«Keywords: feminist methodology, feminist oral history, critical Indigenous theory, forced migration, queer studies, LGBT refugees Copyright by ...»
The hyphen continues to be present in my research and will remain after this project is “officially” finished. As a nonrefugee white queer settler, the difference between me and my participants is always present. Instead of seeing this as a disadvantage, an invitation to navel-gazing, or something to be smoothed over, I take the hyphen as an opportunity to poke and ultimately unsettle my position of power to speak next to LGBT refugees. I was given a great amount of responsibility and trust in documenting their stories to an outside world. With this great responsibility, I face internal and external confrontations and challenges as an outsider talking about LGBT refugee issues and concerns. I choose not to convey their stories in my own words in order to speak for and about refugee issues and concerns. Instead, I keep their words intact and speak in proximity to them (Minh-Ha 1989, 119). Within the finished text of my dissertation, I take every opportunity to show the authority of the participants in talking to power through their stories and lived experiences. That authority is something that needs to be acknowledged and respected. I leave the seams open by showing my interaction in the interview (Behar 1993). I make it clear in the dissertation where I am interpreting something and where my participants are interpreting. The dissertation is one form of knowledge production, but it isn’t the only form or the most effective for social change.
Conclusion: “I Learned that I Am Still Learning” John: So what did you finally learn about us gay refugees?
John: [laughs] Good work. You still have a lot to learn from us…5 Addressing interpretative authority in feminist oral history can be an overwhelming task. It was certainly an important learning curve for me in my work with LGBT refugees and their oral histories. My experiences are not unique. There is no community in the world that is exempt from troubling politics, from systems of power, and from structural violence. Research is embedded in systems of power whether research stems from educational institutions, political or activist initiatives, or community projects. The call for emancipation, shared authority, and empowerment through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of oral histories should always remain critical and reflexive. What oral histories actually do in intersecting networks of discourse and power is something that cannot always be fully determined when designing a research project, but the effects of such intersections should not be ignored. It would be a mistake to let sometimes unanswerable, difficult, and untidy questions of authority, power, and knowledge dissuade us from doing oral history work, or to only focus on the difficulties.
While there is no single way to execute oral history and no single solution to challenges of interpretative authority, engaging in critical self-examination of practices and developing a range of models according Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) to specific and unique research situations is the obligation of the researcher. In consistently questioning ourselves and our methods, we encourage dialogue both within and outside the feminist oral history community. The questions put forth by critical Indigenous scholars are an important contribution to this discussion. These questions about role, responsibility, and position of the researcher and the participants push the oral historian to fully address participants’ authority in the research. It is not enough to simply state that research is inherently unequal or exploitative; instead, feminist oral historians need to work within their practice and address interpretative authority pragmatically. In questioning interpretative authority, I tried to address what I see as a lack of critical discourse on participants’ interpretative authority in the research. Both the narrator and the oral historian are subjective and agentic beings in oral history.
Both have authority in forming the text and shaping the analysis. As much as an oral historian should empathize and create solidarity with the narrator and their community, it is important to recognize the difference—the hyphen—between the narrator and the interviewer. Working the hyphen means to be in constant dialogue with the participants, as well as with yourself as the oral historian and with the larger structures of power that envelop the research. It is through this work that we can unsettle interpretative authority within feminist oral history projects and create new avenues for dialogue.
I want to sincerely thank the editors and reviewers for this article. Their time and energy were vital to the article’s revision, pushing my critical inquiry and elevating my arguments. I want to thank the volunteers, activists, and members of Rainbow Refugee for providing me with so many opportunities to learn and grow as an activist and academic. I want to thank Brandon Cirillo for his copyediting. This work would not have come into fruition without his help. I also want to thank Edward Chinevere for reviewing previous versions of this article. Last but not least, I want to express my gratitude to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans refugees who let me into their lives and allowed me to record their stories. Their kindness and patience will never go unappreciated. I will always be learning.
1. All of the participants’ names have been changed. Country of origin is only referenced as the general geographical location. Participants’ gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and age were recorded, but other identifying information was not recorded in the finished transcript. Participants signed a confidentiality agreement and were given a copy of the signed agreement.
2. It is important to acknowledge the challenge of language used to refer to sexual and gender identity and orientation when working with refugee persons. All of the participants in this research self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or trans. I identified myself to the participants as a queer cisgender woman.
These identity terms should not be seen as universal or monolithic, and particular attention must be paid to the ways in which persons use identity terms strategically, as well to how these terms may be adapted and transformed across locations, cultures, and communities.
3. The interview excerpts used in this article come from my 2013–15 doctoral research on landed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified (LGBT) refugees’ experiences of settlement in Metro Vancouver. The focus of this study was to investigate how home and belonging inform and are informed by the affectual and material experiences and embodied memories of landed LGBT refugees living in Metro Vancouver.
The research used a mixed participatory methodology based on extended oral histories with fifteen LGBT refugees and participatory photography with six LGBT refugees. The interviews were conducted in English. I interviewed participants three times, with each interview lasting two to three hours. Finished transcripts were edited and approved by Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) the participants before being used in the dissertation. Participants received a copy of each finalized transcript for their own records.
Participatory photography took place with six LGBT refugees who had previously participated in the oral history interviews. Individuals were given a camera and asked to take or share photographs that represented or helped express home for them. Participants were given free direction to decide what photographs they wanted to take or share. After the photographs were taken, participants would sit with me and discuss each photograph. This discussion was recorded and transcribed. Participants reviewed and edited the finished transcript. Participants were able to keep a copy of the photographs and finalized transcription.
4. Amira is a lesbian-identified cisgender woman from the Middle East. She made her refugee claim in 2012 and was accepted in 2013.
5. John is a gay-identified cisgender man from Eastern Asia who made a refugee claim in 2011 and was accepted in 2012.
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