Exploring Narratives of Belonging
Dr Richard Vytniorgu is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Wellcome Centre – cultures + environments of health – Richard’s research at the Wellcome Centre looks at the ideas of loneliness and belonging in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Dr Vytniorgu is also an integral part of the The Beat of our Hearts project – which is bringing stories of LGBTQIA+ loneliness to LGBTQIA+ and non-LGBTQIA+ audiences.
What is your background?
I think everyone at some level can identify with the experience of belonging. Maybe some of us have always felt as if we ‘belonged’, whether in our families, friendship networks, schools, homes, and the country in which we live. But for others – including myself – this hasn’t been straightforward. In my personal life, this means navigating the intersections of identity which emerge through my transcultural adoption (Romanian/British), sexuality (gay male), and religion (Anglican Christian). Academically, I first dipped my toes into the subject of belonging by examining how postwar English women’s food writing – specifically Elizabeth David’s work – became preoccupied with the way food can generate narratives of national or regional belonging.
I originally trained as a historian and sociologist at Exeter, but felt that I wanted a more experiential route to exploring human experiences past and present. So I transitioned to literary studies, focusing first on the question of how reading literature might enable readers to develop wisdom as opposed to knowledge about, say, the role of the aesthete or dandy in late-Victorian England. I became fascinated by the potential of literature – and the arts more broadly – to invite people to experience the trials, tribulations, and preoccupations of human characters and voices in the past as well as today. This extends to the theme of belonging: literature, film, drama – all of these have the potential to draw people into the complex experiences of people we can connect to.
Among other things, my main focus is on narratives and histories of LGBTQIA+ loneliness and belonging. One of these is an AHRC-funded engaged research project exploring LGBTQIA+ experiences of loneliness more generally. But my particular area of emerging expertise is in how contemporary European film and erotica explore the experiences of gender-nonconforming or ‘effeminate’ gay males. What kinds of marginalisation do they experience? How do they find ways to belong in the body, home, school, nation, and online? Which kinds of narratives or discourses do they tap into to make sense of their gender-nonconformity and homosexuality?
What’s next for your research?
I’m busy developing a book proposal on the subject of ‘effeminate belonging’, but longer-term I’d like to focus more on the rural experiences of LGBT people, especially in relation to farming. Farming in the UK still struggles with its image of multi-generation farmers and therefore with the heteronormative family as the main means by which farming is sustained. Increasingly there is visibility for LGBT farmers who want to belong to the world of farming, but more needs to be done to explore and question the narratives by which farming culture is embedded within heteronormative structures.
What are the best and worst things about your field of work?
I’ve become pretty interdisciplinary and while this has its rewards, as an early career academic it can be tough to market yourself. In my work on effeminacy, I am keen to take into account the work done on gender-nonconformity among gay males in the life sciences and social sciences, but this risks destabilising the dominance of social constructionism in the field of gender and sexuality research. If gender and sexuality studies is to truly embrace interdisciplinarity, it must dialogue seriously with colleagues in the sciences who investigate biological aspects of gender and sexuality.
On the other hand, the best thing about my work is that it brings me in touch with colleagues I’d never otherwise know if I remained firmly locked in a literary studies context. I’m able to forge collaborations and contacts that I hope will serve me well in the future.
Born this way: Fantasy narratives of effeminate gay bottoms on Tumblr — World Association for Sexual Health 2021 – YouTube
The Butterfly Hatch: Literary Experience in the Quest for Wisdom: Uncanonically Seating H.D. – Sussex Academic