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Episode 26

In our interview with Elizabeth Reed, we discuss the media’s influence — for better or for worse — on LGBTQ identity, culture, and interpretations.

We learn how “identities are constituted within, not outside of representation,” we discuss how to combat media invisibility, the ways that the LGBTQ community faces discrimination, and how the media is central in articulating everyone’s identity.

Elizabeth Reed is a cultural sociologist and lecturer at Goldsmiths University in London whose research focuses on LGBTQ relationships and families, contemporary childhood, and the role of media and cultural representations in identity-making.


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Sasza Lohrey

Thank you so much for joining us today, Lizzie. For this one, I actually wanted to start with a quote that I came across In your thesis that says, “managing negotiations of representation and the articulation of new and emerging identities as families, lesbian, gay, bisexual, Trans and Queer, LGBTQ parents are located at the intersection of politics and culture, society and family”. And so I just wanted to kind of open with that. And then bring you to the question, you know, how is it that you ended up researching where you’re at today? And you can elaborate on that, and kind of add at this conclusion?

Elizabeth Reed 

Yeah. So I think that passage in particular is trying to capture the idea that whatever we do, wherever we are, what’s happening is political in some way. And that we can’t exist outside of culture. We don’t exist outside of all the different values that we share in society. I think often we reflect on families as this private space, which happens behind closed doors, which get formed around in particular romantic relationships between adults. And I really wanted to draw attention to and a lot of my work is focused on this, that there is no separation between what happens politically, what happens socially, that values we all share and what we might make together as families and in our relationships, in terms of how I arrived here. I came out when I was 15, repeatedly, I think that’s a fun sort of reflection to have that I think we often hear about coming out stories and one day I came out and that was done. That wasn’t my experience. And it’s not the experience of many people. For many, many people, we come out again and again and again through our lives and at different times and sometimes with different identities as well as we move through our lives and through different relationships. And that changed the way I had relationships with my family, but also changed the types of relationships. I was in And as I went through my kind of academic training as an undergraduate and then as a postgraduate, I became more and more interested in some of the theories and ways of thinking about sexuality which were coming out of critical theory. And that doesn’t just extend to what are identities? What does it mean to be bisexual? What does it mean to be gay, but it was also looking at this new exciting field which was kind of exploding everywhere, of queer theory. And queer theory is all about not just thinking about sexualities, which aren’t heterosexual but thinking about what it means to be labeled as deviant, what it means to be labeled as normal or natural. And trying to understand the relationship between those two things. And I was really interested in the idea that the word queer itself as a label given to people thrust upon people but also claimed by people could be something which we use critically to say what does it mean to quit? What does it mean to do things differently? What does it mean to upset things to set things in motion in different directions? What does it mean to interrupt the normal way of doing things and go somewhere else? So it’s this kind of entanglement of my experiences, having a sense of maybe being out of place having a sense of, well, the way I’ve been told the EDI relationships is not going to apply to me, because at the very basic level, I’m not probably going to be in heterosexual relationships, it’s going to look different, how can I find how to do this? And then on the other hand, what I was reading I was learning about was looking at why is this normal? What does it mean to have a normal position? What does it mean to be in a heterosexual relationship as compared to all the different types of relationships that get labeled in different ways? So it was this back and forth between my own experience and critical intellectual interest in different ways of thinking about things and reflecting on society and culture.

Sasza Lohrey 

loved that part that you said we can’t exist outside of culture. And so kind of, while I think culture limits us so much and puts us into these kind of pockets or titles or labels, but at the same time, we’re so dependent on it in seeking our identity, even though it can be such an unhealthy relationship and so misleading in so many ways, so that kind of mixed catch 22 dependency is so interesting.

Elizabeth Reed 

Yeah, I think so. And I think I wrote it down and I was thinking about kind of key quotes that I love that really kind of clarify things. And there’s this idea that we, again, that we can’t exist outside of representation, but that representation and the culture that the representations available through culture and in culture, are what make saying possible and that’s from Richard Dyer. He says that presentation forms and forms, all expression, everything we can say or might say, comes through that kind of lexicon of ideas and images, and values that we share and see in culture. And without that we can’t say anything about ourselves. But the way in which we might be able to talk about ourselves is also entirely structured by what’s available there.

Sasza Lohrey 

You also mentioned the idea of repeatedly coming out, which is definitely something that I’ve heard people talk to a lot. And so I’d love for you to kind of elaborate on that because I think for people who haven’t experienced that firsthand, it is one of those things where it’s easy to think, Oh, you know, this one day or, you know, one conversation or even through just one conversation with each person, but it’s this kind of continual process. And as you mentioned, things are kind of evolving and people are changing as anyone regardless of the label they identify with, we evolve in our preferences and partners in all kinds of ways and in our relationship with ourselves as well. So I’d love for you to kind of expand on that repeated idea for other people who haven’t yet experienced it themselves. 

Elizabeth Reed 

Absolutely. I think the number one person number one reason I came out so many times is because my mom didn’t believe me. And I think not being believed is a really common experience to LGBTQ people generally. And we see it a lot currently in a lot of the debates about trans people’s right to exist. The idea that trans children simply can’t know who they are and aren’t believed and that’s echoed across lots of different identities. The idea that if you’re saying, I’m not heterosexual, he must have got it wrong. Because that’s that’s the obvious place you would be the expectation as you started off heterosexual and you have to prove that you’ve moved somewhere else rather than an understanding of sexuality and gender identity which says we will stop Somewhere along a spectrum, and find a way to a certain kind of identity that makes sense for us. And that repeated coming out, is often I think about articulating our legitimacy. So my identity is real, but it’s also partly an identity I’ve chosen, partly an identity which has been thrust upon me, and partly an identity which isn’t going away. And I think that can be really difficult. In my research, for example, on bisexual people and their relationships, I found that lots and lots of bisexual people found that the moment they were in a relationship, the fact that repeatedly told people they were bisexual was ignored. If a woman, a bisexual woman, was in relationship with a woman, everyone assumed she was now a lesbian. If a bisexual woman was in relationship with a man, everyone assumed she was now straight. And there was a lot of struggle for bisexual people generally, and this is repeated in lots of different reasons. The idea that you stop being bisexual the moment you’re in a relationship because your partner’s gender suddenly determines your entire identity, as though your sexuality is only has meaning according to your width and the types of relationship you’re having. And that was my experience trying to tell people and my mother in particular that I was bisexual and later, I started using the word queer instead to describe my sexuality. And that’s what I was kind of pointing to when I was saying that you come out repeatedly, not just because people might not believe you not just because people find it hard to imagine that you’re rejecting what they see as a safe and obvious choice. But also because maybe your political allegiances changed maybe your reflections on what it means to claim an identity change. For me different appreciations of gender, and how I thought about myself, queer became a better choice for me than bisexual. And that again is something which kind of folds back on itself to have People say, well, you couldn’t really have ever been bisexual because you’ve changed your mind. And this becomes really difficult for lots of people in relationships because over the course of their relationship, their sense of identity, their choices, their using the words for themselves may change. But it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with that relationship. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with settling on a particular binary sexuality label, for example.

Sasza Lohrey 

And it seems like that label of queer as kind of as an all enveloping kind of term enabled for that kind of more freedom and people’s expression and the flexibility. I was referring to a friend recently who I think is still going through a phase of kind of discovering their own sexuality and different partners, but he’s currently dating a woman. But it’s the first woman she’s dated. And so I found myself also not wanting to kind of restrict this person. To a label either, and I think said something like currently who’s currently dating a woman? Because I did find that especially, you know, how can I go putting those labels on people when I think even they themselves might feel restricted by them. And so I think that queer which used to kind of have a negative context went through this kind of renaissance in some way. And so if you have any kind of insight into that, I’d love to hear kind of how that that term kind of was able to take back and yeah.

Elizabeth Reed

yeah, I think queer was initially and I think it’s really interesting to think about the way the word has changed and the ways it’s been used that queer used to predominantly be used to describe strangeness. He’s a bit odd, he’s a bit queer. And then that strangeness became a byword for being gay for being homosexual. Third, it was it was strange to be gay, so he was a queer. And it’s this evolution of that meaning into something else. So became a pejorative around that. And the reclaiming of it is about reclaiming it not just to say I am gay, but also to say I’m strange. It’s a, it’s that kind of grasping of saying there’s nothing wrong with that, that flexibility in the word queer, which doesn’t really ever explain anything, it just kind of as he says it’s an encompassing term. But it’s also a troubling term. It’s saying, I’m not quite what you expect. It’s saying I’m sort of beyond those categories that you want to divide people up by saying, I want to say something more without saying anything in particular. And, yeah, and the idea of strangeness is very much present in the reclaiming of that term, but as a positive so what if I’m strange, so what if I don’t quite fit? So what if the ways in which I have sex and relationships don’t match up to these huge norms, which nobody’s relationships or identities really match up to, but they are the presumed starting point.

Sasza Lohrey 

And going off of that kind of not being believed part and just wanting to try and kind of transmit that experience as well to people. What kind of Have you found? Did you find in that process, the biggest struggles are especially with the people you were closest to. Again, a friend recently told me a story of a comment that they’re very, very close family member had made to them. That to me was just so shocking, kind of incomprehensible, but somebody especially being from a very liberal area and a very kind of open and being close person. The fact that that common could even be made. I actually don’t even know how to describe it because it was just so unfair and bizarre to me. And to me, I always kind of figured that the default reaction is kind of no reaction or, or, or kind of where I was coming from just would be where everybody else would come from. And the fact that somebody could care more about the gender sexuality of that person or the person they’re seeing more than is the person they’re seeing a good person and a good partner for them. You know, I literally don’t care. Anything else about them apart from Are they a good healthy partner for you? Are you happy? Is this a good relationship? Certainly really kind of for myself, and also people listening. better understand that that process and kind of what other people might grapple from on the other end and as well, kind of on the sharing side? 

Elizabeth Reed 

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things my mom said to me when I came out, and this is something I’ve heard echoed by other people and is echoed in the research I’ve done looking at people’s negotiations with them. family around their current relationships was, it’s so hard? Why are you choosing this? It’s so hard. And I think sometimes, the worry, the disbelief, the are you sure that’s the partner you want comes from not a focus, as you say on is this the right partner for this person. But this is a lifestyle, a lifestyle, it’s a very strange word, but one that keeps getting used a lifestyle, and life and identity, which comes with a lot of negative baggage, which comes with an expectation less so now for some some identities and in some countries, but certainly globally, and certainly for particular identities, like if you’re trans if you’re non binary, and to a degree, bisexuality experiences more stigmatization than lesbian and gay identities and I can say more about that as well. Because those expectations are gonna rub up against your life. You’re gonna get someone telling you you’re doing it wrong, you’ll Gotta get someone saying, your choices are the wrong choices, you’re making life hard for yourself. Just don’t do it, just fit in instead, it’s easier to disappear into the norm. It will be a straightforward life. And I think my mom did say those things out of love, not wanting a hard journey for me, but not recognizing that for me, like for so many other people, it wasn’t a choice so much as it was just an articulation of where I was, what I felt, and the attractions I felt and suppressing that wasn’t going to be a way forward for me either. And I think that’s really important that recognizing people’s identities, isn’t just about saying, I don’t really care. It isn’t just about saying, well, that partner is a good partner for you. So I don’t really care what label that might associate with what identity you might want to claim. Actually, it does need to be an enthusiastic, positive acknowledgement. You’re bisexual. Fantastic. I’m so happy you found a way to describe your experience, which gives you a sense of identity, which associates you with a community of people, which gives you a new history, which gives you different ways of thinking and moving forward with your relationships. Because whilst acknowledgement whilst Hey, that’s fine, carry on is great. We’re always rubbing up against negative comments. We’re always rubbing up against the idea that you’ve done something wrong. And that enthusiastic embrace that active acknowledgement is incredibly important for LGBTQ people’s well being and mental health and the health of their relationships as well. Sometimes that quiet acknowledgement that hey, you know, doesn’t matter to me. Whatever you want to do in the bedroom is fine, is not as affirming and supportive as we might, perhaps assume it is and sometimes here It might be. 

Sasza Lohrey 

Before moving on to kind of more about representation. Just want to touch on a few other things about kind of discrimination. And just kind of these small things that I think again, people don’t assume or think about. And so those small things that add up but those are so important and prevalent in very simple everyday life and conveniences to kind of bring more attention to that. And then going into kind of these, these bigger issues that the fact that LGBTQ parents face discrimination and adoption. So I don’t know if you have any kind of insight into that to elaborate on to really kind of, the severity behind that and kind of how certain entities are going out of their way to discriminate and take away certain extremely valuable opportunities not only for the parents but for these children.

Elizabeth Reed 

Yeah, I mean, that’s like three questions that we can. First one was about kind of the everyday.

Sasza Lohrey 

Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Elizabeth Reed 

So yeah, I think there’s just a wealth of ways in which the texture of our everyday lives changes according to our identities according to our experiences, and according to our anticipation of how we might be seen and how people might respond to it. And that changes from day to day and it’s not unique to being LGBTQ, there were, you know, for any identity, you want to pick out other hats. We could talk about the different ways you might move around cities, society interacts with different people. Historically, LGBT communities have often been underground, they’ve often developed their own cultures. There’s a great book which has just come out recently called Fabuloso. The story of polari Britain’s secret gay language, which is a whole language, which existed, sort of right up well was regularly used by gay men right up until the 70s. Really, and it started to die out a little bit as homosexuality was decriminalized. And it was a language a way of speaking, to be able to speak to one another in public without being overheard without people necessarily understanding exactly what it was you were talking about. And Polaroid is great because there are a lot of words that you might know, like Bevy for drink, probably for British listeners rather than kasi for toilet. And cottaging. We know about cottaging as a public spaces in which gay men would meet and have sex and all of these words relate come from polari. And we use this popolare. So there’s this whole kind of culture which built up around not being accepted, not having that expectation of facing discrimination or attack, and finding ways to work within that framework, finding ways to communicate, as with pillory, finding ways to come together, finding spaces to come together. across the UK across the world, there are a lot of cities which have particular areas where gay people have congregated, have clubs, have pubs have spaces, we often use the kind of term safe spaces now. But it’s probably that’s kind of a modern term for that kind of space. It’s gay spaces, queer spaces, spaces of community. And it’s within these kind of ways, these kind of pockets or enclaves of culture and society where people could find space to be together and find ways to alleviate that worry of if I go into the shop today, if I accidentally say the wrong thing to the wrong person about who I’m dating, what will the consequences will that have and these spaces these ways of talking these ways are Thinking and sharing through different types of culture in different types of art, and music, all kind of contributed to finding a way to deal with that. And I think the example you gave of Where should I go to have my hair cut? The choices that people made and make about that often relate to shared knowledge. So you ask all your nice friends as I do, where should I get my haircut, which barbers are going to be friendly to me. And they’re going to tell me, and it’s that shared experience, that community experience and that knowledge which isn’t written down and hasn’t been written down, which is kind of ephemeral, which is really hard to get a grasp on unless you’re part of that community and immersed in it, which has always been there. These communities have existed forever. These ways of being these ways of relating, but their meanings have changed over time. And knowledge about them has changed because, as I say, these are kind of invisible histories. They weren’t written down because they’re in visibility as part of how people survive. through them. And the people who participated in these cultures were often people who weren’t being listened to, on a mainstream level, the people who wrote the books about what we do in society, the people who broadcast what it means to be British today, what it means to live in the 60s, these weren’t necessarily the people who were involved in these communities.

Sasza Lohrey 

You touched on a part, well, the secret language and another part, kind of in that, again, that constant coming out that constant reveal through language and either using certain pronouns for a partner or using words like partner that excludes certain pronouns, and that’s something I’ve again heard people talk to, kind of going out of your way to avoid those but I also find it really interesting how in certain languages, they lend more than another because there are certain terms that are gender neutral, or there’s certain terms you know, in English, you can say friend, but Spanish when you say friend, it’s automatically implied if it’s a man or a woman and kind of examining how language either lends itself to or against this kind of this kind of process and people’s identities. And so going off of that, in terms of kind of diving a bit deeper into the struggles that people face and kind of going into parenting, which is an area of your expertise. I’d love to hear a bit about the discrimination that LGBTQ parents face in adoption, which I think is an issue that people probably aren’t as aware of. And as I mentioned before, kind of the consequences not obviously how unjust it is, but also the consequences and taking away that opportunity for these parents but also for the children. 

Elizabeth Reed 

I mean, I can’t really speak to a great deal. See that? In my research, I took two people who built their families in a range of ways. The only people I spoke to who’d built their families through adoption were gay men. And there are a lot of reasons for that. Partly adoption is a long process. And for a lot of women I spoke to, and a lot of trans people I spoke to who weren’t necessarily gay, lesbian or bisexual IVF was a preferred option as was conceiving with a friend telling up so a lot of parents I spoke to co parented across households, so there are quite a lot of lesbian couples I spoke to who chose to co parent with gay couples any so interest, no necessity of involving any kind of review and adoption bodies. Yeah, no necessity of either the cost of going private for IVF or negotiating the NHS waiting lists for IVF. So in 2000 In an eight, there was new legislation in the UK, which said that people who could get IVF on the NHS were in fertile heterosexual couples, single women and lesbian couples, and all of those people are allowed to access IVF through the NHS, but with everything on the NHS is an enormous waiting list. So that’s not always possible. And a lot of the lesbian couples I spoke to found that the, the doctors they encountered at NHS clinics were a little bit uncomfortable with the fact they were to women. Whereas when they went private, they were welcomed with open arms, which is an interesting reflection on what happens when you pay

Sasza Lohrey 

Or when you get paid. 

Elizabeth Reed 

Yeah. But those people I spoke to who adopted found that it was fairly straightforward. What they did find was that adoption panels seem less inclined to allow them to adopt babies and more inclined to direct them towards older children. I didn’t look at the whys and wherefores of that. But it is a common report from LGBT people when they’ve tried to adopt. One reason sometimes people don’t like to go through the adoption route does come back around to the idea of discrimination or an expectation of discrimination. And really, that comes down to how much scrutiny of your life there is in going through the adoption process. You have to open everything up, and you have to lay it all out. And you have to say, this is our family. This is what it’s going to look like. And to do that there is often an emphasis on having a fairly nuclear family, a two parent model. We are all living in one house and those are the only people involved in parenting. And it’s going to be fairly coherent, and it’s going to be fairly traditional. And for many LGBT people, and I think heterosexual people, too. that just isn’t how they want to arrange their families isn’t how they want to arrange their lives. And all the people I spoke to parents across multiple households involve different types of friends and exes in the parenting and raising of their kids. In particular, I spoke to some people who were bisexual and polyamorous, so polyamorous describing people who have multiple or concurrent, consensual relationships. And they felt quite clearly that there was never going to be an option that they could expose their family to the risk of presenting themselves to any kind of authority. Most many adoptions in the UK are through local councils rather than any kind of private agencies. So you’re, you’re letting your local authority know that you are living in a non traditional household and having relationships with multiple adults the assumption often, which happens to ascribe to assumptions on the world Hand a lot of bisexual people report kind of stigma that as bisexual people, they are kind of oversexed. They’re bisexual because they want to have sex with men and women all the time.

Sasza Lohrey 

What is alogical.

Elizabeth Reed 

Absolutely, yeah, not just that they might have attractions to people have more than one gender, but that they want to have sex with everyone all the time constantly. And then you couple that with assumptions about polyamory, the negative assumptions with a lack of commitment, with access sexuality, with public sexuality with too much sex, that you just need to have it all the time everywhere. And just a complete kind of dismissal of the relationship element of most and many people’s poly relationships that it’s also about building relationships. It’s about intimacy. It’s about finding different ways of being with people. about fulfilling different kinds of needs than just sex, which isn’t to say sex isn’t important, but is to say that sex is no more important to the to a poly person who has poly relationships than it is to a monogamous person. So people who are bisexual people are poly often find it quite well they consider risk. I think this is a common thing for LGBTQ people to evaluate risk if I let someone know right now that I’m not heterosexual what’s going to happen? If I let someone know right now that I have more than one partner, what’s going to happen next? Are they going to stop talking to me? Are they going to report me to the authorities on some sort of spurious claim I’m a threat to somebody to chat to children, for example, are they going to start telling people I can’t keep it in my pants that I’m after everyone that I’m some sort of predator. All of these fears and anxieties which are borne out and lots of the representative We see of people of different sexualities, or people who aren’t heterosexual are kind of included in the kind of risk assessments that lots of LGBT people are doing. And if you’re thinking about building a family, I feel thinking about having children. That risk assessment keeps happening. If I’m living with two of my partners in a household, and one of my partners, other partners also visit, we’ve got four adults in this household, and we have sexual and intimate romantic relationships, which go far beyond a normal in inverted commas. relationship. We’re also not heterosexual we don’t fit that mold either. If we invite scrutiny to our family as part of this adoption process, not only do we not feel like we’re not going to get through this adoption process, because we might be told our family would be confusing to a child. Or we might be told that it would be too disruptive for a child but we will might actually risk our relationships. We might be continually scrutinized by the police, we might be visited too many times, social services might be called on our friends, friends, children. We are connected to lots of other poly families. We are connected to lots of other people who have relationships in these different arrangements. Are we exposing everyone to risk by opening ourselves up like this? So the choices about how people build their families are often driven by that risk assessment, but also access so how can I get access to the types of resources I need to either present myself for adoption, which is accompanied often by quite a lot of financial cost of preparing a household for a child who hasn’t even been matched with you yet? Can I afford IVF through a private clinic 345 cycles? Maybe not. Do I know some great guys who want to be fathers, who need some eggs and a womb? Do I have a womb? Does my partner have a womb? Can we get together? Can we build a family where we don’t have to involve Anyone else? Where we have all the components, we need to make a baby. And where after having this baby, we get to have a bigger family, we get to have tons of adults involved in raising this kid. We get to show them how you can build families in different ways just across our two or three households because we’re all going to be doing it differently. Can we teach our children by coming together in this way, that relationships aren’t just about romance, they aren’t just about sex, but they’re also about intimacy, which relates to parenting which relates to friendship, which relates to adults coming together, outside of of those kind of very narrow ideas of like biogenetic kinship relations, to some other kind of relationships.

Sasza Lohrey 

And you touch on this a bit In your research, but I would love to hear your definition of what a family is.

Elizabeth Reed 

Because I mean, it’s a great question. My answer is there isn’t one. I think what that is, is a lot of ideas that we all agree with. You say a family and people pretty much have this little ping, in that head of a mother and a father and a child. And family has never really meant that. Throughout history. Families have been this kind of amorphous blob of relationships which move and change according to different needs around work around child rearing, around maternity around physically getting through the process of having a child. And it’s relatively recent that we’ve come to think of family quite often as being two parents and some children in a house alone. But in reality, a very tiny number of family families with children conformed to that model. What most families are is a mess of relationships, of responsibilities of commitments and sometimes crummy relationships, but also positive relationships. Sometimes families include children, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes families include reproductive relationships like the ones I’m talking about, of CO parents and different households coming together to raise children sometimes they don’t for LGBTQ people in particular family it’s had quite a fraught history as an idea. Lots of LGBTQ people have been rejected by their parents, or families of origin as we sometimes call them in sociology. And had to find different ways of living, find different networks of support. There’s some quite famous I guess it’s a strange word. Well known research in sociology in the 90s, looking at families of choice so that the way in which LGBTQ people build families around their needs, who are the people who can fill that role in my life who can provide me with support and comfort. And maybe you’ll say financial support. Who can I live with in a household? Who can I turn to for advice, who can I support and pass my knowledge and support on to Who can I love and come together with and those are families which happen quite apart from any ideas of children quite apart from any ideas of mother and father and and make a kids and somebody goes out to work and someone stays home all of those kind of traditional family ideas are all kind of dismissed in favor of kind of a core thought of family is about support. Family is about comfort. Family is about coming together as individuals With a shared value and care for one another, so in its kind of broadest and also, in some ways, smallest form, I think that’s probably what family is. And it’s certainly a definition that I have in mind when I’m doing work on families. But what I have found consistently is that every single person you talk to when you ask who’s in your family, gives you a wildly different definition. I really liked how many people included their pets when I asked them that question. I really liked how many of the women I spoke to included that cats in that definition conforming to quite a few stereotypes about lesbians. But some people’s families included just a handful of people in the house. Some people’s families included 510 different households, friends, exes, co parents, neighbors, and it’s wonderful and fascinating. And it’s why I’m so interested in the way relationships intersect with romance and secular sexuality intersect with families intersect with that idea of coming together and trying to build something together.

Sasza Lohrey 

I really loved a few of the definitions kind of you touched on or implicated throughout there. And I think I also identify with a lot of different parts throughout that I has happened in who are there without question because they want to be not because they feel like they have to be kind of that, to me is a huge part of what family is and so I know that much more than a lot of other people I know who have more traditional or bigger or kind of family structures to me, that is kind of where where I draw the line more than any other relation and I love to include what might some people call friends and that and what I consider family.

In this week’s two-part episode we talk with Dr. Elizabeth Reed, a cultural sociologist and lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose research focuses on LGBTQ relationships and families, contemporary childhood, and the role of media and cultural representations in identity-making. We kick off the conversation by discussing Dr. Reed’s personal journey into her research theory before discussing the social and historical significance of the term “queer” and the struggles and discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community in the context of family-planning. 

Queer Theory

Introduced in the early 1990s as a new academic field born from the fields of queer studies and women’s studies, queer theory is a lens by which to analyze the “oppressive power of dominant norms, particularly those relating to sexuality.” While its applications are vast and ever-evolving, queer theory aims to question society’s myopic notions of what’s deemed “normal” and to deconstruct the binaries and ingrained discrimination that constitute heteronormativity. 

Why Cultural Representation Matters

Dr. Reed emphasizes the indelible impact that culture — both explicit and implicit — has on shaping our identities.  ”Everything that we can say or might say comes through that lexicon of ideas and images and values that we share and see in culture. And without that, we can’t say anything about ourselves.” In short, you can’t be what you can’t see. Dr. Reed has researched the ways in which limited representations of LGBTQ families in popular media breeds cultural and social invisibility among LGBTQ parents.

Representation forms and deforms all expression.

Richard Dyer, The Culture of Queers

The Need to Be Believed

LGBTQ individuals are often faced with disbelief and/or dismissal when they first come out due to the heteronormative belief that heterosexuality is the inherent orientation of all humans. For this reason, “coming out” is often an ongoing process of claiming, and affirming, one’s identity rather than a singular, revelatory event.

That repeated coming out is often about articulating a legitimacy. 

Reclaiming the Word “Queer”

While the exact origins of the word are hard to trace, originally the term “queer” was used to describe “strangeness” in whatever form. Over time, this became a derogatory term used to equate homosexuality with strangeness, abnormalcy, and even deviancy. Fast forward to the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘80s, where the word was radically reclaimed as a symbol of empowerment, resilience, and solidarity. Today, “queer” has been embraced by the LGBTQ community as an umbrella term to define all non-binary identities.

The idea of strangeness is very much present in the reclaiming of that term, but as a positive. So what if I’m strange? So what if I don’t quite fit? 

Creating Safe Spaces Underground

Historically, LGBTQ culture was forced to exist and evolve in underground communities to safeguard against discrimination, criminal prosecution, or worse, hate crimes. As an example, Dr. Reed mentions the book Fabulosa: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language, a fascinating look into the lost language created by Britain’s gay community in the first half of the 20th century.

Stigmatization of LGBTQ Adoptive Parents

Since the legalization of gay marriage in England and Whales in 2013, more gay couples and fewer heterosexual couples have been applying to adopt children in Britain. And while homosexual couples have been legally able to adopt in Britain since 2005, stigmatization of LGBTQ couples within the adoption and child welfare services still persists. 

From qualitative research data collected in interviews conducted by Dr. Reed, several non-binary couples stated that they felt hostility from doctors in the publicly founded national healthcare system. Furthermore, non-binary couples stated that adoption panels were more inclined to direct them to adopt older children as opposed to babies.

Risk Assessment in Everyday Situations

Dr. Reed highlights the common practice of “assessing risk” in everyday situations as an LGBTQ person, especially those who are parents. 

If I let someone know right now that I’m not heterosexual, what’s going to happen? Are they going to stop talking to me? Are they going to report me to the authorities?

Defining “Family”

In short, there isn’t one single definition of what makes a “family.” According to the Census Bureau, since 1930 “family” has been defined as “a householder and one or more other people living in the same household who are related to the householder by birth, marriage or adoption.”

While this definition seems broad enough, it’s worth noting the difference from the Census Bureau’s 1920 definition: “a group of persons, whether related by blood or not, who live together as one household, usually sharing the same table.” In the latter definition, we see the emphasis placed on the shared living space versus the former definition which emphasizes the nature of the relationship between individuals. 

What most families are is a mess of relationships, of responsibilities, of commitments.

Creating “Families of Choice”

In the LGBTQ community, the concept of “family” has a fraught history as many LGBTQ individuals have been rejected by their parents or families of origin. For this reason, many LGBTQ people rely on their “families of choice” for social and emotional support. “Families of choice” describes close relationships that are chosen, rather than defined by blood or marriage, to create a system of support, care, and intimacy. 

Family is about support, family is about comfort, family is about coming together as individuals with a shared value and care for one another.

Dive Into More Research 

No additional resources found for this episode.

About the Expert

Elizabeth Reed

Lizzie is a cultural sociologist whose research and writing focuses on LGBTQ relationships and families, contemporary childhood, and the role of media and cultural representations in identity-making. She is interested in exploring participatory research methods and connecting everyday lived experiences of families to wider social and political trends.

Episode Discussion

Home Forums Episodes 26 & 27: “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See” with Elizabeth Reed

  • Episodes 26 & 27: “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See” with Elizabeth Reed

  • Valentina 

    October 12, 2020 at 12:23 pm
    • What did you learn about yourself?
    • What did you learn about culture?
    • What was your favorite quote?
    • What surprised you most?
    • What is one way you can enact what you learned in your own life?
    • How can we each help shift the culture and the conversation surrounding this topic?
  • Hope

    October 19, 2020 at 9:28 am

    My favorite concept from this episode was “the idea of repeatedly coming out.” As someone who identifies as being heterosexual, this is just widely assumed that everyone is until proven otherwise (which is messed up). This podcast opened my eyes to think more about how unfair it is to the people who are apart of the LBGTQ+ community–due to having to go through this process of coming out constantly. It isn’t like they can just have a huge parade with everyone they’ve ever met in their life to deliver the news in one swoop, it is an ongoing update they have to say again and again whenever they’re comfortable to tell the other people in their life. Also, thinking about that the members of this community may have to come out repeatedly because they’re not being believed about their sexuality is absolutely absurd to me. It also makes me recognize what additional stress these lovely people may be experiencing ontop of finally feeling comfortable to come out. .

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