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Queer Historiography, Rhetoric, and the History of Media

In Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States 1940-1970, John D'Emilio (1998) asks this crucial question concerning the history of the homosexual minority in the US: “Why did a gay emancipation movement come into existence only in the post-World War II era? And why did it not become a mass movement until the end of the 1960's?” (p. 3) In answering this question, D'Emilio stresses this crucial aspect of the movement:

The movement constitutes a phase, albeit a decisive one, of a much longer historical process through which a group of men and women came into existence as a self-conscious, cohesive minority. Before a movement could take shape, that process had to be far enough along so that at least some gay women and men could perceive themselves as members of an oppressed minority, sharing an identity that subjected them to systematic injustice. (p. 4)

Only as a result of such a transformation of consciousness (and of the conditions of daily life), D'Emilio states, could a large number of lesbians and gays support the cause and actively work for it (p.4). From a rhetorical perspective (and as D'Emilio also illustrates throughout the book), such a process of building a new identity and meaningful social connections around it involves the building of a new ethos around a new epistemology and a political position on homosexuality. Moreover, such ethos building entails establishing a body of knowledge, and creating and owning forums and media to convey this knowledge to an audience who would eventually act on it. In “Can the subaltern speak?” Gayatri Spivak (1988) also calls attention to the epistemic capital and the political position as vital factors in establishing a distinct political voice. She claims that the subaltern cannot speak since both the capital and power have remained in the hands of the dominant social groups. As a result, the dominant social groups that control the existing systems of expression speak for the dispossessed and construct them as the marginal.

While Spivak is referring to a colonial context, my focus here is on “discursive dominance” (rather than literal domination) where a predominantly heterosexist system and its mass media ignore the oppression of marginalized groups, except for occasional coverage for its sensational value, as in the Turkish case presently, and as in the case of the US formerly. Of course, in a capitalist system, discursive dominance has its roots in economic domination, too; however, unlike in a colonial system, discursive dominance in capitalist democracy seems more amenable to change since its very changeability depends on how much of a rhetorical, political, and financial force (and related alliances) a particular marginalized group could muster and wield in making its voice heard (see lesbian and gay publications and their effect on LGBT consicousness, and developments in San Francisco in the 1960s, in D'Emilio (1998). With the advent of the Internet, this critical process of empowerment for marginalized groups has been intertwined with micromedia (wordprocessing, desktop and web publishing, etc.) so much so that both queer historiography and rhetorical studies of LGBT groups must take into account these groups' interaction with (digital) media from historical and cultural perspectives.

Conspectus of Legato: Urban LGBT Communities, Turkish Queer Students [1], and Digital Media
As mentioned in the context section, by the mid 1990s, Turkish queer population had formed subcultural institutions in big cities, such as Istanbul (Yenicioglu) and Ankara, and Kaos GL in Ankara had engaged in significant local social and political activities involving queer university students (see below). However, since urban groups lacked means and channels to convey whatever epistemic capital and political position that had been accumulated thus far, such consciousness raising and activism could not reach individuals across the nation prior to the advent and spreading of the Internet in Turkey in the middle of 1990s. A major part of my claim in this article is that Legato is the embodiment of this broadening scope of the Turkish queer cause, through digital forums, and this section focuses on Legato's inception and development in the second half of the 1990s.

The first seeds of Legato were sown at the local LGBT advocacy organization called Kaos GL in Ankara . In 1996, several students who met at the Kaos GL meetings decided to start LGBT-related activities at the Middle East Technical University (METU). First called Kaos-METU because of the group's affiliation with the local organization, later the group changed its name to Legato on the basis of their difference as a student group. Inspired by Legato METU, in 1997, Legato Hacettepe was established in Hacettepe University , another prominent university in Ankara . However, in the words of student activists of the time, “since the digital technology was not as widespread in Turkey at the time, the biggest problem was to reach people” (Legato Members, n.d.). Thus, the same lack of forum and means to connect across the society has repeated itself in the microcosm of the university where Legato METU and Legato Hacettepe were both discouraged by the administration and the overall heterosexist environment from pursuing any recruitment efforts and were forced to disguise as Political Science Club and Psychology Club respectively. According to student activists of the time, “In the following years, the meetings and activities by these groups have eventually tapered off since almost all founders were seniors and have graduated soon after they started their activism. What needed to be done was to contact and connect with new students and gradually transfer organizational responsibilities to them in order to maintain continuity” (Legato Members, n.d.). As a result, the obstacles to connectivity and continuity proved to be detrimental to the emergent queer student movement.

Following this initial abortive attempt, graduates of Hacettepe and ODTU separated from Kaos GL, due to some ideological conflicts and generational differences between seasoned activists and student activists, and established another local but this time exclusively gay male Internet-based group called Gay Ankara, which no longer exists now. Gay Ankara resumed Legato as Legato Project in 1999 and spearheaded the introduction of Legato into the virtual realm through its promotion of the use of Yahoo! Groups mailing lists. At its first stage, on June 28, 2000, 23 mailing lists were created for 23 universities.

Throughout the year 2000, Legato spread from Ankara to other cities across the nation, especially Istanbul , the cultural and financial capital of Turkey . In fall 2000, Legato Bogaziçi mailing list was established. In Istanbul , following the lead of student groups in Ankara , Legato Bogaziçi became a model for student groups at other universities in the same city, and more and more people heard about Legato through word of mouth and e-mail and joined and interacted through the mailing lists. Eventually, those students in the same school started meeting each other, and those students in the same city started getting together informally on university campuses, coffee houses, and eventually, the local LGBT organizations, thus simultaneously recognizing the existence of such physical spaces and transforming them into (potential) networking places where “fugitive knowledge” about homosexuality is disseminated through queer learning communities (Hill, 1996). These offline interactions have culminated in two important events in the history of the burgeoning collegiate queer movement: the first one was the first interview for a national newspaper in December 2000, which, according to student activists of the time, “raised consciousness in many queer students at different schools and led to more organizing offline and online in the form of more mailing lists and web sites” (Legato Members, n.d.). I view this interview as an instance that reflects, on the part of queer students, a better sense of ethos based on the new epistemology drawing on personal and group experience, a developing awareness of audience, and an ability to take advantage of the national media catering to the heterosexual majority. The second important development took place on December 20, 2000 when individuals who were already members of the established Legato mailing lists were connected under one common mailing list called “Legato Ortak Liste” (common or shared list in Turkish). By that time, there were 27 Legatos at 27 universities across the country, and this listserv connected all of the individuals in those groups under one name as one group. As of now, Legato has 857 members at 83 universities (up from 418 members at 67 schools in March '03, and 355 members at 61 schools in October ‘02) across the nation.

Legato's interfacing with the Internet at the end of the 1990s, a set of “space-making”, collective, literate practices by youth in resisting not only homophobic mass media but also regulation by adult LGBT groups (Comstock, 1999), thus initiated the formation of a queer student culture, further connecting it with pre-existing subcultures. Even though Legato's entrance into the virtual realm had to do with certain ideological and generational conflicts between student activists and local queer organizations (for some, such conflicts still exist and are adequate reasons for maintaining a separate identity as a student group), some new members of Legato attend and/or work for the aforementioned local queer organizations, and some others following the model set by Lambda Istanbul and Kaos GL even started similar organizations in different parts of the country, setting in motion the formation of a national queer consciousness that has been pushing towards the creation of a queer minority in Turkey.

[1] I focus on queer college students here since Legato is a predominantly college student group.