Engaging LGBTIQ communities for research

Published on 17 May 2018

Stephen Wood

Research Officer

In previous years, to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB), myself and colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) highlighted some of the fascinating research we’ve conducted into how inequalities and marginalisation discriminate against LGBTIQ people around the world. In light of some recent conversations I’ve been having and the urgency of calling upon Governments and donors to invest more resources in this work, this year I want to step back, take a look at the methodological difficulties (and necessity) of conducting research with these communities and speak directly to those interested in or already doing this work.

One of the most satisfying parts of my work at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is the sense that we provide space for partner organisations to bring their agendas to wider developmental and governmental spaces through joint research collaborations. Research matters in order to create a sound evidence base by which civil society actors can apply political pressure on the state and local government. For LGBTIQ communities however, especially in countries where it is illegal to be homosexual or gender identity is rigidly policed, the possibility of conducting such research that might provide tools to combat discrimination is either impossible or has to be done with more due diligence and care than for other social groups. Yet perversely, due to the paucity of evidence available, many Governments and donors fail to identify LGBTIQ discrimination as something with real health, economic and political costs to society as a whole.

In February 2018, I was invited to speak at HEARD, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa at an ESRC-funded workshop that examined some of the difficulties and ethical dangers of conducting research with LGBTIQ partners. I went into some depth as to how our research methods underscore our inclusive, partner-centred approach to conducting work in developing contexts.

What are the ethical considerations and how can they strengthen research?

Particularly in countries where being ‘outed’ could result in someone being attacked, murdered or forced from their home, the adage “Do No Harm” has to be at the forefront of any researchers mind. This means anonymising of any data collected, considering the security arrangements carefully if meeting with individuals who identify as LGBTIQ.

Just as importantly is ensuring that your research question is in alignment with the strategies of the local LGBTIQ communities you are working with and the agenda is locally-owned, as this is more likely to empower them in the longer term, engage them in identifying potential problems ahead of time and in the end, this should lead to better quality (and analysis) of your data. At the beginning of your project, undertake a participatory needs assessment and ensure that programme design explicitly promotes local ownership. By doing this you are helping to ensure that your programme is sustainable and scalable for the future beyond the current project.

Are we reaching OR empowering LGBTIQ populations?

This is probably my number one guiding principle when working on grant proposals or project design. Are we undertaking research “on”, “about” or “with” LGBTIQ communities? Participatory methods are one of the cornerstones of much of the research at IDS and ensures that people participate in the decisions and research that effect or document their lives. Done properly, it ensures that programmes to reduce discrimination are more likely to reach those if they are involved in developing and implementing them. Global human rights frameworks point to a ‘right to participate’, but ensuring that sexual and gender minorities are allowed that same participation remains far off in many contexts.

Which methodologies work?

It’s important to recognise the multi-disciplinary and intersecting nature of inequalities and this is something that is more likely to be mapped if LGBTIQ people are involved at each level of the research design. Equally, misunderstanding the subtleties of LGBTIQ marginalisation in particular contexts can render research less useful so it is essential to work collaboratively to ensure the research question is right. This is the philosophy that underpins the Gender & Sexuality research team’s recent publication “Reframing Gender Justice In An Unequal, Volatile World: IDS’ Directions for Future Research on Gender and Sexuality in Development”. For this reason, participation is at the heart of our approach to LGBTIQ research. Participation can sometimes be name-dropped in programme design, so it’s important to remember that as a methodology it exists on a spectrum from nominal to transformative participation. That design and the data collection chosen to underpin it should respond to local needs just as much as they do programmatic or donor needs. I’m now going to talk about two methods in a bit more detail: Participatory Action Research and conducting online research.

Participatory Action Research

This method is particularly useful for longer-term programmes that seek to learn, adapt and move into unknown territory that arises from the evidence unearthed. It is led by the participants in the research and they undertake reflexive learning at each stage and incorporate that into the strategic next step of the research. Some key considerations if using this approach:

  • Interventions should be informed by robust evidence and learning
  • Innovations across the programme should be examined across multiple contexts to ensure their adaptability
  • Put in place strong Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning mechanisms to allow local partners to document, reflect and critically analyse
  • Deliver real-time assessments of outcomes within the action research process, by sequencing the results with programme cycles, notably annual planning.

Conducting Online Research

In situations where anonymity is essential or where the target population you wish to engage with is scattered and invisible, it can be very difficult to find sufficient participants to engage in producing data sets for analysis. For this reason, qualitative research into LGBTIQ communities remains the dominant approach – coupled as it is with more opportunities to showcase personal stories and give voice to marginalised individuals. Recent research by my colleague Pauline Oosterhoff and partners in Vietnam that aimed to speak with trans people’s experience of employment used local-language online questionnaires on social media and dating sites and then interrogating the findings with small focus groups is an excellent case study for this approach. In addition, she has also written an excellent report on conducting online data collection and visualisation that I’ve found exceptionally useful.  Some other key considerations if using this approach:

Ask questions that resonate with the users of the platform you are operating on:

  • What motivates them? Demographic characteristics? Where do they visit and for how long?
  • Make it fun – email survey monkeys aren’t gonna cut it
  • Does your research team have the technical capacity to design and analyse the data?
  • Target audience for research – if different from respondents develop comms strategy for dissemination
  • Security for online spaces is dynamically changing and you should be aware of digital shadows you may create for participants
  • Language – does functionality include ability to handle answers written with character sets of the host language?

Final thoughts: (in)Visibility of LGBTIQ Communities

I have spoken at length about the constraints and dangers faced by LGBTIQ communities and how this might feed into their ability or appetite for engaging with research. As I conclude, it is also worth acknowledging that as researchers we bring our own biases and can play a role in marginalising particular groups within the LGBTIQ umbrella – such as bi erasure, the political dangers for trans people of their political agenda being conflated with homosexuality or the paucity of research taking place with intersex communities.

Engagement in research can sometimes fall to the most well-known, connected and funded LGBTIQ organisations whose political agenda may be very different to those working with the poorest LGBTIQ populations, so understanding the power dynamics within LGBTIQ organisations is essential too. If you are working with activists to undertake outreach for participation in a project, or conducting the Snowball approach to recruiting Focus Group interviewees, are they bringing assumptions or preferences to the table? Is this a participatory process – or have you been extractive in the way you gathered your evidence?

I’ve hopefully given a flavour of some of the ethical and methodological barriers to conducting research with LGBTIQ communities – as well as why it is essential that our partners in the research have a significant role in developing research objectives, ensuring safety for those they bring into the process and the opportunity to reflect, analyse and learn from – and set the agenda for future research work.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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