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Event Review: Queer Digital Humanities, College of William and Mary

This event was the opening panel at the Race, Memory, and Digital Humanities Conference. The panel was hosted by the College of William and Mary, and the speakers were Alexis Lothian, Leisa Meyer, and Amanda Philips. The panel started with a twenty minute slideshow presentation by Meyer on her work with the LGBTIQ Research Project, and was followed by a round table discussion of queer DH. After the discussion topics, the panelists took questions from the audience, which included topics such as queer game design and Internet fandoms.


I recently watched the recording of the opening panel from the Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities Conference held at the College of William and Mary about a month ago. The panel was on the topic of Queer Digital Humanities and was moderated by Kara Thompson (assistant professor of English and American Studies, William and Mary). The panelists were Alexis Lothian (Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Maryland), Leisa Meyer (Director of American studies, William and Mary), and Amanda Philips, (Assistant Professor of English and Media studies, Georgetown University).

The panel began with a twenty-minute presentation by Leisa Meyer about her recent efforts on working on the LGBTIQ Research Project, which is a multifaceted undertaking to chronicle the history of LGBTIQ people in Virginia. Meyer and her students first did archival research at the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society, the Virginia Commonwealth University, and William and Mary itself. After presenting their initial findings in an exhibit at William and Mary’s Swem Library, they were criticized for the unbalanced focus on white gay men. Leisa Meyer noted that while this was accurate, it was largely due to the contents of the archives. This is a key example of how the curation of archives is not a passive or neutral action.

While the simple act of archiving LGBTIQ history may seem to be progressive or even radical, the lack of diversity ultimately preserved within the community undercuts these ideals. To counteract this initial homogeneity, the LGBTIQ Research Project changed their tactics for the second round of research. This time, instead of searching archives, they focused on personal interviews and objects. This was accompanied by a conscious decision to search for information on LGBTIQ people of color, especially members of the community who do not identify as cisgender males. In the course of their research, the project also included digitizing the materials they were given in order to preserve the records in as many ways as possible. This was most likely a response to the lack of diversity found in the archives. By digitizing every and all materials given to them, the students were making the most inclusive choice available. This choice (to preserve everything) is almost never available, so it is notable that the students are attempting to rectify the choices made in the past now that they have the opportunity (Smith).

After Leisa Meyer’s presentation, the panelists talked about a few different topics surrounding queer DH. Alexis Lothian spoke about “queer OS,” which is a new way of thinking about coding. She described it as a “speculative technology,” which is only recently being discussed as an alternative method. One example of queer OS is the idea of a replacement for the binary coding language, as that may unconsciously reinforce the idea of a gender or sexuality binary. Another example Alexis Lothian mentioned is the heteronormative and middle class version of family/relationship ties that social media platforms use. The assumptions of gender and traditional relationships (marriage, dating, etc.) highlights a way of thinking that doesn’t even know it is being exclusionary.

Amanda Philips, who has experience with game studies, led a brief discussion on queerness in video games and some of the ways the community is being hindered. She noted that the gaming community has given rise to multiple toxic subgroups, many of which are based around white nationalism and/or misogyny. The most recent one of these groups to make the mainstream news is GamerGate, which claimed to be policing “ethics in gaming journalism,” but in practice was primarily focused on harassing women game developers and writers. She noted that while POC and queer representation is important, it isn’t the only challenge facing the gaming community. Philips said it’s as much about methodology as it is identity. She noted how more queer games are “walking simulators,” in which players are focused on exploring their environment and investigating or communicating with other characters. This is, she claimed, in contrast to the more typical video game focus, which is on “capturing territory and high action.”

While it’s true that those type of games take up a large part of the available titles, it seems disingenuous to imply that most games (whether made by queer creators or not) are aggressive and mindless. It’s also unfair to imply that a game containing “high action” cannot be story-driven or have queer narratives.

After these discussions, the panel took questions from the audience. One of the discussions that arose was about the idea of fandom and its transition and growth online. Alexis Lothian noted that many wrongly assumed that because the creation of the Internet led to globalization and interconnectedness, it would inherently be a radical and progressive tool. This is not necessarily the case; as with all digital creations, the Internet is only as progressive as the content put into it.

The panel discussed how the constant revelations of harassment on the Internet continue to be predicated on this assumption, and how POC and queer Internet users have been facing these groups on a more widespread and intense scale. They also discussed the rise and expansion of fandoms. Alexis Lothian spoke about how the Internet has been a fantastic way for feminist, queer, and POC fans to find one another and build a community, but the same is true of other groups. Amanda Philips described the path that the “Pepe the frog” meme took, going from semi-obscure webcomic character to symbol of the alt-right movement.

The Queer Digital Humanities roundtable was an insightful and eye-opening start to the Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities Conference. While the panelists had a diverse set of viewpoints, the panel did suffer somewhat from its lopsided opening by Leisa Meyer. This restricted the input of Amanda Philips and Alexis Lothian, and it seemed like the panelists tried to compensate by talking more (and Meyer talking less) in the second part of the discussion.

 

Sources

Smith, A. (2004). What is Preservation and Why Does it Matter? Retrieved from http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/view?docId=blackwell/9781405103213/9781405103213.xml&chunk.id=ss1-5-7&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ss1-5-7&brand=default

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