«Keywords: feminist methodology, feminist oral history, critical Indigenous theory, forced migration, queer studies, LGBT refugees Copyright by ...»
Since the 1990s, feminist oral historians have consistently reflected upon their methodological practice and theoretical position(s) (Scanlon 1993). Because feminist research was founded on the political premise of tearing down exploitative and hierarchal systems of power and knowledge production, the search for finding alternative and empowering research practices is still a pressing need. Moreover, in the face of ongoing class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and racial inequalities, or when the interviewer represents the oppressor, settler, or colonizer, questions of interpretative authority are a critical concern. While there are many feminist oral historians who seek such critical engagement and continue to write reflective works on interpretative authority in oral history research, in the context of the growing quantity of oral history research being produced, they remain a minority even today. What is particularly concerning is that the discussion of interpretative authority has remained rather one-sided, favoring the researcher. While feminist oral historians have talked about the oral history interview as a dynamic process and recognized the agency of participants and their role in the research, often these recognitions are fleeting or reduced to oneline mentions. Rare are the publications that actively engage in discussing the participants’ interpretative authority on the research and the finished work.
In the face of all these challenges and concerns, how can oral history research reflect the interpretative authority of both the researcher and the participants? Where does the discussion of power and knowledge production in oral history go if the participants are seen as having their own agency and power? I agree with all of the aforementioned critiques by feminist oral historians and critical race scholars who have questioned claims of equality and empowerment in the face of continued material and structural inequality. However, questions and possible answers with the aim to establishing nonexploitative shared authority between the researcher and the participant need to take into account the hard work participants do in telling their story.
In the next two sections, I will review the challenges I encountered when conducting oral histories with LGBT refugees and outline how critical Indigenous theory provided a useful tool in understanding, Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) acknowledging, and representing participants’ agency. In this way, I will intersect critical Indigenous theory with the methodology of feminist oral history and move previous discussions on power and interpretative authority away from focusing just on the role of the researcher and toward embracing the role of the participant as well.
“Do You Understand?”: Recognizing the Agency of Research Participants Amira: It’s tiring having to tell your story over and over again. Everywhere you go, you have to repeat yourself. It’s not just the refugee process where you tell your story, but every person you meet, every office you go to, you have to tell your story. They want to know why you are here and what you want from them. You get used to it. It takes a lot of work to make people understand.4 In making a claim for asylum in Canada, LGBT refugees must write down their story and share it with the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Oftentimes it is their story that serves as the only proof of persecution and need for asylum. Unlike refugees claiming political, ethnic, or religious persecution, where there may be clear evidence of direct persecution by the state and society, persecution of LGBT persons is often hidden in the everyday violence of homophobia and transphobia. LGBT refugees not only must prove their sexual orientation and/or gender identity to the IRB but also show convincing proof of their fear of persecution. Mere criminalization of same-sex sexuality or same-sex acts by their state of origin is not enough to be equated with persecution, and thus not enough proof to guarantee asylum.
LGBT refugees put considerable effort into writing their asylum claim stories. At their asylum hearing, they must answer a series of questions by the deciding member of the IRB about their life and what happened to them. Sharing their story with strangers and state officials can be intensely difficult and sometimes traumatizing for all refugees. For LGBT refugees, there is the added fear and shame of talking about their sexuality and/or gender identity. The emotional cost of sharing such intimate and private aspects of their lives with an outsider is considerable. There is a legitimate fear of being misheard or seen as not being consistent and/or credible: a slight variation of a retelling of an event or a mixing up of a date can be enough grounds for the IRB member to deem the person as not credible and therefore not eligible for asylum. The testimonies of LGBT refugees are picked apart by the deciding IRB official in order to find any inconsistency that can allow the refugee claim to be rejected. Their stories are often misheard because of cultural differences in storytelling and the IRB members’ own biases or stereotypes regarding gender and sexuality. Even with the increased understanding about the fluidity of sexuality and gender across cultures, an LGBT refugee claimant may still run the risk of being rejected because they did not appear to be gay or trans “enough.” Put simply, they might not be recognized as gay or trans by the IRB member deciding on their fate.
In the face of such challenges, LGBT refugees work very hard in telling their story and making sure that they are not misheard. However, their storytelling does not stop there. As Amira explained to me, refugees must constantly share their story in order to get the social services and resources needed to survive. Visiting a social worker, a doctor, or a government clerk, even applying for a job or obtaining an apartment, will involve telling your story of how you came to Canada and why you are a refugee. Stories become a necessary tool in accessing social services and goods. Sharing your story is also needed when navigating various LGBT communities in Canada. Canada has a wide array of LGBT communities, but the majority of LGBT centers and gay and lesbian social places cater to mostly white and middle-class clientele. People usually ask LGBT refugees they meet at these places to share their story and explain why they are refugees. There is often an Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) added expectation that the refugee will talk about how much better Canada is than their home country and how grateful they are to be refugees. LGBT refugees resist as well as strategically play into these narratives as they interact with the LGBT communities they encounter.
When I started this research project, I wanted to know more about LGBT refugees’ experiences of home and belonging in Canada. I wanted to get past what I saw as the forced-upon and flattened narrative of the “grateful refugee” promoted by the Canadian state and Immigration and Refugee Board, as well as by the general public. I wanted to complicate the one-dimensional picture of LGBT refugees portrayed in the media as people escaping backward homophobic countries and finding freedom and happiness in the supposedly progressive and “gay-friendly” Canada. I was prepared for the time and multiple conversations needed to gain the participants’ trust.
Consent was rolling in this project, and I made sure to check in with the participants several times during our interviews to answer any questions they had about me or the research. Participants could leave the project at any time, at which point their oral histories would be given back to them. Participants had final approval of the written transcripts. At the start of every interview, we would review the previous transcript for errors, clarifications, or changes. Yet, despite my careful consideration and efforts to make the participants as relaxed and comfortable as possible, it took much longer than I expected for them to open up about their experiences. It was not until I turned to critical Indigenous theory that I realized how much I was ignoring the participants’ agency in telling their story.
Oral history is not a neutral methodology. Some oral history projects have pathologized or fetishized voices, and have also turned the narrators into one-dimensional victims or removed their agency. Likewise, some oral history projects can silence groups or individuals by not recognizing their agency and authority in the research. Critical Indigenous theory has its roots in the civil rights, feminist, and Indigenous rights movements of the 1960s. For critical Indigenous scholars in Australia and North and South America, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000, originally published in 1968) became a significant influence on their movement. Critical Indigenous scholars took from Freire the call for knowledge production to be based on the lived experiences and realities of oppressed Indigenous populations by exposing how imperialism and globalization have taken Indigenous knowledge away from Indigenous communities, replacing it with Western knowledge that was used to further damage and violently oppress and destroy Indigenous societies.
By rooting knowledge in Indigenous realities, Indigenous scholars and activists reclaim their knowledge and sovereignty, as well as challenge and deconstruct the norms of Western education and research pedagogies.
Basing knowledge production on Indigenous realities cannot be achieved without systemically questioning, deconstructing, and challenging established Western pedagogies and research practices. In Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that researchers must go beyond simply recognizing that personal beliefs and assumptions will affect their interactions. Researchers must understand the underlying assumptions, motivations, and values, as well as the psychological, discursive, and material effects that their research will have (1999, 173). Grounding yourself in the research location means not only gaining knowledge and understanding of the historical and current social, economic, and political environment of the individuals and communities involved, but also recognizing and understanding the assumptions, experiences, and storytelling practices of the participants, which inform the research process and its results (Tuhiwai Smith 1999, 186).
Grounding myself in the location of my research site involved understanding the political, economic, and social environment that LGBT refugees navigate through as they traverse the refugee process and settle in Canada. Before conducting my oral history interviews, I met with immigration lawyers and settlement Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) workers to talk about the difficulties and challenges of making a refugee claim. I visited immigration social service offices and interviewed social workers. I attended several workshops on refugee asylum, as well as training and information classes on immigration housing and social services. These experiences helped to inform me of the complex and very much unequal social, political, and economic situation that LGBT refugees find themselves in once they make a refugee claim in Canada.
It was not until I volunteered with Rainbow Refugee—a social support group for refugees claiming asylum on sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status based in Vancouver, British Columbia—that I began to fully understand the hard work that LGBT refugees must do in order for outsiders to understand their story. I saw the amount of effort they took in explaining their situation to the IRB and to various social service workers. They bore the burden of explaining to a Western audience what being a sexual and/or gender minority was like in their country of origin. They had to translate complex and culturally specific ways in which sexuality and gender were constructed and performed in their country of origin. As many queer scholars have pointed out, there is a wide array of variation in regard to sexuality and gender that is often culturally, socially, and location specific. Western-based sexual or gender identity categories and lifestyles do not easily or exactly translate across geographical borders. The majority of persons claiming asylum on the basis of sexuality and/or gender identity do use Western identity categories such as gay, bisexual, lesbian, or trans to describe themselves. However, what it means to be a gay cisgender man in Somalia or Mexico can be very different from what it means to be a gay cisgender man in Canada. Add to this other distinguishing factors like ethnicity, religion, class, and/or ability, and what it means to be a sexual and/or gender minority in these countries can vary greatly depending on the person. A lesbian, gay, or bisexual refugee claimant must work with and against common perceptions of what it means to be a person attracted to someone of the same sex or gender in the West and what it means to be a person attracted to someone of the same sex or gender in their country of origin. A trans person faces the added difficulty of having to explain not only their gender identity but also their sexual orientation to a mostly cisgender Western audience. LGBT refugees not only have to tell their story over and over again to each new person they meet; they must craft a story that is understandable and credible in order to receive asylum.
By the time participants came to sit down with me and be interviewed, they were well-rehearsed and efficient storytellers. I was not the first person they told their story to, and most likely I would not be the last. I was so focused on my role in the research that I did not recognize at first that I was interviewing well-accomplished storytellers. What first appeared to me as a very straightforward story of persecution and migration was actually a story that the participants had put a lot of time and energy into. I did not see how hard they worked to craft their story. I did not fully understand how important that story was to them. I mistakenly thought that I was the one influencing and controlling the interview. I would worry about making sure that the participants felt safe in talking to me. I wanted to find new ways for them to feel comfortable and confident in talking about the challenges of settling in Canada. I did not recognize that in telling their story they were showing me their tenacity, bravery, and creativity. I was too blind and too focused on my position as the researcher to see their power and control over the interview.