Note: I wrote this reflection in the past 2 weeks, inspired by a conversation with a colleague. I don’t know if I will actually try to publish it somewhere, but these ideas were itching to get out on paper, so here it is.
“I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in. I watched myself crawlin’ out as I was a-crawlin’ in…I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.” (Kenny Rogers and First Edition, 1968)
In the traditional biomedical research paradigm, there are researchers, dispassionate and objective observers of facts, who draw conclusions from systematic watching or manipulating variables to see what happened to subjects’ behavior, and there are subjects, the disembodied objects of the researcher’s gaze. There are clear lines between the researcher (who is always the outsider) and the subjects. This line has been blurred in recent years, as there is greater recognition of the role that power and privilege play in research designs, recruitment of subjects, implementation of studies, interpretation of findings, and even dissemination of results (Muhammed, Wallerstein, Sussman, Avila, Belone, & Duran, 2014) and challenges to ideas of objectivity (Yost & Chmielewski, 2012). Feminist research agendas are typically designed to give voice to women’s experiences, move away from simplistic frameworks of interpreting women’s experience, use reflexivity as a tool to identify the researcher’s assumptions about the research, are collaborative, and use research as a tool for emancipation (Cosgrove & McHugh, ).
I was trained primarily as a quantitative researcher, and have done mostly survey research in my past. This involves developing a research question (in isolation or collaborating with another researcher or team), developing a questionnaire, distributing it and then in the quiet and peace of one’s own office, entering and analyzing data and writing up the results. This includes an interpretation of what the findings mean, which came out of my own head, based on my own worldview, life experiences, and what I knew of the research on the topic. If there was a qualitative component to the study, it was an open-ended question on the survey. I did not often deal with research participants face to face. On the other hand, I read a lot of feminist theory and research methods, so I was no stranger to ideas of reflexivity and subjectivity.
I did not really incorporate those ideas into my research until 2002, when I started doing research in a women’s prison and actually talked to women directly. This was a career-changing experience that helped to prepare me for the work I am doing now because gaining trust in a prison setting is a challenging prospect and I had to develop very different skill sets to be successful in this setting. Power and privilege are glaringly obvious in a prison setting.
In this paper, I explore the challenges to conducting research in one’s own community, where we are simultaneously insiders and outsiders, trusted in some social circles, but viewed with suspicion when we step out of those community member roles. To do this, I have to be transparent about all the identities that affect my role as community researcher. This essay explores those issues from my own personal experiences with one particular community-based research study, and at the end, I try to present some lessons learned that might help other community-grounded researchers.
I am part of the community that I study: namely, older lesbians (and often bisexual, gay, transgender, queer communities as well). My participation as a community member, however, does not automatically render me as beyond suspicion. The boundaries of lesbian community are constantly under surveillance and new members scrutinized for fit. We worry about things like “women’s space.” Potential members are evaluated by their appearance, their behavior, and their political views (Boyle & Omoto, 2013; Clarke & Spence, 2013).
I am an academic. Research institutions have not always been kind to lesbian communities, and many feel exploited. Sometimes researchers come to our communities, conduct long interviews and interpret findings without consulting us or verifying that their interpretations match our meanings. We have been disgusted to read how we are depicted in someone’s dissertation, or do not recognize ourselves in the research findings of the published article. We wonder about the research question as we fill out another crappy, incomprehensible online survey, for which we never see results. When the researcher is someone from our own community, we wonder about our confidentiality. If the researcher is a toxic ex-lover, we are doubly concerned!
Related to my position in the academy, I got here by pursuing higher education: a lot of it. Egghead researcher. I am white and middle class by virtue of my education and job now, but was raised in a working class family/community. That working class background shaped me profoundly and I am not an “ivory tower” type of researcher. I have always done applied research, but most often driven by my own curiosity rather than the needs of my community. As a lesbian in the academy, I have always been on the outside of the mainstream academic world, from inability to get funding, difficulty getting published, to being a threat to my colleagues (my closeted faculty colleagues feared I might out them, my heterosexual colleagues might have feared seduction, taint, or contagion or were just uncomfortable around me). I was denied tenure in 1996 because of the type of research I was doing, not on the quality of my scholarship (I had about 40 published research articles and two books; the expectation was for 7-8 publications) or the quality of my teaching or service to my college and community. Luckily, the decision was overturned by the president’s office so I did not have to take legal action. These episodes of homophobia have lessened in the past ten years.
I am biologically female and soft butch. That is, sometimes I get called “sir” by heterosexuals, but I have to defend my butch status in some lesbian circles. I am masculine of center in my appearance but feminine of center in temperament. I call myself a “dyke,” and I fit lesbian stereotypes of short hair, no make-up, and few accessories of any type. I am a “Home Depot” than Victoria’s Secret shopper and my closet is devoid of frills and lacey things. I wear only comfortable clothes and shoes. My body mass index hovers right at the border of overweight. To the mainstream world, I’m perceived as plump. You might ask why this later fact is important, but that shall be revealed in due time. My sexual identity is an invisible marker, but my physical body, with its less feminine gender expression is public.
I come from the Midwest, born, raised, and lived there until after I turned 50, and I was socialized in the stoic, simple ways of repressed emotions and spare communication of my rural family and community. It took many years to become more emotionally expressive. I still find the public display of intense emotions uncomfortable. This fact certainly colors the way I perceive other people who communicate emotions more publicly and loudly than I am used to.
Now I am a San Franciscan. Here, it makes a difference that I am a San Franciscan versus a resident of any nearby community. There are sharp distinctions raised between lesbians from Berkeley, Marin, Sonoma, the peninsula, or the further suburban reaches. In Iowa City, where I lived most of adult life, there were mostly townies and university people as the general categories of residents, but within the lesbian community, there were many, many subgroups and social groupings that shifted and overlapped from time to time (or from relationship to relationship). But they were not geographic distinctions. It did not matter whether you lived in Iowa City, Coralville, West Branch, or even What Cheer (ok, I concede that What Cheer lesbians might be a little different). There were softball dykes (further subdivided into serious players and feminist players), there were activists, lesbians with children, theater dykes, queer theorists and women’s studies feminists (who often did not speak to each other), pagans, the bar scene, land-dykes, professional women who did not call themselves lesbians and went on Olivia cruises, and many more. Here I am still trying to figure out the micro-climates of lesbian community that are even more inexplicable than the weather micro-climates. Here, there are all the subgroups I knew in Iowa plus many more, but they are also infused with geographic difference. Here in a densely packed urban area where I am still learning to identify the boundaries of various subgroups, I live in “the city.”
I am a feminist, though more of an activist than theorist. But that does not always help me in lesbian communities that range from atheoretical or even somewhat anti-feminist to queer theorists whose lens is the intersection of sexuality and gender to every possible variety of feminism. The one that creates the most challenges for me personally is lesbian feminism…a potent force for organizing for change among 1970s and 80s lesbians, but full of controversy and discord. I came out into a lesbian feminist community in the Midwest, so I’m familiar with its challenges. I’m so grateful for the lessons I learned from lesbian feminism in my early formative years of coming out, but also dedicated to broadening it to be more inclusive and welcoming of the diversity of lesbians and other sexual minority women who could benefit from feminism. The lesbian feminism was tempered by my involvement in a powerful consciousness raising group called Women Against Racism, where I learned of the experiences of women very different from me. I went through a phase of calling myself a queer-identified lesbian during the years when my work was mostly with LGBTQ communities. In the past few years, I have returned to my roots, grounded in lesbian community. But what is different this time, is that I have started to grapple with all I’ve learned over the past 30 years of living a lesbian life. Does feminist theory really apply? Are lesbians just a subset of the general category of women, or different? Do we need a return to a uniquely lesbian feminism? What does it mean to speak with a woman’s voice? Is there a lesbian voice? Or are there too many voices to categorize them? Obviously I have been thoroughly socialized into a gendered society, but I wonder how much better life would be if we could break out of that mold. Alas, I’m stuck in the language of gender for now.
I am a cisgender woman, happy with my woman’s body, for the most part. I am a 100% lesbian, with absolutely no attractions to men at this point in life, but I am well-versed in, and supportive of my bisexual, gay, and transgender family members. I am temporarily able-bodied, in my early elder years (60), and a card-carrying member of OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing Change). I am in a monogamous relationship.
Obviously, identity is a complex and messy affair. I have multiple identities, some that are salient in certain situations and matter very little in others. But I do not always know how others perceive me or what identities they assume I have. As a researcher, I bring these multiple personalities into the community with me and they spill over into my work in unpredictable ways. I fear that like Sybil, I express these personalities differently depending on the context. I have had little consciousness about trying to stabilize my identity presentation from one place to another.
Why do Identities Matter?
So why am I telling you all this? Why does it matter? Identities of researchers are not critical parts of research studies, right? We academics have been trained to separate our individual, personal selves and become dispassionate, objective observers of the subjects of our study. We can statistically control for the influence of messy life experiences that stem from our different backgrounds and political beliefs. We can identify our biases and therefore, render them neutral. Or so I was taught and used to think. Now I know that if you are truly committed to doing social justice research within communities, research that matters for communities, the rules are a little different. When you work for justice, you cannot be a dispassionate observer. When you work for justice in your own community, you must be subjectively involved. My own future is at stake in the work I do. In the rest of this essay, I share my experiences in running an intervention study in the lesbian/bisexual women’s communities of the San Francisco Bay Area, and reflect on the lessons learned for doing this type of research. As Reinharz (1992, p. 15) noted, we must “study who we are and who we are in relation to those we study” as an essential step in feminist research. For all the challenges it has presented, the outcomes, better health for members of my own community, and therefore, for myself, are worth the trouble.
From Healthy Weight Initiative to Doing It For Ourselves (DIFO)
In the spring of 2012, an announcement came out of the Office on Women’s Health for contracts to do research on sexual minority women. The mechanism was called “The Healthy Weight Initiative” and provided funding to develop interventions to address the often reported fact of higher weight among lesbian and bisexual women. I had been waiting my entire 25 plus year academic career for a call for proposals that focused on sexual minority women, but I had to wince when I saw this one. I grew up in a lesbian feminist community with a very strong fat positive voice, and now I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, another hub of fat activism. The call for proposals was unapologetically biomedical with its discussion of high rates of “obesity” among lesbian and bisexual women and calling for interventions that would reduce weight, or at least prevent weight-related health problems. I had to think long and hard about whether to apply. On the one hand, I had never received any funding to do research on lesbian communities in my career because of a lack of dedicated funding, and a perception that I would never find enough lesbians to study in Iowa. Here was an opportunity I did not want to waste—no one would think there were not enough lesbians in San Francisco although I knew from experience it would be easier to locate and organize lesbians in my old hometown of Iowa City than it would be here. I felt I was nearing the end of my research career, so how could I pass on this chance to get funding? But on the other hand, could I craft a proposal that would address the major health concerns of the women in the lesbian/bisexual women’s communities where I lived, where weight loss was not only not a priority, but considered to be inappropriate, unhealthy, and offensive? Could I develop a program for large women that was not fat shaming? As a borderline “normal/overweight” woman myself, would I be credible leading a project for fat women?
I decided to apply, but with the caveat that I would develop a program that addressed the social determinants of lesbian/bisexual women’s health, empower them about the dangers of weight loss through dieting, and provide lots of information about health in general. I developed a hybrid 12-week program that combined elements of consciousness-raising, basic health education, and group support. It was grounded in an approach called “Health At Every Size” (Bacon, 2010). My major outcome variables would be quality of life, not weight loss. Miraculously, I got funded, along with four other projects across the United States. Now I had to put my philosophy into action and convince women in my community that I meant no harm.
Implementing the Study: Focus Groups
The first challenge came when we started to recruit women for focus groups. I made the mistake of using the official name “Healthy Weight Initiative” on the flyers and information. Suspicion ensued…emails and phone calls came in challenging our program and voicing concerns. Then came the actual focus groups. In 3 of 4 groups, I was personally challenged by at least one woman…”you aren’t going to lead the groups, are you?” and “what’s your BMI?” Several women stated that they wanted a larger woman as a group leader. “I don’t want some skinny, straight Barbie telling me what to do,” was a general consensus.
The rifts in the community were apparent during these discussions about what women wanted from a health-oriented group. Many mentioned that they had different needs and goals than “sporty dykes.” Others said they did not want to have to listen to femme women discussing shopping. Others talked about wanting age-specific groups, such as pre/peri-menopausal versus post-menopausal, or working versus retired. But some of the most interesting conversations were around what should be in the materials that advertised the program. In various focus groups, I collected words that one or more women said should not be on our recruiting information: lesbian, bisexual, dyke, homosexual, gay women, queer (hence the name Doing It For Ourselves, that avoided naming the target audience!). Also on the taboo list were: intervention, mindfulness, diet, weight loss, and older (old was preferred). A common theme that emerged from all four focus groups was that women thought there was a lesbian community, but it didn’t exist where they lived. San Francisco women thought community was in Berkeley; Berkeley women thought it was in Oakland; peninsula and north bay women thought it was in San Francisco. They all bemoaned the lack of community for older women.
Women shared ideas about where we should recruit for participants, but most of these were tempered by comments like:
“You should advertise on the fat dykes listserv; but you cannot be a member. You will have to go through someone else.”
“You should recruit at the fat women’s swim, but you have to weigh 200 pounds to be able to attend. Maybe someone who goes regularly can help you get the word out.”
“You should put an announcement in the OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing Change) newsletter, but you have to be 60 to be a member” (luckily I turned 60 before it was time to recruit for groups).
I heard similar comments about other groups…I should recruit there, but I was not welcome to belong in that community. There was so much fragmenting and splitting of the community into smaller and smaller subgroups, that I saw why many women felt there was no overall unifying community. I felt like such an outsider in those situations.
In spite of much rhetoric about being fat positive during the focus group discussions, in the three groups where this issue was raised, at least two women in each group eventually shared that she had felt ostracized or shut down in conversations because she wanted to or actually had lost weight. Many reported that they wanted a safe place to talk about weight loss as well as body acceptance. In spite of that, in each group, my politics about fat positive movements was questioned. Women wanted to know that they would be safe and not told what they should do. The rebellious nature of many lesbians who are distrustful of the healthcare system kicked in more than once.
Implementing the Study: Recruiting for the Program
Recruiting for the first wave of the intervention was fraught with the same tensions, even though I left off the “Healthy Weight” name. Recruitment materials still noted that this program was for larger women (women of size was the phrase we used). Women emailed, called, or showed up at events eager to be part of a community-building program, but afraid they would be forced to diet or talk about their weight. I attended the San Francisco Dyke March to pass out flyers about the program and encountered another interesting dilemma. On at least six occasions when I approached a pair of women who appeared to be a butch/femme couple, the femme lesbian took my flyer and the butch lesbian waved it away. Was I seeing a pattern, did it fit my expectations that the further along the butch continuum a woman was, the more she might “buy-in” to masculine expectations (she would not want someone a bit more feminine in appearance telling her what she could eat or that she should exercise or reduce drinking, or whatever other unhealthy patterns she might have). Was this a matter of my own stereotypes kicking in, or an actual pattern that could be explored in health research?
The Group Intervention
Excitement and anticipation were tempered by suspicion and anxious questioning of facilitators (and I was the facilitator for 2 of the 4 groups in Wave 1—another example of my blurred lines). I recall a woman in a scooter rolling into the back of the room ten minutes after the first session had begun. I waved to her and told her to come closer. She shook her head, arms crossed, and said, “I’m not sure this group is for me.” As the session wore on, she inched closer, but it took 3-4 sessions before she completely invested in the program (she is now a facilitator for the second wave of groups, and became one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the group).
As the sessions wore on, women began to drop out. I would receive emails like this:
“I love the concept and the philosophy of the program, but I have been in other groups with XXX, and I cannot tolerate her racist comments.”
“I was so looking forward to this group, but I find many of the members are ignorant of fat politics and the conversations are just too painful.”
“I was shocked to walk into the room the first night and see my ex…a woman I was with for 14 years and broke up with 4 months ago. I tried to tolerate her presence, but I could not take it anymore.”
“I am totally committed to a Health At Every Size model and appreciate the workbook and website, but do not think all the group members are truly on board. Some of them want to lose weight and I cannot sit in a room and listen to that.”
In almost every case, the participant who dropped out cited interpersonal dynamics with one or more other group members as the main reason. They typically declared an identity of “fat politics” and judged another woman for being different or not as evolved. Personally, I took offense at the judgmental nature of some of the comments, and was concerned that they did not raise the issues in the group, where these tensions could be discussed instead of letting them fester, unspoken, as the lavender elephants in the room. My stoic Midwestern training did not prepare me to directly deal with these fundamental conflicts in belief systems.
Halfway through, I started having doubts about the program. This focus on weight (even though I’ve tried to mask it as much as possible) is still stigmatizing. The fact of bringing together larger lesbian/bisexual women to focus on health tends to put the blame on the individual, implying that our own behavior is responsible for all the negative outcomes that affect us. Telling women that weight loss is not our emphasis, but then asking them to do waist circumference measures is contradictory. The emphasis on discussions of food in the groups and the information about the toxicity of sugar leads to some demonizing of certain types of food, and may feel like a “diet plan” to some. In the weekly sessions, it tended to become all about food. Women seemed to have identities around their eating plans as well…for some a vegan identity or a commitment to organic food and food justice was as strong an identity as their sexuality. Some spoke about these food identities as a mark of superiority. I began to wonder if allowing the discussions about food to take over more than half of the weekly sessions, that I might be doing more harm than good. On one hand, I am a public health educator and truly believe that our toxic food supply is the cause of much illness in our country, but on the other hand, I am committed to fostering safety and inclusiveness in the group. By the end of the first wave of groups, I felt that the group had been more beneficial than harmful, but resolved to keep working on ways to reduce the stigma of larger bodies and shift the emphasis on discussions of food and weight to other aspects of health. I did not want the emphasis on individual behavior (emotional eating, where to get organic food, how to get motivated to exercise) to perpetuate the victim-blaming of society that lesbian/bisexual women already experienced everyday around their gender and sexuality, and now extend it to lifestyle behaviors.
“Why do you always say lesbian and bisexual when you are talking about research?” she asked in a somewhat accusatory tone. It was week 10 of the 12 week program, and the content had discussed biphobia, proposed how important it was to be inclusive and welcoming of all the diversity of women who identified as lesbian, bisexual, queer, gender queer, two spirit, same-gender loving, or whatever labels they used. I answered, “I say lesbian and bisexual women because some of the research combines the two groups, and some finds difference and some not. This program is for lesbian and bisexual women.” She pressed on, “Why not just say lesbian? We are all lesbians here. Why would we include bisexuals? Me and my friends don’t know any bisexual…” she trailed off. I urged her to call me later to discuss this. The session was officially over and everyone was filling out the evaluation forms when she dropped this comment. I did not want the group to end on this note. Another woman from the group spoke up at this point, “I find that offensive. I am bisexual, do you really think I don’t belong in this group?” The first woman dismissed her by saying, “You should not be offended. It’s just my opinion. I’m entitled to my opinion.”
Again, I asked her to stop talking and offered to speak with her privately later. But she pressed on and told a story about coming to one of our program events. When she returned from the bathroom, she charged up to a visibly transgender woman and asked her if she had left the toilet seat up. She announced that she did not mind having transgender women in the group if they would be respectful of women and put the seat down. Other women were now looking on in horrified fascination. Then she started down an ableist path, making a comment about knowing that this group was different when she came in the first session and saw “you women in wheelchairs.” Again, I asked her to stop and think about what she was saying. This time she left. I asked the remaining 5-6 women if they needed to process, but they looked too weary, too deflated and all wanted to go home.
Over the next few days, I processed about the session. I remembered that this woman had started the session with a check in about a troublesome neighbor that had sounded racist. I had re-directed her, but not pointed out the bias in her comments. I recalled that almost every session she had made some comment that raised a red flag for me, but it was often part of a vague statement made in a rambling fashion and I could not mark it as overtly prejudiced at the time. So several times I had tried to get her on track, but I had let potentially racist, sexist, ableist, fat-shaming, and other comments go by unremarked. As group facilitator, I had the power and privilege to ignore her, but at what cost? How many of the women who had left the group had done so because I had not challenged these types of comments. Yikes! I wanted to create a safe space for open discussions, but just saying that the group was safe did not make it so. I did not recognize that my own privilege had gotten in the way (and my stoic Midwestern conflict-avoidance). I realized by the end that the women who stayed in the group were a lot like me…mostly white and well-educated. I had inadvertently allowed my privilege to oppress others (Battle & Harris, 2013).
Dealing with the Biomedical Focus of the Funders
Another challenge was working with the cross-site teams and the federal funders. OWH funded five quite different projects across the country, some with weight loss goals. We met only via conference call, and I found it very challenging to have meaningful discussions with people I had never met in person. There were team members who after the roll call at the beginning, never once spoke during these monthly conversations. Others dominated the conversations. One particular conference call in the first few months of the project was particularly troublesome. A physician from another team said that women in her clinic often brought her articles about fat positive movements or the obesity paradox. Her response was to hand them an article from a biomedical standpoint, linking obesity to a wide variety of health problems. I wondered how this tactic could be helpful to anyone. I wondered if those patients ever came back to that supposedly lesbian/bisexual women’s clinic setting. The physician’s behavior seemed to just maintain the authority and superiority of the doctor and put her patients in their rightful subordinate place. It would have completely shut down the possibility of dialogue. This was a lesbian physician—I judged her more harshly than I would have judged a heterosexual physician, because I assumed that she would be more aware and accepting of lesbian community norms and politics.
Other team members included heterosexual researchers who were involved in the evaluation aspects of the project as well as some sexual minority researchers and community service providers. On the whole, they seemed to somewhat ignorant of fat positive movements in sexual minority women’s communities or of the challenges in recruiting older sexual minority women into research. I learned to pick my battles, but every offensive comment or well-meaning but ignorant comment about older sexual minority women made me wince in the solitude of my office.
The project is still underway, and I cannot yet say that DIFO was a success. I do know that for the first wave of participants, a core group of women in all four groups bonded with each other and expressed much gratitude for the time and space to share their concerns about aging, health, and identities in this particular group. Some labelled it as a community, some did not. Many wanted it to continue and are still meeting outside of the structured group. I count that as the major success, more than any shift in waist circumference or addition of another helping of vegetables. I felt I had at least partially met one feminist research goal where “the research is an individual who interacts with participants in meaningful ways that enrich both the observer and the observed” (Worrell & Etaugh, 1994, p. 446). I was certainly enriched and it seemed like many of the participants were as well. Disclosure is a feminist research strategy intended to increase transparency (Oakley, 1988), but it has a danger of shifting the focus from participant to research, thus perpetuating a silencing of other women’s voices. Too much disclosure may be exploitative. At this point, 18 months into the project, I have learned some important lessons. These are outlined below.
First, insider and outsider are not dichotomous terms…there is a wide continuum and one’s position on it varies from situation to situation. It reminds me of the sliding scale payment fee for so many lesbian community events…one’s location on the scale depended on many factors including how many resources I had on hand at the time. In one group I facilitated, I was mostly an insider, although most of the participants were more than ten years than I was. This group felt comfortable and I felt closer to being a member of the group than a facilitator. The other group was more challenging. The women were larger in size, more were physically disabled, more of them came from different religious backgrounds than I did. I was challenged almost every session….not in a mean way, but in a slightly suspicious way (was I a representative of an oppressive federal agency or truly committed to sexual minority women’s health?). These obvious differences made me feel my outsider status more acutely than in the other group.
I feel that I personally benefited from facilitating the groups, but that I held myself apart, deliberately choosing a bit of an outsider role because of consciousness about my dual role as the primary researcher and developer of the materials, and as a group facilitator. I still question my decision to facilitate two groups…on one hand, it blurred the lines of intervention development, implementation, and evaluation, but on the other hand, I learned first-hand how different aspects of the curriculum worked. The experience turned out to be critical when it came time to revise the materials.
I wish to reinforce that it’s not only ok to talk about the taboo topics, its necessary to create an inclusive and accepting community. It is to the benefit of our communities to raise these issues and be honest and vulnerable with each other. I learned that others, like myself, could be 100% committed to body acceptance and a fat positive perspective, but still have challenges loving and accepting our own bodies. If we express only the belief, and not the questions or challenges to incorporating the belief into our daily experience, the belief becomes dogma and shuts down dialogue and progress. We need to bring up the elephants in the room to expose them to scrutiny…who does biphobia and transphobia and ageism and ableism and sizism serve?
I learned that it is ok to be different. We can have different goals and perspectives. The only time it is not ok is if one’s perspective harms another person in the group. But we can gently question one’s philosophy without trashing the person. “It’s just my opinion,” is not a valid response. If we are to grow as individuals and communities, we have to examine our opinions and choose compassionate ways of dealing with each other.
I learned that words matter. The words on our early recruitment materials wounded some women in the community, made them feel threatened and violated. While on the one hand, there is no satisfying everyone in terms of the language used, it is critical to survey community members about the “buzz words” that create distrust or suspicion. What you call your program and how you describe it will dramatically affect participant recruitment. Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in the community. One way we accomplished this was via a physical fitness video that used focus group members as the models. This video shows older and larger women engaging in a gentle physical activity that turned out to be very powerful for some of the women in the group. As Weedon (1987) noted, “consciousness-raising should not be seen as a discovered about women’s true nature but as a way of changing subjectivity through positioning ourselves in alternative discourses which we produce together” (p. 43).
A researcher’s reputation in the community will also become a critical factor. Ultimately, it was personal contact, talking to individuals and small groups, and word of mouth that made our recruitment efforts somewhat successful. The participants are still not as diverse as the demographics of the San Francisco Bay Area, but we are slowly getting there as women experience the glimpses of community that the program can offer. If we can get additional funding, I am confident that the groups will continue to diversify in every possible way if we do the work of tackling the biases and the taboo topics. It is far too easy for an oppressed minority group to slip into the role of being its own oppressor. The forces that create minority stress in our lives—the hateful words from religious leaders, rejection by family, and insidiously sexist, ageist, racist media create the conditions by which we use what little power we have to oppress each other. There is much truth in the perceptions of women in the program that there is no older women’s community, because we have fragmented into smaller and smaller subgroups based on narrow ideologies. Many of these ideologies have noble goals (lesbian feminism, fat-positive movements) but if they reach the point of dogma, they create rigid boundaries between women who otherwise could learn from each other and band together for support. Sometimes our communities shrink because we feel a need to stay in our comfort zones by only surrounding ourselves with people who think like we do. Dealing with all the forms of oppression is exhausting work.
Finally, no individual-level intervention, no matter whether it focuses on empowerment or not, can bring social justice by itself. Only structural change in oppressive systems can effect real change in the materials lives of older lesbian/bisexual women. But I do recognize that providing knowledge can empower women to participate in broader change strategies. Structural change is more possible when disempowered peoples stand up and speak out, when they vote, and when they challenge oppressive practices as they occur. To be empowered, we need to know who we are. That includes researchers as well as their community partners and members of the communities they seek to serve. There is empowerment in the reflexivity if it reveals the power and privilege that we can wield as a gift, using it wisely and ethically.
So, to return to the Kenny Roger’s lyrics that started this piece, researchers who are committed to doing social justice work with oppressed minority populations have a moral obligation to pay attention to “what condition our condition is in.” We need to check our own identities and beliefs regularly to see what is getting triggered, and what effect we have on community partners and research participants. When interpreting the data from a community project, are you “crawlin’ in or a-crawlin’ out?” That is, are you interpreting the data from your own unique worldview honed from your own identities and experiences, or open to the possibilities of multiple interpretations and alternative meanings?