What They Learned: Robbie Spratt ’21

The anthropology and French double major’s two theses explore unlikely sites of queer solidarity.

Though Robbie Spratt’s two theses cover really different topics, they both explore how strong LGBT and queer communities were built in unlikely places. The double major’s anthropology capstone project examines astrology, tarot, and healing crystals through the personal experiences of college students. 

It challenges existing views about what deserves to be studied. The practices it explores are disregarded as pseudoscientific in American culture, and it uses personal experiences, often ignored in academic research, as evidence.

“For me, practices named ‘occult’ or ‘divination’ like astrology, tarot, and healing crystals always had a queer or subversive energy to them,” said Spratt. “This thesis project has provided me the opportunity to justify this feeling by envisioning them not just as quirky things college students do in their free time, but also places that allow people to be intimate with themselves and others and to form intentional community.”

Spratt’s French thesis explores the LGBT community of Paris by focusing on the decision of Jean-Luc Lagarce and Guillaume Dustan–two gay, HIV-positive French authors–not to speak about AIDS in their writings. 

“I read these two authors and noticed that neither really ever spoke explicitly in their works about having AIDS, despite these works being emblematic of the AIDS literature tradition,” said Spratt. “A lot of scholars claim that Lagarce and Dustan don’t speak about AIDS because they’re in denial, but I found this to be a bit unfair, so I’m looking instead at these authors’ decisions to not speak about AIDS in the broader context of how homophobia and power dynamics influence and restrict what marginalized people can and cannot say.”

Up next for the scholar is a move to China for a Global Writing and Speaking Fellowship at NYU Shanghai in July. Spratt will tutor in their Writing Center and undertake research with a faculty member. 

“While I’m not sure what my research project will look like, I am definitely curious about both the history of AIDS and the history of astrology in China, and how these histories may or may not differ from American and French contexts,” said Spratt. “After my fellowship, I do plan on applying to Ph.D. programs for French literature in the U.S., where I hope to continue research into queer theory and studies.” 

What did you learn from working on your thesis?

In both of my thesis projects, I think the largest takeaway I learned was that people’s personal, subjective experiences can often be just as meaningful or legitimate as “objectively proven” research. It is easy to see a gay, HIV-positive author actively refusing to talk about his own physical condition and say he is in denial about his suffering, without considering that he might feel so well supported by his queer community that he does not even view his AIDS as suffering in the first place. It is easy to disregard astrology, tarot, and healing crystals as “pseudoscientific” and “meaningless” because of their inherent focus on someone’s personal reality without considering that this focus on subjectivity means they are not claiming to be scientific in the first place. Especially when a lot of “objective” scientific research has been used to uphold power imbalances, the push for marginalized people’s subjective realities to be recognized as equally legitimate can become a political one. As a queer person myself, I’ve learned a lot about the histories and traditions of queerness that came decades before me and I definitely feel more grounded in my own identity.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

Especially for my anthropology thesis, there is almost no published research that directly explores any correlation with astrology and LGBT/queer identity, despite there being a plethora of blog posts, musical pieces, and artwork that directly put them in conversation. This was especially surprising to find out during my research process, because for me as well, astrology and my identity are inextricably linked. I think that this thesis project helps to legitimize in an academic context what many LGBT and queer people have already been thinking about astrology–that it can not only be a fun pastime but curative for dealing with one’s marginalized identity. While this isn’t the case for every person who likes astrology or for every LGBT or queer person, this thesis project welcomes further investigation into how activities that may seem to be apolitical are in fact also implicated in larger social structures.

“What They Learned”is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.