For October’s Face to Face with Faculty, we met up with Michael Nebeling Petersen Ph.D., DIS faculty for LGBTQ in Europe, our new core course for the Gender & Sexuality Studies program starting in fall 2014.
Michael, who wrote his dissertation on the dominant discourses about gay and lesbian rights and the nation in Danish parliamentary proceedings, in national medias, and cinema, is also an editorial board member of the Danish Gender Studies Journal ‘Kvinder, Køn & Forskning’ (Women, Gender, and Research), as well as the activist site QueerKratf (Queer Power).
DIS: You hold a Ph.D. from the Center for Gender Studies, University of Copenhagen and an M.A. in Gender Studies and Scandinavian Studies and Linguistics – what first drew you to this academic area and what are the most interesting aspects for you as an academic?
Michael Petersen, Ph.D: I was that kind of student who didn’t know what or why I wanted to study. So I was around quite a lot of different academic areas before ending up in Gender Studies. And in many ways it changed the way I thought the world, and the way I understood myself.
That was what I really liked about gender studies and what still attracts me: This ongoing endeavor to understand how we become to be who we are and how this is structured in the social world. In this way, studying LGBTQ culture, identities, and politics can function as a prism to understand the structures and functions of the broader social world. And indeed tell us something about what a Danish queer activist calls the “straight world order”.
DIS: How does studying LGBTQ issues and history differ in Scandinavia to the U.S.?
MP: A lot of the theories and studies in surrounding LGBTQ studies derive from the U.S. The difference is the context. Feminist and queer thought has had a different history in the welfare states in Scandinavia than it has had in the U.S. – but still there are many overlaps.
Gender studies is about seeing the small person in the big social picture. Changing the social perspective – when you come to Denmark to study – is a great way of questioning the things we rarely question. Because gender and sexuality is different in Denmark compared to the U.S., and so much alike at the same time.
DIS: What new knowledge and viewpoints on cultural, social, and political aspects of LGBTQ would you wish your students to leave Copenhagen with?
MP: That the normal isn’t the most common. Rather normality is a product of social mechanisms of in- and exclusion, thus creating the ideas of normality and abnormality: that the world is much queerer than we see at first. And how wonderful that is!
But I also hope the students get an understanding of how different social and cultural worlds shape our notions of gender, sexuality, and identity.
MP: Many students arrive to Copenhagen thinking that Scandinavia is this LGBTQ paradise. And I guess a lot of students have to adjust that image when living here.
Sure Copenhagen and Scandinavia is a great place to live as a LGBTQ person compared to many places in the U.S. And the national politics are quite different in many key areas. But the norms are just as strict in Denmark as in the U.S. They’re just different.
Students get to see how the welfare system shapes notions of gender and sexuality differently here than in the U.S. system; both in a more inclusive way, but indeed also in more strict and narrow ways.
DIS: Why does Berlin make such an interesting city for students to go to on study tour and what kind of visits do they go on?
MP: Berlin is just great! Everyone should go to feel the vibe of the poor, but sexy city. The queer communities in Berlin are the biggest in Europe: The LGBTQ bars and spaces are countless. And the queer history of Berlin is very interesting.
Prior to the rise of Nazism and World War II, Berlin was the queer capital of Europe. Apart from attracting LGBT people from all over Europe to the wonderful and sinful cabarets and shady bars in Berlin, the first sexual sciences were centered in Berlin. Unfortunately it all was literally burned during the Nazi regime. In the Cold War era if you moved to West Berlin you were excused military service and you could get social benefits and didn’t have to work. This of course attracted a lot of queer people who wanted to avoid military service, and who couldn’t get a job, or who didn’t want a job. This created a significant queer underground in West Berlin comprising artists, drags, party kids, and so on.
Berlin after the German reunification is poor, making living and housing very cheap. And in this way the city still attracts artists and queers from all over Europe, who can enjoy the relatively cheap and open venues and spaces for not much money. During our visit to Berlin we visit a lot of these spaces: bars, art spaces, drag shows, and so forth. But we also spend time examining the queer history of the city, visiting queer of color organizations, and meeting queer activists and scholars living and working in the queer hub of Europe.
DIS: Tell us a little about your work you do in queer communities away from DIS?
MP: I do quite a lot of work in the queer communities in Copenhagen. For instance, I’m part of the site QueerKraft, which publishes queer texts and art of different kinds. But I spend most of my time working with an organization called LGBT Asylum. It’s a small group of Danish citizens and asylum applicants from all over the world, and we get together and help each other in the difficult process of getting asylum. I love that group. I meet so many different people from all over the world, from whom I learn about the different lives and problems of LGBTQ people in different places and continents.