Screening and writing: Households and (queer) kinship in Covid-19 times

BY ULRIKA DAHL

It is April in the pandemic spring of 2020 and I’m in a Zoom meeting with a screen full of talking heads when the kid comes home at 2 pm. Sweden, with the highest percentage of women in the paid workforce in the EU, has opted against closing schools; it would cause a breakdown in societal services, including care. Yet new health guidelines and symptoms means constant staff shortage and parents ‘who can’ are urged to ‘pick up early’ to lessen the burden on pedagogues. My girlfriend’s daughter, who splits her time between several households, has promptly learned to walk home alone to ours; my workplace. Hearing her enter the flat I leave the ergonomic office chair delivered from the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University for my pandemic homeworking comfort in Stockholm and greet her. Neither her mother nor a 3rd grade teacher, as an academic who usually commutes, I am however both able and encouraged to work from home, while her mother cycles across town to her theatre, in a bleeding cultural sector in lockdown. Now I am responsible for this kid’s ‘quality’ afternoon, while also juggling my own work. When will I write and about what?

Ironically, I seem caught in the central dilemma of Swedish gender equality: balancing career and family, vividly revealing its liberal logic. With our flat as both workspace and confinement, a queer feeling of domestication arises. My clearly very privileged options are to spend time with our kid at the expense of my deadlines, or let her be with her beloved screen while I return to mine. The future effects of our respective growing hours on screen seem as uncertain as those of the ongoing pandemic on the world. The online survey for LGBTQ families I’m in the middle of analysing includes hundreds of responses declaring that having children means ‘everything!’, ‘the meaning of life!’, providing ‘a sense of purpose’ and ‘instant gratification’. How are respondents faring now? Certainly, for those with reproductive choices, social reproduction labour may seem increasingly appealing, a tangible task in a world of uncertainties. Then a message pops up on my screen: a childhood friend calling out for contact. A solo parent of two, living in France and working in a male-dominated field in Switzerland, their family unit has been in lockdown for seven weeks. Armed police walk their streets and monitor interactions, she has no contact with other adults, motivating children while doing her own job is increasingly impossible; she is nearing breakdown. The screen is now everything: kinship, friendship, comfort, education and therapy, for hers and so many families.  And above all, it is a window to a world that cannot agree on how to deal with a global pandemic or come to terms with the hold that the household has on us.

Meanwhile, in the LGBTQ family social media groups I follow for my research, discussions revolve around reproductive futurity. What will happen with fertility treatments? ‘I don’t have 6 months’, one writes, ‘I am going to be too old!’ The idea of a ‘Corona generation’ that was proposed as the happy outcome of heterosexual couples enduring months of lockdown (rather than the much more likely staggering divorce and violence rates) obviously does not ‘include’ the infertile or the queer. Queer futures may be as barren as our past; indeed, with welfare states in economic crisis and increasing heterosexist (femo)nationalism, the futurity of LGBTQ reproduction is far from secured.

The struggles of intimacy and care laid bare by the pandemic are certainly complex. In my own academic context, the effects of growing emphasis on the household on personal careers and movements seems to be a central issue. For many, the pandemic experience is largely inconvenient. Somehow both homonationalist reproductive futurists and many academics seem comfortably removed from the pandemic world at large.

Indeed, life in my academic Northern corner often revolves around pandemic-related affect management among talking heads, as the boundaries between work and leisure, public and private are increasingly mediated by the screen. Alienation grows daily as every meeting and decision involves impossible predictions: a temporary glitch which will soon ‘return to normal’ or new world order? At first it is predictably short-sighted. For some, lockdown and homeworking is no real change; it’s even peaceful and productive. Those who have long been living on the verge of burnout from commuting or too many precarious jobs guiltily confess to a welcome ‘break’ or a blessing in disguise. Many are desperately missing work community, the joy of conference travel, room assembly in teaching. Feminists know the home is a dangerous place for women and thus some argue for the workplace as ‘safer.’

The pandemic seemingly lays painfully bare what is otherwise strangely hidden; namely that our household, kinship and living arrangements, material circumstances and so called ‘private lives’ are vastly different; we are differentially impacted. I can’t seem to ‘screen’ my work priorities in the constant flow of affects and differently situated struggles from kin around the world that reach me through my screen, all revolving around kinship, care and social reproduction and above all, injustice. Just breathe, a colleague says.

There are days when the sense of alienation and confinement, the Zoom-doom tightness in my chest becomes unbearable. My girlfriend comes home and I leave the flat. Gratitude for the freedom of movement fills my lungs as I inhale clean air running through the urban woods, careful to keep social distance. Gratitude that my mother too has had that freedom, and can walk along the beach and go for her swims, alleviates grief and fear around being far apart in a difficult time. She too has been screened and the tumour in her breast removed. Gratitude that her household includes my father, who cooks and cares during months of chemotherapy. Gratitude for that screen; at least I can ‘see’ them there. Proximity and distance imploding.

Catching my breath on the corner, an interviewee walks by, looking upset. She hasn’t had her kids for four weeks. Terrified of contracting the virus, her co-parent has stopped adhering to their ‘moral contract’ outlining joint custody of children that are not ‘shared’ by law or biology. ‘She is using the pandemic to her advantage’, my interviewee, who has shared a story of a nasty break up, tells me, tears streaming down her face. She sees her children for an hour a week in the park, at social distance, the birth-mother claiming fear of Covid on account of her work in healthcare. ‘I wish the government would screen everyone for the virus’, she says. Families are not only held together, they are broken apart, by ideas of the shared household as the unit through which we are to survive and manage the pandemic.

Those of us with chosen queer kin, who over many years have shared resources, feelings, politics and everyday intimacies beyond marriage and procreation, are not readily covered by the bourgeois idea of the ‘household’ or family. The queers in my kin and community are precarious workers, young and/or of colour and almost all are rapidly in material crisis; either because work has dwindled as project culture has stalled or because jobs in service and care do not permit staying or working at home, but rather at risk of both the virus and becoming the scapegoat for its spread. How do we assemble now?

The politics of screening and lockdown have the world holding its breath long before riots erupt and breathing itself become a mass movement. The right to roam about freely without anything more than sunscreen that is now loudly bemoaned by white endowed privilege is hardly universal. Lockdown may be terrifying or productive, felt as protection or surveillance to many right now, but confinement and screening are neither new nor universally experienced. As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum across the world in the summer months, the white-dominated Swedish media responds with surprise; denying the nation’s racist history, the constant surveillance of black and brown bodies, as if this is not something that happens to ‘our’ family members, as if these questions are new. They aren’t.

Summer comes and goes, the pandemic stays. We grow accustomed to social segregation, to staying put in neighbourhoods and homes, to washing hands and wearing masks and avoiding public transport. The pandemic has revealed the riggings of our deeply unequal world, its racist and heterosexist kinship machine of social reproduction. It is not over; now we are increasingly screened and tested, we offer our blood willingly, we download apps to find contagion, risk and resources making us segregate ‘naturally’ more and more. My university re-opens with room as norm and Zoom as exception and the demographics of pandemic vulnerability are reflected on screen and in movement; in who wants to move on and who remains a talking head, dependent on connection. And then, another outbreak.

I keep finding queer hope in knowing that the pandemic world is full of unruly subjects; protesting 500 years of oppression and injustice, getting drunk in parks or laid via Tinder hook ups, being intimate with more bodies than those with whom we share dwellings, willingly or not. These matters are not only worth the risk of health, individual and collective, they are the very condition of survival, the production of meaning and care. Coalition-building, Bernice Reagon Johnson (1883, p.359) teaches us, in a text that begins in difficulties with breathing, cannot be built ‘at home’, it is not a ‘womb’; it has to be built in the streets, it doesn’t always feel comfortable or good; it takes risk. And we can still do wonderful things in a crisis, she says.

Navigating enduring risk, we are both going native in screen culture and finding new forms of promiscuous gathering. We can approach the pandemic through ‘thinking with’ (Bellacasa 2012) a collective of differently situated knowledge-makers and continue to make kin and not babies. Beyond the household worlds and the worlds we care for, are worlds we cannot escape, worlds made up of relations and politics, struggle and joy. We continue to find creative ways to share strategies and resources, across vast distances and differentiated vulnerabilities, to think together about what can be done while our public spaces, clubs and bars are evacuated and empty. We continue to learn new forms of way-warding (Hartman 2019); by breathing, running, assembling, and sharing art and music both through and beyond the screen. We are living in the wake (Sharpe 2016), writing and making do in a world where the legacies that brought us here can no longer be ignored; we have to learn to live otherwise.

‘How was your day, did you write a lot?’ asks the brown-eyed 4th grader as she comes home again to find me pale after an especially exhausting day of screening. I put on a fresh coat of red lipstick and we take a walk through the park, breathing in the autumn air. Smiling at me she says: ‘Did you know that leaves turn red because the trees’ roots need the nutrients in chlorophyll to last through winter?’ I smile and thank her for reminding me. Despite all my screen time, I am not writing much these days, too concerned perhaps with making the nutrients of queer hope last through what might be a very long winter.

Ulrika Dahl is Professor in Gender Studies at the Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University. With a passion for creative writing methodologies, Ulrika has written on gender equality, femmes and queer femininities, whiteness and Nordic academic feminism, sexism, and on the affective politics of queer kinship and reproduction through critical race and whiteness perspectives. Among Ulrika’s publications are Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer femininities (2008, with Del LaGrace Volcano), Skamgrepp: Femme-inistiska essäer (2014) and The Geopolitics of Russian and Nordic Gender Research (2016, with Ulla Manns and Marianne Liljeström) as well as articles in Feminist Theory, New Formations, Somatechnics, Sexualities, lambda nordica and other journals. In Uppsala, Ulrika is also director of the PhD programme in gender studies, coordinator of the queer research group and an interdisciplinary research network entitled ‘Nature as Culture: The (re)production of common sense’ and an affiliated researcher at the Centre for Multidisciplinary research on racism. Currently she is working on a book project in Swedish and starting a new research project entitled Scandinavian border crossings: Race and nation in queer assisted reproduction, together with Rikke Andreassen.  

References

de la Bellacasa, María Puig. 2012. ‘Nothing comes without its world’: thinking with care. The Sociological Review, 60(2), pp.197-216.

Hartman, Saidya. 2019. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. London: Profile Books.

Johnson, Bernice Reagon. 1983. Coalition politics: turning the century. In BarbaraSmith, ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York: Kitchen Table Press, pp.343-356.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.

Main image: autumn woods by Valiphotos (on pixabay.com)

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