to the point of exhaustion and came out now so long ago that I’ve in some ways stopped caring. The bottom line is that I’m not straight and things are a bit wibbly-wobbly-sexy-wexy.

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With gender (more complicated!) I’m more cautious. I will readily accept the descriptor of cisgender – I was assigned male at birth, I present as such and I don’t experience gender dysphoria. But my relationship with my gender isn’t entirely straightforward, as I’ve never liked the word ‘man’ or being identified with it, though not to the preference of being positioned into another category. The best way I can articulate it is that I don’t think I ‘feel’ gender very strongly. I don’t feel like I strongly identify with masculinity or femininity – much of the time. Sometimes I lean one way or another – or another, in that I might put on a shirt to ‘play up’ masculinity a bit because I know my partner likes it, I can enjoy expressing myself through drag (in a way that is more important and personal than simply ‘fun dressing up’), or I might feel like expressing myself in ways that aren’t so readily within the binary – for instance wearing foundation, mascara, and a red lipstick with my otherwise typical jeans and jacket, which I have only had then inclination and bravery to do publicly once. With pronouns I don’t have strong feelings about ‘he/him/his’ (perhaps paradoxically?) but I will also happily embrace singular they.

My muted experience of gender doesn’t feel like a nullness – I don’t feel that I am agender or neutrois. Could I be some flavour of demigender  – perhaps demi-agender or demifluid? I’m not sure. However, I am unwilling to position myself as not cis. This is in part due to the fact that I possess cis privilege. Even were I not to simply situate myself as a guy (I really detest referring to myself as a man enough that I don’t even want to write it!), I don’t experience fears and oppressions as a result – it’s entirely something internal (well, until I wrote this) and I wouldn’t want to appropriate or co-opt the personal and political struggles of transgender people. Maybe it’s that I don’t feel I’m ‘non-binary enough’ to dare to use another label. It’s also important that given the nature of my scholastic engagements that I wouldn’t be read by trans people as ‘strategically identifying’ in order to gain access to spaces or conversations, which would be disgustingly underhanded. There are also discourses of people being accused of identifying in particular ways out of an adolescent desire to be a ‘special snowflake’. This has been a very poisonous attack on non-binary people. However, when levied against particular otherkin community members – such as to internet subculture fame, the person supposedly identifying as a dragon who was upset about not being able to eat their mother’s diamonds – it may be seen as a reasonable criticism of younger people detracting from the legitimacy of transgender people’s struggles.

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I am lucky. I’m not shying away from a non-binary identity for fear of violence, or rejection, or even because of how difficult it would be to explain something to people I don’t really understand myself. I don’t identify as other than cisgender because I worry about what that would mean politically, and I’m not certain that I’m not. Ultimately what I am pretty sure about is that I’m queer, and occupy a blurry, uncertain borderlands regarding my identity. I still am liminal, in a new way to before. There can be a great deal of pressure for people to ‘know’ who/what they are. However there is no objective, absolute knowledge of the self! More important is well-being and happiness, which are my priority in preserving even as my life-long journey of self-exploration continues.

 

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