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Qualitative research embraced a reflexive turn in the 1970s and 1980s and since that time has been particularly useful for exploring the experiences of nonnormative individuals. This chapter explores the ethical value of “queer literacy,” which allows readers intending on undertaking work with LGBT+ groups to have a nuanced understanding of various nonheterosexual and noncisgender identifications. There is the potential for there to be anxiety around contemporary discussions of gender/sexuality often due to the variety of terms used, as well as concerns for sensitivity when engaging with intimate details of others’ experiences. The aim of queer literacy is to equip readers with the ability to form knowledge and to develop understanding in order to engage with queer experiences. This allows researchers of LGBT+ lives to discuss issues confidently, accurately, and critically.
The themes emerging from this discussion of queer literacy include identification, authenticity, representation, and visibility, all of which are important when engaging with nonnormative lives. For LGBT+ individuals, authenticity is often perceived as achievable through self-representation and visibility: “coming out.” Yet, in terms of ethics, visibility is problematized because of the real concern for possible prejudice-based attacks on participants. This chapter takes the heat out of such concerns by shedding light on how to engage effectively with LGBT+ groups. Finally, the chapter argues how queer literate ethical researchers of/with LGBT+ communities must adhere to Viviane Namaste’s three key principles of relevance, equity in partnership, and ownership when conducting ethical ethnographic research.
KeywordsEthics LGBT+ Queer literacy Nonnormative Visibility Representation
Qualitative research embraced a reflexive turn in the 1970s and 1980s and, since that time, has been particularly useful for exploring the experiences of nonnormative individuals. The acronym LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) has often been used to denote a queer grouping, with multiple and often lengthy variations such as LGBTQIAA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Ally), more commonly expressed as LGBT+. However, Daniel Warner states that “queer research should stop adding letters to LGBT research, and should instead form a body of knowledge about how these categories come to be, and are lived, on a daily basis” (2004: 335). The term “nonnormative” is a useful term that moves away from complex acronyms but adequately describes nonheterosexual and noncisgender individuals (cisgender or “cis” refers to an individual whose gender identity is aligned to the sex they were assigned at birth). For the purpose of this chapter, we use both terms: “nonnormative” and LGBT+.
This chapter explores the ethical value of “queer literacy,” which allows researchers who intend to undertake work with LGBT+ groups to have a nuanced understanding of various nonheterosexual and noncisgender identifications. There is the potential for there to be anxiety around contemporary discussions of gender/sexuality often due to the variety of terms used, as well as concerns for sensitivity when engaging with intimate details of others’ experiences. The aim of queer literacy is to equip readers with the ability to form knowledge and develop understanding in order to engage with nonnormative experiences. This allows researchers of LGBT+ groups to discuss issues confidently, accurately, and critically.
The themes emerging from this discussion of queer literacy include identification, authenticity, representation, and visibility: all of which are important when engaging with nonnormative lives. For LGBT+ individuals, authenticity is often perceived as achievable through self-representation and visibility, often demarcated through the process of “coming out.” Yet, in terms of ethics, visibility is problematized because of the real concern for possible prejudice-based actions. This chapter takes the heat out of such concerns by shedding light on how to engage effectively with LGBT+ groups. Finally, the chapter argues how queer literate ethical researchers of/with LGBT+ communities must adhere to Viviane Namaste’s (2009) three key principles of relevance, equity in partnership, and ownership when conducting empirical research.
Researching LGBT+ Lives
The qualitative turn to explore nonnormative gender and sexuality has resulted in a wealth of publications that span academic disciplines: arts, humanities, social sciences, medicine. The popularity of such research has resulted in the development of numerous handbooks, textbooks, and journals devoted entirely to the study of sexualities and gender. The scholarship in this area reveals the shaky foundations of heteronormativity, negates binary formulations of gender, and erases histories of what was once considered sexual deviancy: nonheterosexuality. Such academic enterprise speaks back to dominant hegemonies of cisgender and “compulsory heterosexuality” (Rich 1980).
Despite this burgeoning field of much needed work, a glimpse back in history reminds us of the brutality of research conducted with LGBT+ individuals, where medical and scientific research with sexual minorities was often punctuated with physical and psychological violations against LGBT+ research subjects. Such research often focused on attempting to eradicate any physical cause for deviant sexualities, using a range of brutal treatments, including extreme physical medical procedures: castrations, lobotomies, clitoridectomies, and shock treatments. A further glimpse across the globe beyond the West at the time of writing reveals 73 countries where homosexuality is illegal (data provided by International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association “ILGA”: https://76crimes.com). The death penalty is still in force in eight of these countries, with penalties ranging from life imprisonment to laws that prohibit homosexuality but do not penalize. Support groups for LGBT+ people exist in these countries and in more progressive countries across the globe; we must not lose sight of the activism still needed in and beyond the academy. Beyond legislature and political acceptance, homophobia and transphobia remain real. Legal and political recognition of LGBT+ identities and lives does not lead to the eradication of homophobia or transphobia; activism is still important in countries where homosexuality and transgender equality have been legalized, as prejudiced-based rhetoric and violence still exist.
Numbers – massed bodies – constitute a movement and this, even if subterranean, belies enforced silences about the range and diversity of human sexual practices. Making the movement visible breaks the silence about it, challenges prevailing notions, and opens up possibilities for everyone. (1991: 774)
Researchers investigating nonnormative sexuality and gender can be subjected to excessive caution from research ethics committees, even in locations where the rights of LGBT+ are held in legislature. Tufford et al. (2012) use four case study examples that reveal how ethics review boards “engage in ostensibly protective stances regarding potential risks and informed consent that are unwittingly founded upon negative stereotypes of LGB populations” (2012: 221). Tufford et al.’s work shows how procedures within ethics committees were challenged by applications, who in turn, sought to educate the committee. The considerations of queer literacy in this chapter are significant not only for LGBT+ individuals and communities or researchers of LGBT+ lives, but for all those interested in research ethics within academic settings, especially gatekeepers.
As research and knowledge production around LGBT+ people were historically undertaken largely by nonqueer people, queer lives bring forth rich, alternative perspectives on their identities, representations, and language. For Scott, enlarging the picture reveals “a metaphor of visibility as literal transparency” (1991: 775). Sieber and Tolich discuss “human research literacy” (2013: 204), which aims to build understanding and trust within social research design and effectuation. Issues involving nonnormative gender and sexuality may result in a feeling of discomfort for some people, whether that be through their own prejudice-based views, their religious beliefs, or their own negative experience of LGBT+ culture, yet there is also discomfort around the content and language used. The LGBT+ community and its allies have had to work hard in removing an element of taboo around its status. Researchers of such communities have engaged with sites of controversy and intimacy, to bring about fruitful human inquiry and public dissemination. In seeking to avoid offence or political incorrectness, some people hesitate or even stutter to find the most appropriate terms to describe LGBT+ groups and individuals. Queer literacy aims to provide the knowledge, understanding, and skills to engage with real lives. Queer literacy is not something aimed solely at LGBT+ community, or researchers of LGBT+ lives, but it matters and needs to be taken seriously by everyone. This enables people in society to understand and discuss nonnormative gender and sexuality, and related issues, with confidence, accuracy, and criticality.
Within LGBT+ culture, the concept of literacy is paramount, given the variation in terms individuals use to self-identify. Engaging with such terms means researchers are able to avoid drowning in acronymic alphabet soup, as there exist multiple and often lengthy variations such as LGBTQIAA more commonly expressed as LGBT+. Of course, cultural literacy of the LGBT+ community relies on much more than a knowledge of the terms individuals may use to self-identify. Researchers should not lose sight of the dominant prevailing social hierarchies which have traditionally regulated gender, sex, and sexuality. Nonnormative expressions of gender and sexuality have always existed, but they have been delegitimized and pathologized by norms, laws, and other political and social constructions.
The focus on experience with LGBT+ lives means that much empirical research engages with the messiness of lived experiences. Stories of experience considered through life-story narrative research or phenomenological investigations are often considered messy, simply because human lives are messy. Tina Cook describes the “messy turn” as “the interface between the known and the nearly known, between knowledge in use and tacit knowledge as yet to be useful, […] the ‘messy area’ as a vital element for seeing, disrupting, analysing, learning, knowing and changing” (2009: 277). Life narratives may be told chronologically, in reverse, and episodes may jump from one to another. Equally problematic is the awareness that memory can serve as an unreliable tool in its attempt to construct and narrate the past. Individuals engage in a process of editing and redaction as stories are told. Simply, there is no straightforward, direct access to “truth.”
One’s gender identity is not related to one’s racial and class identity as the parts of pop-bead necklaces are related, separable and insertable in other “strands” with difference racial and class “parts”. (1988: 15)
Queer literacy acknowledges that experience in the lives of LGBT+ people is relational and emotional. Researching others’ experiences requires a high degree of emotional intelligence to steer the dialogue and protect the partners from vulnerability while reliving distressing aspects of their life. That said, a competent researcher does not need to function as a counsellor – although there are undoubtedly times when such skills can become ethically relevant – but they should be aware of professional organizations that can support partners who need support in dealing with trauma or distress.
Authenticity: Metaphorical Closets and Performativity
Within LGBT+ lives, the notion of performativity is captured by stage directions “coming out” and a metaphorical prop “the closet.” The work for equality and the use of digital technologies in the global West have meant that many people are coming out at a younger age than previously. Heteronormativity renders the experience of coming out as unique to the LGBT+ individuals. In this context, coming out is a milestone which denotes the beginning of an authentic self. This self-identification is not fixed, of course, but coming out points to an individual who has spent a long time figuring themselves out, finding the right words to express themselves and mobilizing the courage to share this fragile internal selfhood with others. With such agency becomes empowerment.
Ken Plummer (1995: 58) cites four critical processes which are at play when an individual comes out: coming out personally (to oneself), coming out privately (to specific others, family, and friends), coming out publicly (one’s self identification becomes public knowledge), and coming out politically (the individual uses one’s story for consciousness raising and social change). Plummer is right to quantify that each of these identified processes is not in any particular order. In terms of methods, Greenough (2017) has observed how the use of social media allows people to “try out” their identifications before making them public, bridging the gap between coming out personally, privately, and publicly.
Coming out is an act which is both transgressive and activist. The notion of authenticity as key to LGBT+ lives has been powerfully articulated by Fielder and Ezzy (2018). Their work reveals how coming out is more than choice, eliding the assumption that postmodern gender and sexuality is the equivalent to purveying a buffet and selecting what takes one’s fancy. They state “choice, as an end in itself, does not confer authenticity. Choice is rather the means to an end, and what is done with the choice matters” (Fielder and Ezzy 2018: 18). Authenticity is more than choosing labels; it is about engaging in a process which renders visible what has been suppressed by normative limitations on gender and sexuality. Quotidian performativity of this nature occupies a social space within which queerness and nonnormativity create dialogue.
The ethical researcher must be sensitive of their partners’ relationship vis-à-vis the metaphorical closet. Individuals who chose not to be out will have valid, well-considered reasons not to speak out about their gender/sexuality. It should be remembered that closets can be safe spaces.
As well as having a suffering at the base of these stories, there is also the harbouring of a secret and a silence which may eventually be given a voice, disclosed, brought out of the private world into the public one. Many important issues appear here: of privacy, of lying, or passing, of defences, of exposure, of deceptions, of transparency. (Plummer 1995: 56)
While this choice signals a virtual powerlessness and resulting negative self-esteem, the choice not to be out should be respected. Similarly, in relation to bisexual lives, some consider the option that bisexuals are able “pass” as heterosexual. This is a nuanced double-edged sword, as judiciously put by Kathleen Jowitt: “in my experience passing as straight is almost as tiring as repeatedly coming out” (2017: 116).
Representation and Visibility of Trans Lives
In terms of coming out as trans, as well as the personal journey of self-exploration shared by LGB people, the process of coming out often denotes a physical and performative transformation, through which self-authenticity is rendered visible. Ethical considerations to transgender people are applied by healthcare professionals, including surgeons and psychiatrists who vet the process of transitioning. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health has published protocols for professionals working with those who wish to undergo hormonal or physical transitions to the other gender: Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People. Unlike lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, those wishing to undergo gender reassignment therapy are required to “test out” the visible expression of their gender and regularly report back to professionals as part of this process. In this regard, it is important to observe how cisgender individuals are not required to test out their gender before it being assigned! The notion of presenting and performing a gender visibilizes the process for trans people – a process which is physical, emotional, social, and legal. The process of presenting often results in culturally induced stress: the challenge of being different and visible within what remains a largely heteronormative society. Such visibility demands courage from the individual and support from communities, as fear or reprisals or prejudice-based attacks are real.
Researchers working with transgender people must be aware that a desire to discuss past history (i.e., in the sex assigned at birth) can often be undesirable and uncomfortable. Equally important is to recognize the process that takes place due to medical intervention. Those undertaking hormone therapies will notice physical changes within themselves, as well as being aware of the medical risks that accompany such therapy. For trans individuals undergoing surgery, this is major surgery which therefore always carries risks too.
Of course, not all people who identify as trans choose to engage with hormone therapy or elective surgery. Some may never transition gender in public spaces. The terms with which other noncisgender individuals use to identify are multiple, including trans, nonbinary, genderqueer. Some individuals describe themselves as gender-fluid, which can result in a presentation of gender ambiguity or androgyny. Some people feel they have no gender to speak about: agender. Researchers who engage with individuals who identify as noncisgender should ask what terms of identification and what pronouns individuals use. They should equally be aware if such metalanguage is constant or fluid. In addition, researchers should be careful to note how an individual may describe their body in different terms to their mind.
In terms of representation, many LGBT+ identifying individuals have spent a long time figuring themselves out. Therefore, while ethics panels may insist on anonymity or confidentiality of partners within a study, this can seem an arbitrary measure to those who take pride in narrating who they are. There must be a balance between the requirement for anonymity (in cases where a participant may require such a measure for safety and safeguarding) and to allow the hard-won rights and self-presentation be documented, in cases where there is no risk to participants. The caution remains, however, that individuals who do not wish to be identified should not be at risk of unwanted disclosures, or forced “outings.”
Miller observes how she enjoys reading such autobiographical disclosures, noting her preference for “the gossipy grain of situated writing to the academic sublime” (1991: xi). Edward (2018a) describes his use of autobiographical writing as “mesearch,” observing how “mesearch, as a methodology, is characterised by a triangulation of autoethnography, research/practice and selfhood” (2018a: 42). Elsewhere, Edward states how “mesearchers engage in journeys which explore the self in position to the research area, and this positioning of emotions leads to self-questioning, doubt, concern, personalization, honesty” (2018b: 171). Edward’s work exposes how personalizing the research can be transformative and eliminate boundaries between researcher and researched.
…binding writer to reader in a fabulation of self-truth, that what is at stake matters also to others: somewhere in the self-fiction of the personal voice is a belief that the writing is worth the risk. (Miller 1991: 24)
To engage in self-disclosure can raise ethical questions of objectivity, vulnerability of researcher, bias, and influence. Yet, qualitative research relies on relationships more than processes; therefore, the building and maintaining of relationships with individuals and research communities are paramount in conducting effective co-committal work.
Judith Butler has emerged as a central figure within queer theory (1990). Building on the work of feminist theory and poststructuralism, Butler exposes how gender is a construct – and that binary notions of gender, male/female, masculine/feminine – only exist because of hegemonic heteronormative repetitions through performativity. Butler suggests that once such repetitions are ruptured, gender is exposed as artificial.
Queer theory has made some valid and valuable contributions to the notion of gender as performative and instable, and this has permeated academic disciplines, spreading queerness across the academy within the global West. Yet, one critique pitted against the work of Butler emerges from Viviane Namaste. In her concern with “The Transgender Question,” Namaste exposes how work is often produced on an academic, theoretical, and philosophical level. In advocating a move away from theorizing identity politics, Namaste calls for “meaningful social research, and therefore meaningful theory” (2009: 24), by involving marginal people within the knowledge production of themselves, therefore transforming the process of knowledge. She states that “theory would be well served by actually speaking with everyday women about their lives” (2009: 27), criticizing academic investigations which is not rooted in individual experiences. Similarly, in advocating a move away from theoretical ruminations about LGBT+ lives, we suggest the focus must be grounded in experience. Namaste outlines three key principles for working with communities: relevance, equity in partnership, and ownership (2009: 24).
Considering the first principle of relevancy, Namaste states how this “means being able to demonstrate that the knowledge produced will be useful to the people and communities under investigation” (2009: 25). Therefore, the researcher’s position should be one which bears fruit for the community integral to the study. One of the consequences of relevancy, we argue, is that there should be impact and improvement for the community in terms of knowledge generated and disseminated, as well as offering clear information pertaining to the methods used to garner new knowledge. Throughout the investigation, researchers must consider how the research is not entirely self-serving but serves the individuals who form part of the research process. Namaste calls on researchers to consider the following questions: “what is, in fact, useful knowledge? Who gets to decide? Who has the last word on this? Why?” (2009: 25). Of course, this may not be clear at the beginning of a research study, when researchers submit applications for ethics clearance. Responses to such questions may be obvious from the outset, or they may be formulated intermittently, or only occur at the end of the research process – but it is imperative that a consideration of relevancy should drive the consciousness of the project.
Namaste’s second consideration of equity in partnership is described as “people about whom one writes have an equal say and an equal voice in all aspects of empirical research: defining the question, gathering the data, analysing the results, and presenting the conclusions” (2009: 25). This is obviously problematic as research committees often require protocols and procedures to be considered by appropriate panels before the commencement of a project. The belief in partnership helps to ensure relevancy, but also ensures partners are committed to the project and its outcomes. Within LGBT+ communities, advisory panels within research settings have helped to ensure an equal voice when representing noncisgender or nonheterosexual experiences.
While not engaging directly with Namaste, elsewhere Ron Iphofen highlights the tensions of forming alliances with participants, noting how “research goals may have to compete with the action-orientated aims of the subjects” (2011: 126). He reminds us of the complexities when attempting to measure power differentials and/or the democratic value of research to participants. He states “there are many devices for attempting to even out this power differential but it is difficult to demonstrate clearly that a redistribution of power has been accomplished” (2011: 130). Iphofen continues by offering some cautionary notes in relation to assumptions of benefits to participants, noting how participant involvement in a study is not always beneficial or empowering to an individual or group. He highlights how “a ‘taste’ of empowerment while collaborating on a project could prove frustrating when they find themselves back in their own culture – their sensed relative deprivation could even be exacerbated by the experience” (2011: 130). Iphofen describes decision-making in research ethics as a dynamic process. In bringing together the work of Namaste and Iphofen here, we argue here that ethics is both dynamic and dialogical. It is essential that dialogue is continuous with participants about the aims, methods, and outcomes of the research – before, during, and after the research process takes place. The benefits of ongoing dialogue ensure the voices of participants are not contaminated with presuppositions from the researcher. Therefore, continuous consultations are vital, even if they take time. In order to massage the tensions between the notion of equity, and the practicalities of speaking with/for others, LGBT+ partners should be consulted at each stage of the project about what it will entail and how it will be put into effect. While this constitutes best practice in terms of continuous consent, it also allows research partners an opportunity to reshape the methods as better suited to the area of study.
A consideration of ownership refers to what will happen with the research once it has been conducted: that each partner has a say in how the research will be used and disseminated. LGBT+ lives expose personal, sensitive issues which some would prefer not to be part of public knowledge. The use and dissemination of an investigation needs to explore issues of confidentiality and privacy, as well as respecting a participant’s right to withdraw.
Complementary to Namaste’s concerns in relation to dense, opaque theory that can emerge within the academy, we wish to add a fourth principle to “undoing theory” which may perhaps rub against some in the academic community. For scholarship to be meaningful and have impact to the individuals and communities under investigation, it must be accessible. We advocate a move from pompous prose which often renders academic texts dense and impenetrable to those outside of academia, to a use of clear language which ensures the research is accessible. In terms of language, we advocate fluency, coherency, accuracy, and accessibility.
Researchers engaging with LGBT+ populations may not be engaging with queer theory at all; just as queer research is not exclusive to LGBT+ individuals. Queer is categorized by its own chaos – it is a disruptive marker. As queer theory has made an impact on the academy and has disciplinary credibility in its own right, it must not lose sight of it its mission to disrupt. As a theory, its impact is constrained, if not suffocated, by limitations to theoretical ruminations in a language that is inaccessible. Remote and distant ruminations in philosophical terms do nothing to engage with LGBT+ living experiences.
The discussion of queer literacy offered within this chapter serves to offer practical considerations of engaging with LGBT+ individuals. Although “queer” has often been used as a point of reference for the LGBT+ grouping, it is not to be used as a synonymic term. Queer literacy shows the acts of emotional engagement as an enterprise that allows fruitful, co-produced knowledge and understanding about nonnormative gender and sexuality. Within queer literacy, relationships are prioritized over routines, which are often used as hurdles for ethics committees. Human lives are messy, so any attempt to sanitize a research process with LGBT+ people will be defunct. Relationships with LGBT+ people are best negotiated using emotional processes: voice, body language, human interactions, verbal and nonverbal, communication, visibility, sharing, as well as relevancy, equity of partnership and ownership, as advocated by Namaste.
We conclude this chapter with one final point for consideration. Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender have been described as a community and are commonly grouped as nonnormative, or by use of the popular acronym LGBT+, yet there is significant variation between the experiences of each group, as well as the individuals within the groups themselves. Treating characteristics of a group as universal leads to essentialism and therefore can be exclusionary to individuals within a group. We note that context focused differentiation may be needed when working with one particular group within the LGBT+ umbrella. This has been the pitfall of numerous volumes describing LGBT+ experiences, where the experiences of gays, and to a lesser extent, lesbians, far outweigh bisexual and transgender voices. Thankfully, the lacuna of research which addresses “B” and “T” issues is recognized and steps are being taken to generate awareness of what remain minoritized groups. A word of warning: the pursuit of inclusivity can lead to exclusivity.
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