XXIX.3 May - June 2022
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Flying under the gaydar

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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In this column, I propose a queer perspective on spatial justice that foregrounds a strategy of "flying under the gaydar" in relation to the more prevalent strategy of "out and proud" espoused in Western discourses about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The out-and-proud strategy of queer inclusion operates based on clear visibility and stable representation of nonconformance to heteronormativity. In contrast, the flying-under-the-gaydar strategy affords navigation by hiding in plain sight and signaling ambiguity en route. I argue for exploring design interventions that deploy the flying-under-the-gaydar strategy while traversing hostile territories and risky spaces, both geographical and discursive.

But what is spatial justice and how is it relevant for designing technology? For Edward Soja, spatial justice "involves the fair and equitable distribution in space of socially valued resources and the opportunities to use them" [1]. Building on Soja's work, Shyam Krishna presents an analysis of gig-economy work through digital food-delivery platforms in South India, illuminating how "micro-spatiotemporal practices and negotiations inherent in digital platforms cause issues for workers such as unpaid labour, unfair income or risky working conditions" [2]. Linking design of built spaces to issues of justice and discursively (re)conceptualizing how justice is negotiated spatially are mutually reinforcing core tenets of spatial justice—informed design. Thinking about space and thinking spatially are distinct but related.

Alex Taylor's thoughtful critique on research trends in HCI is a demonstrative example of discursive spatiality that attends to the dynamics between researcher positionality and her research subject: "Rather than succumbing to the urgency to identify and investigate new sites and ever-different 'out theres,'" Taylor urges HCI researchers to "see how we might examine a world from 'inside,' from 'right here'" (as) an invitation to shift ourselves into the frame of analysis and to apply care and concern for what, exactly, is going on around us" [3]. Taylor's prudence advocates for theorizing that resists the temptations of "parachute research" and design as saviorism. To theorize is to offer convincing perspectives with purpose for an audience. Theorizing as perspectivizing involves construing (eliciting and arranging information with purpose), framing (prioritizing what is deemed relevant and omitting the irrelevant), and situating (defining, demarcating, and relating) the research subject in relation to the researcher's positionality. Spatial justice—informed research knowledge production then is an intercorporeal (body situated among other bodies) and intersubjective (self as always already relational) interactive encounter for making meaning and claiming power. In Michel Foucault's conception of knowledge/power, making knowledge claims are not only acts of power but more importantly generate further actions for power. Discursive spatiality then is concerned "not only with a spatialization of meanings and of power, but with spatialization as a means of making meaning and power" [4, italics original]. Spatial justice—informed design research generates critical perspectives by attending to the dynamics of positionality and power. Gloria E. Anzaldúa spatially orients her theorization of borderlands using a river analogy that is worth quoting here at length:

The flying-under-the-gaydar strategy affords navigation by hiding in plain sight and signaling ambiguity en route.

But it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressors and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture's views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority—outer as well as inner—it's a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once see through serpent and eagle eyes…. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react [5].

Acknowledging intersecting struggles of queer people of color, Anzaldúa's theorization attempts to discursively destabilize the split between and spatially recode the binaries of oppressor/oppressed, stance/counterstance, authority/defiance, outer/inner, and domination/liberation as ongoing work toward new ways of living, healing, and relating.

Let us consider an excerpt from a recent job advertisement by a North American institution: "Candidates that belong to underrepresented groups are particularly encouraged to apply…. Not all submissions may receive a reply if application numbers are high." Administrative overhead, resource shortage, and institutional bureaucracy are commonly cited as reasons for being unable to reply to applicants. Candidates must write a cover letter, research statement, teaching statement, and diversity statement customized for the job advertised but cannot expect a reply. For immigrants whose visa is tied to their work permit, rental contract, phone contract, and other everyday necessities, this "don't expect a response" practice is not only inhumane but also registers as antithetical to the goal of becoming inclusive. In this example, how might we be "on both shores at once" and work toward more humane practices in our communities?

While Anzaldúa theorizes toward crossing borders, Andrea Smith links settler colonialism to heteronormativity, arguing "it is important not to have a binary analysis of binaries (since) the presumption that binarism is bad and hybridity good often works against indigenous interests" [6]. The decision to adopt a binary or nonbinary encoding depends on whom it serves and toward what ends. Anzaldúa and Smith do not offer the same strategies of queering but instead push us to spatially navigate risky ambiguities with an awareness of positionality and power struggles. But why must we design for flying under the gaydar as a queer inclusion strategy?

In the past century, Western discourses have publicly scrutinized, continuously monitored, and repeatedly pathologized queer people's desires as something that must be cautiously contained, if not squelched. Heteronormative gaze has resulted in the voyeuristic theorization of queer desire as deviant pathology, moral failure, spiritual aberration, self-serving perversion, developmental immaturity, public health risk, antithetical to meaningful kinship, and threat to civil life. In short, queer desire is portrayed as anything but life affirming, a term that is exclusively reserved for heteronormative intimacy. As you are reading this, same-sex relationships between consenting adults are criminalized in 71 national jurisdictions and punishable by death in 11 countries [7]. Despite this, researchers continue to produce work that attempts to technologically predict a person's queerness based on their social media activities (intentionally not cited here). We owe our collective gratitude to pioneers like Lynn Conway (Mead-Conway VLSI chip design revolution) and Sophie Wilson (ARM chip), computer scientists and transgender women, for their inventions that have made it possible for us to enjoy electronic gadgets and ubiquitous mobile interactions today. And yet, 15 jurisdictions criminalize the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people [7] while violent transphobia is further perpetuated using the digital and mobile interactions made possible through the contributions of two trans women.


On the one hand, Aparna Moitra and colleagues draw attention to how queer activists in India negotiate by "constantly performing their marginalized identities—an act that involved reliving their experiences of trauma, but one that was necessary to elicit resources and funding" [8]. On the other, Asfaneh Rigot's critical report draws attention to how digital evidence is used in the legal persecution of queer people and "shows that the police's reliance on digital evidence is a symptom and parallel development to intensified anti-queer policing" [9]. Perhaps due to the unrelenting discrimination and dehumanizing policing of queerness, it is common to find a discursive distancing of queer desire from queer sexuality. There is a tendency to de-eroticize queerness for gaining legitimacy in Western discourses that are predominantly heteronormative. Queer people must compartmentalize, withhold, erase, and self-distance from their embodied desires to gain legitimacy and be taken seriously as queer theorists. From a heteronormative worldview, queer desire is so potently dangerous that it must be predicted and carefully monitored. And yet, queer erotic desire must also be narrated as incidental, if not irrelevant, to theorizing queerness as a legitimate position in Western discourses.

Queer people are forced to survive adversity by blending in, crossing over, code switching, hiding in plain sight, and signaling ambiguity. Drawing upon the experiences of nonheterosexual migrant women in the Nordic region, Mia Liinason argues for "moving beyond dichotomous divisions between visibility and invisibility" [10]. Heteronormativity publicly reinforced through notions such as "gaydar" (predicting queerness) and privately internalized as queerphobia further exacerbate divisive issues. Publicly claiming queer desire "out and proud" is not always desirable nor affordable for many. The conceptual binary of out/closeted is itself centered around the heteronormative anxiety to clearly categorize, label, and contain all that is excessively queer. Many queer people, including those living in countries with legal protection, have to navigate their professional and personal lives by making decisions on the fly about what to divulge, to whom, when, and how. Weaponizing a "closeted" person's queer desire against their own well-being (outing people) and shaming those who cannot afford to be out and proud as leading inauthentic lives are both issues that rely on discursively positioning and defining a person's rights based on the out/closeted binary. For those who cannot afford to be out and proud for various reasons, flying under the gaydar is a matter of survival in violently life-threatening queerphobic spaces.

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Sarah Barnette, Alex Taylor, and Austin Toombs for their support and feedback on this work.

back to top  References

1. Soja, E.W. The city and spatial justice. justice spatiale / spatial justice 1 (2009);

2. Krishna, S. Spatiotemporal (in)justice in digital platforms: An analysis of food-delivery platforms in South India. In The Future of Digital Work: The Challenge of Inequality. R.K. Bandi, C.R. R., S. Klein, S. Madon, and E. Monteiro, eds. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology 601. Springer, Cham, 2020, 132–147;

3. Taylor, A.S. Out there. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM Press, 2011, 685–694;

4. Hook, D. Space, discourse, power: Heterotopia as analytics. In Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 178–214.

5. Anzaldúa, G.E. La conciencia de la mestiza/Towards a new consciousness. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 1987, 77–98.

6. Smith, A. Queer theory and native studies: The heteronormativity of settler colonialism. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16, 1 (2010), 42–68.

7. Human Dignity Trust. Map of Countries that Criminalise LGBT People;

8. Moitra, A., Marathe, M., Ahmed, S.I., and Chandra, P. Negotiating intersectional non-Normative queer identities in India. Extended Abstracts of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2021;

9. Rigot, A. Digital Crime Scenes: The Role of Digital Evidence in the Persecution of LGBTQ People in Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia. 2022;

10. Liinason, M. Challenging the visibility paradigm: Tracing ambivalences in lesbian migrant women's negotiations of sexual identity. Journal of Lesbian Studies 24, 2 (2020), 110–125;

back to top  Author

Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, and sex rights activist currently working as a postdoc at IT University of Copenhagen.

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Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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