“And I don’t know who we really are to each other” : Queers doing close relationships in Estonia

Abstract: This dissertation explores the ways in which queers understand and practice close relationships in the political, economic and cultural circumstances of contemporary Estonia. The study draws on qualitative methods from sociology and anthropology and is situated at the intersection of queer studies, de/post-colonial studies, family and kinship studies.The starting point is the Estonian emic term lähedased (close ones) and the related term lähedased suhted (close relationships). Closeness refers to proximity, both in the physical and emotional sense, and comes not with the equally loaded baggage of ‘family’. The focus on close relationships helps to decentre the typical primary focus on sexual or romantic coupledom, thereby opening up for the possibility of including various kinds of relationships that the study’s participants find significant in their lives.The thesis is organised around three main analytical themes. Firstly, it engages with how close relationships by queers are made, maintained, transformed or broken in contemporary Estonia. Secondly, it explores the role that queerness plays in the construction of close relationships. Thirdly, the thesis investigates how practices of care are negotiated in relation to various temporalities.Empirically, the study draws mainly on interviews and ethnographic engagements with non-heterosexual and non-gender conforming people who lived in Estonia between 2016 and 2017. The interviews were complemented with a methodological device called close relationship maps. Additionally, responses (302) from a qualitative online survey conducted in summer 2017 are used to further contextualise the results from the study.The results show that a focus on close relationships allows one to account for a myriad of interpersonal relations that were central in people’s lives, even though many were difficult to fit in existing relationship categories. Yet the concept of the family could not be dismissed entirely either, since it played a role for a considerable number of participants in the study. All relationships were to a large degree shaped by widespread economic precarity. This accounts for why my thesis decisively distances itself from the voluntarist discourse on choice.The thesis also challenges a common understanding of the closet that juxtaposes visibility and invisibility, silence and speech. Rather than “coming out” or “living openly”, research participants in this study engaged in various everyday practices of opacity with regard to their own queerness. Instead of hiding or separating their queer lives, they often incorporated queerness into their lives in an opaque manner. While this precarious balancing act was conditioned by silences and willed ignorance, it nonetheless satisfied the purpose of maintaining bonds without ever challenging them.Finally, in this study, queers in Estonia not only shared a sense of vulnerability related to their queer positionality, they were subject to the everyday precarity prevalent in the neoliberal, patriarchal and heteronormative state. Both the lacking welfare state and individualist tendencies privileged care along kinship lines, further contributing to the need to compromise between emotions, obligations and dependency. Negotiating various intersecting temporalities was central when engaging in care practices, as chrononormativity, queer/crip/curative time exercised pulls in different directions.

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