Pride in the Field

Inside Out – Re-examining Positionality in Research with LGBTQI+ Refugees

By: Tyler Valiquette, University of Brasilia, Yvonne Su, York University, and Emilio Felix, Independent Researcher

This post is part of our Pride in the Field Series, organised in collaboration with the Pride in the Field project at the University of Leeds. More information and further reading about that project can be found here.

Brazil is considered a leader in Latin America for both refugee and LGBTQI+ rights. Yet it is also one of the most dangerous places for LGBTQI+ refugees, particularly Trans people. Since November 2020, our research team has been exploring this contradiction, using the case of Casa Miga, one of the only LGBTQI+ refugee centres in Latin America and home to up to 18 Venezuelan LGBTQI+ refugees at a time.

Originally, our team was comprised of a White cis gendered gay male researcher and an Asian cis gendered female researcher, both from Canada. We were particularly concerned about our relationship with local groups and how this would affect trust. We conceived of this through an insider and outsider perspective. Being an ‘insider’ refers to when an individual conducts research with a population they are a member of, defined as sharing an identity, language and experiential base with participants. This insider status allows for more legitimacy, leading to rapid and more complete acceptance by the participants. Being an ‘outsider’ refers to when an individual conducts research with a population in which they are not members. They share no identity, language, and have limited connections with the participants.

Initially we assumed that we would share some insider and some outsider characteristics. We knew that as foreigners we would be considered outsiders in some ways but given one member of the team was a gay man, we also assumed this would give us some insider status too. Yet this turned out not to be so, and led us to an important question: “is it enough just to be gay in order to be considered an insider within an LGBTQI+ community?”

Sharing an LGBTQ+ Identity is not enough to build trust

In order to gain access to the LGBTQI+ refugee population in Manaus, we began by interviewing and building trust with the local LGBTQI+ activist community. We assumed that, because one of us identified as gay, we would more easily establish rapport with activists, eliciting an insider perspective. Being from LGBT-friendly Canada, whilst giving us an outsider identity, also framed us as both trustworthy and safe. We believed our positionality would allow us to gain access to this marginal community. 

However, when we began interviewing the Venezuelan LGBTQI+ refugees, we quickly realized that how we viewed our positionality was different from how those in the field viewed us. Despite one of us being gay, the other being a woman of colour, and our friendly Canadian demeanor, we were viewed with skepticism as complete outsiders. When considering our insider status, we originally made an assumption that our diverse social positions would help us build trust. Upon reflection, we made a generalization about the assumed homogeneity of LGBTQI+ communities, allowing us to take for granted that being gay was enough to build trust and affinity with other queer people.

Despite being openly gay, there was very little shared identity between a White gay cis gendered Canadian researcher and the diversity of folks who lived in Casa Miga. These refugees had fled a repressive country and seemed distrustful of foreigners, especially those that could not speak their language. Many of them had come ‘out’ for the first time upon entering Casa Miga and were reluctant to discuss their LGBTQI+ identity with outsiders, capturing the sensitivities that exist around discretion and anonymity in research with queer folk. In addition, many residents had never met a Canadian and did not know about its ‘LGBT friendly’ reputation. As a result, interviews were challenging, and gaining access to their personal networks proved difficult.

Building Trust from the Inside Out

We needed to take a step back. After reflecting on our own positionality and getting advice from local activists and scholars, we decided to hire Emilio Felix, one of the local activists we had engaged with and an author for this piece, who helped us conduct the interviews. Emilio’s local knowledge allowed for a dramatic change in power dynamics so that the research was more grounded and local-led. To ensure Emilio was equipped to meet the academic rigour necessary for academic research, he was provided with extensive research methods and ethics training. We discussed and received feedback from Emilio on how to maintain and build trust within the LGBTQI+ Venezuelan community. We also strategized on how Emilio can mitigate the power differentials when transitioning from an activist to a researcher. The experience led to less hierarchy in the research team and Emilio felt supported and empowered to conduct the fieldwork.

Our team now had a local researcher who was LGBTQI+, Latino, a native Spanish speaker, and a well-known individual in the local LGBTQI+ community. Emilio had even volunteered at the shelter in the past. More importantly, Emilio himself felt like an insider, which made him very comfortable engaging with the LGBTQI+ Venezuelan refugees and in turn, they felt comfortable with him. Emilio noticed that the refugees body language changed when he began speaking fluent Spanish without an accent and the participants immediately became more open to discuss politics and LGBTQI+ rights. With a more apparent insider identity, the participants’ trust in the research increased because they saw more of themselves reflected in the individuals in front of them. Emilio even placed a pride pin on his shirt before conducting the interviews to display that he is a member of and supports the LGBTQI+ community. As a result, the refugees became more open in sharing their personal experiences of being ‘out’ in Brazil and Venezuela and were more comfortable in speaking openly about politics and LGBTQI+ rights.

Upon reflection by our research team, it is apparent how our initial assumptions about our identities as gay, a woman of colour and Canadian, and the implied insider/outsider dynamics this would produce, were challenged through our interactions with research participants. We fell into the trap of assuming homogeneity within the LGBTQI+ community, when in fact obtaining membership and trust is complicated and involves multiple competing identities. As a result, we learned that an insider and outsider perspective should not be viewed as a dichotomy, particularly when doing research with LGBTQI+ refugee populations. Once we applied a more fluid and intersectional approach to our identities – one that took more account of the ways in which different identities combine – we had a more nuanced understanding of our positionality which allowed us to adapt our research.

Moving forward, we suggest other researchers take an adaptive methodological approach in applying a fluid insider and outsider perspective when doing work with LGBTQI+ refugee communities. It is not enough to just be gay in order to be consider an insider within an LGBTQ+ community, whose members will be differently positioned by race, class, gender, legal status, nationality, religion and ability. Instead, finding routes to participatory engagement became more crucial in building trust, and allowed us to challenge the power dynamics that otherwise exist between researcher and participant. Because of this, we recommend incorporating local knowledge early and involving local researchers when working with marginal LGBTQ+ communities.

About the authors: Tyler Valiquette has an MA in Political Science from the University of Guelph. He is a researcher at the University of Brasilia where he studies the policy needs of LGBTQI+ Venezuelan asylum seekers in Brazil. Yvonne Su is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Equity Studies at York University. She researches forced migration and inequality with a focus on Venezuelan LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in Brazil. Emilio Félix is a researcher and LGBTQI+ activist based in Manaus. He has a BA in International Relations from UNINORTE. Emilio is currently completing a postgraduate degree in Human Rights and Ethnic Social Issues.

The cover photo is: LGBT Pride Parade Manaus 2017 – Photo: Ingrid Anne Manauscult

Suggested further reading:

Boussalem, A. (2020) In, out, or somewhere else entirely: Going beyond binary constructions of the closet in the lives of LGBTQ people from a Muslim background living in Brussels. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 2020; 00: 1– 14.

Pride in the Field Series:

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