The ethical dilemmas of working safely with community researchers: Lessons from community'based research with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities
Ashley Lacombe-Duncan and Carmen H. Logie
The ongoing stigmatisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people internationally contributes to significant health disparities, which may be better understood through community-based research in which LGBTQ people are engaged as community researchers. However, stigmatising social and political contexts create challenges for working safely and effectively with members of these populations. Drawing on reflections of multi-method community-based research studies with LGBTQ populations in Canada, Jamaica, Swaziland and Lesotho, this chapter discusses some of the ethical challenges experienced working with and by community researchers from LGBTQ communities internationally. Particular challenges include exploitation and tokenism; the navigation of conflicting identities; stigma associated with being a community researcher investigating ‘taboo’ issues to do with sexuality, gender and race, particularly in socially conservative settings; and the physical and mental tolls of community research, including burnout. Critical attention to power and privilege is fundamental to promoting safe work with LGBTQ populations in international contexts. We end with some practical suggestions to promote community researcher safety in the context of conducting research with marginalised populations.
Internationally, there have been increased human rights protections for LGBTQ and other sexual and gender minority persons, evidenced through new instances of décriminalisation of same-sex practices and marriage equality. Yet ongoing stigma, violence and legally sanctioned persecution of these communities remain in many places (Mendos 2019). Within these contexts of stigma, health disparities among LGBTQ people become entrenched. Stigma can lead to social and institutional discrimination against LGBTQ people including acts of violence (Logie 2012). These acts, in turn, are associated with poor mental and physical health, such as
Ethical dilemmas in peer research 177 depression and HIV, among other outcomes, for LGBTQ people. Stigma and dis-crimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression also limit LGBTQ peoples’ access to key social detenninants of health, including income, employment, housing and healthcare (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al. 2013).
Understanding these disparities - in addition to translating this understanding into real-world solutions and social justice-oriented change - has been the focus of our work as academic researchers. We use community-based research methods that draw on meaningful engagement with communities in order to understand their needs and produce research with greater potential impact (Israel et al. 1998). Community-based research approaches often involve the hiring of peer researchers. While definition of what is meant by the term ‘peer researcher’ changes across time and context, the term tends to refer to researchers who share key aspects of individual experience (e.g. poverty, homelessness) and/or specific identities (e.g. gender, sexual orientation) with study participants (Greene 2013). However, the term ‘peer researcher’ can overestimate commonalities between peer researcher and study participants when, in fact, communities are complex, diverse and heterogeneous. Importantly, an individual peer researcher’s lived experiences cannot be representative of the myriad experiences across members of a community. In this chapter, we use the term ‘community researchers’ more broadly to encompass those researchers working outside academic settings who share some commonalities across experiences or identities with study participants, just as we do as queer-identified academic researchers.
In the research we do, community researchers are perceived and positioned as equals to academic researchers, bringing distinctive knowledge, experience and expertise to the research process (Greene et al. 2009). Community researchers may benefit from acquiring new skills, conducting meaningful work, and making personal and professional connections with their communities, researchers and organisations (Logie et al. 2012). Yet studies have also highlighted some of the ethical challenges to working with, and experienced by, community researchers, including issues of defining and engaging in capacity building; conflicting perspectives on payment, career advancement and professional obligations; navigating multiple relationships; balancing personal and professional responsibilities; and emotional and physical tolls (Greene et al. 2009; Logie et al. 2012; Guta et al. 2013).