Yep. I’ve heard this reason given by researchers as to why they do not include LGBTQ participants in their studies. By this logic, I suppose I shouldn’t have any heterosexuals in my studies! Ludicrous! But, before you chalk this reason up to just pure silliness, there are some legitimate concerns that lie behind this common reason for excluding LGBTQ participants from research - but none that cannot be easily addressed!
Despite Psychology’s history, today the field is a staunch supporter of equal rights and the American Psychological Association has published a number of policy statements concerning the equal treatment of LGBTQ individuals.
Research, and in particular, Psychological Research, has a history of pathologizing any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality. Consequently, there are many LGBTQ individuals who are suspicious of requests to participate in research, and their concerns are not unfounded. Some of their concerns may include wanting to know your motivations for the research, what you are trying to ‘discover’ about their sexuality, whether you are seeking to find a ‘cause’ or ‘cure’ for their sexual or gender identity, and whether their responses/data will be confidential and appropriately protected. None of these concerns should be difficult for a researcher to navigate, and in my opinion, none of them should preclude a non-LGBTQ researcher from including LGBTQ participants in their studies. In fact, as a researcher, you probably already provide a great deal of information about these concerns in the documents that you provide to potential participants (Letters of Information, Informed Consent Forms, etc.), and thus adapting them to be inclusive of LGBTQ individuals should not present a great challenge.
Make your research motivations clear.Why are you conducting your study? Are you seeking to understand more about why couples fight? Provided that your procedures won’t be unduly jeopardized, consider providing a very clear statement of motivation to your participants that explains WHY you are undertaking this study. For example:
All romantic couples are likely to experience conflict at one point or another (or many points) during their relationship. Previous research has shown that how couples experience this conflict can influence a multitude of factors, including their relationship satisfaction, their likelihood of staying together, and even their physical health. Our study is interested in learning more about why couples fight and whether different reasons behind conflict might have different implications for relationship and health outcomes. Furthermore, research that has examined this issue to date has predominantly focused on the experiences of individuals in mixed-sex relationships and we believe that in order to best understand relationships, we must address the experiences of individuals in same-sex relationships as well. Thus, in order to better understand the reasons that couples experience conflict, we are seeking participants who have been in a relationship (same or mixed-sex) for at least 6 months and who are available to complete a brief survey once every three months.
By stating that you are aware of previous exclusions of same-sex couples from research, and that you believe a complete understanding of “how relationships function” requires the inclusion of same-sex couples as well as mixed-sex couples, you are providing potential LGBTQ participants with a sense that not only are they welcome in your study, but that you view an understanding of their experiences as crucial to understanding everyone’s experiences (i.e., “they” are included in “everyone” - and are not a separate group that should be treated as such).
Be as open and transparent as possible about what you are seeking to understand/find.
In research, letting your participants know what you are looking for can be dangerous, as it can create expectancy effects or biases, whereby the participant provides you with the answers you were looking for (or that they think you were looking for). However, within reason, it is possible to give participants a sense of what it is that you are looking to determine, and at the very least, it is possible to let them know what you are not looking for. Whenever possible, if it won’t jeopardize the quality of data, simply inform your participants what you are seeking to understand about their sexual or gender identity. For example:
“LGBTQ individuals are invited to participate in this study on conflict because we are interested in whether different types of couples (mixed-sex & same-sex) experience different reasons for fighting and we feel that this information could be beneficial in terms of understanding the role that socialized gender plays in conflict, understanding how experiences of minority stress might influence conflict within relationships, and that the results of the study may help to provide more informed resources to professionals seeking to assist couples in avoiding conflict or learning to better process the conflict that does occur within their relationships.”
Conversely, if explicating your research questions will ‘give too much away,’ consider making a statement to potential participants about what you are not looking to research. For example, “No part of this research is interested in seeking to understand the causes of sexual or gender identity and it is the view of the researchers that all sexual and gender identities are naturally occurring and we do not conduct research aimed at seeking methods to ‘cure’ or ‘change’ sexual or gender identity.” A statement such as this one, appropriately worded for your own study, can go a long way in easing the concerns that many LGBTQ individuals have about participating in research. Based on your actual topic of study, it may seem like an odd inclusion to make, but nonetheless such a statement can still be reassuring to a group of individuals that has frequently been abused by researchers, policy makers and medical professionals.
Provide detailed information about the confidentiality of your data and who will have access to the data.
This is fairly standard for any research conducted, but it is important to highlight it in the context of collecting data from LGBTQ individuals. Depending on where an individual lives or their own personal circumstances, information about an individual’s gender or sexual identity could be harmful in the hands of the wrong individuals. For example, in Uganda right now there is a bill being considered that would outlaw all forms of homosexuality and require individuals to report knowledge of any other individual’s same-sex sexuality or behaviour to the ‘proper authorities’ within 24 hours, or face criminal prosecution. While LGBTQ individuals in North America may not face criminal prosecution if ‘outed,’ they may still face unwanted consequences and discrimination should their identity be made public. In fact, in the US, it is still legal in many states to fire an employee based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As such, it is important that information collected about gender and sexual identity be stored with the highest of security precautions and that access to the data be restricted to those formally involved in the research. At most institutions, these types of precautions are standard for any study, regardless of the data being collected, but all researchers can succumb to being lax from time to time. For example, it might seem more convenient to move a data file onto a USB key or portable storage device in order to analyze the data at home or while traveling. Such actions must always be taken with the proper precautions to protect the data, should the storage device be lost or compromised. Consider these questions:
- Has the data being transported been stripped of all identifying information?
- Is the storage device password protected?
- Has the data been encrypted?
- As the primary investigator, are you actually aware of what your colleagues, students and/or research assistants are doing with the data?
It is imperative that all individuals with access to the data follow the same standards for protecting the confidentiality of participants and their personal information. In addition to ensuring that the data truly is as secure as possible, it is helpful to inform your participants about the steps you will take to protect their confidentiality. One option is to avoid the collection of any identifying information in the first place. Informing potential participants about how you will protect their privacy will allow them to feel more confident about participating in your study.
Be prepared to TALK to your participants - especially when conducting online research.
The majority of the research that I conduct is online, meaning that I very rarely meet a participant face-to-face. All that they can know of me is what they can find online, should they even care to look me up beyond seeing my name listed on the “Informed Consent” document. As a result, my participants rarely have the opportunity to make a personal judgment about me and what my research motivations may be. Even though I do my very best to convey to my participants that I have the best of intentions, that I do not pathologize any sexual or gender identity, and that my research values diversity (as denoted by the KLB Research slogan: Valuing Diversity in Academic Research), I still receive emails from concerned participants who are skeptical about my research motivations. Although it can sometimes be frustrating to receive an angry or attacking email from a participant, it is important to remember the role that our participants play in making our research possible.
I always try to answer emails from participants as quickly as possible and I do my best to alleviate any concerns that they have about the research. Quite often the feedback that I get from participants is helpful in improving a current or future study, even if the feedback is sometimes delivered in an antagonistic fashion. Another important thing to remember is that just like any other group of individuals, the LGBTQ ‘population’ is anything but homogenous, and as such, there is often little consensus concerning the best words to use or the best way to ask a particular question. Oftentimes, I receive emails from participants who assume that I am an ‘ill-informed heterosexual’ with little understanding of their personal identities or experiences - how else could I have asked such an offensive question or failed to provide a checkbox that precisely matches their personal experience? The fact of the matter is, no survey can ever truly capture every individual’s unique experiences, and there will always be some wording, of some question, that some individual dislikes - and chances are, if you had worded it a way that was okay with that individual, a different individual would have taken offensive. The bottom line is that you will likely make mistakes, or even to not make mistakes, but still offend people, regardless of your own identity. Don’t let this stop you from trying, and don’t be disheartened when you do receive an email from an upset or concerned participant. Simply do your best to provide them with an honest reply, and if possible, attempt to incorporate their feedback into your future work (when at all possible - sometimes it just isn’t possible)!The above points are useful for any researcher conducting research on any topic, with any type of participant, but they are of particular importance to researchers seeking to include LGBTQ participants. Furthermore, for researchers who are not LGBTQ themselves, adhering to these recommendations may be helpful in increasing credibility among LGBTQ participants and increasing your own confidence with respect to including LGBTQ participants. There is no reason that one’s sexual or gender identity should preclude them from conducting inclusive research. Of course, if you are completely new to research with LGBTQ participants, there may be some other aspects of being an inclusive researcher that you should consider, such as ensuring that your research instruments are inclusive and that you are familiar with the most current and appropriate terminologies, but beyond taking the right steps to be informed and prepared, there is no reason that anyone should ever say that they excluded LGBTQ participants because they themselves were not LGBTQ.