Autobiography, Queer Time, and the Future

From the Series: Queer Futures

Photo by Michael Held.

Maddeningly, I missed all but the last few minutes of this conversation, due not so much to queer time as to Google time, which moved all my calendar appointments forward into the future by one hour when I landed in Washington, DC—my time got all scrambled up. As such, my thoughts about the (no) future of queer anthropology are prompted by my friends’ and colleagues’ words, after the fact, to ask: How did I get from there/then to here/now? And what of a queer anthropology?

There/then was almost twenty years of work, beginning when I was twenty-six, with members of New York City communities that might or might not call themselves transgender, trying to figure out how this emergent term was enabling people to conceive of radically separable gendered and sexual identities (and indeed, what “gender” and “sexuality” could mean) to propose a different kind of world with relatively little attention to the histories of the divergence of these terms in relation to one another (Valentine 2007). Here/now (at age forty-eight) is my just-completed six-year longitudinal ethnographic research on the future imaginaries of a widely dispersed group of United States entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, and other advocates who make the radical proposal that in order to survive into the very deep future, humans must migrate off Earth to other places in the cosmos (and who are building space ships and technologies to enable this).

Like most of my friends responding to Tom’s initial prompt, I would point to the connections between these projects, and indeed, I am impelled to do so by the structures of academic employment and intellectual evaluation. You don’t want to be seen as a dilettante in this business, because that would certainly mean no future, and ensuring intellectual reproduction (and a future for yourself and your students) is a crucial part of this conversation. And with great sincerity, like Mary and Cymene, I can emphasize the points of intellectual connections between them: my interest in futurity and language—how people use narrative and language to propose, create, and revise different kinds of future worlds, ordered in ontologically different ways—is central to both projects. It is in the nature of autobiography—the mode I have entered here—to reorder past events to make sense from the vantage of that past’s future. And as with all autobiography, this is a true account even as it is constructed.

But—and this is hard to admit—making such a shift was a relief, at least at first. My dissertation project had my sexual and gender identity on the line all the time. Imagining Transgender opens with exactly that point: did I and my study participants enter the space of the social in the same ontological and epistemological frame, or were we fundamentally different? That frame shifted all the time, and it was disorienting, challenging, and exhausting. Writing my dissertation was hard; writing it as a book took bloody determination. So it was a relief not to have my own self as the shadow at the center of my project. It was a relief not to have to deal with the sometimes rawness of my data. And it was a relief not to contemplate field research that could last until 6am. Rather than being the young, white, and clearly queer guy handing out condoms from my bicycle to trans-identified sex workers and clubgoers at all hours of the early morning, I was a middle-aged (presumed heterosexual) professional white man with a briefcase in a sea of other middle-aged (presumed heterosexual) professional white men with briefcases at professional space conferences, and at more conventional, bourgeois times of the day.

But my own trajectory in time as a queer researcher, the different times of fieldwork, and the ways that autobiographical time works against the grain of clock time have erased this relief and queered my experience of this research in a few ways. The first thing that I have realized, and that I think queer anthropology has given me as a fundamental insight, is that the personal is never separate from fieldwork. This is not a restatement of the reflexive turn; rather, it’s a key insight from queer fieldwork that your self is at stake in—and is formative of—the questions you take on, whether or not your project is a self-evidently “queer” one. Nowadays, my fieldwork experiences provoke and trouble not the naturalness of my gendered or sexual identity, but the naturalness of my commitment to time itself: linear time, the enduring utopianism in my political thinking, the order of history, even the lifespan of planet Earth. In turn, my study participants, even as they are engaged in a rationalist project (if outlandish to many), must actively span and loop across massive time scales, theories of history, and visions of past and future to enable their work to go forward. As in my dissertation work, those different views and experiences of time come up against one another; they provoke and trouble and queer. If queer anthropology has secured any future, it is precisely because, in my view, it prompts us toward thinking through relations of nature and time. It does not allow for resolution or relief, only new questions about apparently fixed and natural differences. That is, it doesn’t take Google Calendar to scramble up my time.qu


Valentine, David. 2007. Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.