In 1968, sociologist Laud Humphreys published his PhD thesis on homosexuality titled ‘Tearoom Trade: A Study of Homosexual Encounters in Public Places‘. The study used the method of field observation, where the researchers observe their participants in their natural habitat. Often, when the participants are aware of someone’s gaze, they may alter their behaviour, rendering data useless. To avoid this, researchers may integrate themselves into the participants’ worlds, without their knowledge, to grasp as much of the natural behaviour as possible.
As being openly gay would merit a great deal of discrimination at the time, and with the LGBTQIA+ population around the world facing violence, public toilets saw a rise in men engaging in sexual and romantic activities with men. In the US, this was called ‘tearoom-ing’ and in the UK it was called ‘cottaging’. Humphreys would volunteer to be the “watchqueen”, keeping lookout, while also observing his already vulnerable participants sharing their own private space.
The study led to many stereotypes about the queer community being broken. It sparked academic discourse about the social self and the private self, and proved that homosexuality was, in fact, a ‘victimless crime’. It was thus, one could argue, beneficial in so many ways – even though the New York Times noted that the study is “now taught as a primary example of unethical social research”. He was an expert in his field, and not a creep – just like my professor, an accomplished social psychologist who has studied various transgender communities in India and abroad, trying her best to explain the fluidity of gender and sexuality in the classroom.
She explained the LGBTQIA+ acronym in a detailed unbiased way, as the class scribbled down each word. There were so many questions raised by the students and the professor explained the many narrower divisions within a section of the community, that differ based on their presentation, or identity, or the role they play in the bedroom. Unfortunately, the next hour was only about the different roles that queer people play in the bedroom, with specific descriptions of their acts, with their gender identity being merged into those roles.
The information we received in class was accurate and unbiased, but at the great cost of sensitivity to the receivers. It reduced the relationships shared by LGBTQIA+ people to sexual experiences, and rigid personal identities. Unfortunately, this is not limited to social science; much of television and film reduce queer characters to their sexual lives, often disguised as a coming of age film like Blue is the Warmest Colour, or to the negative experiences due to society’s unwillingness to accept them, while the heterosexual characters are assigned so much more dimensionality.
In the Amazon Original Made in Heaven, where the romantic conflicts in Karan’s life stem from the relationships being homosexual relationships, but the romantic conflicts in Tara’s life did not stem from her relationship being a heterosexual one. Tara’s relationship was not overtly sexualised, or always viewed from the lens of society. This morbid curious gaze reflects this every time a queer person is asked questions like “what’s in your pants”, or “how do you do it?” and it puts an individual inside a glass fishbowl, with the limits of that fishbowl defining the degree of a person’s agency.
However, as rapidly as this is changing in the media, with more queer people creating beautiful stories, where the gaze is internal, looking at themselves and the community, in series like Feel Good and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, this change is not observable in social science.
The social scientist’s gaze is still looking too closely, it is penetrating the walls of our bedrooms, and perhaps like me, people haven’t questioned this yet because of the accolades and degrees awarded to such researchers. In the field of psychology, the scientist’s gaze is still only revolving around the onlookers, the homophobia we experience from the onlookers, the pressure to conform to the onlooker’s expectations, that moment of ‘coming out’ to the onlookers. This fascination with how different we are occurs at the same time as the rest of the researchers ignore our existence in mainstream psychology.
The number of studies studying ‘romantic relationships’ I have been disqualified for because of my sexuality, is about the same as the number of researchers who have relentlessly asked for my participation in their invasive and outdated research on the queer community. Researchers seem to have decided the outcome of their study before even collecting data and everything I say seems to fit their narrative of describing the oppression my community faces, discarding all the positive experiences I’ve had.
It seems that the way research on the LGBTQIA+ community is being done by straight cisgender people, the films made on the community are also made for a straight cisgender audience.
It is true that academia has long been a space only for cisgender heterosexual upper class wealthy people, but today, we have more diverse classrooms. Screening study material for sensitivity, promoting the reading of queer theory texts, sex education, and inviting queer speakers for lectures and encouraging heterosexual students to understand that sexual fluidity exists in their lives as well, and does not only belong to the LGBTQ+ community, are just a few short steps into making academic spaces safer.
Students who recognise their invasive gaze would be better and more sensitive social science researchers, understanding that academic discussions on homophobia do not equal to dismantling of homophobia, and often, insensitive efforts can even do more harm than good.
Deepshikha Prasad is pursuing a master’s in Psychology from the University of Calcutta.