As a critical scholar, Eric Knee, PhD, assistant professor of health and sport sciences, often studies how systems of oppression create inequities in society.
But as a volleyball player and a self-described queer person, he was inspired to study the empowering dynamic created by informal “pop-up” volleyball as a way for the LGBTQIA+ community to respond to oppression and break free of society’s normative constructs of place making.
Dr. Knee’s interest in this topic—the ways in which volleyball transformed into more than a recreational activity and acted as the impetus for community formation—led him to author the research article “Queering urban space through informal recreation: The experiences of a queer, predominantly Asian volleyball community in New York City,” which was published in Leisure Studies.
Currently in his fourth year teaching in the Department of Health and Sport Sciences in the Ruth S. Ammon College of Education and Health Sciences, Dr. Knee is a leisure scholar whose research explores the impact of leisure in the lives of marginalized populations, with a particular focus on intersectional queer identities. His work is interested in leisure spaces as sites for both oppression and resistance, the “queering” of leisure spaces, and social justice.
Formal Queer Leisure Spaces on the Decline
According to Dr. Knee, the number of formal, established queer spaces—gay bars, community centers, and specific geographic locations or “gayborhoods”—has begun to decline across the country. He cites several common explanations for this, ranging from the widespread availability of tech-based meeting opportunities to increased tolerance towards queer people by the general public. However, Dr. Knee believes these explanations simplify a more complex issue.
“Tech has existed alongside physical spaces for quite some time and certainly ‘tolerance’ has not been linear or all-encompassing for the queer community—one need look no further than the onslaught of anti-trans laws across the U.S.,” he says.
He points to another possibility for the change. “One aspect that is often overlooked is the rapid gentrification of queer spaces. As cities themselves continue to gentrify, both queer spaces and queerness itself are also being gentrified.”
He adds, “The effects of this gentrification are not felt equally across the 2SLGBTQIA+ [Two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer, intersex, and asexual/agender/allies, and others] community. For example, formal spaces that cater to gay white men remain fairly easily accessible, especially in New York City, whereas spaces for lesbians and queer trans persons of color are more at risk as a result of this gentrification.”
While formal queer leisure spaces remain essential to queer place making and queer identities, the exclusion of a vast swath of people whose identities do not “fit” these spaces can leave many without a “place” to call their own. They can be doubly excluded, first from heteronormative spaces due to their gender or sexual identity, then from mainstream queer spaces due to their gender, race or ethnicity.
Investigating “Pop-Up” Leisure Activity as an Opportunity for Support and Connection
Dr. Knee’s interest in how informal, pop-up queer leisure spaces might fill the void created by the changing climate of formal queer leisure spaces led him to develop his research study. He immersed himself within a volleyball community comprising primarily queer Asian members that would pop up in public spaces throughout New York City. The goal was to explore these gatherings as a way for the volleyballers to support one another and publicly assert their identities. The breadth of his research expanded with the rise in anti-Asian stigma and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As COVID began to disrupt the potential for queer gathering, it was also putting on display the ugly truths of American oppression, especially the rise in anti-Asian hate,” said Dr. Knee. “I thought it was important to recognize how this community did not simply accept the ongoing violence targeting them, but actively responded to it in ways that publicly asserted the intersection of queerness and Asian identity.”
Queer pop-ups are intentionally planned, often short-term and transitory, gatherings of queer persons created to both establish a safe space for this community and to celebrate their queerness outside both mainstream heteronormative society and formal “homonormative” leisure spaces.
“Sometimes queer pop-ups can be formally planned events, such as a festival, while other times they are informal social gatherings planned by a group, as is the case of the group of queer Asian volleyballers in this study,” says Dr. Knee. “They form to create new worlds, new place making, outside of the gayborhood or mainstream gay bar, filling the transgressive void that had historically been filled by these more formal queer spaces.”
In this research, Dr. Knee employed qualitative semistructured interviews and participant observations to explore how this community of volleyballers engaged in the animation of public space, as well as the meanings and impact of these actions. The group “animated” and “queered” their volleyball locations with physical symbols like rainbow and trans pride flags, and social symbols that proudly celebrated their identities.
To animate public space is to recognize that any space does not have meaning until it is socially produced. According to Dr. Knee, this is one reason that leisure research is essential to understanding the role of public space in the modern city—leisure acts literally animate the space and help produce its meaning.
“This group intentionally queered public spaces in the city in ways that reimagined the meaning of these spaces as queer spaces themselves,” he says. “They became spaces emplaced with a queer politic, with queer celebration, and with queer possibilities.”
Insights Gained From Dr. Knee’s Research
Through this research, Dr. Knee observed the creation of a culture in which volleyball was a means to building a community that challenged the confines of heternormativity, assimilation, racism and xenophobia. Participants discussed a shared understanding that through this activity they were symbolically and in actuality harnessing the power of taking up space, while challenging the heteronormativity of the public space they were in. Most spoke of the importance of the visibility of their space, not only as a means to express themselves but also as a statement that they proudly belonged there.
“To be queer and to visibly express that queerness is inherently a political act,” says Dr. Knee. “Collectively, the public display of queerness challenges the rigid assumptions of heteronormative society.”
He reports that outsiders to this group, including frequent visitors to a particular park in Brooklyn, seemed to recognize the association between the space being used for the volleyball pop-up and queerness. Some showed tacit acceptance, while Dr. Knee’s field notes indicate that others expressed a desire to join in at nearly half the gatherings—including not only queer persons but also cisgender and heterosexual persons who wished to participate in the queering of this space. These individuals actively engaged with not only the volleyball play, but with the social queer symbols on display. One ultimately became a frequent, active member.
The community-building effect of this activity appears to have been contagious. Dr. Knee shares that the area of the park frequently used for volleyball by this community became visibly more queer, with groups of queer persons gathering socially nearby in groups small and large.
As one of the volleyballers was quoted in the research, “Love is infectious when you see a group of people being uninhibited in their truth.”
The Importance of Studying Place Making
As queer place making becomes more complex, Dr. Knee says it is essential that efforts continue to study its multiplicity.
“I believe informal leisure practices are essential to the ways queer persons build community and engage in counter-hegemonic place making, yet they are often overlooked in favor of studying formal queer spaces or institutions,” he says. “Scholars frequently look at formal sporting practices and queer persons, but fewer have interrogated the ways informal leisure practices and gatherings are tantamount to queer lives, queer community formation and queer futures.”
Dr. Knee adds, “While I believe formal queer institutions, such as the gay bar, will remain essential to these processes, looking at other forms of queer place making can demonstrate the importance of intersectional queer social movements.”
This story was featured in the Fall 2022 edition of Scholars and Artists of Adelphi University. View the full newsletter, which highlights the scholarly and creative work of Adelphi’s faculty members.