Domesticating the Lesbian?

Queer Strategies and Technologies of Home-Making

How to Cite

Karl, I. (2007). Domesticating the Lesbian? Queer Strategies and Technologies of Home-Making. M/C Journal, 10(4).
Vol. 10 No. 4 (2007): 'home'
Published 2007-08-01


There is much to be said about house and home and about our media’s role in defining, enabling, as well as undermining it. […] For we can no longer think about home, any longer than we can live at home, without our media. (Silverstone, “Why Study the Media” 88)

For lesbians, inhabiting the queer slant may be a matter of everyday negotiation. This is not about the romance of being off line or the joy of radical politics (though it can be), but rather the everyday work of dealing with the perception of others, with the “straightening devices” and the violence that might follow when such perceptions congeal into social forms. (Ahmed 107)

Picture this.

Once or twice a week a small, black, portable TV set goes on a journey; down from the lofty heights of the top shelf of the built in storage cupboard into the far corner of the living room. A few hours later, it is being stuffed back into the closet. Not far away across town, another small TV set sits firmly in the corner of a living room. Yet, it remains inanimate for days on end.

What do you see?

The techno-stories conveyed in this paper are presented through – and anchored to – the idea of the cultural biography of things (Kopytoff 1986), revealing how objects (more specifically media technologies) produce and become part of an articulation of particular and conflicting moral economies of households (Silverstone, “Domesticating Domestication”; Silverstone, Hirsch and Morley, “Information and Communication”; Green). In this context, the concept of the domestication of ICTs has been widely applied in Media Studies during the 1990s and, more recently, been updated to account for the changes in technology, household composition, media regulation, and in fact the dislocation of domesticity itself (Berker, Hartmann, Punie and Ward).

Remarkable as these mainstream techno-stories are in their elucidation of contemporary techno-practices, what is still absent is the consideration of how gender and sexuality intersect and are being done through ICT consumption at home, work and during leisure practices in alternative or queer households and families. Do lesbians ‘make’ house and home and in what ways are media and ICTs implicated in the everyday work of queer home-making strategies? As writings on queer subjects and cyberspace have proliferated in recent years, we can now follow a move to contextualize queer virtualities across on and offline experiences, mapping ‘complex geographies of un/belonging’ (Bryson, MacIntosh, Jordan and Lin) and a return to consider online media as part of a bigger ICT package that constitutes our queer everyday life-worlds (Karl). At the same time, fresh perspectives are now being developed with regards to the reconfiguration of domestic values by gay men and lesbians, demonstrating the ongoing processes of probing and negotiation of ‘home’ and the questioning of domesticity itself (Gorman-Murray). By aligning ideas and concepts developed by media theorists in the field of media domestication and consumption as well as (sexual) geographers, this paper makes a contribution towards our understanding of a queer sense of home and domesticity through the technological and more specifically television. It is based on two case studies, part of a larger longitudinal ethnographic study of women-centred households in Brighton, UK.

Gill Valentine has identified the home and workplaces as spaces, which are encoded as heterosexual. Sexual identities are being constrained by ‘regulatory regimes’, promoting the normalcy of heterosexuality (4). By recounting the techno-stories of lesbian women, we can re-examine notions of the home as a stable, safe, given entity; the home as a particular feminine sphere as well as the leaky boundaries between public and private. As media and ICTs are also part of a (hetero)sexual economy where they, in their materiality as well as textual significance become markers of sexual difference, we can to a certain extent perceive them as ‘straightening devices’, to borrow a phrase from Sara Ahmed. Here, we will find the articulation of a host of struggles to ‘fight the norms’, but not necessarily ‘step outside the system completely, full-time’ (Ben, personal interview [all the names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their anonymity]). In this sense, the struggle is not only to counter perceived heterosexual home-making and techno-practices, but also to question what kinds of practices to adopt and repeat as ‘fitting in’ mechanism. Significantly, these practices leave neither ‘homonormative’ nor ‘heteronormative’ imaginaries untouched and remind us that:

In the case of sexual orientation, it is not simply that we have it. To become straight means that we not only have to turn towards the objects that are given to us by heterosexual culture, but also that we must “turn away” from objects that take us off this line. (Ahmed 21)

In this sense then, we are all part of drawing and re-drawing the lines of belonging and un-belonging within the confines of a less than equal power-economy.

Locating Dys-Location – Is There a Lesbian in the Home?

In his effort to re-situate the perspective of media domestication in the 21st century, David Morley points us to ‘the process of the technologically mediated dislocation of domesticity itself’ (“What’s ‘home’” 22). He argues that ‘under the impact of new technologies and global cultural flows, the home nowadays is not so much a local, particular “self-enclosed” space, but rather, as Zygmunt Bauman puts it, more and more a “phantasmagoric” place, as electronic means of communication allow the radical intrusion of what he calls the “realm of the far” (traditionally, the realm of the strange and potentially troubling) into the “realm of the near” (the traditional “safe space” of ontological security) (23). The juxtaposition of home as a safe, ‘given’ place of ontological security vis a vis the more virtual and mediated realm of the far and potentially intrusive is itself called into question, if we re-consider the concepts of home and (dis)location in the light of lesbian geographies and ‘the production and regulation of heterosexual space’ (Valentine 1). The dislocation of home and domesticity experienced through consumption of (mobile) media technologies has always already been under-written by the potential feeling of dys-location and ‘trouble’ by lesbians on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The lesbian experience disrupts the traditionally modern and notably western ideal of home as a safe haven and refuge by making visible the leaky boundaries between private seclusion and public surveillance, as much as it may (re)invest in the production of ideas and ideals of home-making and domesticity. This is illustrated for example by the way in which the heterosexuality of a parental home ‘can inscribe the lesbian body by restricting the performative aspects of a lesbian identity’, which may be subverted by covert acts of resistance (Johnston and Valentine 111; Elwood) as well as by the potentially greater freedoms of lesbian identity within a ‘lesbian home’, which may nevertheless come under scrutiny and ‘surveillance of others, especially close family, friends and neighbours’ (112). Nevertheless, more recently it has also been demonstrated how even overarching structures of familial heteronormativity are opportune to fissures and thereby queered, as Andrew Gorman-Murray illustrates in his study of Australian gay, lesbian and bisexual youth in supportive family homes.

So what is, or rather, what can constitute a ‘lesbian home’ and how is it negotiated through everyday techno-practices?

In and Out of the Closet – The Straight-Speaking ‘Telly’

As places go, the city of Brighton and Hove in the south-east of England fetches the prize for the highest ratio of LGBT people amongst its population in the UK, sitting at about 15%. In this sense, the home-making stories to which I will refer, of a white, lesbian single mother in her early 40s from a working-class background and a white lesbian/dyke couple in their 30s (from middle-/working-class backgrounds), are already engendered in the sense that Brighton (to them) represented in part a kind of ‘home-coming’ in itself.

Helen and Ben, a lesbian butch-femme couple (‘when it takes our fancy’, Helen), had recently bought a terraced 1930s three-bedroom house with a sizeable garden in a soon to be up and coming residential area of Brighton. The neighbours are a mix of elderly, long-standing residents and ‘hetero’ families, or ‘breeders’, as Ben sometimes referred to them. Although they had lived together before, the new house constituted their first purchase together. This was significant especially for Helen, as it made their lives more ‘equal’ in terms of what goes where and the input on the overall interior decoration. Ben had shifted from London to Brighton a few years previously for a ‘quieter life’, but wished to remain connected to a queer community. Helen had made the move to Brighton from Germany – to study and enjoy the queer feel, and never left. Both full-time professionals, Helen worked in the publishing industry and Ben as a social worker.

Already considering Brighton their ‘home’ town, the house purchase itself constituted another home-making challenge: as a lesbian/dyke couple on equal footing they were prepared to accept to live in a pre-dominantly straight neighbourhood, as it afforded them more space for money compared to the more visibly gay male living areas in the centre of town. The relative invisibility of queer women (and their neighbourhoods) compared to queer men in Brighton may, as it does elsewhere, be connected to issues of safety (Elwood) as well as the comparative lack of financial capacity (Bell and Valentine).

Walking up to this house on the first night of my stay with them, I am struck by just how inconspicuous it appears – one of many in a long street, up a steep hill: ‘Most housing in contemporary western societies is “designed, built, financed and intended for nuclear families”’ (Bell in Bell and Valentine 7). I cannot help but think – more as a reflection on myself than of what I am about to experience – is this it? Is this the ‘domesticated lesbian’? What I see appears ‘familiar’, ‘tamed’, re-tracing the straight lines of heterosexual culture.

Helen opens the door and orders me directly into the kitchen. She says ‘Ben is in the living room, watching television… Ben takes great pleasure in watching “You’ve been Framed”’. (Fieldnotes)

In this context, it is appropriate to focus on the television and its place within their home-making strategies. Television, in its historical and symbolic significance, could be deemed the technological co-terminus to the ideal nuclear family home. Lynn Spigel has shown through her examination of the cultural history of TV’s formative years in post World War America how television became central to providing representations of family life, but also how the technology itself, as an object, informed material and symbolic transformations within the domestic sphere and beyond. Over the past fifty years as Morley points out, the TV has moved from its fixed place in the living room to become more personalised and encroach on other spaces in house and home and has now, in fact, re-entered the public realm (see airports and shopping malls) where it originated. At present, ‘the home itself can seen as having become … the “last vehicle”, where comfort, safety and stability can happily coexist with the possibility of instantaneous digitalised “flight” to elsewhere – and the instantaneous importation of desired elements of the “elsewhere” into the home’ (Morley, “Media, Modernity” 200). Importantly, as Morley confirms, today’s high-tech discourse is often still framed by a nostalgic vision of ‘family values’.

There was only one TV set in Helen and Ben’s house: a black plastic cube with a 16” screen. It was decidedly ‘unglamorous’ as Helen pointed out. During the first round of ‘home-making’ efforts, it had found its way into a corner in the front room, with the sofa and armchair arranged in viewing distance. It was a very ‘traditional’ living room set-up. During my weeklong stay and for some weeks after, it was mostly Ben on her own ‘watching the telly’ in the early evenings ‘vegging out’ after work. Helen, meanwhile, was in the kitchen with the radio on or a CD playing, or in her ‘ICT free’ bedroom, reading.

Then, suddenly, the TV had disappeared.

During one of our ‘long conversations’ (Silverstone, Hirsch and Morley, “Listening”, 204) it transpired that it was now housed for most of the time on the top shelf of a storage cupboard and only ‘allowed out’ ever so often. As a material object, it had easily found its place as a small, but nevertheless quite central feature in the living room. Imbued with the cultural memory of their parents’ and that of many other living rooms, it was ‘tempting’ and easy for them to ‘accept’ it as part of a setting up home as a couple. Ben explained that they both fell into a habit, an everyday routine, to sit around it. However, settling into their new home with too much ‘ease’, they began to question their techno-practice around the TV. For Helen in particular, the aesthetics of the TV set did not fit in with her plans to re-decorate the house loosely in art deco style, tethered to her femme identity. They did not envisage creating a home that would potentially signal that a family with 2.4 children lives here. ‘The “normality” of [working] 9-5’ (Ben), was sufficient. Establishing a perceived visual difference in their living room, partly by removing the TV set, Helen and Ben aimed to ‘draw a line’ around their home and private sphere vis a vis the rest of the street and, metaphorically speaking, the straight world. The boundaries between the public and private are nevertheless porous, as it is exactly that the public perceptions of a mostly private, domesticated media technology prevent Helen and Ben from feeling entirely comfortable in its presence.

It was not only the TV set’s symbolic function as a material object that made them restrict and consciously control the presence of the TV in their home space. One of Helen and Ben’s concerns in this context was that TV, as a broadcast medium, is utterly ‘conservative’ in its content and as such, very much ‘straight speaking’. To paraphrase Helen – you can only read so much between the lines and shout at the telly, it can get tiring. ‘I like watching nature programmes, but they somehow manage even here to make it sound like a hetero narrative’. Ben: ‘yeah – mind the lesbian swans’. The employment of the VCR and renting movies helps them to partly re-dress this perceived imbalance. At the same time, TV’s ‘water-cooler’ effect helps them to stay in tune with what is going on around them and enables them, for example, to participate and intervene in conversations at work. In this sense, watching TV can turn into home-work, which affords a kind of entry ticket to shared life-worlds outside the home and as such can be controlled, but not necessarily abandoned altogether. TV as a ‘straightening device’ may afford the (dis)comfort of a sense of participation in mainstream discourses and the (dis)comfort of serving as a reminder of difference at the same time.

‘It just sits there … apart from Sundays’ – and when the girls come round…

Single-parent households are on the rise in the US (Russo Lemor) as well as in the UK. However, the attention given to single-parent families so far focuses pre-dominantly on single mothers and fathers after separation or divorce from a heterosexual marriage (Russo Lemor; Silverstone, “Beneath the Bottom Line”). As (queer) sociologists have began to map the field of ‘families of choice and other life experiments’ (Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan), a more concerted effort to bring together the literatures and to shed more light on the queer techno-practices of alternative families seems necessary.

Liz and her young son Tim had moved to Brighton from London. As a lesbian working single mother, she raises Tim pre-dominantly on her own: ‘we are a small family, and that’s fine’. Liz’s home-making narrative is very much driven by her awareness of what she sees as her responsibilities as a mother, a lesbian mother. The move to Brighton was assessed by being able to keep her clients in London (she worked as a self-employed communication and PR person for various London councils) – ‘this is what feeds us’, and the fact that she did not want Tim to go to a ‘badly performing’ school in London.

The terraced three-bedroom house she found was in a residential area, not too far from the station and in need of updating and re-decorating. The result of the combined efforts of builders, her dad (‘for some of the DIY’) and herself produced a ‘conventional’ set-up with a living room, a kitchen-diner, a small home-office (for tele-working) and Tim’s and her bedroom. Inconspicuous in its appearance, it was clearly child-oriented with a ‘real jelly bean arch’ in the hallway.

The living room is relatively bare, with a big sofa, table and chairs, ‘an ancient stereo-system’ and a ‘battered TV and Video-recorder’ in the corner. ‘We hardly use it’, Liz exclaims. ‘We much rather spend time out and about if there is a chance … quality time, rather than watching TV … or I read him stories in bed. I hate the idea of TV as a baby sitter … I have very deliberately chosen to have Tim and I want to make the most of it’. For Liz, the living room with the TV set in it appears as a kind of gesture to what family homes ‘look like’. As such, the TV and furniture set-up function as a signal and symbol of ‘normality’ in a queer household – perhaps a form of ‘passing’ for visitors and guests. The concern for the welfare of her son in this context is a sign and reflection of a constant negotiation process within a pre-dominantly heterosexual system of cultural symbols and values, which he, of course, is already able to ‘compare’ and evaluate when he is out and about at school or visiting friends in their homes. Unlike in Helen and Ben’s home, the TV is therefore allowed to stay out of the closet. Still, Liz rarely watches TV at all, for reasons not dissimilar to those of Helen and Ben. Apart from this, she shares a lack of spare time with many other single parents.

Significantly, the living room and TV do receive a queer ‘make-over’ now and then, when Tim is in bed or with his father on a weekend and ‘the girls’ come over for a drink, chat and video viewing (noticeably, the living room furniture and TV get pushed around and re-arranged to accommodate the crowd). In this sense, Liz, in her home-making practices, carefully manages and performs ‘object relationships’ that allow her and her son to ‘fit in’ as much as to advocate ‘difference’ within the construction of ‘normalcy’. The pressures of this negotiation process are clearly visible.

Conclusion – Re-Engendering Home and Techno-Practices

As women as much as lesbians, Helen, Ben and Liz are, like so many others, part of a historical and much wider struggle regarding visibility, equality and justice. If this article had been dedicated to gay/queer men and their techno- and home-making sensibilities, it would have read somewhat differently to be sure. Of course, questions of gender and sexual identities would have remained equally paramount, as they always should, enfolding questions of class, race and ethnicity (Pink 2004).

The concept and practice of home have a deeply engendered history. Queer practices ‘at home’ are always already tied up with knowledges of gendered practices and spaces. As Morley has observed, ‘space is gendered on a variety of scales … the local is often associated with femininity and seen as the natural basis of home and community, into which an implicitly masculine realm intrudes’ (“Home Territories” 59). As the public and private realms have been gendered masculine and feminine respectively, so have media and ICTs. Although traditional ideas of home and gender relations are beginning to break down and the increasing personalization and mobilization of ICTs blur perceptions of the public and private, certain (idealized, heterosexualized and gendered) images of home, domesticity and family life seem to be recurring in popular discourse as well as mainstream academic writing. As feminist theorists have illustrated the ways in which gender needs to be seen as performative, feminist and queer theorists also ought to work further on finding vocabularies and discourses that capture and highlight diversity, without re-invoking the spectre of the nuclear family (home) itself (Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan).

What I found was not the ‘domesticated’ lesbian ‘at home’ in a traditional feminine sphere. Rather, I experienced a complex set of re-negotiations and re-inscriptions of the domestic, of gender and sexual values and identities as well as techno-practices, leaving a trace, a mark on the system no matter how small (Helen: ‘I do wonder what the neighbours make of us’). The pressure and indeed desire to ‘fit in’ is often enormous and therefore affords the re-tracing of certain trodden paths of domesticity and ICT consumption. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the day when even Liz can put that old telly into the closet as it has lost its meaning as a cultural signifier of a particular kind.

Author Biography

Irmi Karl