New Article: On the Infinitude of Life Stories – Still Puzzling Queer Tales After All These Years

I have just published a new short article.


This is an extract of an article published in QED: A Journal in GLBTQWorldmaking 4.1 (2017) p189-197.  


Tony Adams and Derek Bolen eds
‘Queer Auto/ethnographies” Forum for
QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking.

A Story of My Stories

Over the years I have told many sexual stories. It started with having to grapple with these issues at a young age as I dealt with my own (now very traditional) coming out story, back in the late 50s and 60s: a time when being queer was shrouded in stigma, secrecy, shame and sickness. Not to mention illegality. A little later, as I went to graduate college, I turned to asking the more research-oriented questions of how to get others to tell their sexual stories. I interviewed other gay people initially – on their relationships, their communities and their coming out as the law was changing in England. As I became more politically aware through the early GLF movement, I was challenged to think about the conditions under which people get a voice and how are they silenced. What can be said and what cannot be said? By the late 1970s I had taken an academic life route into a much wider funded program of research into sexual diversities, which eventually broadened into an even wider concern: what are the social conditions under which different kinds of stories can be negotiated and get told? And all the time I had a nagging doubt: about the complexities, multiplicities, contingencies of what people say about their lives, as I moved into the even grander questions of epistemology and ontology. What indeed is a life, can it indeed ever be told, what is the status of what someone says about their life? In all this, I was never alone: I joined a vast conversation on all such matters and the chorus grew almost deafening. And now, as I enter the later stages of an ageing – and ultimately dying – life, the autobiographical puzzles of generation and time, illness and death are becoming ever more prominent and pervasive. The questions for life story tellings keep rolling on.

As I became more involved with these stories, so I was also becoming increasingly aware of their problems: of the fragility of storytelling. I have known, almost from the start, way back in the 1970s, that there can never ever be any simple or straight telling. Call this queer if you like. This has also raised a serious doubt about the entire nature of a social science enterprise that seems to rely, overwhelmingly, on people giving information about their lives to interviewers: material which is always and inextricably, indelibly, inevitably problematic. There simply are no ‘pure’ stories to be told. I balk at the current trend for Big Data that bypasses even the most elementary problems of humanistic story telling data.

I learnt all this in my earliest work as I followed the well-known research rules for interviewing people and gathering data. I wrote a few early papers based on the stories told to me. But I was not really satisfied with this, even from the start. And so my thesis became more theoretical, cutting a lot of the basic data out. Then, following the usual career path, I needed to get a grant and do ‘real post doc research’. And this I also duly did; gathering a great deal of data on a wide range of the sexually different. I did this side by side with settling into my new university, which was to be my home for the next thirty years. But the research was messy, chaotic, and served as an apprenticeship in doubting. It led me to find the data I had gathered as deeply worrying. What kind of truth was I getting at here? Audiences were certainly more interested in the stories I had than any abstractions, but all the time I was wondering about just what was the status of these stories, including my own. I started to talk more and more about the methods of research, leading me to the writing of Documents of Life 1 in the late 1970s. Ethics and reflexivity became key issues.

Moving on and looking back I can see I have always been writing on the edge of the autobiographical. Involvement in social research always impinges on your life…..

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