“Categories aren’t these things that are just there”: An interview with the CLEAR Lab’s Queer Science Reading Group
What does it mean to do queer science—or, rather, to do a queer science?
For most of the past year, members of the CLEAR (Civic Lab for Environmental Action Research) Lab in St. John’s, Newfoundland have grappled with that question. As an anticolonial and feminist marine plastics lab, CLEAR focuses mainly on monitoring the presence of plastics in waterways and wild food. Since last fall, CLEAR members have held a queer science reading group to consider how to put queer theories into scientific practice.
Lady Science spoke with two members of the CLEAR lab to discuss how this queer science reading group came into being, and how they hope to use what they’ve learned to develop a queer science manifesto. Elise Earles (she/her) is a fourth-year cell & molecular biology student, and Alex Zahara (he/him) is a PhD candidate in geography, both at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In our conversation, we also discussed the relationship between queer theory and anticolonial politics, as well as the importance of creating place-based scientific practices:
LS: What led your lab to the idea of creating a queer science reading group? How did being in a feminist and anticolonial laboratory influence that decision?
AZ: It basically started for two reasons. Part of the lab was reading more about feminist and anticolonial theory, and what I noticed during this was the idea of queering as ethics. I thought, “I want to dig into this,” to figure out what it might mean to queer within a feminist and anticolonial lab. But Queer Methods and Methodologies was really at a loss when it came to queering physical and natural sciences. There even was a part in the introduction like “How do we queer quant? I have no idea. It seems impossible.” So I thought, “Hm, challenge accepted.” (laughs)
Second, there was a moment where we were sitting in the lab, and I looked around and noticed that there was a heck of a lot of queer people in there! The lab at its biggest had maybe 22 people, of which I believe 12 to 14 identified as queer. That’s a huge percentage. That made me think, “We’re probably already doing a lot of queer work. How can we hone into that?”
LS: On the surface, there seems to be more ties between queer theory and the humanities. How do you queer scientific and quantitative fields?
AZ: Science is often about categories and organization. Queer theory is good at looking at categories and trying to historicize them, asking, “Why is this? What does it do? What are the politics of it? What are the effects of this? Who does this category harm?” I think sciences and quant are quite amenable to queering.
EE: Something about our reading group that I think is really unique is that we have people from so many different disciplines: we have ecologists, cell biologists, geographers, sociologists. This kind of interdisciplinarity adds to the richness of our discussions and group learning. As someone who’s been immersed in hard science world for their entire academic career, seeing a sociologist’s perspective in queer science and theories is pretty interesting and definitely adds to the learning experience for everyone.
LS: One thing that struck me in your group’s reading list was its commitment to including worLS from Indigenous studies. Why do you make indigeneity and Indigenous studies central to your approach to queering science?
AZ: To start off, both of us are settlers, and our group is mostly made up of settlers. In some respects, there are lots of linkages between non-Indigenous queer folk and Indigenous people, queer or non-queer. That relates to a persecution via heteronormativity. In Canada, for example, there was recently a Truth and Reconciliation report that discussed Indigenous residential schools set up by the government of Canada and which have been recognized as genocide. Many of the tactics used were to manage, change, and get rid of Indigenous sex and sexuality so that it conformed with the settler state.
So Indigenous studies and Indigenous people more generally have been theorizing about sex and sexuality for a long time. But there are some key differences as well. Lots of non-Indigenous queer activism has to do with recognition of the state—for example, marriage. But sometimes that can be incommensurable with Indigenous interests, if Indigenous sexuality necessitates the eradication of the state.
There’s also a big history of appropriation of sex and sexuality by queer people as well. For example, Qwo-Li Driskill has a paper about the history of queer settlers claiming Indigenous terms, or using Indigenous sexuality as a way of saying, “Look: we’re natural.” But in that move, you’re equating Indigenous people with a settler idea of nature: that’s racist. A lot of queer activism actually does violence to Indigenous groups. If we actually want an emancipatory queer science, we need to know where the similarities and where the incommensurabilities lie.
EE: Something that we’ve talked about, both in our queer reading group and our lab is thinking about the bodies and the lives where our knowledge production is coming from. For example, the queer reading group itself probably would have not come to be if we hadn’t had so many queer people in our lab. And one of the reasons i think we have such a focus on anticolonial practices and Indigenous studies in our lab is because of [lab director] Dr. Max Liboiron. We show a lot of gratitude toward Dr. Liboiron for sort of making us focus on that. It also means that we talk a lot about land in our discussions, and we try to make our practices place-based as well.
LS: What does it mean for a discussion to be place-based?
EE: Something that we think of as a colonial practice is when blanket concepts or ideas are taken from one place, like a center, and applied to a piece of land or place where it doesn’t necessarily fit. We think about doing things that are specific to our location in Newfoundland a lot. That even includes using local jargon, or using the best accessible technologies in this area.
In terms of anticolonial practices we’ve incorporated into our reading group, we try not to extrapolate the value from our literature and apply it to our practices. We got a little bit wrapped up in that when we started, I believe. We were trying to extract methodologies that we could apply, make it quick and dirty and get everything we needed, so that we could use that knowledge for our own benefit. But the reading group wound up going a lot longer, which is a good thing because it’s become more of a process we’ve become situated in. Now we’re learning within the reading group rather than taking what’s good from the literature and using it for our own science.
LS: Your group is also in the process of developing a queer science manifesto. How is your group going about that?
EE: Because we try to keep our methods as queer as possible, so far our manifesto-writing has been us getting together at our campus bar and writing blurbs of various shapes and sizes on big pieces of paper with sparkly markers. We want it to be fun and bold, and I think we want to take a lot of time to think about it.
AZ: I think of it as a celebration of what we’ve learned. One of the first readings that we ever did was a queer science manifesto. In it was a lot of general statements, and it made us get amped up; it was a good way of kickstarting the group. Now we’re thinking, “Okay, we’ve been learning a lot of stuff through this group: how can we do something with this?” So we’re writing down different thoughts, different directives, as to what a queer science might look like. A queer science: not all queer sciences. And our queer science is not only informed by our readings, but also our relation with the group.
LS: Alex, you emphasized a queer science rather than some all-encompassing Queer Science. Why do you find that distinction important?
AZ: I think people have been doing queer science for a long time. (laughs) There are queer scientists, and has been queer science in particular ways. Our queer science, which developed in Newfoundland through CLEAR, is probably going to look a lot different than other queer science. So just leaving it open that there can be many queer sciences.
LS: That seems to go back to that idea of place-based discussions that you explained, Elise.
EE: Yeah. It would be violent to dictate what queer science is. I think we understand our limitation as only being able to inform our own practices, rather than telling other people what their practices should be.
AZ: There are things we might do that wouldn’t fit in another place, with another group, in a different type of science. We’re trying to be not so hubristic, which there is a tendency for in science.
LS: Keeping that in mind, what does it mean to do a queer science in coastal Newfoundland?
EE: A lot of our work is based on plastic ingestion in marine animals. Something I’ve thought about is not using bodies necessarily as evidence of harm. So, for example, if an animal eats plastic, is the plastic part of the food web? A queer food web would include plastic if animals eat it. Even though people say it shouldn’t be there—it is.
When we did dissections in the past, we’ve taken note of whether a fish has ova—well, in Newfoundland, we call them britches—or if they have testicles. But sometimes we wonder, “Is it even really necessary to record the sex of an animal?” Those are the kinds of questions we think about in our practice.
AZ: I’ve been thinking about the categories we use in science, such as identifying fish as biomass. What are the politics of thinking of fish as biomass, and the outcomes of what your science does, if that’s the premise that you’re starting from? Also, we’re doing things like having pronoun checLS at lab meetings, recognizing that pronouns change, and building that into the infrastructure of what we’re doing.
EE: When we’re talking about animals, we don’t necessarily always use words like “specimen.” We try to use local terminology. In Newfoundland, we just call fish fish. We won’t call it gadus morhua or even cod: we’ll call it fish. So in our lab we respect the names that have been attached to these creatures rather than trying to override that.
LS: Any additional ideas you want to leave with our readers?
EE: As a biology student, the queer reading group has me thinking about the way we view bodies in science and our perception of harm. The literature we’ve read that’s been most influential to my personal practice really pointed out some really blatant biases in mainstream scientific discourse. These are things that we almost don’t even discuss anymore [in the group] because we’ve taken them as givens: being respectful towards bodies and spaces, not using transphobia as evidence of environmental harm, not distastefully monitoring the activity of queer animals. Queer theory has a lot to teach scientists in the way we rationalize things.
AZ: I want to emphasize that the goal of the group and the lab is to change things. It has an activist objective, which is basically to not reinforce the status quo of science. We’re trying to get changing things we feel are causing harm. A big part of science as well is categorization, and we’re basically saying sometimes categories are harmful, which kind of goes directly against what many of us have learned. Categories aren’t these things that are just there. They’re produced over time by people—and in the sciences, mostly by straight, cis white men—and they do things. I think in my everyday practice I try not to equate “different” with “harmful” or “wrong.” I think this is probably the biggest thing I and others have learned through over eight months of learning together.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length