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I think a lot about audience when I write. Who I write for defines the style and purpose of my writing. Walking the line between relevance to academics and legitimacy to activists is an endeavor that can feel like selling out to the very system I’m here to critique.

The first major freelance gig I got was writing about same-sex marriage for Rolling Stone. I drafted the piece in June 2013, surrounded by moving boxes. I was packing up my life in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moving to Boston to begin a doctoral program in the fall. At the same time that I began imagining the possibility of pitching pieces about queer politics to The Nation, Mother Jones and ProPublica, I was beginning a doctoral project, fully funded for the first three years -- a divergent but also exciting path.

After years of writing for free and finally landing some paid freelance writing work, I was determined to continue pitching and writing freelance pieces as a doctoral student. I successfully published a few pieces over the next couple of years about human rights and LGBT politics for a platform with 6.4 million followers on Twitter, feeling that I was reaching people. But how will where I write, along with my audience, change as I work to establish myself as an early-career scholar? This conflict follows me as I work to finish my dissertation this semester and imagine my career ahead.

Writing Like an Academic

I began my dissertation work as a way to challenge the universal heterosexist and cissexist assumptions about women in the peace and security field on a theoretical level after witnessing firsthand how it plays out in civil society and the policy world. Looking at my CV, one might think I’ve taken to academe like a fish to water. I’ve gone to the conferences. I’ve published papers. I just received a well-funded postdoc, and I’m going to write a book. But what are the costs that come with narrowing my focus to build my academic résumé? What are the stories I’m not pitching to popular media platforms because I’m busy writing for peer-reviewed journals, conference abstracts, fellowships and book proposals?

Those questions are on my mind all the time too. I feel a personal and professional schism as a queer activist academic between my work for reproductive justice and queer liberation in a system measured by peer-reviewed citations.

With one foot still in the journalism world, I often listen to Longform, an hourlong podcast where writers are interviewed about their reporting and writing practice. I’m especially fascinated to learn how people who write activist journalism begin and sustain their career. A recent interview kicked up some of my feelings about how to best reach my audience. In one interview, Azmat Khan reflected on her decision to go into journalism rather than higher education: “I found academia to be really hard in terms of the language it uses and some of the ways in which it includes theory.” She told us how she was in grad school studying women’s studies while working on a thesis about gender and development with a focus on gender mainstreaming and relief work. “It was so depressing for me,” she said, “that maybe three people would read it.” I took a deep breath. Khan continued, noting that what she cared about most at the time -- and still does -- was uncovering injustice and holding the powerful to account. “I really wanted to reach people,” she said. After that, I turned off the podcast.

There are times I absolutely agree with Khan that writing for academic spaces is not the best use of my time as a queer feminist, and speaking to the public through journalism instead would be a better path to uncover justice and hold the powerful accountable as a writer. Fortunately, these are not inherently two separate paths, as evidenced by even Khan’s career, which straddles both. Still, Khan’s interview hit on an insecurity I’ve brought into my doctoral work, and sitting with that insecurity has brought me to a number of realizations.

Accountability to Queer People Through and Within Academic Communities

Much of the critical reflection about the white colonial heteroprivilege that continues to drive my feminist research is an inside job; it requires being critical while in conversations with those individuals and institutions granting legitimacy to my work. And it requires always holding on to the words of Audre Lorde and remembering the limitations of ever simply relying on the master’s tools to dismantle the sexism and economic inequality created by the master’s house. Although I often feel like an outsider to many of these institutions, my privileged identity allows me to move as an insider.

I’m an able-bodied white American lesbian woman with experience moving in these spaces I critique. I’ve sat in sessions at the United Nations. I hold degrees from Western universities. I’ve interned with several nonprofits in New York City. I’ve protested in American streets. I’ve escorted patients to the door of Planned Parenthood. These practices give me some insight into ways to listen to, hold people to account and insist on change within such institutions.

My position is a valuable one, or at least a privileged one, when it comes to speaking back to my own institutions. By “my institutions” I mean the higher education institutions that I’ve attended as a student, been invited to as a speaker or been a conference attendee; international NGOs based in the United States where I’ve interned, worked as a contractor or been used as a resource in my writing; and queer and reproductive justice activist organizations where I’ve volunteered, quoted activists and found community personally.

In Queer Indigenous Studies, editors Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley and Scott Lauria Morgensen reflect, “The building of scholarship and activism in academic communities does not foreclose participation in nonacademic communities, nor does it exclude nonacademics from participating in this community. Our political and familiar commitments can lead us to better scholarship and support for our academic work.” They go on to note how this work about belonging to, challenging and transforming one's own community has long been modeled on Indigenous women activists. Relatedly, Sara Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, “When we think of feminist theory as homework, the university too becomes something we work on as well as at. We use our particulars to challenge the universal.” Ahmed writes about how being a feminist means to “stay a student.” Most important, Ahmed echoes the voices of the feminists who inspired me to begin the doctoral program when she writes, “In staying closer to the everyday, feminist theory becomes more accessible.”

This work as a writer within the academic community can take the form of learning that my journal article is being taught in classrooms and that students connect with my insights challenging the gender binary in peace and security work, offering feedback as a native English speaker to someone who does not speak English as a first language, meeting with students who ask me about whether they should go into academe to pursue a research topic, challenging all-white panels, supporting teachers on strike or reading quit lit from my peers. This also often involves working with nonacademic communities to share skills for self-care, mobilizing for change and working intersectionally alongside activists in other struggles.

Today, I know accountability for me as a queer academic writer involves working within and through academic networks to interrogate white privilege, sexism and colonialism. I still feel conflicted about what audience to write for as I near the end of my doctoral program. Yet in my everyday, I’m learning ways to break out of the academic narrowing of self and scholarship as an activist writing about justice.

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