Challenges in Conservation and Fieldwork for LGBTQ+ Youth

There are many challenges that people can experience when they’re doing fieldwork or working on conservation projects, whether it be locally and overseas. But these aspects can have additional layers of complexity for certain groups of people.

In this post, I’m just going to focus on the LGBTQ+ community (of which I am a card-carrying member) but many of these issues are intertwined with aspects of gender, age, disability, race, & socio-economic status among others.

In this post I’m going to use the term “Queer” to refer to the LGBTQ+ community, but note that not everyone is comfortable with this term.

The first big challenge for Queer people is legal protection and criminalisation. There are still about 70 countries where same-sex activity is illegal and 11 where the death penalty is at least a possibility. Many of these inherited such laws from British colonial occupation, and there are varying degrees of enforcement.

Maps displaying these laws can be found here and here.

Whilst many countries do not criminalise Queer people, it does not mean that they are protected or safe. As reported by Stonewall, the statistics for hate crimes towards LGBTQ+ people within the UK are pretty staggering.

For many Queer people, going to new areas or countries often involves going back into the closet and not talking about your personal life. For me, a simple question of “Do you have a girlfriend?” can be difficult to answer. Do I say “No” or do I say “No, but I have a boyfriend“. This requires a risk assessment asking questions such as:

What will their reaction be?
Am I at risk of violence?
Will this have professional consequences?

Am I reliant on this person for transport or accommodation?
What will I do if they react badly?

And often the end result is that it can be much harder for Queer people to make friends and good work connections as they cannot be themselves.

Conservation and fieldwork can require people to stay in remote places for months on end without contact with the outside world. This time away can be especially difficult for Trans people undergoing Hormone Replacement Therapy, which may require regular injections only administered at the Doctors. The frequency of these injections can vary between daily to every few months and can be one of the many barriers to Queer folk joining conservation projects as most require a minimum commitment of a few months.

Additionally, even the basic access to healthcare in certain places can be risky for trans folk. Getting treatment for anything, whether it be Malaria or a broken arm, would require trans people to divulge their gender identity to health care professionals, which could put them at risk.

One of the last big barriers that I want to highlight is the lack of Queer representation within Science and Conservation. I grew up without any Queer role models, the only gay scientist being Alan Turing. And whilst Turing was a great scientist, it’s not really the fairy tale story you aspire to.

  1. Include your pronouns in your introduction, your social media accounts and your email signatures. Pronouns are what we’d like people to refer to us by, so for example, he/him, she/her, as well as gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them, among others. The reason that I ask you all to include these is that it begins to normalise that we should not assume people’s genders. And by normalising the display of our pronouns, it stops trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people being singled out for displaying their pronouns and being subject to online abuse. So it’s really an act of solidarity with the community.

    A quick side note to this point to say that we should also never assume that someone is straight just because they don’t seem Queer. It can take many years for Queer people to publicly come out, and even if they are out to their friends and family, they may not be out to their work colleagues. So with every interaction you have with someone, give consideration to all of the things that I have included in this post. Don’t assume their gender (use gender neutral pronouns like they/them – which can apply to everyone), don’t assume their sexual orientation (if you must ask about their relationships, ask if they have a partner, not a boyfriend/girlfriend), and bare in mind that asking about relationships can be a tricky subject for people who are in the Asexual or Aromantic spectrum. And lastly, just because a girl has a boyfriend, it doesn’t mean that she is straight – for many Bisexual people, their queerness is often erased by the assumption that they are straight.
  2. The rainbow flag is the universal symbol for the support of Queer people. By sticking a rainbow sticker on some of your field equipment, it acts as a subtle signal to Queer people that maybe you’re someone safe to talk to and that can be really valuable to Queer people in a new group setting.
  3. If you’re in the position to hire people or perhaps you need research assistants or volunteers, it can be worthwhile stating somewhere that this project is Queer-friendly and that you have given consideration to these risks. Not only do you attract some amazing Queer people, but you’ll also weed out all the non-Queer trash people.
  4. And lastly, if you can, cut out and be vocal against people who are anti-Queer or opposed to inclusivity in any way. Use your privilege as a straight or cisgender person to speak out!

Be vocal in your support of diverse representation within your field. Growing up, I never know of any queer scientists or conservationists, but with the growth of social media and the internet, I have found a really great community of inspiring people. In the past few years, I’ve discovered many countless organisations and people supporting Queer and diverse representation within Science, among them including:

500 Queer Scientists is a fantastic organisation highlighting over 1000 Queer Scientists.
Pride in Stem is a non-profit run by Queer people supporting Queer people within STEM.
LGBTQ+ STEM is a group improving LGBTQ+ visibility in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Alex Bond‘s blog was one of the inspirations for writing this post and I would recommend that all straight people in STEM read this post of his.
TIGER in STEMM is The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM.

And lastly, give thought to where you plan to do your fieldwork or research. Consider that what may be a simple action or interaction for you may stressful and dangerous, or illegal, for Queer people. Even the simple act of going to the bathroom that matches their gender identity in some places may be dangerous and illegal for Queer people.

No matter where you are working, perhaps read up on the local climate for Queer folk in advance and offer support if needed. Many risk assessments at places like Universities do not consider risks to specific minority groups. So I also recommend that you lobby your work or University or Organisation to update their risk assessments to include a section on specific risks related to sexual orientation, gender, age, disability, religion, race, among others. You can find this type of information on the Human Rights Watch.

Lastly, I cannot speak for the Queer community and I imagine that I have totally not represented some key challenges that some people face. My main hope is that this will get you to at least appreciate and acknowledge that we need to think more carefully about how our research or fieldwork may impose challenges for some people to participate in and to think about how you could improve that. This post is also very western-centric and I appreciate that I as a white western cisgender guy will have a very different experience travelling overseas or to remote places compared with a local Queer person in a country that criminalises Queer people.

I’m going to finish this post up by asking a couple of questions:

Based on all of these risks, should we work in countries that persecute Queer people?
On one side, we need to work globally to solve our planet’s problems, but this may put Queer people working in remote locations at risk. On the other side, there are of course Queer people and allies in these countries and we should support them.

From an educational perspective, consider if you need to run your overseas University fieldtrip in a country that persecutes Queer people, or can you do it somewhere which doesn’t put Queer Staff and Students at risk?

From a research perspective, if you are working in tropical montane forests like me (which span multiple countries), consider if you can undertake your research across the border in a country which doesn’t criminalise Queer people. This may be safer for Queer members of your research team and perhaps your scope of inference is still valid across the mountain range. If you do work overseas in a country which is dangerous for Queer people or you have Queer people on your team, perhaps find local collaborators who are inclusive and who you can talk openly with about these concerns.

If you have supervisory role to students or volunteers, they will often look to you for guidance when dealing with collaborators, so make sure to brief your students on whether a collaborator will be accepting of Queer people (any maybe don’t work with those who are not accepting). Otherwise the student may be very nervous about whether outing themselves as Queer person will jeopardise the relationship with the collaborator.

Should we continue to support people doing good conservation work or research, even if they have hold negative views towards minority groups? Of course there’s a large degree of cultural and religious differences within a country and between countries, but where do we draw the line?

Should we separate the science from the Scientist? Or the conservation work from the Conservationist?

It’s a difficult question, but I think that the answer is to always look for someone else who is inclusive to invest your time and money with.

And finally:

In short, my answer is no.

To solve our planet’s diverse problems, we need diverse solutions from diverse people. And to encourage this, we just need to make some small adjustments and just give a bit more thought to how certain situations may be problematic for others, even if they are fine for us. I truly believe that when conservation becomes more inclusive and intersectional, our efforts to solve our planet’s problems will be so much more effective.

This post was created alongside a presentation that I gave as part of the Youth For Our Planet ‘Changemakers’ Conference from 3-4th October 2020. It was a fantastic conference filled with inspiring young people and I feel so privileged to have been included. See below for a recording of my virtual presentation:

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