Mary Robertson – Growing Up Queer

This week, we asked Mary Robertson to answer a few questions about her book, Growing up Queer:

Growing Up Queer (2018) New York University Press

Describe your book

My book is based on research I did at an LGBTQ youth drop-in center in the Western US from 2010 through 2013. I call the center Spectrum in the book. The data includes life history interviews with about 35 kids who frequented the center and hundreds of hours of participant observation. I began the project wanting to better understand how we become sexual and gendered persons. As a sociologist, I approach both sexuality and gender as socio-historical phenomenon, not natural facts. In other words, how does our social context—the era during which we live, our geographical location, our family, religious, and cultural conditions, media, and more influence how we understand our sexualities and genders. 

Central to the arguments I make throughout the book are two themes. The first is acknowledging the LGBTQ rights movement as context. People who are young today have grown up in the context of a highly visible, proactive LGBTQ rights movement, therefore they are more aware of sexual and gender variety and difference than say I was when I was growing up. The second theme explores the question, if LGBTQ is normal, then what and who is queer? Although queer has become a catch-all term to describe all people who are not gender conforming or hetero in their desires and sexual conduct, it’s actually the case that many LGBTQ-identified people have achieved a certain level of normalization and tolerance, if not acceptance, in US society. But there remain those people whose sexualities and genders are marginalized or queered in our society. Therefore, the book tries to complicate this identity.

Why did you decide to publish Growing Up Queer with a university press?

I’m an academic on the tenure track where the expectation is to publish in peer reviewed outlets. Non-peer reviewed publications, like a book on a trade press, aren’t treated with the same weight in the retention and promotion process. Although I’m lucky enough to be part of a department that is more flexible than that in its interpretation of published scholarship, I feel it’s still the case that in order to be taken seriously by the academy, you need to publish with an academic press. That said, I don’t want to devalue the peer review process. I believe wholeheartedly in its importance to the production of knowledge. And this book is better for having gone through review!

Do you enjoy the writing process?

I’m not sure I would ever use the word “enjoy” to describe how I felt while I was working on my book! But I don’t want to suggest that it was disagreeable, either. Writing my book was an intense challenge for me. Because I work at an institution where I have a significant teaching load, I had to balance writing with teaching and university service, all while adjusting to life as junior faculty at a new institution. I did not have the luxury of a pre-tenure sabbatical to work on the book, so I had to write under a very rigid schedule where, in addition to writing through my breaks from school, I also had to set aside time to write daily during the school year. In addition, I lacked confidence in my skills as a researcher and writer, so the work was always fraught with a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. Finally, I felt a tremendous pressure in terms of appropriately representing the people in my research, especially as a straight, cisgender person working with LGBTQ-identified youth. 

That said, I found pleasure in the craft of writing, for example, hitting upon just the right way to explain a difficult idea. Of all the components of the book, the ethnographic storytelling was by far the most fun to write. It was also very satisfying to get positive reviews of my work back from peers in my field. That is when my confidence began to build. In retrospect, I would engage more people in review and collaboration at a much earlier stage than I did, as I think that would have made the work more enjoyable.

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?

I had the pleasure of attending a writing workshop with the comic artist Lynda Barry a few years back. This was during the early stages of working on the book. She told us to “write for someone who loves you unconditionally.” I wrote that quote on a sticky note and had it on the wall next to my desk throughout the writing process. The idea, of course, is that if you imagine your reading audience to be people judging you, it’s much harder than if you write for someone who loves you no matter what you do. 

What piece of advice might you give to young academics looking to follow in your footsteps?

I’ll pass on another piece of advice that I also keep tacked to the wall near my desk. This is from William Germano, who has written a few advice books for those aspiring to publish academic texts. He says, “A young author can’t write a book without risking intellectual self-exposure.” I love this quote because it reminds me that the role of academic thinking isn’t about being right all the time, it’s about joining the conversation. I think we’re conditioned to think that people who have published books are somehow smarter than we are or know more than we do, but what you learn from the process is that academics are all in a continual learning and growing process with each other. If you want to join the conversation, you have to put yourself out there. Eventually I learned that many writers don’t really like their first books! It’s a stepping stone in a process towards becoming a better writer.

Who inspires you?

I really love academics who write in an accessible style and approach their readers with love. This includes thinkers like bell hooks, Susan Stryker, and Jack Halberstam. I’m also inspired by academic writers whose work rivals the quality of great novels. The anthropologist Michael Taussig comes to mind here. I strive towards elegance and accessibility in my sociological writing. 

I’m also inspired by my students who remind me that to have written and published a book is a special thing. Sometimes I think academics get a bit jaded about publishing. We forget the privilege and power that comes with having your thoughts and words valued to the extent that they are forever documented.

What’s next?

I didn’t think I was ready to write another book, but in the few short months since my book came out, I’m surprising myself with ideas for another one! I know what it takes to conceive of, write, and (hopefully) publish a book, so it feels do-able in a different way than the first one did. It’s too soon to reveal the subject matter, but it carries on in a similar vein in terms of exploring issues related to opportunities and who does and doesn’t get them.

Mary Robertson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University San Marcos and the author of Growing Up Queer (2018), published by New York University Press.