Negotiating Salient Identities in Queer EDM Spaces
The Florida State University (US)
Establishing trust with participants in electronic dance music (EDM) settings such as dance clubs and festivals catering to the queer community can be challenging for ethnographers doing fieldwork in these spaces due to a history of marginalization, misrepresentation and hypersexualization of this diverse group of people. For decades these queer spaces have provided opportunities for members of this community to openly express aspects of their identities that may not be accepted by the larger, heteronormative society in which they live their daily lives. In many locations, dance clubs and pride festivals have been, and often still are, the only public spaces where queer individuals can gather, socialize, find significant others and show public displays of affection.
Given the importance of these spaces to many people, they may be closed off to researchers who wish to study them. The acceptance of the researcher into the social fabric of these scenes often hinges on aspects of his or her identity, which can include sexual orientation, biological sex, gender identity, race, ethnicity, age, education level, profession or numerous other factors. A challenge for the researcher is to understand which aspect of his or her identity is most salient for the participant group or individual being interviewed and will thus be the most useful tool for establishing trust in the situation. There is a complex connection between social identity and fieldwork for researchers, one that reveals how the “insider vs. outsider” concept in ethnography is not a simple dichotomy, but rather a complex web of partial insider/outsider statuses that must be negotiated on a case-by-case basis on the dance floor.
I have conducted fieldwork in dance club and pride festival settings, and throughout my research experiences I have encountered varied and sometimes conflicting responses by potential participants to interview requests. For example, research for my Master’s thesis (Rosendahl 2009) involved interviewing patrons at a local straight dance club in Tallahassee, Florida, about their motivations for attending the weekly “Metro Night”, an event aimed primarily at the gay and lesbian community. For many years Tallahassee had one queer dance club establishment, but when it closed the weekly Metro Night was one of the only scheduled events in the area specifically targeting the local queer community. As such, it became an important part of the social fabric for many queer individuals and straight allies in Tallahassee. While describing my research project to potential participants attending Metro Night, I would also include information about myself, such as my level of education, my program of study in graduate school, my interest in queer studies and politics, my own sexual orientation, as well as other traits. Initially the body language and dismissive responses of some individuals would indicate that they were not interested in taking part in the study. This would often change suddenly when one aspect of my own identity caught their attention. After hearing that I was a graduate student, one individual wanted to learn more about ethnomusicology (a term he had never heard), and he was curious how I was able to convince my thesis committee to allow me to conduct research in a dance club. He thought it was unbelievable, and very exciting, that someone in academia would be interested in dance club cultures. Another individual seemed unimpressed, even skeptical, that I was an academic looking at this culture. He was only interested in participating when I brought up the names of a few friends I had in the club that evening. It seemed that if those men and women were my friends and they were willing to participate, then he was more than happy to be interviewed.
I conducted a more extensive research project for my dissertation that examined musical discourse and intragroup marginalization at Pride Toronto (Rosendahl 2012). With over one million participants and more than three hundred musical acts per year, Pride Toronto is currently the largest pride festival in North America. This festival has a large organizing body with a board of directors and numerous full-time and part-time staff members and volunteers. It was chosen as a case study due to its focus on musical entertainment and because it can be seen as representative of other large-scale pride festivals around the globe (such as those in New York City, San Francisco and Sydney, Australia). During an interview with an important staff member in 2010, I began the conversation discussing my credentials as a doctoral student with experience conducting research projects in other queer dance spaces, assuming it would be important in this case. I was surprised when I got little to no response from any of this information and only short answers to my initial questions. It was not until I mentioned my partner, David, about ten minutes into the interview that the participant opened up and began talking freely about the festival. For him, my credentials meant very little, as I am sure that many people have interviewed him for stories in local and national publications. It was the fact that I am a member of the queer community that encouraged him to talk openly about the festival. My membership in the community provided a sense of trust for him because he viewed me as an insider to the situation. This was despite the fact that, at the time, I knew very little about Pride Toronto or the dynamics of Toronto’s queer community.
There are a number of important scholarly publications that explore the topic discussed here and other issues involved in conducting research in queer EDM cultures. Gordon Isaacs and Brian McKendrick’s work in South Africa in the early 1990s examines the role of underground dance clubs in queer identity creation (1992). This individual and group identity formation, along with community building and celebration of queer culture within the context of dance club settings, is also the focus of more recent publications by ethnomusicologists and performance studies scholars (Fikentscher 2000, Buckland 2002). Songs in Black and Lavender (2010) by ethnomusicologist Eileen Hayes is an important recent addition to this literature. Her description of fieldwork at lesbian music festivals, including building trust with participants, is discussed at length in this book, which serves as a valuable resource for other ethnographers conducting research in similar queer music spaces.
For researchers conducting fieldwork in EDM cultures, these examples reveal the importance of negotiating aspects of their own identities with participants. While it may be tempting to reveal as little as possible to keep oneself out of the story, participant-observation ethnographic fieldwork requires the involvement of the researcher in the larger story. And, given the importance of these spaces for many members of the queer community, admittance and acceptance of scholars for the purpose of research may be more challenging than in other similar EDM settings. It requires scholars to be open about many aspects of their own identities and to understand and respect the importance of queer public spaces in the lives of these community members. A researcher conducting fieldwork must pay close attention to the verbal feedback and body language of potential participants and highlight aspects of his or her identity that are most relevant to those individuals. This connection between the researcher and participant can help provide a foundation to build a trusting relationship and, in some cases, a friendship that allows greater insights into the queer EDM culture being studied.
Todd J. Rosendahl’s research examines the intersections of music, gender, sexuality and marginalization in North America. He has degrees from The University of Iowa (Bachelor of Music, 2006) and The Florida State University (Master of Music in Musicology, 2009; Ph.D. in Musicology, 2012). He holds leadership positions in the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Gender and Sexualities Taskforce. He can be contacted via email at: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Buckland, Fionna. 2002. Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Fikentscher, Kai. 2000. “You Better Work!” Underground Dance Music in New York City. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Hayes, Eileen M. 2010. Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women’s Music. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press.
Isaacs, Gordon, and Brian McKendrick. 1992. Male Homosexuality in South Africa: Identity Formation, Culture, and Crisis. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Rosendahl, Todd. 2009. “Working it Out on the Dance Floor: The Role of Music and Dance Clubs in an Emerging Pansexual Culture”. MM (Musicology), The Florida State University.
Rosendahl, Todd. 2012. “Music and Queer Culture: Negotiating Marginality Through Musical Discourse at Pride Toronto”. Ph.D. Dissertation (Musicology), The Florida State University.