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LGBTQ+ Inclusive Fieldwork

By Aydan Greatrick, University College London and University of Leeds, and Martin Zebracki, University of Leeds

LGBT+ History Month presents an opportunity for us to discuss some of the challenges LGBTQ+* researchers face particularly when conducting fieldwork. These challenges are many, and often omitted from mainstream discussions of fieldwork. In collaboration with LGBTQ+ Field Network, we are investigating these challenges through the ESRC LSSI Impact Acceleration project Pride in the Field (PIF). 

PIF builds on another AHRC-funded project, Queer Memorials. As stated on the announcement link, ‘PIF is the first project of its kind to shift focus to impact policies and practices supporting the needs and activities of fieldworkers identified/affiliated with LGBTQ+ communities. Through knowledge exchange, developing community support and co-production of resources, PIF supports global beneficiaries in pursuing socially important fieldwork in (more) inclusive and safe ways.’

This is particularly important given that ‘the level of acceptance and persecution faced by the LGBTQ+ community varies considerably and remains highly problematic in most parts of the world.’ The aim of this collaborative project is, therefore, to ‘develop a much-needed global web-based platform … involving active membership recruitment and provision of supportive fieldworking resources, including LGBTQ+ rights information, continuous support and emergency help for LGBTQ+(-allied) fieldworkers.’ As such, the project shall endeavour to ‘establish proof of concept of the web-based user support platform, further enhancing field research capacity and related advocacy work.’

Rising challenges for LGBTQ+ researchers

PIF’s commitment to developing safe spaces for LGBTQ+ researchers cannot be viewed separately from topical challenges that emerge from navigating safe spaces among LGBTQ+ research and researcher communities, especially in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The importance for pursuing the PIF project is reinforced by the first-hand experience of its Project Officer, Aydan, who has been engaging with LGBTQ+ refugees during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

For instance, in April 2020, Aydan spoke with a volunteer who runs a peer-support group for LGBTQ+ refugees in the UK. The conversation – which took place on Zoom, Aydan in his bedroom, the volunteer in his – explored what it means to support LGBTQ+ refugees, and how support groups like his seek to create welcoming spaces. The questions were fairly routine, yet there was a real sense of caution felt throughout the conversation. Before the conversation began, Aydan had been informed that, because of lockdown, the volunteer was living with his parents who did not know about his sexuality, or about the nature of his voluntary work:

‘Usually, I’ve got my own space and I can sort of talk about things and be more open, but now I am kind of conscious of the fact that there’s people around me, you know.’

Such examples highlight the complex and ambivalent negotiations that LGBTQ+ people must make in fieldwork contexts. This holds currency for most fieldwork on/with LGBTQ+ communities, regardless of unprecedented lockdowns and quarantines in various geographical localities. Paying attention to researcher and participant safety requires a constant negotiation of identity, anonymity and disclosure, often in different spaces and contexts (social, practical, and legal) where the research is taking place.

This always involves identifying ‘safe spaces’ where fieldwork can take place. However, as Tey Meadow argues within the purview of LGBTQ+ research, ‘the field is messier than many of us are prepared for.’ Ethical and methodological training can feel inadequate at addressing what ‘safety’ means in different settings. Far from being a static ‘object,’ safety in the field for LGBTQ+ researchers and participants becomes ambivalent, shaped by the rich difference within and between sexual and gender identities, and how they inform our everyday interactions with/in space.

This also resonated with an experience Aydan had in Istanbul in 2016 when he met with an LGBTQ+ activist following the heavily suppressed Pride march. Conventional ethical considerations suggest that they should have met in private, away from the public gaze, given their ‘vulnerability’ to the harassment and scrutiny that other LGBTQ+ people have faced in Turkey. However, the activist insisted they would meet in a café packed full of people. The meeting took place in full view of many of the patrons who were preoccupied by backgammon, board games and cups of coffee. However, the risk that Aydan and the interviewee were ‘detectable’ remained at the forefront of his mind. For the participant, nonetheless, this was a ‘safe’ space, where background noise would allow hushed conversations to go unnoticed. This guaranteed anonymity in a familiar context.

Respecting how and where LGBTQ+ people feel safe to talk with researchers in field settings requires a flexible approach. Rather than assuming that LGBTQ+ research participants will be inherently vulnerable to risk in certain spaces, an openness to research settings can reveal how ambivalent negotiations with anonymity and privacy act as an essential strategy in the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ people ‘in the field.’

This is echoed in the experiences of LGBTQ+ researchers too, whose fieldwork is shaped by questions of identity, disclosure and anonymity. However, this can also be deeply negative, especially when it comes to diversity and visibility – both vital for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

A widespread issue

Alison N. Olcott and Matthew R. Downen reported, in August 2020, that 55% of the LGBTQ+ geoscientists they surveyed about fieldwork conveyed that they have felt unsafe in fieldwork ‘because of their [sexual and gender] identity, expression, or presentation.’ This may lead researchers to abandon field research entirely, cutting short valuable opportunities and limiting their own career development. It also demonstrates that safety can easily translate into discretion and silence – both antithetical to LGBTQ+ liberation.

Similarly, the ‘Being out in the Field’ survey carried out by the LGBTQ+ Field Network among 150 STEM researchers in July 2020 found that:

  • 54% of fieldwork risk assessments do not include LGBTQ+-specific safeguarding guidelines;
  • 36% faced LGBTQ+ hate during fieldwork;
  • There is a clear need to improve guidelines, support processes, and develop networks – with the aim of creating safer field spaces.

Such data raise questions over how fieldwork can be more inclusive for LGBTQ+ researchers and participants. At one level, increased visibility for LGBTQ+ researchers may help raise awareness of the problems faced, and how colleagues in academia, policy and practice can support LGBTQ+-inclusive fieldwork settings.

At another level, strategies of anonymity remain an important aspect of both sensitively and responsibly conducting fieldwork as an LGBTQ+ person – especially in settings where taboo and bigotry around sexual and gender difference may expose people to harm.

These dilemmas arose in the earlier mentioned Zoom call between Aydan and the LGBTQ+ refugee support worker. It was not safe for him to talk openly about LGBTQ+ issues, and by implication neither was it safe for Aydan to do so. Instead, the conversation was framed by the language of diversity and human rights. On reflection, talking about LGBTQ+ rights and identities in ambivalent terms was intimately familiar and speaks to the strategies and negotiations LGBTQ+ people are often ought to adopt in spaces of the everyday life.

Recognising such strategies is a crucial part of ensuring fieldwork is LGBTQ+-inclusive. As well as focusing on how fieldwork can promote diversity and LGBTQ+ visibility, it is also vital to identify how LGBTQ+ researchers,  personally and ambiguously, negotiate anonymity and privacy ‘in the field,’ as Cayce C. Hughes has argued. Working toward this will require broad collaboration with LGBTQ+ fieldworkers in research, policy and practice, something we aim to achieve through the PIF project.

For this reason, the concerted aim of the PIF project is to support the development of confidential ‘peer-to-peer support to LGBTQ+ fieldworkers and their allies, regardless of social background, professional and contractual status and nationality.’ As such, we seek to raise awareness and share valuable expertise and resources to aid LGBTQ+-inclusive fieldwork practices and spaces.


About the authors: Aydan Greatrick is a PhD candidate at University College London. He is also a Project Officer on the ESRC LSSI Impact Acceleration project Pride in the Field (PIF): Promoting Inclusive Fieldwork Spaces for LGBTQ+ Workers in Research, Policy and Practice, building on the AHRC project Queer Memorials: International Comparative Perspectives on Sexual Diversity and Social Inclusivity (QMem). Dr Martin Zebracki, who leads both projects, is an Associate Professor of Critical Human Geography at the University of Leeds. He is also Chair of the RGS-IBG Space, Sexualities and Queer Research Group (SSQRG). The cover photo was taken by Martin Zebracki during fieldwork at the Homomonument at the opening of Pride Amsterdam in summer 2018.

* LGBTQ+: people who are (self-)identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, or through other sexual and gender characteristics.

Suggested further reading:

Brown, G. (2020) “The sexual politics of lockdownGeography Directions

Compton, D. L., Meadow, T., and Schilt, K. (2018) Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology(University of California Press)

Mearns, G. W., Bonner‐Thompson, C., and Hopkins, P. (2020) “Trans experiences of a university campus in northern England” Area

Miles, S. (2020) “‘I’ve never told anyone this before’: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research” Area

Olcott, A. N., and Downen, M. R. (2020) “The challenges of fieldwork for LGBTQ+ geoscientistsEos

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