Since coming out as a gay man in the early 2000s, a lot has changed in terms of public acceptance and protection of LGBTQ+ people. I was born and raised in a European country, I have witnessed this change, from being the only ‘out’ person in my school 15 years ago, to being surrounded by a proud LGBTQ+ community. When I was a teenager, when countries like the Netherlands and Spain approved legislation recognising gay marriage, I looked on with hope that somehow the same might happen in my own country. A lot of time has passed since and although the struggle still exists, most countries in what is often referred to as “the West” have, in some way, recognised the civil rights and liberties of LGBTQ+ people in national legislation.
When I moved to England for my PhD, I was welcomed to a country and a University environment that, to a certain extent, protects and upholds my rights and recognises my struggles. Little did I know that a few months later I would find myself writing an anonymous blog sharing my experiences as a gay PhD researcher applying for the ethics approval for my overseas fieldwork. I am remaining anonymous in order to protect my physical safety during my upcoming time abroad. The necessity for anonymity alone underlines the purpose of this blog, which aims to raise awareness on the struggles that LGBTQ+ researchers face when conducting field research, struggles that heterosexual and/or heteronormative researcher might overlook in the design and delivery of their own research projects.
My research explores foreign relations between two countries where civil rights for LGBTQ+ people are not protected. The research includes nine months of overseas fieldwork. In one of these countries, although perfectly legal, homosexual behaviours are socially problematic and homosexual content is consistently censored by state authorities. In the other country, homosexual intercourse, and by extension homosexuality, is criminalised with up to three years in prison. This law, besides fuelling hostility towards sexual and gender diversity, has been reportedly utilised for political ends, or as a form of extortion. The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) reports that there are cases in which the law has been utilised against those who protest or demand protections of their rights.
Therefore, in 2021, while applying for ethical clearance from an English university, I have been faced with what Ragen describes as the key contradiction facing LGBTQ+ researchers; of being either in or out of the ‘closet’ during fieldwork. The potential problems are many, and change depending on the context. In countries where the state does not protect LGBTQ+ rights, local social stigma against LGBTQ+ people could still result in refusal by locals to take part in research led by or conducted by LGBTQ+ people. Differently, in the case of homosexual behaviour being illegal, the safety of LGBTQ+ researchers becomes even more relevant as the country’s criminal code contains a specific provision that makes it illegal to behave like and/or be a gay man.
Therefore, I have had to develop a strategy that deals with this, often despite formal support or guidance from my university. During fieldwork, I plan to put in place serious security measures that limit people’s access to information about my personal life: limitation or suspension of social media profiles, removal of any reference to my sexual orientation on personal digital devices, avoiding any behaviour that would put me in danger, and so on. One such strategy includes writing about topics related to sexuality and gender identity anonymously. I also hope to create separate professional profiles to be used during fieldwork. I will also avoid making any reference to my sexuality and or sentimental/sexual life with participants during field research.
Now, this all seems legitimate and straightforward. However, the decision to ‘go back in the closet’ for the time spent in these countries might have a strong repercussion on my mental health situation, as the impact of concealing one’s own identity is seen to have a significant effect on wellbeing (see Pachankis, 2007). Therefore, I plan to engage with the University’s Mental Health Services to devise a plan for continuous psychological support during fieldwork. However, it is not yet clear whether my university will be able to offer any counselling, owing to limits that make such services only available to those currently in the UK. This is an oversight on the part of university institutions which might mean that I will have to engage with private counsellors, at considerable expense to myself.
What is surprising however is that, although the struggle is not dissimilar to that faced by other researchers, for example women or BME researchers, there is a complete lack of recognition of such challenges at the institutional level. Universities seem to have a shortage of instruments (literature, guidelines, support services) designed to directly support LGBTQ+ researchers planning and conducting overseas fieldwork in contexts that are hostile toward non-heteronormative people. Moreover, whilst insights on carrying out research as an LGBTQ+ person is well developed in feminist and queer studies literature, there is a lack of similar concern or interest in this topic from within other disciplines. Questions of researcher visibility and safety in the context of international relations, or other areas where sexuality and gender is not the primary focus of research, means finding resources and support as an LGBTQ+ researcher in this field is made more challenging.
My experience speaks to every LGBTQ+ researcher in any field of research. We should not be left alone to build a strategy to deal with these issues, and our struggle should be recognised in formal institutional support. Academic peer-reviewed literature must be produced to help PhD and early career researchers navigate these challenges and we should create networks to share our experiences and support each other, such as the PRIDE Field Network and the LGBTQ+ Field Network. At the same time, institutions must offer guidelines and services to help us with these struggles. In this field, institutional mental health and psychological support when abroad seems to be the most urgent intervention, especially when LGBTQ+ researchers might be expected to remain discrete in order to be ‘safe’ in the field.
About the author: Given the content and context in which this blog is being written, the author has asked to remain anonymous.
Suggested further reading
Pachankis, J. (2007). The Psychological Implications of Concealing a Stigma: A Cognitive–Affective–Behavioral Model, Psychological bulletin, 133, pp. 328-345.
Ragen, B. (2017). Being queer in the jungle: The unique challenges of LGBTQ scientists working in the field. Research in Progress Blog [online]. 28 June 2017. [Viewed 21 April 2021]. Available from: https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcblog/2017/06/28/being-queer-in-the-jungle-the-unique-challenges-of-lgbtq-scientists-working-in-the-field/
Miles, S. (2020) “‘I’ve never told anyone this before’: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research” Area
Pride in the Field Series: https://blog.geographydirections.com/category/pride-in-the-field/