Queer and Urban Reflections on St. Petersburg BUKA Alumni Meeting

The following is a post I recently shared with the American Friends of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation blog in reflection to the German Chancellor Fellow / Bundeskanzler-Stipendium (BUKA) Alumni Meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in November 2014.

I doubt I can express how honored, nervous, and excited I was to attend the BUKA Meeting in St. Petersburg this fall. However, as a BUKA, I persist.

The sense of honor came from having been selected as an American representative at the Russian gathering. I admire a lot of the research emerging in the Russian social sciences, a passion that developed through my conversations as a BUKA with Dr. Olga Sveshnikova, Visiting Scholar in the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. Her work examines the culture of Soviet-era anthropological digs as a production of Soviet myth and history. Sveshnikova’s project always fascinated me and left me wanting to know more of how our countries’ social science methods and approaches to research vary, overlap, and why. The chance to get to share my work with so many scholars, researchers, and other professionals I admire was incredibly innovating. My trip was a fantastic opportunity to reconnect to Russian BUKA colleagues, new Russian AvH colleagues, and the American and Chinese colleagues I had known from other meetings.

As for the righteous nervousness, I am outwardly queer and transgender, and my research focuses on processes of urbanization in New York City and Berlin as they relate to gender and sexuality, namely lesbians and queer women. Given Russia’s recent policies of labeling any conversations about homosexuality with persons under the age of 18 as “propaganda,” I felt unsure if this was the best time to present my research there. However, Prof. Dr. Tatjana Nikitina, Lecturer at the Department of Banking and Finance and Director of the German-Russian Centre at the Saint Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance, and my other Russian colleagues could not even imagine why this was a concern, revealing the giant gap between the way Russia is portrayed in US media and the actual everyday experience of her educated citizens. With the law still on the books, I also felt called to go to intercede, even in academic way, in speaking about the political and economic disadvantages experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. Although the apprehension persisted, my actual experience was just as my colleagues predicted. Many of my LGBTQ brothers, sisters, and humans are suffering from these sorts of laws, especially youth. That I and my research were (unsurprisingly) treated with the utmost respect offers me hope.

As for the excitement, how could one not be excited? I focused my talk on the processes of gentrification and financialization making most cities around the world ever the more expensive and unaffordable to the masses. Always a great source of delight, BUKA colleagues in finance cornered me with vodka throughout my visit to debate and discuss just as much as the academics. The significant number of insightful talks during the conference on public space and youth spaces related to my most recent book, The People, Place, and Space Reader. It was wonderful to create connections with scholars, designers, and financial experts and also to connect them to experts I know in New York City to expand our most excellent AvH networks. The trip to the ballet and the Presidential Library were cultural moments that helped me, again, glean more about Russian as well as American ways of thinking, identifying, and producing culture and nation. Every trip abroad in the company of my Humboldt colleagues helps to broaden and link my own work which focuses on tracing processes of uneven development between the scales of the urban and the nation-state. I am incredibly grateful to Dr. Tatjana Nikitina and the AvH for the invitation. I remain impressed by the work and innovation involved in bringing this gathering to life, and I look forward to seeing so many of these incredible souls in Washington, D.C. soon.