Can you start by describing the recent LGBTQ+ Studies at Risk conference? What was the program, and who attended?
Talia Kollek, my co-organizer, and I came up with the idea for the conference last autumn. We’re both doing PhDs on Russian queer topics, and doing fieldwork. We were talking about how a lot of the risks and questions we have and the literature we use overlap with the topics people from other regions are studying. So, we came up with the idea to organize a workshop to get researchers together who study LGBTQ+ topics in at-risk localities — so countries that are hostile, homophobic, or authoritarian — and then it grew into a two-day conference at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
We got around 25-30 attendees for the two days of the conference. We wanted it to be less about presenting our research and more about reflecting on our research, methodologies, and ethics. We wanted to connect and share similar issues or similar experiences we are having. We had a keynote from Professor SUEN Yiu Tung, who founded the Sexualities Research Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has a really interesting story and spoke about deciding whether you want to come back to your home context and about queer research in the West versus “the rest.”
We had some really cool workshops; for example, we had one on vicarious trauma which Maureen Freed organized, and it was incredible. It was one of these things that we are all clearly experiencing but, in academia, are not talking about. You get second-hand trauma from interviewing and being in the field with people who are traumatized and are queer in really hostile contexts. It’s about us being a part of the community, trying to do activist things, and doing research. It’s very heavy mentally, and Maureen gave us this three-hour workshop on how to deal with trauma as it happens and how to process it afterward, and other stuff academia doesn’t tell you at all, with its focus on being objective.
We gave people as much time as possible to network, connect, and meet each other and find out the kinds of research everyone was doing. The feedback we received at the end was that people felt connected, safe, and supported and everyone was happy and grateful. We got nice feedback from people who said they wanted that. All these queer researchers studying non-Western contexts were in departments that aren’t queer and gender studies, so it’s usually just one queer researcher, at most two. We feel very disconnected from the other queer communities. We were all saying again and again how nice it is to just talk about your research on a more in-depth level without having to explain the whole queer element to everyone at first.
Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a research network. We ended the conference with a short discussion led by Talia and me to try and come up with ideas of what we can do now with this group and with this feeling of connectivity. Some ideas included a website, a research network, a mailing list, or online meeting. We came up with many options that we still need to explore and ideas for funding for future events. We’ve now settled on meeting online and seeing where everyone is at and what we can do. It would be good to keep this and keep expanding instead of just once the conference is finished everyone losing each other and never talking again.
Could you go into more detail about what it is like to be a queer researcher? What about in the context of the UK right now?
These kinds of contexts that we are studying are marginalized in the overall discipline of Queer Studies. But it’s also quite different research, and we’re always treated as case studies. That was also a big part of the conference, to freely talk about these contexts considered exotic at large conferences. A big problem for my research is that if I go to Area Studies conferences like BASEES, I have to spend 10 minutes out of the 15 of my talk explaining the queer part, but if I go to a queer conference, I have to spend 10 minutes out of the 15 explaining the Russian part. It’s actually more difficult in these queer research contexts to explain countries that aren’t the UK. Everyone is so scandalized, like, “Oh my god, there are gay people in Russia.” It’s a weird, disconnected, liminal space that this very interdisciplinary research is occupying.
For being a queer researcher in the UK, I’m quite happy, to be honest. I’m from Russia, so compared to the Russian context, I really can’t complain. UCL left Stonewall, and quite a few transphobic events have happened, but we’ve been trying to protest as much as possible. There’s that tension happening, but there’s a lot of support for queer researchers. UCL is trying to provide support, but the political context is obviously quite heated. Just saying TERF or transphobe is a bit of a political statement currently. But I’m so submerged in the Russian context that I don’t feel that it’s particularly difficult to be a queer researcher. I feel like I’m generally thriving in the UK, but I’ve not started looking for jobs after the PhD, so maybe then I’ll realize how difficult it really is.
What have you seen in terms of Russian researchers trying to achieve similar research in a non-Western context?
Researchers in Russia generally cannot study queer topics. They are banned as “gay propaganda,” you could be fined, and universities do not approve of these topics. Even gender studies are becoming more difficult to study — the Russian government has been seriously considering calling feminism an extremist ideology. I think being in any Populist country is hard, but in Russia currently, it would be nearly impossible to conduct this sort of research. Of course, there is still research happening outside of university walls, there are some amazing researchers doing work independently, but the level of risk is pretty high.
Your thesis focuses on the complexities of queer parenting in Russia. What has been your personal experience conducting queer research while dealing with such a hostile regime?
Originally, the plan was to conduct fieldwork in Russia, but because of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I couldn’t go back safely, and my informants would be at too much risk. I changed my fieldwork to be in London, remote, and also I’m going to Tbilisi, Georgia, in the summer, which any researcher studying Russia is now doing.
I’m in the middle of my fieldwork now, studying queer Russian parents who have migrated. It’s been quite heavy. This vicarious trauma workshop was relevant because I am talking to people with really difficult stories, which they are often sharing for the first time, or they have not really been able to talk about these experiences in Russian with anyone.
Getting ethics approval was difficult. At the conference, we had a workshop on ethics, specifically how we get ethics approval, interact with the university, and feel about our research ethics, which Talia led. I think those discussions are important because the ethics committee doesn’t understand the work we are trying to do. They don’t understand the risks, and they are patronizing about my participants not understanding their risks, even though queer people who live in Russia who agree to participate in my research probably understand the risks better than a UK-based institution.
There are still a lot of risks involved, but I am proactive about protecting my data; hopefully, the Russian government currently has other priorities. It’s very dangerous, but it’s also imperative, and my participants agree to talk to me because of its importance. Queer parents in Russia are almost never studied, especially how the life of queer parents is a different experience from just being queer in Russia, and I don’t think we’re talking about that enough.
You’ve mentioned a few times the emphasis on moving out of the West and the Western context, something the conference focused on. What similarities did you see between research conducted in these regions or contexts?
It was cool to see so many different contexts. We had people from Georgia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Columbia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Brazil, Japan, Belarus, and Vietnam.
When we were trying to send out the call for participants, we found that it was quite difficult to access these queer researchers in all these different places. We tried to get all of our informal networks involved and send off the call as wide as possible, and while we did get some cool contexts, ideally, we would get more. Maybe it’s too ambitious, but for future events, I would love to see even more diversity of contexts. Latin America is interesting and famously quite similar to Russia in many ways, politically and in terms of homophobia.
All of us could relate massively, making small connections between our work and trying to see what the future holds. For example, looking at Russia and China and trying to predict what the authoritarian state would be interested in and how to do the least damage, and, especially online, be as secure as possible. We also had many conversations about how ‘out’ you need to be as a queer researcher in your field if you want to go home at some point.
There was also a roundtable on decolonization, which had some really interesting talks. For example, Dr Mariya Levitanus studies Kazakh queer people. She grew up in Kazakhstan, but her parents are Russian, and she only speaks Russian (not Kazakh). She was reflecting on how not to reproduce colonial patterns of behavior when she, as a Russian, is studying Kazakh people in Russian. It was a good space for us to discuss more layers than just the queerness. We don’t get to have these conversations in these queer academic spaces.
Our big conversation at the end was whether to stay separate and create our own space or if we should try to bring all queer researchers on onboard with what we’re doing. It’s quite difficult. We do want the space to talk about all of this together, but we also want not to marginalize ourselves even further. qUCL — the main queer UCL research network — is very Western-focused, and we should probably make it more diverse in that way. We don’t talk about diversity in location. We talk about how we need to study trans issues and non-binary things and bisexuality studies or that we need to have more race and ethnicity diversity. Still, we don’t discuss how all this diversity happens in one Western context. Even if the Western contexts are very different, it does exclude quite a lot of research that is quite interesting.
You’ve also brought up the issue of being both a researcher and an activist simultaneously. Could you expand on this dilemma?
It’s a very big question, and I think it’s a question that is relevant for all queer researchers in general. There were quite a few discussions about the transphobe situation at UCL and how studying certain topics also makes you want to get involved because you care so much. And the university isn’t always supportive of this sort of activism. All queer researchers have this issue, especially as most queer researchers are also a part of the community. We are researching ourselves while also trying to fight for ourselves and give space to our community and uplift our voices. This personal involvement is very good for research but makes it hard to separate your life from your research and activism.
I think that conflict is even more noticeable in authoritarian contexts, particularly in Russia. I’m part of a Western academic institution conducting this research. Still, I’m also incredibly invested in LGBTQ+ rights in Russia, and tied together with that, inevitably, is fighting the Russian authoritarian regime. When selling my research to funders, I was open about combining the activist and the academic. I’m invested in providing a space and platform for my participants to bring their voices into the Western and Russian-speaking contexts.
Many people at the conference study their community, sometimes even their friends, or you become friends while in the field. For example, Talia is doing work on LGBTQ+ civil society —first in Russia, but now in Tbilisi — and she is studying her friends. It’s tough to separate and balance and to be objective. There are a lot of questions that arise: Should we be objective? What is objectivity? Is it bad to be subjective or to be invested?
During the conference, we talked about these issues. Can I go to a protest while I’m in the field? It’s dangerous, but it’s very important to my informants and to me personally. Who am I when I’m at that protest? Am I a researcher, an activist, or a civilian? How much involvement during the full-scale invasion is appropriate? Helping people, donating to things, actively trying to help people migrate — is that appropriate behavior for an anthropologist?
I think in more traditional academia or non-queer academia, these conversations are a bit tricky to have. We are told you should have a clear boundary and that it’s good to be invested, but you must remember to be objective and follow all of these research guidelines. But it’s just not that easy — these nuances and layers exist. We are activists for our community back home and where we are now. Most of our participants were based in European or UK institutions, so there’s this balance of being at these institutions and a part of queer activism in the West, representing your own community, and being a part of something back home. The big conclusion that we came to, as formulated by Emma Pritchard, is that as researchers and activists, our biggest task is to open doors for the communities we are studying. As these well-educated, privileged subjects, we can help the community speak for itself.