BSSN column February 2011

Families and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Lives

This month’s column looks at some research about family and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans lives and is written by Dr. Kate O’Riordan.

Many people think that LGBT lives are about breaking away from a straight family of origin to come to places like Brighton and create new connections with friends, lovers and to make new families of choice. Or at least to try!

Some of the LGBT scenes, and services, are based on similar assumptions that people break up with families of origin and connect up with people of a similar age and orientation. So for example there are support groups that target youth or older people and while these are great in lots of ways they also divide people up into generations. There are also some pretty strong assumptions around that LGBT people are mainly young and this is connected to another idea that LGBT identity is all about sex.

It seems important to challenge some of these divisions. These ideas can make older people invisible. This is a wider social issue but it is exaggerated for LGBT people because on the one hand ideas about sexuality and youth are strongly connected. On the other hand, there are some homophobic fears out there that younger people shouldn’t mix with LGBT people or be influenced by them. In the UK this was made worse by legislation that impeded teaching about LGBT identities. This difficult history and ongoing ideas that LGBT connections are mostly about peer groups can make family connections invisible, reduce the availability of role models and community histories and can isolate people.

Although lots of people have difficult experiences with families of origin, people also report creative generational connections that they value. These experiences, which include having lesbian parents, gay uncles or trans siblings are really important to make visible and account for. Teachers or even babysitters who were out, or older relatives and friends who were not out, but still provided some idea of LGBT lives to younger generations seem like really important figures to make visible, think about and tell stories about.

At the University of Sussex I’ve been doing some research, together with Ross Robinson, in this area by interviewing people about their experiences of family and kinship connections. We’ve found that the word ‘family’ means really different things for people and that no-one feels their family experiences are represented in the media around them. We’ve also found that talking about these issues in interviews becomes a resource for people to rethink their family experiences in new ways. We are taking this research forward by widening the group of people we are talking to and by creating a media installation that reflects people’s experiences. If you are interested in more details about this research or this topic please get in contact with us.

The Brighton and Sussex Sexualities Network (BSSN) is an inter-university research network aimed at supporting research and researchers who work on issues of human sexuality within the Universities of Brighton and Sussex and the wider Sussex area. We consist of academics from Professors to Masters students and community people who have an interest in knowing about current sexualities research. We have an organising committee, which is open to all, and which meets about twice a year. A sub-committee organises our annual conference. Anyone can come to these meetings to suggest and organise events.

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The 2011 Lesbian Lives Conference will be hosted by the University of Brighton LGBT and Queer Life Research Hub, in conjunction with the Women’s Studies Centre, University College Dublin.
The theme for the conference is Revolting: Bodies, Politics & Genders
Already confirmed speakers include Ali Smith, Emma Donoghue, Joan Nestle, Davina Cooper, Sarah Franklin, Reina Lewis, Caroline Gonda and Rose Collis.