This year, I had the honour and the privilege of receiving this award via Zoom. This event was live-streamed via Facebook Live.
Here’s the short bio they read:
“Originally from Colombia, Dr Sebastian Cordoba graduated from CSULB with a BA in Human Development in 2011. After spending two years in South Korea and Japan where he taught English as a second language, he completed an MA in General Psychology at The City College of New York. In 2016, Dr Cordoba moved to the UK to pursue a PhD in Psychology from De Montfort University, which he recently completed (March 2020). Dr Cordoba is an adjunct lecturer at The City College of New York where he has taught Psychology of Gender and Sexuality, Adolescence and Youth, Lifespan Development, and Applied Statistics.“
It’s been three weeks since I defended my PhD dissertation (which is insane!), and over five weeks since I started practicing social distancing. It was difficult to figure out these dates, as I have no sense of time or space anymore. Covid-19 has changed my life – our lives – dramatically, disrupting normalcy and creating a “new normal” for us all. Adapting to these changes is difficult, but not impossible. And I believe that queer (LGBTQ+) people are a clear testament of the human capacity to adapt, re-emerge, and re-conceptualise the idea of “normal.”
I first read about coronavirus in January, when multiple stories about it were emerging, and reports (and videos!) of people dying were circulating on Twitter. Admittedly, I became obsessed with it, checking the statistics and the latest reports on the virus multiple times a day. It became clear to me that this coronavirus was dangerous, and I began to have panic attacks about the possibility of it affecting all of us – our families, finances, economies, food security, etc. I was also scared I was going to get sick before one of the most important days of my life (my viva), so I quarantined weeks before it was official in the UK. I didn’t get sick (though I’m still scared). But several of my friends in New York and London did. They’re all okay, luckily, as they’re young and generally very healthy people. But the possibility that one of my family members, close friends, or colleagues will eventually get it is terrifying.
I began to feel frustrated, angry, depressed, and hopeless as I saw governments’ (lack of) response to the imminent pandemic. I was – and still am – grieving. I started posting any type of useful – and verified – information I found on social media, and I called my family almost daily to share information about hand-washing, how to use masks correctly, flattening the curve, easy recipes, “getting ready,” etc. I did all this, I think, to re-gain a sense of control over this situation.
Life has changed for me – and for everyone – in many ways. And I’m learning to let go of control – to go with the flow and to queer this situation. All of my plans and some of my aspirations for this year have been postponed or put on hold. I was meant to get married to my partner this summer in Spain. I not only wanted to marry the love of my life this summer, but I also wanted to see – in person – most of my closest friends and family members at the wedding. We were also planning to go to Korea and Japan for our honeymoon, as we met in Korea and we spent – and lived together for – the first five months of our relationship in Japan. I also aspired to get a job in academia this year but, as of today, I have received three rejection letters stating that they are no longer hiring because of Covid-19. It is now clear to me that this might not happen this year, unless I experience an extraordinary stroke of luck. My 2020 vision is not going according to plan and I’m losing control. But this is not the first time. As a queer person, I have felt this before – the feeling that things are not normal, the sense of isolation and rejection, and the sense of hopelessness that can only be “cured” by reimagining the possibilities of desire, intimacy, disruption, and acceptance – by losing and regaining control.
Over the last month I have learned many lessons – I think we all have. But I have been thinking about the concept of disruption and how it parallels with queer existence. I learned that humans are delicate. Our mere existence, as we know it, is governed by a multitude of abstract and material elements: money, mobility, intimacy, electricity, desires, satisfaction (psychological and physical), hormones, fluids, consumption, freedom, etc. However, when one of these concepts gets severely disrupted, it has the capacity to create a domino effect which can also severely disrupt some of the other elements. When this occurs, it is normal to feel despair, hopelessness, and confusion. Our mere existence shatters; our sense of purpose extinguishes; and our emotions become intricate and volatile.
Humans are highly adaptable beings, however. We have the capacity to reconceptualise, reimagine, recreate, renew, and reorganise. Brain plasticity is real, but these neurological pathways do not emerge overnight. Societies do not rebuild themselves in a matter of days either. And when they do, they never resemble the old – so the new landscape becomes the “new normal.” We are full of productive capacities, and the way that we have, as a society, coped with the pandemic – while imperfect – is a testament of our ability to reimagine of possibilities. We are reimagining work, exercise, sex, kinship, goals, economies, fluids, air, transport, language, fashion, politics, etc.
Queer people have been doing this for millennia: reimagining these abstract and material elements and creating new spaces where our existence is possible. Due to our various gender and sexual identities, expressions, desires, and practices, many of us have been isolated from our families, churches, occupations, and public spaces for a long time. This has meant that we are more likely to be unemployed, to use drugs, to have anxiety and depression, and to be victims of hate crime. However, home with our chosen families (roommates, partners, pets, queerspawn, etc.) or alone are safe havens for us – they always have been. The streets have rarely been safe for us, and they continue to be unsafe. Despite these disruptions, this sense of alienation and victimisation has allowed us to create new spaces, desires, power dynamics, bodies, communities, systems, linguistic codes, theories, aesthetics, complexities, pride, resistance, action, etc. that we can call our own. Queer people have recreated and reimagined these possibilities, drawing from our anguish, our gayness, our desire to feel. We are accustomed to disruption. Our mere existence has disrupted – and continues to disrupt – normalcy and unmarked normativities. Now, amid a pandemic, it’s our time to continue reimagining these possibilities – to let go of control and to queer our existence.
I am thrilled to announce that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I have *passed my doctoral thesis defence (or viva voce as it is known in the UK)! My research, which explored the experiences of non-binary people and their language usage, was deemed of high academic standard and I am now Dr Cordoba. I have a PhD in psychology!
It was an honour to be examined by Dr Meg-John Barker, one of the leading researchers/activists/writers in non-binary issues in the UK, and Dr Iain Williamson, a critical health psychologist at DMU who has researched health inequalities among marginalised communities (including LBGTQ+ populations). The viva was chaired by Professor Julie Fish, chair in Social Work & Health Inequalities and Director of the Centre for LGBTQ+ Research at DMU. My first supervisor Dr Zowie Davy, who is a leading scholar in trans studies, was also present, providing an enormous amount of emotional support by smiling and nodding.
Because of the current pandemic, my viva was held via Google Hangouts. I actually did not mind this, as I had most of my supervision meetings happened via Skype and I wrote most of my dissertation at home using the same desk, laptop, monitor, pens, etc. that I used during my viva. So I figured that this would actually be beneficial for me in terms of recalling my thesis, as state-dependent learning would play to my favor. It did.
The viva experience itself was much better than I expected. The examiners began by providing me with all of their positive feedback, describing in great detail the parts of the thesis they enjoyed: Its quality, its abundant philosophical underpinnings, its readability despite its complexity, and – most importantly – its clear contribution to knowledge. This of course made me very happy and I couldn’t stop smiling! Yet, this last point (the contribution to knowledge) almost made me cry tears of joy, as this is the whole point of a PhD: To say something novel about a subject matter in terms of theory, methods, findings, and/or practical applications. In some ways, that was the most perfect outcome, as I had struggled with impostor syndrome for most of my PhD, even up to submission.
I held back my tears and began accepting questions. Dr Williamson began by asking me about action research, a term I used in the first few chapters of in my dissertation but did not mention in my discussion. I explained the practical applications of my thesis: Its general importance to the LGBTQ+ community, to service providers, and to policy makers. And my intent to involve my research participants in the research process as much as possible.
He followed this question with my use of the term microaggressions, another concept I used sporadically but did not bring back into the discussion. I explained how the term was applicable to my research findings, particularly as some participants described their experiences of being misgendered using metaphors like receiving “a thousand paper cuts.” I discussed the ways in which language can have the capacity to generate distress and how this language-related distress can accumulate over time, as these microaggressions occur, and as demonstrated by my analysis.
Dr Barker then asked me about insider/outsider research and how this concept played out in my research. I explained that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, it was important for me to disclose my identity to my participants before asking them to do the same. For instance, during the interviews, I acknowledged the power imbalances that existed between me (the researcher) and them (the participants) by being upfront about my privileges: My education, cisgenderness, white-passing privilege, and being a psychologist, a field that many trans and non-binary people distrust due to its complicated history (read: pathologising). But also my insider position as a minority: A gay immigrant from Colombia, as well as low-income student trying to make it in London.
Some other questions were asked, but I honestly don’t recall them all. The viva took 2 hours. I left the Google Hangouts room and chatted with Dr Davy via Skype for about 10 minutes. I was then called back into the Google Hangouts room. The decision was reached almost immediately.
*I passed my viva (with minor corrections)! They decided that my answers were satisfactory and delivered clearly and effectively, as if I knew exactly what they were going to ask me. I didn’t – but I did prepare for weeks! I was asked to write a page or two about the practical applications of my thesis, using some of the aforementioned concepts. Also, of course, to fix some typos (which is normal), as well as noting where some participants’ quotes came from (either interviews or short writings). These were the ‘minor correction’ – easily achievable! 🙂
I celebrated with my supervisor and my partner via Skype right after, and then I told my entire family and closest friends. We laughed and cried, and I was very happy to bring some good news to all of them amid this global crisis. My sister actually wrote a lovely story about my success on her LinkedIn blog (rough translation here).
I’m extremely happy with this outcome and I am honestly so impressed with myself for having completed a dissertation that is not only a contribution to knowledge, but that was written in my second language. There was a time (when I started my PhD) when I had no doubt that this would happen – I was hyped after having finished my MA in CCNY! However, a great deal of doubt emerged during my PhD. And there was a time (around year two) when I didn’t think I was going to be be able to finish. Anxiety kicked in and I felt lost and confused.
I found that these intrusive thoughts were not without reason. I encountered people who planted doubt in me about my abilities – and who projected their own insecurities onto me. For instance, a fellow psychologist told me that my project was merely ‘purporting to be psychological,’ that it was ‘unscientific’ (and motivated by interest), and that it was not impactful. According to them, this was because I was intending to use qualitative research methods, focussing on the social and linguistic elements of my participants’ experiences. This same individual also told me that they “didn’t believe in privilege” after I explained to them what I meant by my insider/outsider position as a researcher. Clearly, they were blinded by their own privilege. Nevertheless, these experiences negatively impacted me – more than they should have. They made me feel uncertain about my position as a psychologist, the value of my research, and my abilities as a researcher. An incredible sense of dread loomed over me for about a year as a result. I sought CBT therapy, which was extremely useful in helping me identify the source of my anxieties and how to tackle them – not by blaming or projecting, but by taking proactive steps to improve and relishing accomplishments.
I read a funny tweet recently about the reasons people get PhDs. It read: “there are many reasons students decide to pursue a PhD degree. one under-explored reason is revenge.” (Or as Beyoncé poetically phrased it, “the best revenge is your paper.”) I feel that. But that’s not the reason I did my mine. I accomplished a PhD because I had something to prove to myself: That despite adversity, self-doubt, unequal playing fields, and all the “–isms” that are currently ruling/ruining the world, one can always become something else – something better – if one wishes to do so. And I am determined. I have once again regained my strength, my conviction, and a sense of faith in myself.
I am a PhD in psychology and you may call me Dr Cordoba. I look forward to sharing my research and continuing to generate, teach, and share knowledge. Watch this space.
Abstract: This thesis explores the multiple ways in which non-binary people negotiate their identities, their authenticity, and their embodied experiences through language. Twenty-two non-binary-identified people living in the UK were interviewed for this project. Those same participants also provided writing samples which were included in the analysis. Additionally, a 2.9 million-word corpus of non-binary language was analysed using corpus linguistic tools. This thesis theorised gender as something one becomes rather than something one is (Linstead and Pullen, 2006), a relational process through affective intensities which move through the body, society, language, and other material and abstract elements. Drawing from assemblage theory (DeLanda, 2006) and Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) materialist ontology, which acknowledges the multiple (linguistic and material) components that merge at particular points to produce (or assemble) a becoming, I identified the most significant affective intensities which aided in the (de/re)territorialisation of non-binary gender becomings, or the non-binary-assemblage. Furthermore, the theory of linguistic becomings, which refers to the discovery, adoption, (re)assessment, and ongoing social negotiation of gender-related language, was developed in this thesis. The linguistic parameters of non-binary identities were found to be constantly reassessed, redefined, and renegotiated. A variety of material embodiments – and their relationship to language – were also identified, including affective fluidity and neutrality, and dysphoria. This thesis also explores the ways in which non-binary people in the present study navigated the world using non-binary language, the distress that originated from social interactions in which their language was not affirmed (i.e., misgendering), and the various ways in which they managed these situations. Overall, this research found that utilising a distinct type of language – a linguistic becoming – not only served as a tool to differentiate their gender and territorialise their identity, but also as a marker of social identity and group membership, thus allowing their identities to be recognised and more widely validated.