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The Complexities of Researching Gender Diverse Youth

Benjamin Pinkard, University of Tasmania

As with any research project, one requires a solid grounding; a network of dedicated and connected contributors; and a lot of motivation to get you through the ebbs and flows. I may have been somewhat naïve to the challenges that have presented themselves during the development of this research project, and the complexities of bringing all the elements together. However, as PhD candidates we quickly learn to take the small victories.  My research so far has thrown up various challenges, some simply requiring a little more finesse, others a complete rethink and a pint at the pub.

Researching Australian transgender, gender diverse, and intersex (TGDI) young people in online and offline spaces presents a conundrum. The complexity of balancing a process of knowledge creation that participants can be involved in, with the ethical considerations of age, vulnerability, and access to participants is somewhat of a minefield. Not to mention the instantaneity and volatility of the digital. Throw into the mix visual records of potentially very personal feelings with the use of participant-generated images (PGI); anonymisation; and the process of informed consent with minors (16 and 17 year olds); all the while trying to uphold a true and accurate representation of youth voices provides a research space that might make some academics nervous. But, as researchers I think it is in our nature to learn and adapt with these challenges in order to progress our projects and hopefully our fields.

 

A little background…

The internet, its users and its uses have evolved, particularly with the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Snapchat, Reddit, Tinder, or Grinder in the last decade or so. With every evolution, the internet and its various social media platforms infiltrate into our daily lives, to a point where it is hard to tell where online or offline spaces begin and end. Both spaces are entwined and overlapping (Jurgenson 2011), each affecting the other.  Developing a broader understanding of how the digital does or does not influence the daily lives of TGDI young Australians, and exploring what is important to them on a daily basis, will add to current discourse and benefit public policy, educators, and researchers alike.

Digital spaces and technologies have played a vital role in the visibility and acceptance of TGDI young people. Although the transgender movement did not start with the internet, the explosion of technologies since the 1990’s (Shapiro 2015) has had a huge impact on the prominence of transgender culture and accessibility to community, information, and medical treatments. Hill (2005) explains that the internet is a place of organisation and community for marginalised and sexual minorities such as TGDI people. In this same vein, the internet can help to avoid negative stereotypes of TGDI young people, and stigma associated with identity construction (Downing 2013). Therefore, the internet could be viewed as a tool that integrates into the lives of some transgender people enabling them to explore identity (Cavalcante 2016), and create and participate in community building a sense of belonging.

Many queer youth experience isolation and negativity, which can increases their rate of mental ill health and suicide compared to the majority of Australians (Leonard et al. 2012).  The absence of sexual orientation and gender identity education in schools, families, and communities has created a need for internet groups that provide information and support for young TGDI people.  These online communities provide a space for young TGDI people to discuss what is important to them.  For example, gaining information about safer sex practices; coming out; passing; how to obtain packers and binders; hormones; surgeries; or simply an opportunity to connect with other individuals that have experienced or maybe are experiencing similar things.

Online space provides an opportunity for individuals to voice the experiences of their everyday lives regardless of which space the event may occur. However, online spaces afford opportunity to try on different identities with relative anonymity. Meanwhile, offline spaces can require certain disclosures of diverse identities, which in turn may create riskier situations for TGDI in accessing support networks and community.  For example, Hillier et al. (2010) explains the heteronormative environment that is present in many Australian schools, which may enable the internet to be a safer source of sexual orientation and gender identity education for TGDI young Australians. However, it is an oversimplification to suggest that education, support resources in homes and schools, and geographic boundaries are the only factors contributing to marginalisation and negative health outcomes, or that the internet is some kind of utopia or beacon of hope for all sexual orientations or gender identities. Digital spaces and technologies are neither inherently good nor bad (Pascoe 2011).

 

The Research…

My research explores the connections between technologies and the body in online and offline spaces. Investigating the relationship digital technologies have to health and wellbeing among TGDI Australian young people (aged 16-35). I am interested in the entanglements of human and non-human relationships of TGDI young people in online and offline spaces. Using participant-generated images (PGI) to explore what is important to young TGDI Australians in their everyday lives, I hope to build on existing knowledge of gender identity in both online and offline space.

 

The Conundrum…

How do we as researchers negotiate the manifold challenges and complexities of designing an engaging and productive research project, maintaining ethical standards, and ensuring the fidelity of TGDI youth voices as they are made and heard?

 

By asking participants to produce images of things that are important to them, I am sharing control of the research with my participants. This ethical choice aims to empower them to decide what should be discussed on their terms. This research offers an opportunity for a marginalised and silenced group to tell their stories, using words and imagery. However, the ethical concerns of what might be captured in the images, and thus what can be used in books, articles, and presentations become complex.

The anonymization of participants (using pseudonyms) and the cropping and blurring of photos has been an important practice in protecting participants throughout the research process and dissemination of findings among sociologists.  However, in line with the importance of participants being able to actively produce knowledge, applying such techniques can undermine the agency of participants to convey their ideas and experiences as they intended (Allen 2015). I argue that along with protecting participants, as ethical researchers we are also required to protect individual expressions, and not mute an already vulnerable group of young Australians.

Online youth research requires numerous ethical considerations. These elements necessitate some forethought in line with the National Statement of Ethical Conduct in Human Research, to generate rigorous and just research in conjunction with ethics committees. Managing requests from ethics committees such as the participant information sheet, which needs to be accessible to the comprehension of participants, and determining who can give what level of consent (i.e. 16 and 17 year olds) requires a sympathetic research approach at all levels of project development.  For example, for some young TGDI people, consent from a parent or guardian may not be in their best interests, especially for young TGDI people who are not ‘out’ to parents or guardians about their sexuality or gender identity. Consent is an ongoing process that needs to be negotiated with participants when collecting, analysing, presenting and disseminating participants images (Cox et al. 2014).

Of course, there are also the difficulties associated with researching in digital spaces and accessing marginalised populations. Being an outsider and building trust and report with a potentially vulnerable group, asking them to engage with a research project that requires effort and possibly risky work has bought about its own challenges. I would be interested if anyone has had experience in engaging young transgender, gender diverse and intersex Australians in online spaces.

If you would like to participate in this research, have any advice about it, or would like more information, please contact myself, Ben Pinkard, at bcp@utas.edu.au or go to my blog Researching TGDI* Australian Youth.

 

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