Silencing and speaking for participants: The problems of concealing researcher sexuality
By Gemma Sou, Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University, Melbourne
During fieldwork, researchers often conceal elements of identity. Most debates say this is to ensure successful research. However, my recent article, published in Area, argues that a researcher’s decision to conceal elements of identity may be informed by essentialist ideas about people living in fieldwork sites. And that this process effectively silences research participants as only researchers get to speak for them.
My PhD research set out to explore the risk perceptions of low-income populations, living in environmentally hazardous neighbourhoods. This research question took me to Cochabamba city in Bolivia for 9 months in 2011/2012. More specifically to Lourdes, a neighbourhood prone to landslides and populated by many ethnically indigenous families. Before fieldwork, I decided to hide my lesbian identity because I assumed the people that I was to live amongst would have conservative views. To those who asked I said I was unmarried, straight, and in a relationship with a man, despite having no photos of my “beloved boyfriend” back home.
I gained access to Lourdes via one of the many local Christian churches, where I helped out with cleaning, preparing food, teaching and attending social trips into the countryside. I witnessed a few homophobic moments by people during my time in Lourdes. For instance, church leaders publicly labelled homosexuality as “a sin”, and the Bolivian family I lived with shared their opinions that homosexuality was “a mistake by God; a defect in the population”. These comments did not upset me as a fundamental part of fieldwork is often living among populations which may oppose aspects of your identity (Maguire et al 2018). Although my “ethnographic friends” articulated homophobic views, I shared a sense of connection and warmth. As we know, people are far more complex than labels such as "moral right" or "homophobic”.
Despite feeling uncomfortable with deceiving people, I decided to remain “closeted”. Previous work suggests researchers principally do this to ensure successful data collection (Godbole 2018). However, I suggest that researchers’ preconceptions about people living in the “field” are key to explaining why we decide to conceal our queerness. For instance, with brutal honesty and self-reflection, I realise that I also hid my sexuality because I assumed people in Lourdes would be angry, upset, disappointed, disgusted or otherwise by homosexuality. That is, before even arriving to Bolivia, and making “ethnographic friends”, I had already homogenised and essentialised people as fundamentally opposed to homosexuality and unwilling to interact with people with identities that they oppose – homosexuals in the current case. I orientalised people as completely intolerant of difference, and implicitly presumed they had fixed identities that are anchored in the past. This is in opposition to people who may be “enlightened”, “modern” and tolerant to difference.
by entering the “closet” I took away people’s ability to respond
You could argue that my decision to hide my sexuality was also paternalistic. I aimed to “protect” people from something that they disagree with, dislike or may feel uncomfortable knowing. This is based on another assumption - that people living in Lourdes are entirely separate and unexposed to “modern” ideas and images that may challenge their worldviews. Yet, homosexuality was legalised in Bolivia in 2009, and although same-sex marriage remains illegal and homophobia is widely reported, the LGBTQ+ rights movement is growing nationally and more broadly across Latin America. Images of LGBTQ+ marches and events are increasingly common in Cochabamba and studies have revealed the lively, albeit hidden, LGBTQ+ “scene” in Bolivia and Cochabamba.
It is also more than likely that LGBTQ+ allies and/or LGBTQ+ people were living in Lourdes. Yet, by constructing a heterosexual identity for myself, I may have silenced these people, who might otherwise have spoken to me. Interactions with LGBTQ+ people living in Lourdes would have challenged the biases that I came and left the field with. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, I did not take the time to consider that LGBTQ+ people lived in Lourdes. This is naïve at best, and colonial at worst. I homogenised people in Lourdes and implicitly viewed them through a western/Anglo-American queer perspective, which ultimately erases LGBTQ+ experiences and visibility in the global south (Kulpa and Mizielinska 2016).
Ultimately, by entering the “closet” I took away people’s ability to respond, and in ways that may have challenged my assumptions. For instance: 1) to maintain a cross-group friendship in spite of their views on homosexuality, 2) to express their understanding about why I hid my sexuality, 3) to reduce their prejudices, or even 4) to “come out” to me.
In sum, when researchers conceal elements of their identity, they speak for, and silence people. Researchers remove the opportunity for people to respond to the particular element of the researcher’s identity in question, whether sexuality, class, or religion etc. There needs to be more disciplinary debate and awareness surrounding the reasons researchers construct their identities during fieldwork. This question is increasingly important in a world where researchers and people living in fieldwork sites can easily connect via social networking sites. Remaining separate from, and exiting the field, may no longer be so easily achieved, and for researchers who “deceive” people in “the field” they must decide whether to continue (re)producing their fieldwork identities via social media once fieldwork ends.
About the author:
Gemma Sou is a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University, Melbourne. She researches the media representations and everyday lived experiences of people affected by disasters. See www.gemmasou.com
 In my paper I further discuss the dilemmas of connecting with ethnographic friends via social networking sites, and how this signifies that the construction of fieldwork identities may no longer be temporally or geographically bound to the periods and locales of fieldwork.
Suggested further reading:
Anonymous (2021) "Back in 'the closet': Conducting fieldwork as an LGBTQ+ researcher" Geography Directions
Dagkouli-Kyriakoglou, M. (2021) "Doing fieldwork as an ally: Is it imperialistic?" Geography Directions
Valiquette, T., Su, Y. and Felix, E. (2021) "Inside Out - Re-examining positionality in research with LGBTQ+ refugees" Geography Directions