Making it Better for Queer Youth: Troubling (Neo) liberal Rhetorics of Visibility and Empowerment

Knoll, Kristina. Feminist Disability Studies: Theoretical Debates, Activism, Identity Politics, & Coalition Building 73.12 (2013): Dissertation Abstracts International, A: The Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol.73(12). Web.

This dissertation explores the discourse of queer youth as it has emerged as a distinct identity category in the U.S. from the late 1980's onwards. During this time, queer young people have come to be treated as a unique population and, particularly, as an "at-risk" population demanding study and intervention across the Social Sciences (e.g. in Psychology, Social Work and Education) as well as outside academia, most notably in the media. Similar to discourses about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people (LGBTQ) generally, the discourse of queer youth has been profoundly shaped by a cultural politics structured through the metaphor of invisibility. My focus in this project is to look specifically at discourses of visibility as empowerment in order to better understand how the identities of LGBTQ youth are being defined within contemporary dominant discourses in the U.S.A. Given the higher incidence of suicide among LGBTQ young people, the dominant discourses in academia and media most commonly engage rhetorics of empowerment aimed at supporting and even `saving' queer youth. While sharing these goals, I argue that the rhetorics of visibility and empowerment presented to young people are troubling in their use of narrow versions of American liberal individualism that are often indistinct from, and/or aligned with, neoliberal ideologies that render invisible the material social differences and inequalities that shape the lives of many young people. In pursuing this critique, I examine the discourse of queer youth in three specific discourse domains. First, I examine the epistemological frameworks in the discourse in the emerging field of Social Science research on queer youth over the last 30 years. Second, in the first of two case studies, I examine the rhetorics of empowerment in three large-scale media projects aimed at queer young people in the U.S.A. over the last fifteen years: XY, Young Gay American (YGA), and the It Gets Better project. Lastly, in a second case study I turn to photovoice, a community-based participatory research method in which I ask how, if given the tools, would queer young people visualize themselves and their communities.

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