This post is dedicated to all messy queers and other subjects in disarray. We recognise each other from the mess we make; we don’t try to tie up each other’s loose ends. This post is for all those who have been judged as having “made a mess of things” because of what they have tried to do, or tried not to do, not to accept things as they are, not to accept an existing arrangement.
It will take me some time to explain my title, how a mess can be a queer map, but I’ll get there.
Doing research on complaint felt like becoming attuned to mess. As I noted in my previous post, when I first imagined researching people’s experiences of complaint, I thought I would be doing semi-structured interviews. I realised rather quickly that complaints were “too messy,” even for a loose set of questions. What do we learn from the messiness of complaint? And what do we learn from the “too” of “too messy,” from how the messiness of complaint tends to exceed our frames for dealing with it?
On paper, complaints might not appear messy. Consider that complaints procedures are often represented as flow charts, with lines and arrows indicating paths that give the would-be complainer a clear route through.
Things are not always as they seem.
Things are not always as they appear on paper.
I talked to an administrator about her experience of supporting students through the complaints process. She talked me through the process:
So, your first stage would require the complainant to try and resolve it informally, which is really difficult in some situations and which is where it might get stuck in a department…And so it takes a really tenacious complaining student to say, no, I am being blocked…. If something bad has happened, and you are not feeling that way inclined, you can understand why a student would not have the tenacity to make sure that happens, and to advocate for themselves. They might go to the student union, and the student union is really bogged down. So, you can imagine that something on paper that looks very linear is actually very circular a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem, students get discouraged and get demoralised and feel hard done by, and nothing’s getting resolved and then they are in a murky place and they can’t get out.
On paper, a complaint can appear linear. In reality, a complaint is often more circular (round and round rather than in and out). If a procedure exists in order to clear a path, that path can be blocked at any point. Blockages can occur through conversations. When a lecturer went to human resources to make an informal complaint she was told that they were “too busy” to deal with it. Or if, as this administrator describes, a student goes to the students’ union and the students’ union is “really bogged down,” the complaint will end up bogged down. A complaint can be stuck in the mud, so to speak, muddy as well as messy.
You can be stuck by the very nature of the terrain. What it takes to get a complaint moving or to get a complaint through (such as “confidence” and “tenacity”) might be what is eroded by the experiences that led to a complaint (“something bad has happened,” “not feeling that way inclined”). The experiences you need to complain about are the same experiences that make it difficult to keep a complaint going.
A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way. Complaints then are rarely experienced as a flow. If we were to picture a complaint, it might be less of a flow chart and rather more like this: it’s a mess, what a tangle.
You can enter the complaint process but not be able to work out how to get out (“they are in a murky place and they can’t get out”). Each line is a tangle, each path, leads to another path, you end up criss-crossing, going backwards, forwards, around and about.
Those cross-crossing lines can be wires; there are so many crossed wires, all that mess, all that confusion. If to make a complaint is to make the same complaint to many different people, those people are not necessarily talking to each other. One student who made a complaint about transphobic harassment from their supervisor described how they ended up having to administer their own complaint process: “I am the one who has to arrange all this information and send it to different people because they are just not talking to each other. I had to file the forms in order to get the human resources records; I had to do all the Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. It was on me to do all of this work, which raises the question of why have human resources officers at all because I am literally doing their job. And I am the one who made the complaint and I have all the emotional damage around that to deal with.” The person who makes the complaint – who is often already experiencing the trauma or stress of the situation they are complaining about – ends up having to direct an unwieldy process, becoming a conduit; they have to hold all the information in order that it can be circulated, they have to keep things moving. We sense a difficulty here given that many of the experiences that lead to complaint can make it hard to hold yourself together let alone direct an unwieldy process.
You have to keep making the same points to different people. An early career academic describes: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is all being logged. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” You end up duplicating the same points to multiple parties because there are no clear lines of communication between those parties. A complaint can be experienced as the requirement to labour over the same points, which are already sore points, points that can become even sorer because of the need to keep making them. And where does a complaint end up? All of those documents many of which replicate other documents, end up in the same file (“it’s just a file, actually”).
When you make a complaint, you write papers that have to go all over the place. Where papers go, you have been; a complaint can be how you end up all over the place. All those different paths you follow lead to the same destination; all the materials you created or collected end up in the same file. I talked to another student about her experience of making complaints. She had also worked as an administrator supporting students in making complaints so she had experience of the process from different angles. She describes: “It’s messy and it’s cyclical: you file the complaint this process happens, which can cause another complaint.” Complaints can lead to more complaints because of how complaints are handled. One student who made a complaint about sexual harassment from another student was told by a member of human resources: “I need to tell you this, the only way you can go with this now; you can’t put in a complaint about a student…. The only complaint you can put in is if you complain against the university, against the way that this has been dealt with.” Being directed to make a complaint about the complaint can be how the original complaint is dropped. You end up on another route, which does seem circular, round and round, round and about, complaints end up referring to other complaints; you have to keep dealing with what is not being dealt with; yes, once you start the process, it is hard to get out.
The straight lines of a complaint procedure can be how complaints appear. But what appears is often not what the person who makes the complaint experiences, which also means that the person who makes the complaint experiences what does not appear.
A mess can be what does not appear. Or perhaps the effects of that messy process, which are themselves messy, do appear. And then it can seem that the complainer is the one who made a mess of things; that the mess is you.
Perhaps procedures are not just what exist on paper, they paper over what exists. Complaints procedures can be used rather like diversity: as a way of not addressing a problem by appearing to do so. My book Complaint! is profoundly indebted to the work of Black feminists and feminists of colour such as M. Jacqui Alexander, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Heidi Mirza who have offered critiques of what diversity does not do.
Diversity can paper over racism. Paper matters. To make a complaint is often to make use of papers. An academic describes, “In every one of my complaints I used the policies that were given to us by the university.” To make use of policies in a complaint is often to point to their failure to be followed. Having evidence of the failure of policies to be followed does not guarantee the success of a complaint. She described policy as a trip wire: “That was my experience of the complaint process. As an employer of the university, the minute you try to enact policy that you are told when you are hired to be the vanguards of, to protect the quality of education and work at the university, that in effect it is a trip wire, and that in effect you become the person to be investigated. These policies are not meant.” When you try and use a policy to do what it was meant to do, your action sends out an alarm or an alert. To make a complaint is to find out what policies are not meant. You are stopped from using the policy rather like a trespasser is stopped from entering the building. If a usage becomes an alarm, you are being told, you are not supposed to do that, you are not supposed to be here. You are stopped by becoming “the person to be investigated.”
It is worth reflecting more on how we learn about institutions from what policies do not do. She describes further: “I was told it was now a formal process. I had to look at all the policies. I found there was this fog. It was constant. Every time I found clarity – isn’t it supposed to happen in accordance with policy blah blah-blah – this has been around ten years, isn’t this supposed to happen, and they would be like no.” To be told “no” is to be told that however long a policy has been around it is not going to determine what happens. Even when a policy makes something clear (“every time I found clarity”) you end up in a fog: messy; muddy; foggy. Nothing is clear. A complaint can thus queer your relation to the institution, and I mean queer in the older sense of the word, queer as strange or wonky. Words that are everywhere in my data are odd, bizarre, weird, strange, and disorientating.
To enter an administrative process, interestingly, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, can be the start of a rather queer experience: trying to assemble the papers in the right way can lead to odd things happening. One lecturer described what happened during his complaint about discrimination in a promotion case. He noted how documents would suddenly appear in files that had not been there before: “the lawyers had said in my file I had all these negative annual reviews. I thought that was weird as I had no negative reviews.” I have collected many stories of documents that mysteriously appear or disappear from files. The words we use to describe something tell us about something. He described his experience thus: “I would bend towards the surreal. The situations have been so bizarre. I want to believe there is some research value in that because it is so strange.”
I agree: there is research value in documenting what is bizarre and strange. The strangeness of complaint manifests in so many ways, there are so many loose ends, nothing seems to add up or line up. I remember from my own experience how disorientating the experience of complaint can be: you have to keep switching dimensions; you are having all these conversations, so many meetings, meetings after meetings, but most people you are working with don’t even know about what is going on. And you have to keep going back to your other job, your day job, different kinds of meetings; and that world, which is supposed to be the real world, the upright, brightly-lit world, feels increasingly unreal; topsy-turvy; upside down.
If complaints can be what you end up doing, where you end up going, the lack of clarity of the process becomes the world you inhabit: nothing seems to make sense; you can’t make sense of it. One early career lecturer who complained after being harassed by a professor in her department describes:
It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative. I think that’s the power that institutional abuse has on you.
Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in somebody else’s story; what happens to you is dependent on decisions that are made without your knowledge or consent. This is why making a complaint about harassment can often feel like being harassed all over again, becoming subjected, again, to another’s will. You know that what is happening is not what is supposed to be happening, but you still don’t know what is happening. I think again of our messy picture. Perhaps those lines are not just paths, or wires; perhaps they are strings. When you make a complaint, you can feel like something or someone is pulling the strings, but you don’t know what or who.
“Too messy,” can be how you experience a complaint. “Too messy,” can be a life experience. A picture of a complaint can be a picture of a life.
Another student described multiple delays in her complaint: “Months went by. Nothing. They really botched my complaints procedure just by the virtue of missing their own deadlines.” The more precarious the situation, the more those lines become threads. In the midst of complaint, a life can be what unravels, thread by thread. I use the term strategic inefficiency to show the connection between inefficiency and inequality: for some, a botched job can be a botched life; a delay in a process the end of a line. As an international student, she was waiting for her complaint to be processed whilst her visa was running out: “Ten days before my visa was about to run out, I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” For students and staff who are more precarious because of their residential or financial status, the longer a complaint takes, the more you risk losing. If you are already on the edge, barely managing to stay on top of things, a delay can mean everything seems to topple over.
Not everything: perhaps some stay up by how others topple over. If we notice the toppling; it’s a mess; what a mess, we might not notice who stays up, what stays up. That mess often up being contained; remember all those letters that end up in “the same file.” Perhaps making a mess becomes what we aim for. We mess up to get the mess out. We might want to get the papers out from where they have been contained. Sometimes to get the papers out, we get out. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries. I became a leak: drip; drip. Organizations respond in the mode of damage limitation, treating the information you share as a mess, mopping up a mess. The more you share, the more they mop.
There is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess. A leak can be a lead. By becoming a leak, I became easier to find; people came to me with their complaints. That we find each other through complaint is a finding. This finding is not so much a finding from the research but what led me to it; it is how I could do it. My resignation letter, at least the version I shared in public, was how many I spoke to found me. Posting that letter was how I became part of a collective, a complaint collective.
To resign can be how you get the letters out. Even complaints that do not seem to get anywhere can lead us to each other. One lecturer who left the academy after her complaint did not get anywhere, turned her resignation letter into a performance: “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. And then I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I kind of read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” We find ways to make our letters matter. I think of her action, of what she expressed. You can do so much and still want to do more; still feel you could have done more. She wanted to do more, to express more, to express herself in more places, all over the place. She wanted to put that letter on the wall: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” Perhaps that is what complaints are about; how we help each other to get it out.
What you put down, down on paper, everything in there, others can pick up. We don’t always know how. We do not always know when. A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of her university to make reasonable adjustments. After a particularly difficult meeting, documents suddenly appear: “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were like historical documents about students who had to leave.” The documents including a hand written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. The student speculates that a secretary at the meeting had released these documents as a way of giving support to her complaint she was not supposed to give.
The word secretary derives from secrets; the secretary as the keeper of secrets. It should not be surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; those who do administration, institutional housework, know where to find stuff, know what to do to get stuff out.
I think of the student who wrote that letter by hand. We can’t know, we won’t know, what happened to her. But we can make the letter matter; a complaint can be a hand stretched out from the past. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that file would have stayed put, the letter too; dusty, buried. If the secretary had not witnessed what happened to the student, if she hadn’t been politicised by what she witnessed, she might not have pulled the letter out of the file. Many have to meet to pull something out, to pull something off.
You can meet in an action without meeting in person.
Perhaps a mess can be how we meet. Mess as meeting; mess as eating. The word mess derives from the old French mes; a portion of food, a course at dinner. To share a mess can be to share a meal. Can we share a meal, sustain each other, be sustained by each other, without meeting in person? I picture again, that mess.
A mess can be a picture of a complaint.
A mess can be a picture of a life.
A mess can be a picture of an organization.
A mess can be a queer map of an organization. Queer maps of this kind are not made by organizations or for them. A queer map of an organization is not a brochure. It is not a shiny happy picture. There are no straight lines; no flow, flow, away we go. There are no smiling colourful faces; this is not about what or who is faced. A queer map is a map of the behind, of what is ordinarily hidden from view, of what goes on behind closed doors. It is a map of what has been filed, what has been kept secret, what would be threatening if revealed; a filing cabinet can be an institutional closet.
I think of all those lines, those paths, those wires, those strings, threads too: so much can unravel, come tumbling out, so much, so many.
When I think of that mess as a queer map, I still think of complainers, of all the trails you follow, those dead ends, those stops, those blocks, going back, going this way, that, how you cannot go forward, go there, be there. To follow a trail is to leave traces behind despite the effort made by organizations (and others) to wipe those traces away. Sometimes, the work of complaint becomes the work of leaving traces of complaint: that is what it means to get mess out. A mess as a map: a tangle can tell us where you have been. A mess as a map: a tangle can be what you find; how you find, and also then, how we find you.
What we find, how we find: queer maps are useful to queer people because they tell us where to go to find queer places, places that come and go, providing temporary shelters, gay bars can be our nests. We need queer spaces because we need not to be displaced by how organisations, also worlds, are occupied; yes, compulsory heterosexuality can still take up space; time, too. If queer maps are useful because they tell us where to go to find queer spaces, queer maps are also created by use. Perhaps those messy lines are also desire lines that tell us where we have been, what we found, who we found, by going that way, by not following the official paths we are told would have opened doors or eased our progression.
I think of other kinds of queer maps. Paul Harfleet, for instance, turned his experience of homophobic violence into an art project, planting pansies where acts of violence and abuse had taken place (1). Perhaps a complaint is what we plant, a new growth marking the site of violence. The site of violence is the site of remembering violence, of protesting violence, of saying no to that violence.
A complaint leaves a trail, however faint. This is how complaints can be a queer method. I think of my own method of listening to those who complain, as well as how that listening is also a way of gathering and holding data only to let it spill; holding as leaking information. The word complaint might pick up on the word queer, sharpened by its use as an insult, queer as cutting. When we use the word queer we hold onto its baggage, the sharpness of a word repurposed as tool. We turn the word queer from insult into complaint, redirecting the no that has been flung at us back to the institutions that do not accommodate us. My method in Complaint! is all about ears: not queer eye for the straight guy but queer ears for our queer peers.
That complaints are made is how we come to know something happened there; no as tale; no as trail. It takes work to keep a no going. A no can be passed on, passed down. In the mess, that queer map, we hear each other, those who said no to what went on, no to what goes on.
(1). See also the Queering the Map project https://www.queeringthemap.com/. With thanks to Paul Harfleet and Lucas LaRochelle for creative inspirations.