Qualitative Sociology

, 34:431

My Auto/Ethnographic Dilemma: Who Owns the Story?


DOI: 10.1007/s11133-011-9197-x

Cite this article as:
Barton, B. Qual Sociol (2011) 34: 431. doi:10.1007/s11133-011-9197-x


This article explores ethical issues of co-mingled data, demarcating the field and informed consent in a study researching the consequences of Christian fundamentalist ideology on the lives of “Bible Belt gays”. When what constitutes informed consent is ambiguous, how does the qualitative researcher justify her decision either to include or exclude meaningful data? To illustrate these ethical issues, I analyze four instances of co-mingled data, two featuring Christian fundamentalists and two Bible Belt gays, in which I gain theoretical insights under conditions of blurry consent, and weigh potential harm to subjects against the liberatory goals of the project.


Ethics Autoethnography Consent Fieldwork 

I have been researching the consequences of Christian fundamentalist ideology on the lives of what I call “Bible Belt gays” since 2006 for my forthcoming book Pray the Gay Away: Religion and Homosexuality in the Bible Belt. Like other researchers (Feigenbaum 2007; Gray 2009; Rostosky et al. 2009), I observed rampant displays of homophobia in newspapers, on televisions, billboards, yard signs and bumper stickers preceding the 2004 and 2006 election season campaign anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives. During this period, I also began to feel the “toll” of homophobia. In my book Stripped, I developed a theory of the “toll of stripping” (Barton 2006), an exploration of the long-term, cumulative effects of working as an exotic dancer. I have also found the “toll,” the experiences of oppression and abuse that cumulate over time, useful to apply to my own experience of living as a sexual minority. In 2004, I began feeling the toll of being a Bible Belt gay. Once I did, I wanted to do something about it, and, for me, this logically took the form of sociological inquiry. I decided to interview lesbians and gay men from the Bible Belt to explore their insights on homophobia, closeting, and religious fundamentalism in the region. My insider status as an out lesbian well connected with local gay rights groups in the region, made recruiting interview subjects very easy. With a single call for research participants, more people responded than I could manage. As word about my project spread, Bible Belt gays came to me and requested to be interviewed. After hearing a public lecture I give titled “The Toxic Closet: Being Gay in the Bible Belt,” many emailed me personal stories they felt supported my work.

At the same time, dramatically, almost every element of my life became “data.” By this, I mean not only my daily lived experiences with my partner and gay friends, but also my interactions with neighbors, students and colleagues. Among the many issues that have emerged during the course of this study is managing the volume of data I have collected. Doing so entails identifying what data I can ethically share in publications and public lectures, what is off limits, and what is not data. In addition, of course, to complying with Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols, gaining basic verbal permissions from those who have shared their stories with me when I did not have a tape recorder and consent form handy, and reading literature on feminist research ethics, I have mostly relied upon my own ethical standpoint of judgment, fairness and privacy to determine this. In all my interpersonal interactions—from conversations with friends, to students, to colleagues to interview subjects—my personal ethic is one of openness, transparency and honesty. I am an out lesbian. I don’t engage in behaviors I would need to keep secret because I don’t want the burden of secrets. It is important to me as a person—not just as a researcher—to be fair, compassionate, consistent, and non-hierarchical with all those I interact.

However, like other feminist qualitative researchers who take to interviewing and ethnography like fish to water (Cotterill 1992; Finch 1984; Irwin 2006; Kirsch 2005; Stacey 1988), I frequently face ethical “double-binds” in the field that test my feminist and personal ethos (Frye 1983). For example, the ease with which I, like other feminist researchers, can establish rapport with subjects can also potentially exacerbate a subject’s experience of betrayal and deception should the published work reveal secrets, portray a subject in a less than flattering light and/or inadvertently be identifiable (Cotterill 1992; Finch 1984; Irwin 2006; Kirsch 2005; Stacey 1988). Reflecting upon her study on the wives of clergy, and their willingness to share intimate details with her, Jane Finch (1984) states, “I have also emerged from interviews with the feeling that my interviewees need to know how to protect themselves from people like me” (p.80). In my work on religion and homosexuality in the Bible Belt, the ethical issues I have wrestled with most often, and feel the most uneasy about, concern consent, demarcating the field, and weighing the project validity against the privacy of an individual research subject. Many ethnographers argue that even under conditions of the most transparency, consent is always partial because the subject of study can never be fully informed (Angrosino and Mays de Perez 2003; Irwin 2006; Johnston 2010; O’Brien 2010; Thorne 1980). In other words, when what constitutes fully informed consent is itself blurry, especially in the case of field observations, which are not held to the same rules of IRB approval and consent forms as audio taped interviews, how do I decide whether to include or exclude meaningful data?

The thorniest issues I thus face involve deciding how to, or even whether I should, share autoethnographic and ethnographic observations I make of Christian fundamentalists and Bible Belt gays who are not fully informed of my research project. Autoethnography is a qualitative research method that “combines cultural analysis and interpretation with narrative details” of one’s own lived experience (Chang 2008, p. 46). In autoethnography my experience—reactions, observations, biography, and emotions—are data. In this way, my story, which arguably I should own, is “co-mingled data”; thus telling my story inherently means sharing someone else’s story (Blee and Vining 2010; Margolin et al. 2005). This problem of co-mingled data, situations in which “information about consenting individuals is inextricably bound to information about another” (Blee and Vining 2010, p. 55), and consequently, consent, have been particularly salient in gathering data for Pray the Gay Away. To illustrate these issues, I explore four instances of co-mingled data, two featuring Christian fundamentalists and two Bible Belt gays, in which I gained theoretical insights about my work under conditions of blurry consent, and attempt to weigh potential harm to subjects against the liberatory goals of the project.

Seeing Fundamentalism

I live in Kentucky, a Bible Belt state in which 63% of the population identify as fundamentalist according to the 2008 General Social Survey question, “Do you consider yourself a fundamentalist, moderate or liberal?” Thus, a critical piece of my work involves observing manifestations of fundamentalist religiosity in the various social worlds I inhabit and visit. In so doing, I am “studying up,” interrogating the ideology, mores and behaviors of a majority group—Christian fundamentalists-directly engaged in oppressing the group of which I am a member: homosexuals. Sandra Harding (2005) explains that the value of “studying up,”—focusing on “the powerful, their institutions, policies and practices”—helps us “identify the conceptual practices of power and how they shape social life” (p.2011). Such scholarship is especially important to those researchers, like myself, who hope to effect social change.

In 2006, I began taking note of every expression of Christianity I perceived from bumper stickers, such as “1CROSS + 3NAILS = 4GVN” and “Jesus ‘08,” to pamphlets, music, newspaper columns, yard signs, billboards, charity cups, and references to Christian identity in daily conversations. In this way, Christian expressivity, something I had previously tuned out or giggled at if it were especially absurd—like the velvet painting of Jesus in boxing gloves—intensely sprang into life. Christianity was everywhere I looked. It was so vivid, in fact, I wondered how I had managed not to see it for so long. In my observation, although Christianity plays a starring role in the Bible Belt, most people lack the language and opportunity to discuss their religious experiences and ideas within a critical, analytical framework. Offered such a framework, as is the case when I interview someone, give a public lecture on being gay in the Bible Belt, or even gently query someone about their religious upbringing during party small talk, I found most people eager and grateful for the opportunity to talk openly about religion and homosexuality.

I continue to informally question the people with whom I come into contact about their thoughts on religion, as well as pose such questions during formal interviews, because the fundamentalist mind frame was originally so foreign to me I feared I was not fully understanding the experiences of Bible Belt gays. It was clear to me starting this project that, while I might argue that I share an insider status with Bible Belt gays because I am a lesbian who has lived in the Bible Belt for the past 18 years, my religious background makes me an outsider to fundamentalist culture. I grew up Catholic, in a politically progressive family in Massachusetts. My parents, especially my mother, taught me to believe that discrimination was morally wrong and that acting with prejudice toward a member of any minority group, including homosexuals, was unacceptable. My childhood and adolescent experiences of religion were benign: liberation theology Catholicism, sprinkled with an education in Buddhist-like eastern spirituality, compliments of my father. Northeastern Catholicism, as I experienced it during the late 1970s and 80s, was also in a warm and fuzzy phase. Post Vatican II, influenced by the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, the priests, nuns and other religious teachers with whom I interacted tended to be pleasant, affirming and socially progressive. There was almost no discussion of hell in churches or my home. I have a distinct memory of being a small child and saying to my mother, “Hell is scary. I don’t understand it.” Her response was, “Oh honey, you don’t need to worry about hell. We Catholics have purgatory. Hell is only for really bad people like Hitler.”

Catholics make up a larger percentage of the population in the Northeast than in other regions. The American Religious Identification Survey notes that 39% of Massachusetts residents identified as Catholic in 2008, down from 54% in 1990 (Paulson 2009). I left Massachusetts to go to Ohio for my undergraduate education in 1988. Thus, my personal religious upbringing was as a Catholic in a Catholic area. I was part of the religious majority and I believe this unconsciously influenced me to generalize from my experience of religion to others, and made it especially difficult for me to see fundamentalism. For example, Catholic dogma contains many challenging constraints on sexuality and reproduction. Birth control, premarital sex, same-sex activity, and masturbation are still sinful within Catholic doctrine. As a child, I watched as all the Catholics around me, including my family, regularly attended Mass, and simply ignored the elements of Catholic doctrine unworkable in their lives. No one called anyone out about it; no one even discussed it. When I queried adults, from the teachers at my Catholic high school to family members, about this discrepancy between dogma and behavior, I was told some version of the following: “The institution had not yet caught up with people’s real lived experiences, but it will eventually, so you don’t need to worry about it.”

Most fundamentalist denominations advocate many of the same restrictions on sexuality and reproduction as Catholicism, and like Northeastern Catholics in the 1980s, most 21st century parishioners do not adhere to them. What is different though, and what my privilege blinded me to, is that most Protestant Bible Belt fundamentalists actually try to conform to the narrow dictates of their churches, and don’t just ignore the parts that don’t easily work like I observed the Catholics do. At first, I could not believe that any individual would genuinely try to live by what I perceived to be unlivable guidelines (i.e. a literal interpretation of the Bible that prohibits homosexuality), especially when they experienced negative consequences for doing so. The ways in which my outsider religious status inhibited my understanding was made visible to me in an early interview with “Celia,” a 40-year-old white lesbian from Eastern Kentucky.

It had been an emotional interview. Celia had cried several times while she discussed her family’s condemnation of her, and their implacable objection to her same-sex partner. With the unarticulated assumption that kinship ties trump religious affiliation (as it certainly had in my experience), I asked Celia what might happen if she said to her fundamentalist aunt who had rejected her, “I love you and care about what you think, and it makes me sad that you won’t accept that I am gay and include my partner in family events.” Celia paused for a long time and looked confused. She said that it had never occurred to her to say any such thing. She explained, “God’s feelings on the matter are really the only ones that matter. And yours don’t, mine don’t.” Celia suspected that if she asked for some verification of her aunt’s acceptance, her aunt would respond, “Celia, I love you, but you know what the Bible says.” What this means, in lived experience then, is that the fundamentalist can draw on “morality” as objectively determined by God. It enables a usually loving aunt—Celia described her as her favorite aunt—not only to reject her niece, but also to deny responsibility for that rejection. Celia’s aunt gets a free pass from reflecting upon the emotional, psychological and social consequences of her actions-ostracizing her niece-because she is following God’s law, and doing His Will. To a fundamentalist reared with such beliefs, gay or straight, this is an obvious finding, part of the fabric of their culture: God’s law trumps everyone and everything.

A Homophobic Student Essay

This ethnographic insight that I seamlessly share here did not emerge so neatly while I collected data. I was, in fact, still puzzled after my interview with Celia. I continued to feel confused, and did not believe that such familial rejection was commonplace amongst Bible Belt gays, so outside of my paradigm was it, both in terms of my religious experience and family life. The forcefulness, the determination, and the commitment that individuals feel and make to a fundamentalist belief system in spite what I perceived to be their own best interest finally began to penetrate my paradigm in Fall of 2007 when I received a virulently homophobic student essay in a gender class I was teaching. The assignment was to analyze the intersections of sexuality and activism in the documentary The Education of Shelby Knox. This documentary explores the story of a teenage girl from Lubbock, Texas, who worked to get sex education taught in the public schools. Her activist journey eventually caused her to question homophobia. One of my students, “Emily,” turned in a five-page diatribe for sexual purity and against homosexuality. When I first read the essay, I felt sick to my stomach, and angry. I could barely read it, so unnerved was I by the language she used in it to justify her beliefs. I had to face the undeniable truth that one of my students, who I had taught all semester, wrote this essay to me, her out lesbian professor grading her.

I come out in all of my classes, often on the first day of class, and almost always by the end of the first week. I believe that I teach best when I easily and comfortably reference relevant personal experiences, and further, that it is important to model for all the students, but especially the gay ones, relaxed same-sex expression. When I was a less experienced teacher, I came out by rather awkwardly stating that “I am a lesbian.” Now, I just bring up Anna, my partner, and discuss her and/or something we did, observed, or experienced as a couple in the context of the material and continue to do so throughout the semester whenever I think it is relevant. To clarify, I reference my same-sex status, and mention Anna, as often I would a heterosexual partner were I married. The students typically respond well. Some look a little confused and alarmed the first time I mention a partner and say “she,” especially in the larger introductory sociology classes, but after I keep on doing so, they appear to get used to it. Thus, since beginning Pray the Gay Away, I find myself in the field even in the classroom, and my students’ responses are more data to sift through.

While most students respond well to my disclosure in the classroom, and, in my opinion, the benefits of coming out far outweigh the costs, I have received some negative teaching evaluations because of it, dealt with some combative questions, and endured Emily’s frankly abusive essay. I have in my possession a copy of her essay, not because I saved it for data, but because I felt I needed to have an accurate record of the incident, including my response to her, to protect myself if she decided to complain about her grade with any university administrators. The essay received a failing grade because, in addition to it being a polemic against homosexuality, it did not conform to the assignment guidelines. The fact that Emily, relatively quiet up until then in the classroom, turned in an essay that was likely to both offend me and receive a failing grade made visible to me how real the threat of hell feels to many fundamentalists. Consider the implications. What kind of community must Emily have grown up in if, at 20-years old, she chose to tell her 40-something lesbian professor that homosexuality is an abomination in a written essay? Her willingness to commit academic seppuku-a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment-for God tells us much about fundamentalist Bible Belt culture.

Methodologically, I have struggled with how best to present this insight in published work. I would like to quote directly from her essay as it vividly illustrates the fundamentalist mind frame with colorful and compelling language, and, in a previous draft of this paper, I did so. The paradox I face is one of dual responsibilities: the responsibility not to abuse my power as an educator warring with my responsibility to the overall project validity and the Bible Belt gays I interviewed. Many grew up with people like Celia’s aunt and my student, bathed in fundamentalist ideology. For example, one of my interview subjects, Joshua—white, 29, from suburban Atlanta—was raised in such a home, and, when his parents found out he was gay, they tried to exorcize him. He called this experience “spiritual rape” (Barton forthcoming). Trapped in the house with his parents, their preacher and his childhood Sunday school teacher, each took turns saying comments like the following to Joshua, “You do know what a sin this is in God’s eyes. You are consciously spitting on the blood that Jesus shed for you.” For Bible Belt gays then, this highly evocative—at times violent—imagery and language was a background discourse throughout their childhoods. One of my informants, Misty—white, 24 from Eastern Kentucky—explicitly framed her experience growing up in a fundamentalist family and church as “ethnocide” (Barton forthcoming). In these ways, Emily’s essay is not only co-mingled with me autoethnographically, but also illustrates the Bible Belt fundamentalist culture Misty, Joshua and many of the Bible Belt gays I interviewed referenced.

So, on the one hand, because it happened to me and provides insight into my project, I feel some ownership of the incident and the essay. On the other, it seems unethical to quote from a student essay, even anonymously, without her permission. I talked through these concerns with a large number of scholars who offered much useful, if conflicting, feedback. Although I learned that I can legally quote from Emily’s essay because her identity is protected, and the editors allowed me to decide whether to use it, I chose not to do so because to do so violates the spirit of the law. After I had decided this, I made one attempt to secure consent: I emailed Emily to ask her for permission. I have Emily’s email because, at the conclusion of our class, she continued to forward me (through 2008) patriotic and religious chain emails. I emailed her the following:

I am writing to ask your permission to anonymously quote from a paper you wrote for my Human Experience of Sex and Gender course in the Fall of 2007 in my published work. By anonymously, I mean that you will not be personally identifiable in any way. I have your email because you emailed me at my work address in August of 2008. I am currently working on a book about religion and homosexuality in the Bible Belt. I’d like to quote from your Fall 2007 paper because in it you well illustrate some commonly held Christian fundamentalist attitudes towards homosexuals. As you probably imagine, my work critiques such attitudes. I appreciate your willingness to consider my request and am happy to answer any questions you might have. I hope you are doing well.

Unsurprisingly, I never received a response from Emily. Methodologically, I decided that while I do own the incident—obviously since I just described it at length—I do not own her words. Further, I concluded that I have plenty of other colorful words that consenting interview subjects, like Joshua and Misty, shared that describe Christian fundamentalist settings. I do not need to potentially mistreat Emily to make my best case. In retrospect, I believe my somewhat stubborn desire to use her essay was partially fueled by how hurt I had felt by it. Because I had personally been upset, on some level I think I felt I deserved to profit from it.

Exodus International

After I had collected almost all of my interview data, I became fascinated by the journey of ex-gay and ex, ex-gay people. Individuals who attempt religious-based ex-gay programs reject a homosexual identity. Those participating in ex-gay programs acknowledge that they experience or have experienced same-sex attractions while attempting either to change them, or if the desires do not go away (which is the case so often even the leaders of ex-gay ministries address it openly), they opt for celibacy. Because they equate homosexuality with sin, they do not accept this aspect of themselves or the same-sex partners with whom they interact. Several interview subjects had mentioned ex-gay ministries, and I felt exploring the ex-gay phenomenon would add another dimension to my study. I secured modest funding to attend the July 2009, 34th annual Exodus International Conference in Wheaton, Illinois (see also Wolkomir 2006, pp. 28–38). Although I was eager to see ex-gay ideology and behavior up close, I also struggled with anxiety about voluntarily immersing myself in an environment governed by a world view so counter to my own. Attending an Exodus conference was a form of “white-knuckle research” for me (Blee 1998).

The conference was a public event. I paid to attend. I did not have to introduce myself or explain my presence to anyone. Yet, the entire time I was there, like other ethnographers, I felt guilty, deceptive, and voyeuristic observing people who did not know I was a researcher with social and political values I oppose (O’Brien 2010; Stacey 1988; Wolcott 2005; Wolf 1996). I felt I was betraying my feminist principles. As Wolf (1996) explained,

Although many nonfeminist fieldworkers may deceive their subjects and feel bad about it, feminists have expressed considerable distress over this dilemma, because lying directly contradicts attempts at a more feminist approach to fieldwork, which includes attempts to equalize a relationship and create more of a friendship. (p.12)

I experienced this role conflict most strongly while sitting intimately in a large wooden booth with seven mothers of gay sons sharing their stories.

The parents’ support group was held in the campus grill, rather than one of the many conference rooms. After some opening remarks by a long-time member of Exodus who compared learning that her daughter was a lesbian to her near-death experience from a violent appendicitis, the participants broke into small groups to share their personal stories and offer one another support. I joined the mothers of gay sons. Before the mothers revealed anything, I said, “I do not have a gay son. I am a researcher working on a project exploring homosexuality and religion, and will leave if this makes any of you uncomfortable.” They all politely reassured me that it was fine for me to be there and I stayed, distracted by the guilt I was experiencing about my lack of full disclosure. Like many ethnographers (Linneman 2003; Moon 2004; Stein 2001), I introduced myself with “partial truths” (Thorne 1980, p. 287). Barrie Thorne (1980) observes that “reviewing ethnographies to examine modes of self-introduction (when they are mentioned at all), I have been struck by the widespread use of partial truths” (p.287). Partial truths are a practical solution to the problem of gaining access to certain groups, and the canny ethnographer is usually skilled at wielding vague language to accomplish her research goals.

I imagined that I would have nothing in common with those at an ex-gay event, especially the heterosexuals. I perceived them as bigots. As Kathleen Blee (1991) in her study of women in the Ku Klux Klan explained,

I was prepared to hate and fear my informants. My own commitment to progressive politics prepared me to find these people strange, even repellent. I expected no rapport, no shared assumptions, no commonality of thought or experience. What I found was more disturbing. Many of the people I interviewed were interesting, intelligent and well-informed. Despite my prediction that we would experience each other as completely foreign, in fact I shared the assumptions and opinions of my informants on a number of topics (excluding, of course, race, religion, and most political topics). (p.6)

And, like Blee, I expected no rapport, so I was surprised by how connected I felt to the mothers of gay sons, listening to their painful stories, and watching as one after another broke down and cried in that wooden booth, while they generally made comments that illustrated they loved their sons, and wanted to support them. For example, one mother shared a long narrative about her last visit to her gay son. Her son had been busy with work, so she spent most of the visit with his partner. She explained that she prayed about the visit ahead of time, and God had told her to be open and ready. With quiet triumph, she then explained that her son’s partner had questioned her about her religious beliefs, and she had had the opportunity to speak with him about God’s love. From her account, it sounded as though she had been a pleasant guest who never said anything openly homophobic, even when she shared God’s Word. Compared to some of the stories of the Bible Belt gays I had interviewed, whose parents refused even to let partners into their homes, this mother, who traveled to Baltimore to visit her son, and willingly spent time with his partner, seemed to me just one step away from a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) mom. And she was not the only one.

After listening to several similar accounts, I timidly ventured a question of the group. I asked, “Since it seems like you recognized that your sons were different from an early age, have you ever considered that perhaps God made your sons like this? Are you sure homosexuality is a sin?” This query was met with a uniform shaking of heads “no,” as every mother in the circle firmly said, “No, I’m sure it’s a sin.” The mothers were not rude, but they were clear: they had never considered homosexuality anything but a sin, and certainly not part of God’s miraculous creation. In her study of two Methodist congregations—one gay-affirming and one not—sociologist Dawne Moon (2004) asked a similar question of conservative Christians. Her interviews subjects responded with a “love the sin, hate the sinner” argument. They explained that they believed it was ultimately more loving to point out the sin and help the sinner, than accept the homosexual and condemn him or her to eternal damnation.

As our discussion wound down, it became clear that not only were these mothers not two-dimensional homophobic caricatures, but they also perceived themselves as the progressive arm of the various Christian institutions within which they interacted. In this way, they are closer allies of gay rights advocates than I had imagined because they, too, experience the “sticky stigma” of homosexuality, and negotiate painful homophobic attitudes (Goffman 1963). Three of the seven mothers cried during our hour long support group meeting. They worried that their sons would end up in hell, and wondered what they had done wrong. While she cried, one mother discussed listening to her co-workers at her Christian school make hateful, homophobic remarks. Her son had just come out to her, and was suffering both bullying and inner pain. This mother said that she felt closeted and silenced around these co-workers, and in her church. Another mother responded supportively, “We understand our sons’ struggles. We’ve seen that they have always been different. We can be our son’s link to God and the church. We all have a personal brokenness.”

The mothers of gay sons closed their discussion with a prayer. We joined hands and bowed our heads as each woman shared her own personal thoughts with God and the group. I did not pray, but I experienced a moment of extreme disorientation when one of the mothers, the “leader” of our little group, the really nice one who had visited her son in Baltimore and seemed like a PFLAG mom to me, prayed for my project. She said, “Lord, help guide Bernadette in her research. Give her strength and clarity and insight. With all your abundant goodness, support Bernadette in this important work. In Jesus’ name, we pray.” My hands started to sweat and my vision blurred as I was prayed for. I bit my lips hard to keep a nervous smile off my face. The tension I experienced from my own deception grew so intense, I left the conference. I stayed only two days out of the five. I left early not because I was worn out with the people or the event, but because I was uncomfortable with my own misrepresentation. I worried that I was taking advantage of the participants by engaging in conversations in which I invited others to share intimacies while revealing nothing of myself or my true intent. If I had stayed any longer at the Exodus conference, I feared internal pressure would cause me to come out as a lesbian and a political progressive, and I was not clear that that would be the best methodological choice. Other researchers have written about their decisions to be out, or not, to interview subjects. For example, gay sociologists Dawne Moon, Thomas Linneman and Arlene Stein studying Christian conservatives, and their attitudes about homosexuality, did not disclose their sexual orientations while performing ethnography and conducting interviews.

Marcy and Amanda

I have felt uneasy about, and unsure what to do with, insights gained under conditions of blurry consent not only when I “study up” (Harding 2005, p. 2011)—that is, when observing Christian fundamentalists—but also with those that emerge accidentally, while I am simply living my life among Bible Belt gays. In other words, I frequently face issues of co-mingled autoethnographic data. In 2009 Anna and I became regulars at a cabin mountain community. This cabin vacation community is in an area of the state anecdotally known as racist. By this, I mean that over fifteen different people, including people of color, have independently brought up the racist reputation of this county to me in conversation. Further, in three seasons of visiting this vacation spot, I have personally ever seen only two people of color. As quantitative data illustrate, prejudicial attitudes toward racial minorities are often accompanied by sexist and homophobic attitudes as well (Henley and Pincus 1978; Herek 1987; Kirkpatrick 1993; Whitley 1999). In rural areas, like this county, white gay people from the region who have always been part of the fabric of daily life can sometimes adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” status, what I call “a condition of inarticulation,” and carve out a place in the community (Barton forthcoming). Such is the case with Marcy and Amanda at Willow Resort (these names and places are pseudonyms). Marcy and Amanda are a lesbian couple who share a cabin, live at the resort year round and manage the cabins. I know they are a couple because they have told this to another lesbian couple, Jan and Madeline, friends of ours who own a cabin there.

The interpersonal dynamics of this close-knit resort community alone warrant sociological inquiry. But, of most interest for this article are my speculations about my interactions with Marcy and Amanda. They have a country way of interacting at which I have achieved only spotty efficacy. My rhythm is off, my conversation too personal, I seem different. In addition to this limitation, my usual techniques of connecting with others do not work well with closeted gay people. Marcy and Amanda have not come out to me. In fact, they avoid eye contact and small talk with me. They turn their bodies to avoid me. Passing them on a narrow sidewalk, I have felt them energetically repulse me as I walk by. They are so distant that I forget they are there at times and am surprised when they remember who I am. Cabin owners speak well of them, and appreciate their good work in keeping the resort running smoothly. If there is a problem I’ve heard many people say, “Marcy and Amanda will take care of it,” and everyone seems to have great confidence in them. But, while they share a cabin and, to me, seem obviously to be a couple (especially since I have solid verification from a reliable source), I have not heard a single other person (beside Jan and Madeline in the privacy of their cabin and only with Anna and me) ever discuss their relationship status. This is the “toxic closet” in which Marcy and Amanda are daily living the “condition of inarticulation.”

Every visit Anna and I make to the resort (over twenty times by now), we encounter and interact with Marcy and Amanda, and there is always something I notice, even if it’s only my own changing behavior. Most recently, I’ve stopped referencing my partnership with Anna in front of them and other resort employees. I find myself gradually adopting the language of vague articulation while on the mountain to conform to what I perceive of as their communicative norms. During our last visit I did this unconsciously, with what I now believe to be the expectation that doing so might make Marcy and Amanda more comfortable, and that they then might be nicer to me, or at least our interactions might be less strained. Nor did I even realize I was changing my language until I reflected upon it after the fact. I now perceive myself as being sucked into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” hegemonic undertow, even though I have strong negative feelings and beliefs about it. Thus, in my personal interactions with Marcy and Amanda—as just another guest on the mountain—I am absorbed into their toxic closet condition of inarticulation and must decide, encounter by encounter, incident by incident, how I choose to position myself as a woman in a same-sex relationship to and around them. But I do not only interact with Marcy and Amanda as just another, albeit lesbian, guest. I am also a researcher studying these issues, and the known, but not known and certainly not talked about state of their relationship, this overall condition of inarticulation, poses an ethical bind for me. In other words, the unarticulated status of their relationship, in which everyone colludes, affects me as both person and scholar.

Blee (2009) observes, “In many hidden social worlds, those who are most accessible are likely to be the wrong people to study” (p.17). Marcy and Amanda certainly qualify as members of a hidden social world to which I have special and unique, if constrained, access. Their daily lived experience of negotiating being gay and closeted in a small rural community in the Bible Belt illuminates another dimension of my project. But, although I have not asked, I think it is reasonable to assume they would not welcome an interview query. The “epistemology of the closet” creates the following methodological dilemma: exclude observations made of deeply closeted individuals from analysis, or make tentative claims that are, at best, speculative, and at worst, inaccurate, unverified, unethical and a violation of privacy (Sedgwick 1993). My insights are thus one-sided observations fraught with the following ethical questions: am I violating any confidentiality or privacy issues by speculating on Marcy and Amanda’s “maybe” partnership, and how I interpret their actions, in a publication? If they never come across a publication that includes data about them, is it more acceptable? What is my responsibility to them and to people I observe during field work who are unaware that I am collecting data? Do the value and validity of the data outweigh these ethical issues? This is the first time I have reflected upon my weekend encounters with Marcy and Amanda in a publication, and I feel equally uneasy about including or excluding these observations. I am choosing to do so in this venue because I have obscured the particulars of the data so as to protect their privacy and think it is extremely unlikely that they, or anyone they know, will read a sociological journal. At the same time, I will not include these data in my forthcoming book for selfish, personal reasons. I think some people in the cabin community will read Pray the Gay Away (I have been chatting about it on and off for the past year while socializing with individuals on the mountain), and I do not want to complicate my relationships with any staff or residents there.

Gabrielle and Megan

In my research I have found that all Bible Belt gays either come from a family who treats them and/or their partner less well than they would a heterosexual family member or partner, or have been involved with a partner whose family treats them worse than heterosexual in-laws. This is part of the fabric of life as a Bible Belt gay—at some point or other, and for some, ceaselessly, one will be treated as “less than” in intimate gatherings and such is the case with Gabrielle and Megan. I am friends with both Gabrielle and Megan and have not formally interviewed either of them. I, along with many others, tried to be supportive when they went through a painful, emotional, volatile break-up in 2008. In 2011, each still holds grudges, and they have yet to fully separate their jointly owned property. Gabrielle partially credits the dismissive way Megan’s family, particularly Megan’s mother, treated her for some of the struggles they endured as a couple. For example, at a holiday dinner, knowing that Gabrielle and Megan were a couple, and while Gabrielle was at the table, Megan’s mother queried aloud to Megan in front of the whole family, “When are you going to find a nice young man?” When I was writing on the “toxic closet” (Barton 2010), I remembered these stories, contacted Gabrielle and asked her if I could use them to illustrate my theory of the toxic closet as a “condition of inarticulation” in family environments (Barton forthcoming). Gabrielle gave me her verbal permission and then emailed me the following, “Here is a good example of Megan’s mother not acknowledging our relationship and making me feel like I wasn’t welcome. I am not sure what holiday it was, but her mom said they would have dinner at 1, and then if I would like to come over around 4 pm for dessert that would be fine.”

This is an awful story, but a good example of how homophobic others push Bible Belt gays into the toxic closet against their will, and I was happy to receive permission to use it. However, the longer I thought it over, the more clear it became to me that I could not use this example in my book because Megan and I are friends too. I would have to get Megan’s permission to use it, and that would entail both asking her to share something negative about her mother in a publication and bring up all her pain about the break-up with Gabrielle. While subjects frequently reference partners, friends and family members in interviews, and I include mention of those others as pseudonyms in published work when doing so clarifies or supports a point, rarely do I personally know these other individuals, nor do they know me. I have never before thought twice about the ethics of sharing stories subjects tell about other people so long as all identifying information is obscured.

But, with Gabrielle and Megan, it is likely that if they do not read Pray the Gay Away when it comes out, someone they know will probably do so, recognize the story and talk about it with them. In this instance, my ethical constraint against writing about Megan’s mother in Pray the Gay Away is personal, not professional. Further, since I think it is extremely unlikely that either Gabrielle or Megan, or any lesbian they know from Central or Eastern Kentucky, would encounter, or seek out, this story published in a sociological or feminist academic journal, I feel comfortable sharing it here, but not in a potentially more widely-read book. This particular situation has made more visible to me the problems that occur with co-mingled data. At our next lunch, I explained to Gabrielle that, although I appreciated her generosity in sharing the stories about Megan’s mother, I would not be using them in Pray the Gay Away for the reasons I just described. Gabrielle was at first surprised, then a little offended, and finally relieved after I concluded my exhaustive explanation.

Demarcating the Field

The issues of co-mingled data, blurry consent, privacy and deception that the situations with my former student, the Exodus mothers, Marcy and Amanda, and Gabrielle and Megan illustrate are partially a consequence of the blurry mental boundaries I have about when I am and am not in the field. Since I was arguably “in the field” before I even conceptualized Pray the Gay Away and will still be in the field after I complete it, setting limits that separate data from life has been one of my largest methodological challenges. I have been “out” as a lesbian since 1995 and in my current partnership for 13 years. In my daily life I regularly come into contact with Bible Belt gays, not the least my partner, Anna, with whom I live. Anna is from Eastern Kentucky, and has been out since she was 14. She has been socializing in lesbian and gay male circles in Kentucky for 24 years. Between the two of us, we know a lot of gay people in Kentucky. So, every barbecue, every visit with Anna’s family, every dinner out, every social event is an opportunity for gathering data. Finally, even if I manage not to meet one other Bible Belt gay in the course of a day, I am still a lesbian living in the Bible Belt, and I can never leave myself. In addition then to voluminous interview data, and the observations possible at everything from Friday evening happy hour to the Christian funeral of one of Anna’s relatives, every single encounter I personally have with anyone or any text is potentially data.

Part of managing this enormous volume of information involves demarcating the field-separating out what is valuable from what is not, what is work and what is just my life and not something I have to analyze and what is too private to share no matter how useful it may be to my scholarly argument-and at all this I have been less successful. I have neither found nor erected any clear boundary separating work from life. My project has taken over my life. I think this is partly because I am a member of the group I am studying, and partly because of my strong political commitment to the work. This has made for an intellectually rich few years, but also caused tension in my partnership, created imbalance in my life, and generated a number of edgy ethical issues, some of which I have just explored. Anna rightfully accuses me of “working all the time” and resents my time spent away from her in fundamentalist environments, like churches, conferences, and the Creation Museum. And my work, while absorbing and fascinating, is also on a very depressing topic, and I feel emotionally burdened by the weight of the stories I have collected.

This is a new challenge for me as well, one that substantively differs from those I encountered in the previous qualitative research projects I have conducted. This study of Bible Belt gays is my third research project, and significantly larger in scope than the previous two. My first major study, my master’s thesis, explored the degree to which Star Trek fans adopted what I perceived to be the utopic values of the Star Trek universe. For this project, I joined a local Star Trek fan club, conducted interviews and a focus group with members, and participated in most of the club functions for nine months. Although I was a Star Trek fan before I began the project, and remain a fan to this day, when I finished my thesis, I stopped attending club meetings. I had fully immersed myself in the world of Star Trek fandom for approximately 18 months, had a great deal of fun doing so and then, distracted by the increasing demands of a Ph.D. Program, I gradually became too busy to continue to attend monthly meetings, and left the hard-core Trekker world behind with fond memories and no regrets.

My second research project, a study of the experiences of exotic dancers took considerably longer, contained many more methodological challenges and was much less “fun.” Unlike the Star Trek project, and also unlike my study of Bible Belt gays, my biggest methodological challenge researching exotic dancers was gaining the trust of informants. I have written about this at length elsewhere (Barton 2006, 2007). After an anxious 12 months struggling to get any woman to interview with me, I seriously considered participant observation, that is, working as an exotic dancer to gain entry into the field. My progress was stalled, my degree was at stake, and I was feeling desperate. I never did so though. In the final analysis, I found myself too repulsed by the strip club environment, and too wary of the patrons, to dance. I lucked upon a key informant and gradually, laboriously, managed to collect 37 interviews with exotic dancers in three different parts of the Unites States. Thus, when researching dancers, the costs were almost all on the front end of the work in gaining the trust of informants. Further, as soon as I felt it was methodologically reasonably, I stopped going to strip bars. The clearer the world of strip bars became to me, the less I wanted to be in one. I washed the strip club “field” off of me as quickly as possible when studying the experiences of exotic dancers. In this way, I was clear what did and did not constitute the field.

In contrast, my insider status with Bible Belt gays creates a different set of costs and benefits, and ethical issues, than did my outsider status with exotic dancers in my earlier work. With Bible Belt gays gaining trust has never been an issue, while potentially abusing that trust still is. And, as an insider, I am experiencing other costs throughout the project—not the least being that since the work is “about me” in a way my exotic dancer research never was—I struggle not to take personally homophobic responses from people who attend my public lecture on “Being Gay in the Bible Belt” or with whom I simply discuss the book I am writing. To illustrate, the first comment people usually made when they learn I have studied exotic dancers is something lewd and insulting like, “Of course they’re all drug addicts and hookers.” This is unpleasant and annoying for me, and I always respond by correcting this misperception, but I never feel like the people who make these pejorative comments are talking about me.

Throughout this manuscript, I have speculated on whether I own the research stories shared here so that publication of them does not constitute an ethical violation of others. However, even if I make a strong enough case that these autoethnographic observations are mine, I still fear that publishing them potentially compromises a feminist epistemology of shared knowledge. Like many feminists, I am uncomfortable with having more power than research subjects (Stacey 1988; Wolf 1996). While it is almost always the case that the researcher is more powerful than her subjects, if only because she has the possibility to share the final story, being a member of the group I am researching has brought issues of unequal power into sharp relief for me. As an insider, situations of co-mingled data, blurry consent, deception and betrayal are numerous, and the “inherently unequal reciprocity with informants” more salient (Stacey 1988, p. 26). At the same time, not publishing the insights I gain in the field, not using all the tools in my toolbox to showcase the lives of Bible Belt gays, is also a betrayal of my subjects. There are “serious moral costs involved” in either case (Stacey 1988, p 26). Thus far, I have laboriously negotiated ethical issues on a case-by-case basis. Comparing my different research roles—from participant observer (with Star Trek fans in my first research project) to observer (with exotic dancers) to almost “complete member researcher” (Angrosino and Mays de Perez 2003, pp. 113–4) (with Bible Belt gays)—I find, like Katherine Irwin (2006), that subjectivity is not inherently better than objectivity in fieldwork, and being an insider not necessarily an improvement over being an outsider.

The editors of this special issue asked me to speculate upon “when the field is no longer the field.” In other words, since, for me, in the project on Bible Belt gays the field is everywhere and everything, when do I foresee myself exiting the field? When will it recede? The short answer to this is: when I find a new research project. Reviewing my history as a qualitative researcher, I recognize that, while my previous projects have not been about me in the way that the work on Bible Belt gays is, I have approached all of my qualitative projects with an attitude of complete immersion. When I studied Star Trek fans, it was Star Trek and science fiction around the clock: shows, movies, conventions, discussions. When I researched exotic dancers, again I watched, read, and discussed elements of the sex industry constantly. Both these topics were very interesting to me and held my attention for a long time. Even now, I retain a personal and scholarly interest in them and, in fact, am currently teaching a course on each, one titled the Sociology of Speculative Science Fiction and the other, Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Sex Industry. Similarly, I predict that I will continue to be curious about Christian fundamentalism and the lives of Bible Belt gays long after my book is published. I expect this field will not begin to recede from my daily lived experience of it until I throw myself whole-heartedly into another compelling, all-engrossing study, and, even then, it will simply move from the front to the back burner and simmer with my other old projects.


I would like to extend a special thanks to Kathleen M. Blee and Ashley Currier for their thoughtful feedback on several drafts of this manuscript, as well as inviting me to participate in this special issue and the accompanying conference. Thanks also to Samuel Faulkner, Philip Krummrich, Anna Blanton, Constance L. Hardesty, Linda Morrison, Kelsy Burke, Amy McDowell and all the presenters and participants at the October 2010 “Beyond the IRB: New Frontiers in the Ethics of Qualitative Research” conference held at the University of Pittsburgh.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Social Work and CriminologyMorehead State UniversityMoreheadUSA

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