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Space & Queer Student and Group Identity Formation

In heterosexist educational contexts, queer students go through an extremely complicated process of identity formation and coming out (Chickering & Reisser; Cain & Rhoads; and Levine & Evans in Wall & Evans, 2000) and encounter various problems: social and curricular exclusion (Macgillivray, 2000); harassment at school (Anderson, 1997); lack of support from the university administrations (Mallory, 1997); and resultant limitations on their freedom of speech ( Malinowitz, 1992; Bartholomae, 1997). The Turkish collegiate LGBT student population has also been facing similar pressures; in dealing with such adverse conditions, virtual spaces, such as mailing lists and advocacy web sites, can serve as safer “places” crucial for individual and group identity formation (Alexander, 1997; Comstock & Addison 1997; Woodland, 1999).

Using Yahoo! mailing lists and, on an individual basis, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), university students have been able to establish constant connection with their fellow students and maintain continuity among the members even after graduation. As such, the safe, semi-public conceptual space of the mailing lists enabling free association and continuity, serves as a “third space” (Oldenburg, 1989) where individuals can interact, free from prejudice and violence that has been inflicted on them by the heterosexist social structures. In Life on the Screen (1995) and her preface to High Wired (2001) , Sherry Turkle emphasizes the crucial role of anonymous identity play in what she calls “toy situations” in cyberspace, where through anonymity a core self can be developed. In this free space, the inhibitions of society and its oppressive narratives about identity, in this case queer identity, is temporarily on suspension, and individuals can explore and re-compose their identities through their interaction with others like themselves. Mitra (2001) views such virtual interactions through the metaphor of voice and claims that as such, online interactions are calls for the acknowledgement of the interlocutor where subversive narratives about identity can emerge and transform individuals' views of themselves and others. As Mitra, quoting Stuart Hall, points out, “Identity is formed at the unstable point where the “unspeakable” stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture” (p.30). Thus, connection through a mailing list and IRC, and ensuing continuous interaction can mean empowerment on the individual level where the individuals share and acknowledge similar non-mainstream histories, which not only sets internal identity construction in motion but also paves the way for outing oneself by eventually meeting the other members of the particular Legato mailing list.

As well as individual identities, digital technologies are also vital in the formation and maintenance of a group identity. After Legato common list was launched on December 20, 2000, the increased connection through the list led to more “real” life meetings and activities on a varying, broader scale, such as reading and discussion groups, regular and larger group meetings in the same cities, and Legato members' attendance at biannual conventions organized by the local LGBT organizations in Ankara and Istanbul. However, although these individuals are connected in this manner, there are still institutional, political, financial, and physical obstacles to bringing all 857 people together at any given time. In addition, officially, Legato does not exist; it does not have registered official headquarters or offices in universities. Under these circumstances, the mailing list interface “embodies” a cyborg community. Cyborgness as Haraway (1991) explains in “Cyborg Manifesto” is a metaphor for the hybrid nature of identity and as such a strength in facing what she calls “matrices of domination”. Concerning this hybridity as an inherent component and strength of cyborg identity, Haraway espouses “explicitly embracing the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine and similar distinctions structuring the Western self” (p. 174). In the case of the Turkish LGBTQ, the hybridity stems from the nature of the community, which is a composite of flesh-and-blood individuals seen as heterosexuals by the majority in public places and its conceptual extension on the computer where the same individuals can reflect their queerness with fewer inhibitions. In addition to the mailing list, in spring 2002, Legato also launched its own web site . With its virtual counter where membership applications are accepted and a chat site where some members meet once a week to have an online discussion, which enables those who cannot meet in “physical spaces” to participate in discussions, Legato web site enhances the cyborg nature of the community.

To further illustrate how “breakdown of distinctions cracks matrices of domination,” I would like to refer to an event. In fall 2003, at METU, some female students complained to the administration about two lesbian students living in the same student dorm room. The administration started an investigation, and the women decided to leave the dorm soon, just around the time of their finals, being afraid that this will be a part of their permanent record and create problems in the future. Also, not being out to their families and having to deal with a homophobic administration and student population were the other major difficulties for them. This event was carried onto the common mailing list by one of the members, who heard about it on another mailing list, and his message relating the story was a call for help to the people who lived in Ankara to contact the women and provide them with a place to stay and also help them about how to proceed in talking to the administration. This manner of dealing with this situation temporarily breaks the so-called “matrices of domination” both externally and internally for several reasons: first, in the absence of digital media, the conventional media would not have reported this event, and most likely, it would have gone unnoticed by individuals across the nation. Second, this event helps the student groups mobilize their human resources efficiently in facing the homophobic administration, which is in itself a survival strategy. Thirdly, the discussion triggered by this event brought up many issues and diverse perspective among the members leading to the questioning of group goals and stances. And fourthly, as people discussed this event and published it on the web and on local LGBT presses, in Haraway's words, “a powerful infidel heteroglossia” emerged defying the silencing of the oppressed group by the majority through its covering up and/or denial of the issue. Both the mailing list and the web site are used as the main loci of the powerful, infidel heteroglossia contesting not only the majority but also the group itself, which could not be expressed through the conventional media in the society. Thus, LGBT individuals who cannot speak up in physical space can come to have a “voice” through writing and produce a political position. As such, as Haraway says, “Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups … Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other” (p. 175).