The key thread that runs through all my research is attention to crisis and routine. I interrogate throughout my research agenda how and when “crisis” manifests—in language, discourse, narrative, and experience—and the ways crisis is either routinized over the longue durée of time or history, or when it encounters routine itself. Both crisis and routine are common descriptors, especially in this current pandemic age when the crisis of a global pandemic became routinized into daily living for most of us. My approach to something like the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, is to explore where those lines of crisis and routine fall, under what conditions, in comparison to what historical precedents, and for what purpose.
Life Despite Security. In my book manuscript, I contend that routinization enables South Korean citizens and the state to treat domestic minorities, especially queer and trans people, as national security “threats.” Korean national security is rooted in Cold War era external threats, namely encroaching communism and a North Korean invasion. Yet in the age of “the War on Terror,” national security encourages citizens to interpret their daily lives through the discourses of security. South Koreans live under conditions of banal security, conditions which allow internal, national others to be marked as destructive and threatening. The experiences of queer and trans people reveal how this process functions as the state and citizens correlate them to a diversity of assumed deadly and violent threats: not only North Korea, but also terrorism and even viruses. The amalgamation of such threats engenders new matrices of social relations and solidarity that challenge the contours of the nation.
I conducted twenty-two months of fieldwork with queer and trans activist, LGBT health, and human rights organizations in Seoul. I investigated the intimacies of national security played out at the everyday level, demonstrating how national security is a self-making process for citizens and a method of organizing sociality. My approach is as an ethnographer, theorist, and activist. I thus traced the valences of national security law and discourse in everyday practice. This included attending Constitutional Court hearings that used the threat of North Korea to ban “sodomy” in the military, witnessing increased state policing of queer spaces following the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and observing anti-LGBT protests that compare queers to Islamic terrorists. I also critically engaged with queer and trans activists and human rights lawyers combating continued legal, social, medical, and cultural discrimination. I show how citizens produced forms of national security in their daily life, practices which interwove security with gender, citizenship, and ethnicity. Activists, meanwhile, constantly work to transform these connections. They take threatening relations and reformulate them to make them productive in their work and lives. During the 2015 MERS outbreak, for instance, activists advocated for cohabitation and relationality of infected and non-infected to combat the epidemic rather than state encouraged isolation and social distancing practices. This is the activists’ form of queer fugitivity.
My book is the first ethnographic study to explicitly analyze national security practice through queer theory and social justice. As such, my research makes interventions into anthropology, queer and gender studies, East Asian studies, and studies of the nation-state. By examining the relationship of daily life and security governance, I demonstrate how the state engenders creativity, possibility, and non-normativity that challenges national security paradigms. Similarly, I explore how new practices of kinship, social relations, and the body emerge when queer people are brought into relations with other threats.
Let’s Talk about Sex. The recent passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that forbids the discussion of non-normative genders and sexualities in the classroom reinvigorates discussion around the adequacy and efficacy of sex education in public schools (Goldstein 2022). This is particularly true where in some states, “abstinence only” is the preferred—or required—method of sex education. While a chorus of critics have challenged abstinence only education, some have also called attention to the disproportionate inclusion of gender and sexual minorities in schools’ sex education curriculum (Garg and Volerman 2020). Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill throws into relief systems of inequality, discrimination, and marginalization built into public schools in the United States.
This study therefore explores the contours of sex education in the United States by focusing on how college students narrate their sex education experiences, especially from high school onwards. In particular, this study will investigate how queer college students learn to be queer in high school given the barriers and systems of inequality and marginalization that exists for them as gender and sexual minority youth. By focusing on college students, this study aims to compare narratives of high school experiences to their college experiences at a liberal arts university with a dedicated LGBTQ+ center, women’s center, and intercultural center. The effect of this comparison lies in the ability to trace change over time: this study ventures to explore how college students learned over time about their sexualities.
Comparing high school and college experiences also invites another comparison: formal, institutionalized sex education versus informal sex education systems and networks. If formal, institutionalized sex education proves inadequate for youth—especially programs that teach abstinence only and/or lack inclusive sex education for gender and sexual minorities—then what informal networks, connections, and modes of learning do youth use, if any, to understand their own sexualities? What role does the college experience and college resources play in this process? In short, how do youth, particularly queer youth, learn about their sexualities betwixt and between formal sex education programs?
These questions are well-suited for anthropological inquiry. In particular, they intersect with the key anthropological concepts of personhood, sexuality, and power. Anthropology is also concerned with the doing of sexuality, namely how sexuality is learned through social and cultural interactions between people. Therefore, this project combines what students say about sex education and their sexualities with what they are experiencing in college to intervene into not only debates about sex education, but broader topics of youth personhood and sexuality.
The Viral Imaginary. My next project interrogates the historical layering mobilized in Asian discourse (popular culture, media, ethnography) of the concept of “the virus” as routine or “the virus” as crisis. By analyzing these reflections of viruses alongside the ways people respond to them and contribute to what I call the viral imaginary, I query how historical parallels are used to narrativize the virus. This makes “the virus” a knowable entity. There are multiple narratives of the virus, and in the moment of crisis there is a heightened question of which repositories of the viral imaginary people will operationalize to interpret and know the virus. There are moments when the virus is framed as a crisis, especially when understood through the lens of pandemics and epidemics. Yet there are other moments when viruses are routinized, when calls for co-existence dwarf those of fear. I investigate when and how these historical references are remembered and used, signaling what people notice in each viral iteration.
Central to this project is the movement between routine and crisis and the ways crisis becomes routinized. The temporality of crisis is also a source of a temporality of its historical memory. The work of crisis signals when norms are challenged and thus creates a narrative form to make that historical object of crisis knowable. Epidemiological investigations into the source and conditions of viral outbreak index how crisis constructs narratives of bound temporality: epidemics and pandemics are contained moments and memories juxtaposed to non-viral times. Supplanting the routine of viruses for crisis also encounters the way routinizing crisis is a historically contingent project that happens over time.
Epidemiology is important in this process in addition to the actual epidemiology of the virus, which assists in knowing the virus. Here is where Asia provides an alternative model for a historical imaginary: rather than being a distant memory mired by non-viral crises of war and economic depression, viruses in Asia entangle recent history into the present. From bird flu in Vietnam and SARS in Hong Kong to MERS in South Korea, viruses are much more present and prescient in Asian historical memory. Therefore, analyzing representations and narratives of the virus in Asia indexes a far more generative intervention into the social and cultural dimensions of viruses globally.