Spotlight on Research: From Blues to Rainbows
Dr Gávi Ansara interviews Dr Elizabeth (Lizzie) Smith (La Trobe University), Dr Tiffany Jones (University of New England), and Zoë Birkinshaw (Zoe Belle Gender Centre) about their experience of the From Blues to Rainbows research.
Dr Gávi Ansara is Research & Policy Manager at the National LGBTI Health Alliance.
Gávi: A lot of research on young people whose genders are independent from those assigned to them by others has focused on asking why they exist, what is wrong with them, and how they can be managed or contained. In contrast to this deficit perspective, the research that you and your team of researchers and community advisors conducted took a very different approach. Can you tell me what motivated your research and how you would describe your approach?
Lizzie & Tiffany: Previous research into gender diverse and transgender individuals and communities so often pathologised and essentialised sex and gender, and as you state in your question, this leads to asking why someone experiences their (non)gender(s) in the way that they do and how this can be changed. This is a common experience for research with people whose lives, identities, and behaviours are marginal to the mainstream. For example, there is a similar research history with and about sex workers and same sex attracted people.
The researchers involved in this project have all previously worked on research that instead asks the questions of the data that really matter to the communities involved. We aim to help to increase people’s quality of life through challenging stigma and discrimination. In focusing on the real issue of marginalisation – discrimination, harassment, abuse, and the effects of these, research with this focus is better able to uncover where and how real change can occur, including structural and discursive change. For example in schools, health care provision, and the support that peer-led services can and do provide.
However, in From Blues to Rainbows, we wanted to go further than this and actively research the strength, resilience, and self-care that gender diverse and transgender young people already show and practise. We hoped to collate the ways in which young people cared for themselves so that policy makers, schools, parents, and support services could better support young people, as well as see how gender can be experienced and expressed in a rich variety of ways, and that this is not something that needs to be fixed or problematised.
Gávi: Although some researchers consider input from a Community Advisory Group essential to inclusive and equitable research design, sustained community input is still rare in research on people whose genders are not assigned by others and/or people who are non- binary or non-gendered. Why was the involvement of the Community Advisory Group important to you? How do you feel the group added to the research? What did you learn as a result of your interactions with the group?
Zoë Birkinshaw (Zoe Belle Gender Centre): The research was conducted in a way which felt relevant and connected to the community- the community advisory group being a key example of how this was done. I think this helped people speak honestly about their experiences, because there was a sense of respect and genuine engagement by the researchers. I personally felt a sense of pride and celebration in the research that would not have been possible otherwise- particularly challenging given the nature of the findings.
Lizzie & Tiffany: If the success of a research project is measured by the degree to which it can answer, or begin to answer, the questions that will make positive difference to the lives of community members, then engagement with community is invaluable. This is obviously the case when the researchers are not community members, but it is actually also the case even when one or more researchers belong to the community in question. It is all too easy for a researcher to project their own personal lens or experience onto a group, rather than to research the groups’ (sometimes varied or even opposing) experiences and perspectives.
The Community Advisory Group (CAG) members all worked and/or advocated in this space, were transgender or identified with a diverse (non)gender(s), and represented and spoke from a range of personal and professional positions. While as researchers we brought particular learned research skills and experiences to the table, the CAG brought a wealth of knowledge that facilitated the crafting and fine-tuning of the research instruments and dissemination of findings. All research goes through various checks during its cycle from grant application, to ethics application to peer review later on. The CAG was an important part of this process and one that was needed to be engaged at various times. Thinking about it this way, community engagement helps to ensure that the research is applicable, sensitive, and useable; it functions to check the research for these aspects.
Lizzie: Being involved with the CAG not only achieved all of these things for the research tools and dissemination, but for me, the group worked as a constant reminder of the very human face of this research. Throughout the process there was a generosity of spirit from the community members and this enabled a feeling of collaboration and shared excitement.
Gávi: In the From Blues to Rainbows Report, you state that the report was originally going to include people with intersex bodies. Based on feedback from intersex community organisations, you decided to focus on trans and gender diverse young people instead. Can you describe the learning experience that occurred during the research process as a result of this feedback?
Lizzie & Tiffany: It was brought to our attention that the survey missed the mark when it came to the inclusion of intersex young people. Further to that, the flow of the survey, and some of the survey questions did not provide sufficient response choices for intersex young people. Furthermore, as we have come to better understand through the feedback, intersex young people have a unique set of concerns and human rights issues that affect them – for example infant genital cosmetic surgery. In light of this feedback, we decided that it would not be right to claim that the research was inclusive of intersex young people when it clearly wasn’t. However, we hope that other researchers, or one of our research team, will take up this area of research and give it the focused attention that is required.
Gávi: What did you find most challenging about this research?
Lizzie: Researching an area that I had not worked in before, nor had personal experience of, was initially challenging in terms of getting up to speed on what has come before. However, it was also a refreshing space to be in, having previously researched an area that I do have personal experience of and which was an intensely emotional journey for me. The community advisory group were so generous in sharing their knowledge with me without judgement about my ignorance and I now feel like an ally who has earned her stripes.
Tiffany: The first and biggest challenge for me was to ensure this project happened! The grant application was a careful piece of activism – arguing that it was necessary to talk to very young people without parental or school permission, that they were indeed the most competent source for discussion of their own gender identities rather than psycho-medical experts, and that we needed to discuss mental health and marginalisation with kids even though these are risky topics if we are ever to prevent further harm. Each of these project elements can look “ethically sensitive” on their own to a funding body, let alone in combination. In the past we could only analyse youth trans* issues under a much broader umbrella (isolating responses from young transgender respondents within a GLBTIQ study like Writing Themselves In, or an all ages trans* study like E-males). I was thrilled when beyondblue proactively supported our study; their investment was a strong statement of support to these young people and trust in what we do.
Gávi: What did you find most rewarding?
Lizzie: This project was hugely rewarding on many personal and professional levels. Reading the young people’s survey responses about their hopes and dreams for the first time was immensely rewarding as I got to see the effects of asking young people a question about what an ideal world looks like to them. Likewise, seeing the excitement of the CAG members when the data was first revealed. This highlighted how important the findings were to the communities and knowing that I had had a part to play in this felt very humbling.
Tiffany: My reward was seeing young gender diverse people finally receive the report at the report launch, getting giggly with excitement at tearing open their copies. Some were at very raw points in their own personal journeys and some were at very high points, yet for all of them the chance to read other peoples’ stories was meaningful and useful. They told us about how they were going to use the reports in their activism, personal or social lives. They took ownership of data that, ultimately, comes from and belongs to them. A lovely moment.
Gávi: When you reflect on your research journey, are there some insights that stand out as most pivotal to your development as a researcher?
Lizzie: For me, one major insight was how well local knowledge and the learned research skills can work together and the importance of building such multi-skilled teams. When I say local knowledge, I mean the understandings that transgender and gender diverse community advocates have through both life experience and their working and advocating in that space. Tapping into this knowledge and feeding it through the researchers’ skills (i.e. survey design and analysis) is what enabled the survey and interviews to be so relevant. While this is something that you learn in social research methods text books, actually living this, and seeing it come to fruition, is something that I am very grateful to add to my professional development.
Tiffany: I saw a noted Queer Theorist deliver an intellectual critique of schools at a conference. They eloquently attacked teachers, poignantly shamed principals, diligently damned curricula, rolled their eyes at the education policy makers’ inability to understand them. Asked what alternatives they proposed to the problems they propounded; they responded ‘it’s not my job to offer any’. I am profoundly shaped by witnessing that missed opportunity – education and health policy staff leaving alienated and empty-handed, teachers marching out angrily, kids sitting there deflated. There is no point deconstructing practices without reconstructing them. Or better yet, co-constructing them with all the given key stakeholders. Researchers should aid such stakeholders – using any languages (statistics, stories, graphs, pictures) that help. Queer research is not exempt from obligations to be useful.
Gávi: These are such important points. Previous research often assumed that all gender independent people are automatically ‘queer’, whereas From Blues to Rainbows did not make that assumption. As a result, you were able to get responses from young people who reported a wide range of terms to describe their sexuality and relationships, including those who self-identify as heterosexual/straight.
How has this research influenced you beyond the context of your research? Are there aspects of your life that you view differently as a result of this research?
Lizzie: While this isn’t the first project that has caused me to look at the ways that restrictive understandings of gender influence the ways that I and those around me live their lives, it is the first project that has caused me to think about how I feel gender on an internal level; as an aspect of my sense of self. Externally, it has helped me to further strip away the assumptions that I make about other people based on their gender appearance. Although I imagine that this will always be a work in progress.
Tiffany: As an education lecturer, these sorts of studies have given me an insight into the way educational institutions discriminate against diverse student and staff groups. I change and develop my teaching practices accordingly, I embed the data into my lectures and degree programs. I get the teachers in my units to consider creative ways of challenging cis-sexism and other forms of anti-GLBTIQ bias in their work; we now particularly consider puberty education and how to support student activism.
Gávi: This process of integrating intervention strategies into education is an effective way to make social change. In my courses, I have used images and interactive forms to help students become more aware of everyday cisgenderism—the system of thinking and acting that invalidates people’s own understanding of their (non-)gender(s) and bodies.
Puberty education seems to be a crucial place where this information can make a difference to the sense of support young people experience, although I hope we can also find ways to address the needs of children who begin at younger ages to understand their gender in a way that is independent from the gender imposed on them by others.
Your findings showcase a range of experiences, needs, and strengths among gender independent young people. Which key messages do you hope people will take from this research? How do you hope this research will speak to young people? Researchers?
Lizzie: I hope that the young people take pride in much of what they read in the report. That this is a collection of many positive stories in so many ways. I hope that they also see quite clearly how the high levels of abuse and discrimination are tied to structural discrimination in such institutions as schools, health care, and family. Further, I hope that they see how they belong to communities of young people that are as diverse as they are strong. The levels of self-care and care of others were quite remarkable and I hope that the young people feel pride in this. I hope that fellow researchers feel inspired to research some of the gaps in this current research, in particular around the discrimination and mental health needs and well-being of intersex young people. Further, I hope that researchers see how collaboration with community can yield research that has all the benefits of being informed by individuals with research experience as well as those who are intimately involved in the aspect of life being explored.
Tiffany: The big story for both young people and researchers is that the FBTR participants were engaged in all kinds of activism, and that this was useful to them beyond the outcome of the issue being advocated for. It was great for them socially, emotionally and for their state of health. Being trans* or gender diverse can be a catalyst to all kinds of empowering practices, strengths, insights, communities and opportunities in life. Deficit understandings ignore that, and these defict understandings can now be challenged in complex ways.
Gávi: How do you hope policy makers and service providers will translate these findings into action?
Lizzie: There is so much that policy makers and service providers can learn from the outcomes of this research! The degree to which families and schools can protect young people from leaving school early, missing classes, being bullied, experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts and attempts is something that needs immediate attention. Putting in policies that help schools and educators to not only protect young people’s privacy and use appropriate pronouns, but also work with parents and provide appropriate referrals to support services and health professionals would make a real difference to young people. Health care providers need both in-service and pre-service training to help them provide inclusive service provision, where young people feel that they receive health care that does not leave them feeling as though they have had to provide education for these professionals as one example.
Tiffany: There needs to be a national education policy protecting transgender and gender diverse kids (and of course all GLBTIQ students) from discrimination at school, and requiring national training of all teachers on a new affirming position. It must be at this higher level because transphobia, homophobia and bias against intersex people is so deeply ingrained that how schools handle it (which is mostly by perpetuating it) needs to be completely redressed. There needs to be a clear message that these kids are not “being naughty” by being themselves when accessing their education, and that instead education systems are contravening international and local discrimination laws in any inequitable provision.
Gávi: This combination of staff training and policy change that you have mentioned is key—without attention to both forms of intervention, the system cannot function in an inclusive way.
You and the team of researchers and community advisors have achieved an important milestone in the history of Australian research on gender independent young people. Where do you hope to go from here?
Lizzie: This broad research design was developed by my co-authors, Jones, Hillier, and Mitchell while I had the pleasure of implementing it along with Roz Ward. The success of the collaboration with community is something that I intend to take with me into further research with transgender and gender diverse communities as well as other research that I may do in the future. Inclusive and appropriate pathways to health care for these communities is an area that I would like to work on next and something that can so obviously be informed by people’s experiences and needs in this area. I enjoy that my learned research skills and experience can be part of a larger vehicle for this change.
Tiffany: I am doing some global policy work related to African and Eastern European nations (due to the particular human rights breaches seen in these contexts). I am publishing some books through Springer: one on FtM transgender Australians, another on policy for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. I aim to get some really useful GLBTIQ research projects funded here in Australia, and to get the data into the right hands.
Gávi: Thank you for sharing your insights about the From Blues to Rainbows research. On behalf of the National LGBTI Health Alliance, I wish all of you continued success in raising awareness, creating new possibilities, and improving the lives of people who experience marginalisation. You have given our readers an inspiring example of how research can be used strategically to contribute to beneficial social change. We look forward to hearing more from you in the future.