Defining Moments: Graduating Ph.D. Student Focuses Research on City-Dwelling, Black, LGBT Youth

Equipped with the standard elevator pitch – “Hi, my name is Stephen Bernardini, I am a doctoral student at Rutgers University–Camden…,” to many at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth center, he was known simply as “Steve.”

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Stephen Bernardini

You know, Steve; he was the one taking part in all the group activities – writing autobiographies and poetry, participating in drag and voguing, or putting on an improv comedy skit – and attending the many information sessions on topics ranging from job readiness to establishing one’s identity.

And when it came time to document his findings, Steve looked more like he was feverishly texting away rather than documenting all that had seen and done.

“I did get some strange stares when people first heard what I was doing,” recalls the graduating Ph.D. student in childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden. “But more times than not, people confirmed, ‘Glad to meet you, you’re in the right place.’”

Over the course of two years, Bernardini spent six to seven hours a day conducting an ethnographic study exploring the everyday experiences, problems, and strengths of black, LGBT youth as they navigated and negotiated race, gender, and sexuality norms.

As he recalls, through his graduate work, he found time and again that very few research studies focusing on urban, black youth centered on LGBT youth.

What’s more, Bernardini noticed, very little attention had been given to the underlying, constellation of norms that attempt to force these youth to conform to mainstream values.

“These forces can be particularly damaging to black, LGBT youth, who, as you might imagine, are already being oppressed on multiple levels by multiple power mechanisms,” says Bernardini, a Sicklerville resident who grew up in nearby Blackwood. “So how do these youth undermine or respond to them?”

As Bernardini explains, the study brings together urban ethnographic studies of youth and “queer theory” – “queer” referring to both the derisive slang term for gender and sexual nonconformists, as well as the definition of meaning odd, atypical, or unconventional.

“I wanted to see how black, queer youth elaborate or destabilize these race, gender, and sexuality norms,” says Bernardini, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in childhood studies from Rutgers–Camden in 2009.

Among his findings, the Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. student determined that there is a collusion between black and queer respectability politics, which pivots on dominant constructions of youth often associated with whiteness and heterosexuality.

With these rules of acceptability constantly operating in the background, the youth – already positioned as living outside the mainstream – have developed their own diverse lexicon of pronouns to self-identify their gender and sexual orientation. For example, the pronouns “bad bitch” or “Beyonce” were used to refer to a working girl who holds a good job and/or knows how to protect a relationship if need be.

“In this space, this practice opens up a chance to reinvent atypical names for what you want to be called or what you call you others,” explains Bernardini. “It’s an opportunity that they are not afforded through the course of their everyday lives in institutions or on the streets, where they are often forced into groups or identifications that are not their own.”

Bernardini also observed how race and space played a significant role in establishing one’s identity, particularly with the ways in which black, transgender and queer youth navigate their “street faces” – in accordance with the understood “code of the street” – differently than their non-transgender and nonqueer peers. He notes that, because these youth are interacting in their schools, neighborhoods, and other social groups, there is a complication of presenting their own versions of masculinity or femininity that isn’t “coded” by their nonqueer and non-transgender peers.

“These transgender or gender nonconformists are trying to stake their claim to their gender expression and sometimes these encounters can turn violent,” says Bernardini. “Those commonsensical, everyday moments of gender expression that we might take for granted become very intense encounters in these young peoples’ lives.”

The graduating Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. student argues in his research that, in these moments often defined by stigma and violence, there is an opportunity for these interactions to become generative and enable LGBT politics to become more part of the general discourse.

“These encounters can become emotionally charged, teachable moments, not only for these queer and nonqueer-identifying individuals, but for a greater discussion showing how predominant norms of race and space are really orienting these ideas of gender and sexuality,” he says.

Bernardini also discovered how the lives of these black, LGBT youth are heavily mediated by digital technology. With wide access to various apps and electronic devices, these technologies were used to foster a sense of community as they navigated the city. Several LGBT social networking applications – commonly viewed as “hookup sites” – reveal the locations and proximities of other users, creating a virtual street and revealing implied intentions.

“You can see individuals or clusters of individuals in particular areas,” explains Bernardini. “You can also see in real time if individuals were getting closer or further away, revealing implied intentionality. By understanding how these youth use and adapt these applications, we get a fuller portrait of what is going on in their social lives.”

Bernardini emphasizes that his work is just “one study, one story,” but hopes that he is demonstrating the type of ethnographic research that can be done to hear the firsthand accounts and perspectives of black, LGBT youth as they navigate issues and intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.

“These are questions that have been floating around for some time,” says Bernardini. ‘It is my hope that the voices of these youth will continue to be heard.”

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