Finding the Way to the End of the Rainbow: a Researcher's Insight Investigating British Older Gay Men's Lives
by Adrian Lee
University of York
Sociological Research Online 13(1)6
Received: 19 Jun 2007 Accepted: 25 Jan 2008 Published: 21 Mar 2008
This paper draws on exploratory research examining the sexual and ageing identities of gay men in England and the way in which these affect welfare needs and service use experiences. In this case, the focus is not upon the research findings per se, but on the research methods used to elucidate them. The author theorises about the ways in which the qualitative interviewing that took place was influenced by his age, homosexuality, and gender during the interaction with older gay men. The conclusions are that the shared gender and sexual orientation (although not without their differences) were crucial to the successful completion of the research and in trying to ensure participants felt valued and empowered. Therefore, it is asserted from this that increasingly reflexive research is paramount to the development of qualitative methodologies and gerontology, to ensure the academe is inclusive of diverse identities and that its research stands up to rigorous scrutiny.
Keywords: Older Gay Men; Homosexuality; Ageing; Gender; Qualitative Methodology; Semi-Structured-Interview; Reflexivity
Introduction1.1 This article outlines the empirical methods used to examine the identities, welfare needs, and service use experiences of British older gay men (OGM). The exploratory, small-scale study partly reflects our lack of knowledge about British OGM and their relative invisibility in gerontology and lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB) studies. A semi-structured in-depth interview (SSIDI) methodology was developed to capture the men’s life histories and opinions to understand the specific needs this group were thought to have and to give them an opportunity to reduce their invisibility and silence.
1.2 I outline what we know already about OGM from gerontology, and my identity that is likely to have impacted on the research experience. I then examine how the participants were selected and recruited, and the SSIDI methodology, argued here to be most suited to this kind of study. I realised that researching this sensitive topic highlighted certain considerations about best practice, thus a section on undertaking gay research explores key themes to assert that qualitative studies in gay gerontology have been insufficiently reflexive regarding the influence of researcher’s and participants’ intersecting identities. The conclusions reached argue that age, gender, and sexuality in particular, affect an interview’s tone, the data generated, and the analytical process. This is in terms of the fluid, multiple and intersecting identities of interviewees and the interviewer, and the relevant power dynamics that come into play (see: Gilleard and Higgs 2000; Weeks 2003; Plummer 1995; Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1983; Yuval-Davis 1997).
The Gerontology Literature
1.3 Recent gerontology includes nothing to the scant inclusion of LGB elders (see Lee 2006; Cronin 2007). Some older people’s issues covered are of relevance to them as older people, but little or nothing specifically relates to unique needs, and it should (Cronin 2007). In Daatland and Biggs’ (2007) collection on diversity and ageing, Cronin (2007: 111) strongly states in her contribution that:
Gerontology’s failure to reflect critically on the gendered and heteronormative framework in which it operates accounts for both the biomedicalisation of sexuality and an unproblematic acceptance of the heterosexual/homosexual divide, which help to explain the continued social exclusion of older lesbian and gay adults.
1.4 The gay gerontology niche is left to research and report on non-heterosexual experiences. A number of history texts illuminate pre-liberation society, the implications of gay liberations, the living of double lives and types of relationships (Vacha 1985; the Hall Carpenter Archives 1989; Jivani 1997, Weeks and Porter 1998). ‘Gay and Gray’ is Berger’s (1982) seminal work is very frequently cited, despite being temporally and spatially limited and John Lee (1991) draws together his own work and other notable authors such as Richard Friend. Now dated, if critically evaluated, it provides an interesting grounding into issues of gay ageing and of gay gerontology’s scope. Brown et al. (1997) is of some considerable use, especially regarding its discussion of the ability of OGM to cope with challenges of daily life in old age. An important contribution is made by Rosenfeld (2003) and she promotes the need to understand life histories in relation to identity formation. Furthermore, Rosenfeld (1999) is Vincent’s (2003) sole reference to issues of homosexuality for older people in his very short section on sexuality.
1.5 Another recent publication is Cruz (2003), sub-headed: a ‘Sociological Analysis of Aging’, which highlights some of the challenges of gay ageing in US society, issues which need similar exploration in the UK. Herdt and de Vries (2004) is more comprehensive but I agree with Plummer’s (2005) disappointment with this. He argues it helps to reinforce ageist attitudes towards older homosexuals and that it is not inclusive enough of gay elders’ diverse identities, a comment Jones and Pugh (2005) have also made in relation to the literature generally. The North American origin’s of most gay gerontology is a most notable limitation in the UK. American culture, politics, and ways of life are unlikely to be fully comprehended by Britons seeking knowledge, insight, advice, or guidance. However, Heaphy, Yip and Thompson (2003) do cover sociological and policy/citizenship issues, using their large scale survey of British LGB elders. Steve Pugh has also published on embodiment and ageing, LGB people and social work, drawing attention to this under-developed field (Pugh 2005; Jones and Pugh 2005). Common to much of this literature, though, is the lack of reflection on the research processes, and it is regarding this that I wish to make a contribution here.
Researcher Identity and Aims
1.6 My own identity and background impact on the fieldwork and research presentation. I was considerably younger than my participants, who were 57 – 84. I am, most succinctly, a ‘white’ English, gay male twenty-something, with a working class, rural English upbringing, which influences my interest in human rights and social justice, especially as it affects marginalised or invisible social groups. All the participants were also ‘white Britons’ and many lived in rural areas themselves. How this influences the discussion and the additional issue of social ‘class’ is developed in due course. I had come to study this area after Social Policy studies led me to increasingly question LGB people’s position in society and welfare service contexts. My maleness has also strongly influenced my enthusiasm for increasing the academic awareness of male experiences of later life, less prominent in gerontology compared to women’s issues and female inequalities in ageing (Cronin 2007). I formulated two main inquiry aims: firstly, to develop an understanding of how OGM see themselves and how identity characteristics influence daily living, without making unsubstantiable, broad generalisations; and secondly, to examine participants’ potential needs influenced by their ageing and homosexuality. Thus, the study combined sociological inquiry with social policy, and attitudes and experiences of participants identifying with an intersecting ageing, gay, male identity.
1.7 I considered that SSIDIs were most appropriate for this project in order to generate in-depth data that allowed participants an eloquence one associates with the time to think and openness of questioning. Arguably they also sensitively generate data that can be utilised as the research evolves. As Johnson says, SSIDI methods may be used:
If one is interested in questions of greater depth, where the knowledge sought is often taken for granted and not readily articulated by most members, where the research question involves highly conflicted emotions, where different individuals or groups involved in the same line of activity have complicated, multiple perspectives on some phenomenon (2002: 105).Furthermore, it allows the participants to share and shape the power and control of the situation (Brannen 1988).
1.8 Participants are ‘meaning makers, not passive conduits for retrieving information from an existing vessel of answers’ (Holstein and Gubrium 1995 cited in Warren 2002: 83). They can say what they feel is important and not merely answer rigid, set questions. Life-history interviews ease ‘the hierarchical relationship’ between researcher and researched (Dunne 1997: 24). However, the interview methodology is not without its critics, and other qualitative methods are promoted as more ideal alternatives. Also, Cassell (2005: 168) suggests that too often the interview is viewed as ‘an epistemologically neutral device for data collection’ and require greater scrutiny in terms of the shaping of interviewer identity and the conduit for event production.
1.9 Kitzinger (1987) presents a detailed examination of qualitative methods, suggesting that interviews can succumb too easily to moulding by researchers with values and causes to promote. Dunne (1997) also notes the limit of a too structured interview that might stifle the interviewee, and her preference for a schedule as a guide of topics to cover more flexibly. Other methods such as Q Sort can be useful, according to Kitzinger (1987), in buffering the process from the ‘negative’ influences of the interviewer and this technique could have helped ‘purify’ my research. Like Kitzinger I was keen not to edge too heavily to either side, tipping towards existing negative representations of OGM on the one hand, or overly gay affirmative ones on the other. I sought to allow the participants to speak rather than for me to present the ‘truth’ through highly edited evidence, by using quite lengthy verbatim data where relevant, so readers can assess the point.
1.10 Renzetti and Lee (1993), Lee (1993) and Welland and Pugsley (2002) informed the methodology’s development to recognise OGM’s probable vulnerabilities of participants and of how to empower them, such as drawing attention to oneself by being interviewed and not wanting to raise suspicions about their sexuality if they were closeted. My fieldnotes explain how one man developed a cover story for me:
In our last phone conversation P1 (aged 77) said he had checked that it was ok to bring a guest [me] to the church lunch club that day. He also said that he was not out as a homosexual (his word) to the church group, and had therefore told them I was coming to talk to him as a student about my thesis on the environment. I had not previously thought of a cover story, but had planned to be discreet and ask him before arriving about his openness in this environment. My thoughts prior to going to the interview are that this cover may represent some problems and now have to come up with a credible ‘persona’ to protect P1’s integrity.In fact it was not a problem to attend the older people’s lunch as I was not asked about my work and was warmly received.
Defining Participation Parameters2.1 The study was deliberately limited to self-identifying gay/homosexual men, as to include other non-heterosexual identities would have introduced too many issues for possible inclusion. For example, bisexually identifying men, who might be in relationships with women. Such obvious variety of self-definition I found can also be found in Kitzinger (1987), Dunne (1997), and Moore (2006). The primary literature I consulted and critiqued focussed chiefly on gay men (Brown et al., 1997; Cruz 2003; Herdt and de Vries 2004; Lee 1991) so my data could be discussed in a more specific context if I also focussed here. Participants had very individual conceptions of sexuality, influencing their social interactions, circumstances, and thus the degree to which I assert a commonality between my own sexual identity and that of interviewees. Women were similarly excluded for a specific focus, and recruiting women could be difficult with a male interviewer. Kitzinger (1987) and Dunne (1997) both believed their lesbianism, specifically, enabled their participant recruitment and fulfilment of research aims and I shadow this with respect to working with OGM.
2.2 Some existing material is problematic because participants it represents tend to be ‘young’ men, with their mean ages below the early 60s (Hubbard and Rossington 1995; NBHA 1999; Jacobs, Rasmussen and Hohman 1999; D’Augelli et al. 2001; D’Augelli and Grossman 2001). Therefore, research purportedly about older homosexuals may not actually be so, an inevitability of convenience sampling that has been much relied upon. A minimum age of 60 years was set to try and recruit ‘older’ OGM and reduce again the risk of being confronted by too diverse a range of issues. However, despite the initial intention to concentrate on those aged 60 and above, a community group became involved in the research (as discussed below) and asked for younger men’s inclusion, as they had a volunteer in his late fifties. In all, 15 men aged between 57 and 84 years old participated in the research with a mean age of 66.6 years, which I would still have preferred to be higher.
2.3 I used a number of recruitment methods attuned to the complexities of the target social group, including: writing to organisations for older/gay/older gay people and HIV/AIDS organisations; advertising on gay community websites; emailing selected users of a gay men’s chat forum; advertising in three gay organisations’ newsletters; and snowballing from personal contacts. Snowballing is advantageous when subjects are members of a vulnerable or highly stigmatised group (Lee 1993: 67) as intermediaries generate trust between researchers and potential respondents. Talking to participants this was the case, but some techniques raised issues of impracticality and confidentiality. Members of an online chat forum were emailed but, as it was primarily used for sexual and social networking, such a strategy was somewhat risky because messages might have been unwelcome:
The internet, far from being a simple conduit of information, [is] itself a social space with its own rules and structures (McLelland 2002: 388).
2.4 Only groups for the gay community and an HIV agency yielded participants from group contact to promote the study. No replies came from the mainstream older people’s organisations. Reasons might include a lack of organisational awareness of clients’ sexual orientations or an unwillingness to engage with this type of subject (Hubbard and Rossington 1995; Brown 2002; ODIT 2003) or the extra workload they perceive. Consequently I focussed on using contact with two gay community organisations working on a regional level, which proved the most useful recruiting method. One agency works with Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) and gay men and has a widely circulated newsletter.
2.5 The process of brokering can be crucial in organising research with the gay community. After difficulties recruiting, working with known agencies was most helpful, but took a particular form because:
Gay communities principally function through person-to-person interaction and are held together by bonds of trust…To reach these men in an ongoing way, it is necessary to enter into the community by establishing bonds of trust and mutual benefit with its significant members (Silvestre, 1994: 69).
2.6 Gaining access to a potentially vulnerable or uncomfortable social group and exposing them to scrutiny presents interesting challenges. Brokering is:
A dynamic process by which researchers and… professionals exchange goods and services with formal and informal gay leaders in order to establish strong long-term linkages (Silvestre 1994: 69).
2.7 My experience with one of the gay voluntary organisations was that it agreed to assist if it could use the findings to aid their own information gathering, and a relationship developed whereby the group utilised my academic knowledge and skills. This brokered arrangement enabled contact with a relatively large group of men. The willingness to cooperate and the actions of key people in organisations can be crucial. Gatekeepers in authority can be vital contacts who allow access to people, documents and resources, potentially significantly aiding or hindering inquiry (Miller and Bell 2002; Illingworth 2001). My gatekeepers had a substantial positive impact, without compromising ethical considerations, nor were power relations apparently counterproductive to the success of the data generation.
2.8 The interviewing took place in 2003 and was framed by a four-section topic guide: past events and circumstances; interviewees’ present lives and future plans; questions related to attitudes on ageing, sexuality and the influences of both on the men’s lives; and questions about their advice to younger gay men and service providers. Throughout, I considered practical and ethical considerations regarding: the use of information; anonymity; conduct of the fieldwork; and the treatment of participants, acknowledging issues of researcher characteristics and how these and my own values could influence the interview process and data handling. This reflexivity or discussion in reports is arguably an insufficient component of existing gay gerontology, though it is discussed in qualitative research literature generally.
2.9 Ensuring confidentiality is a most important aspect of sensitive qualitative research. Woodman, Tully and Barranti (1995) explored relating ethical questions of anonymity and professional boundaries, when researching lesbian communities. Their work is pertinent because this study was quite geographically concentrated:
Simply, it is vital that lesbian researchers who study those with whom they socially interact must maintain a constant vigil not to divulge findings obtained in a research setting beyond that context (Woodman, Tully and Barranti 1995:60).
2.10 While the current participants were outside his social network, it was important not to divulge interview material to contacts at the community groups. This relates closely to my sense of being a trusted and responsible ‘insider’ through sharing layers of my intersecting identity with the participants. The dynamics of ‘insider’/ ‘outsider’ status have been discussed more generally in the literature and have informed my reflections on the research process.
Doing Gay Research
3.1 Explored first here is the importance of a degree of shared identity in order to conduct fieldwork: accessing participants; gaining trust; and generating sufficiently rich data. Secondly, the importance of recognising the responsibility that being ‘an insider’ places on me is considered. Specific issues arise as a gay man when conducting research with potentially isolated members within the gay community (through their age, rurality, and often closeted sexual identity). These are ‘silent pioneers’ (Brown et al. 1997: 4) who ‘may be said to constitute the most invisible of an already invisible minority’ (Blando 2001: 87). With access and trust, shared gender and sexual orientation are discussed, along with the age gap between interviewees and interviewer, drawing on feminist work stressing the value and importance of reflexivity (Skeggs 1997; Harding 1991; Kitzinger 1987).
Sharing aspects of identity
3.2 Despite a growing toleration of homosexual lifestyles and the increased openness of gay men in society, OGM are still ‘hard to reach’. Initially, I thought such men might think volunteering would make themselves vulnerable in some way, or that there were just too few living outside of large gay communities and who had established contact with them, through which I could reach them. However, as the research progressed, early analysis suggested participants regular earlier need for extreme discretion, secrecy and cover stories, linked to a social climate of medical treatment, dishonourable military discharge, and ostracism from family, in the context of (chiefly) post-war British life. It was also clear that, although the men recognised that this climate has changed, largely for the better, they did not necessarily believe this affected them. Therefore, some men were hesitant to volunteer themselves for scrutiny, despite my reassurances. Trust was crucial to establishing access and gaining participation. To gain this at an early stage involved me being open, honest and prepared to answer questions. Being transparent is probably the most important factor relating to recruiting participants from a potentially vulnerable and previously victimised group, and to generating rich data (Lee 1993; Martin and Knox 2000: 55).
3.3 The shared sexual orientation, on a simplistic level, was not taken for granted, but it narrowed the odds of whether or not recruiting strategies would succeed. In terms of access, La Sala notes the importance of the ‘emic’ as opposed to ‘etic’ position of researchers:
Gay men and lesbians are not consistently identifiable…. Gay or lesbian researchers are often familiar with newsletters, organizations, listservs, chat rooms, and social networks where they can advertise for respondents. [They] might also know lesbian and gay acquaintances who can refer ‘friends of friends’. Such sources might not be available to heterosexual researchers (La Sala 2003: 18).
3.4 Furthermore, La Sala (2003: 18) specifically addresses trust, how his participants said they only volunteered because he was gay and must be ‘committed to deconstructing societal misperceptions about who they are’. Kong, Mahoney and Plummer (2002) and Cruz (2003) also discuss, in relation to research with gay communities, gaining access and trust and openness about sexuality. Such observations obviously place great responsibility on gay researchers, or others working on projects as ‘insiders’, and convincingly suggest a degree of shared identity, enables researchers to access isolated social groups.
3.5 There is considerable complexity and debate concerning the ‘in’- ‘out’ dichotomy as what defines either status is fluid and cannot be taken for granted if, as I attest, identity is multiple and intersecting. Kitzinger (1987: 30) asserts that:
Insider rhetoric brings with it the implication of special sensitivities, unusual skills, and privileged access to exclusive groups or elusive information. Its claims to credibility rest on the personal experiences of the investigator who has acquired the intimate knowledge divulged.
3.6 She warns against over asserting the ‘insider’ status and gallant ability to counter the oppression of ‘outsiders’. In Dunne’s (1997) explanation of her recruitment, snowballing, and interviewing the potential benefits and drawbacks of being so closely socially entwined in a group to be investigated are evident, as is the existence of distinct and not necessarily connected lesbian social groups and identities. Dunne, like myself, does not claim to be a complete ‘insider’, as an interactionist with a belief in intersectionality of identity cannot be all things to all people. Mignon Moore (2006) mirrors this, as she refers to being the right ‘race’ and ‘sexuality’, but not having knowledge of ‘black’ LGB communities in New York where her research focussed.
3.7 Moore (2006), Kong, Mahoney and Plummer (2002) and Gamson (2000) discuss politicised debate about developments in notions of identity in researching LGB lives. Croom (2000) argues, in relation to LGB ethnic minorities, that there is a need for shared identity or at least sensitivity to the participants’ cultural background and Kitzinger (1987) recognises how her position as a white academic ‘elite’ could restrict her ability to communicate effectively with ‘black’ lesbians and those of other disparate backgrounds. On the back of this discussion, I argue that without being gay and male, gaining trust from the outset would have been harder and the process of generating data through SSIDI would have been more difficult, but not necessarily impossible.
3.8 Despite openness in adverts and from the initial contact onwards, many people and gay organisations did not respond to communications. Initial literature about the research stated my sexuality, but in telephone communication with prospective participants, many double-checked this, as the following extract from my fieldnotes indicates:
We had spoken 2 or 3 times on the phone prior to the interview. He had at that time needed reassurance of my intentions, and that I was a gay man. He had read the material I sent out and said that didn’t provide this, although it is one of the first things the sheet says.
3.9 P5 (65) was particularly keen to ask, saying I must be at least ‘gay sensitive’ to be interested. He even double-checked I was male, as he would not have talked to a woman, something that also came out later in the interview.
3.10 How men defined their sexual orientation highlighted how varied people’s self-labelling can be. Some felt quite strongly about being defined how they chose:
P11 (aged 65): Homosexual sounds to me almost like some kind of medical condition… it sounds rather nasty, but I’m gay. I don’t like the word queer because there’s nothing funny about it, queer suggests that something’s odd or funny, and I don’t regard me self in any way to be odd or funny.
3.11 The interview situation and the rapport it relies upon could be jeopardised without this insight and appreciation of such nuances. Kong, Mahony and Plummer (2002: 240-1) give an historical overview of interviewing homosexuals, with reference to changing approaches and how little attention was paid to how gay men have been interviewed. Secondly, my ‘insider’ position also enabled participants to talk in the vernacular of gay men, without needing to define words or clarify meaning, with the exception of one man who used Polari (see Baker 2002) on a number of occasions. While occasionally interviewees asked whether it was ok to swear and use sexually explicit terms, they did not have to stop to make sure what they had said was understood. A flowing interview relied upon an understanding of gay slang and terms relating to gay identity.
3.12 The third benefit is that a common sexual identity enabled a level of empathy, based on some shared experiences, for example in relation to coming out. Arguably, few other social groups must have experience of ‘coming out’ with so many factors for which to account. The present climate for younger men is often very different to the times the older generations have known, but there is some understanding a non-gay researcher may not appreciate.
3.13 My sense was that I could empathise and appreciate participants’ perspectives related to practical issues, such as housing tenure, consideration of partners in personal matters, consulting medical professionals, and coming out, regardless of our age difference. Researchers from other backgrounds could empathise with these on some levels, but specific issues could mean an ‘outsider’ would not fully recognise their significance. Similarly, another could identify with alternative aspects of a participant’s identity, striking a chord on other issues. For example, P7 (58) was Deaf and spoke of how isolated he might feel in a residential home as a Deaf (as opposed to deaf) man and less so because he was gay. The age difference between participants and I restricted, to a degree, the ability to empathise with some situations, for example the fact I do not live off a state pension or have experience of being aware of police oppression. Thus understanding key events of the twentieth century developed the rapport from being able to let men continue speaking without interrupting to ask questions about historical events, aided the interview process. For example, interviewees raised the trial and conviction of Lord Montagu in 1954 (see Jivani 1997):
P4 (aged 63): And there’d been a big court case, it’s a famous court case in gay history, the Lord Montagu,
R(esearcher): and Peter Wildeblood
P4: You know this! Right, and I suddenly found this book…
3.14 Wenger (2002) and Skeggs (1997) were useful regarding the importance of recognising the age difference between the interviewees and interviewer. Wenger (2002: 261) notes that interviewing older people requires sensitivity and understanding of their ‘physical and mental energies’, but that does not mean that their energy is necessarily any less or that one size fits all. My participants were regarded as individuals. For example, P10 (59) experienced sudden losses of short-term memory and needed reminding of the question or what he had just said, leading me to stay even more alert than I might ordinarily have been, but without drawing attention to these lapses. Generally, although participants commented on my youth, it was done as a passing comment and complimentary: a number of men were pleased a ‘youngster’ was interested in the older generation, and there was pleasant surprise when, despite being 23, I was able to let the conversation continue without much or any clarification.
All researchers would be wise to develop a special sensitivity to the explicit or deeply obscured meanings of gender in any particular research topic.
3.16 Being a gay man catalysed access, trust, and data generation. Only P5 (65) explicitly said would have been uncomfortable with a female interviewer, but a number of the men said, socially and professionally, they preferred male interaction and found it easier talking openly to men. Some did not like to speak to women about sensitive issues and some had predominantly male social groups, or a preference for keeping male company:
R: Has your social life been mainly with gay groups? How do you describe your social network, the people you socialise with?
P2 (aged 67): Gay people, family, friends.
R: Gay and straight friends?
P2: Mm, yes, I think predominance of gay. There’s this business of having an identifiable culture to relate to.
R: Are they gay men or did you mean gay more generally?
P2: Gay men mainly, there is still that predominance of gay men relating to gay men.
3.17 As the number of interviews increased, it seemed that they would not elicit the same information had the interviewer been female, heterosexual or otherwise – especially when talking about sexual behaviour. Although this is not to say that a woman could not extract still useful material, as men were pleased that an interest was being shown in their lives and opinions. Some participants spoke without prompting, in quite a frank and detailed way, presumably because they were talking to someone they viewed as an ‘insider’. Only P5 (65) appeared to show disdain for female company in most circumstances, particularly formal situations:
P5 (aged 65) I’m not a misogynist, but I don’t, I’d rather talk to a man…I’m not very fond of talking to a woman about a man’s sexual desires, or sexual risks...I’m not anti-women as you know, but on the sex side I’d rather speak about sex to a man than with a woman,
3.18 P12 (69) merely said:
You can say what you like with your own sex, whereas you can’t when you’re with er women…
3.19 Gender can present unique issues regarding the interviewer/interviewee relationship when conducting SSIDI with men, although men are not an homogenous group. Schwalbe and Wolkomir (2002: 203) persuasively argue:
A particular cultural prescription for self-representation – when men feel compelled to abide by it – will generate a predictable set of problems in interview.
3.20 They believe that, in intense interview settings, certain characteristics are likely to arise, such as a need to present a strong masculine front and to control the interview situation in some way. They discuss male and female interviewers and how the type of audience will affect how masculinity is played out. Men may see dangers in heterosexual women as interviewers, trying to catch them out somehow. Cassell’s (2005) discusses this point in her overview of her interview work, as well as the shaping of her identity by the situation and person/ people she was interviewing. Schwalbe and Wolkomir (2002), however, give no consideration of whether gay men were being interviewed and do not consider this variety sufficiently, although my experiences demonstrated the multitude of gay masculinities from the stereotypically ‘camp’ to more stereotypically ‘macho’/‘straight-acting’ and the need to subtly manage situations where I felt this tangibly impacted upon the interview situation:
P12 gave a pleasant welcome and showed me up the stairs to his lounge. Going past I noticed that the bedroom was ‘decorated’ with nude photos of men from a gay scene publication. In the lounge the first thing I noticed was that a calendar on the wall was by a well known gay porn producer, and was of a male nude. Sat on the sofa P12 sat next to me, which felt a little close so I asked if he minded me moving to the chair opposite as it would be more comfortable for us both as we would not have to crane our necks round to talk. It also gave me the space I felt I wanted, I’m not sure if my excuse for moving was picked up on or not.
3.21 The interviewer clearly is not just an identity we may morph into, but that to be polite, professional and productive we remain in situations we feel uncomfortable in, to hear the person that gives us their time that our success is also reliant upon.
3.22 Men might not feel the interview threatens their masculinity, but it may their class, age, or intellect (Skeggs 1997; White and Johnson 1998; Padfield and Proctor’s 1996), or indeed that the interviewer might feel ‘subordinate’, reversing the power dynamics. Men can see a baseline threat to their masculinity as someone else sets and leads the agenda. There may be conscious ‘minimising’, a non-disclosure of emotions to maintain control, that is, answering in short closed statements, despite attempts at prompting (Schwalbe and Wolkomir 2002: 206). They suggest this may happen more with a male interviewer as male participants are competing for power and control with someone on more ‘equal’ terms. I experienced instances when men gave very short, closed answers to questions, and occasionally, prompting did fail. However, this did not appear to be a machismo-fuelled attempt to control the information being elicited, but the product of a life based on secrecy and self-defence. In fact, there was just one occasion when I felt a real inequality between a participant and himself, seemingly to do with the interviewee’s age, ‘pomposity’ as he himself termed it, and higher class. The following quotation illustrates my perspective:
R: What sort of social life do you have now?Prompting failed to move things along with this imposing character.
P3 (aged 84): I’m taking you through it! Then after about 5 or 6 years after then, he persuaded me to help…
3.23 Sharing aspects of the interviewees’ sexual and gender identities, and making efforts to bridge the gaps, generated rich data. Without these factors, and despite the individuality of the self, it would have been harder to access OGM, to gain their trust, and build a rapport to generate valuable data. This precipitates the suggestion that qualitative gerontology could recognise more wholeheartedly the way sexual orientation, as it intersects with multiple layers of identity, influences the researcher-participant relationship and research agenda. What follows is a discussion of how, taking this into consideration, gay researchers’ work gives them a responsibility to uphold. A heavy burden?
3.24 Researchers should consider their own values, opinions, prejudices and personal identity, particularly when engaging in fieldwork with those from potentially isolated groups, in order to fulfil the responsibility placed on them to give participants agency as more than mere research objects (Skeggs 1997). Additionally, there is the responsibility to recognise how the researcher’s socio-political attitudes affect the representation of the work, which is this section’s priority. Oleson (2000), from a feminist perspective, notes the responsibility to balance subjectivity and objectivity, but swiftly adds that it is an overstated criticism of qualitative work that reports are unhelpfully subjective. She argues that values are a researcher’s resource and reflexivity will suffice, or actually benefit academic writing. Skeggs (1997: 18) also persuasively makes the case for reflexivity, stating that:
Researchers are located and positioned in many different ways…these positions inform our access to institutional organisations…They also inform access to discourses and positions of conceivability, what we can envisage and what we perceive to be possible.
3.25 Furthermore, ‘we are positioned in, but not determined by our locations’ (Skeggs 1997: 18). Skeggs using Harding (1991), to which I refer, notes the discussion about the possibility for a ‘strong objectivity’ acknowledging the value and impact of subjectivity and relativism, and how objectivity is, itself, defined:
A feminist standpoint epistemology requires strengthened standards of objectivity…the acknowledgement that all human beliefs – including our best scientific beliefs – are socially situated, but they also require a critical evaluation to determine which social situations tend to generate the most objective knowledge claims (Harding 1991: 142).
3.26 Harding then discusses the researcher’s responsibility to use their reflexive conclusions for the researched. Homophobia and heterosexism in society and research has impacted on studies involving LGB populations and individuals (Martin and Knox 2000; Meyer 2001; Kong, Mahony and Plummer 2002; La Sala 2003). Walsh-Bowers and Parlour (1992) examine the issue of attitudes biased against homosexuals in some detail and develop a view that in order to gain bias-free (in this case non-homophobic/heterosexist) knowledge, one must utilise theories challenging dominant assumptions, and define the researcher’s role as one of an advocate for the oppressed. However, this is not uncontested. Kong, Mahoney and Plummer (2002:248) concur with the view that research needs a degree of balancing, gay-affirming subjectivity:
The task is to subvert the unified notion of gay and lesbian identity to paint a picture of multiple and conflicting sexual/gendered experiences.
3.27 They suggest that research is challenging, and needs to challenge, ideas of homogeneity in gay research and interviewers have to account for common values or experiences. I thus challenge notions of homogeneity and seek to give a much-needed voice to British OGM in the heterosexist gerontology literature, to recognise and present the participants’ individuality alongside shared experiences, to highlight the positive aspects of ageing and sexuality in later life, without neglecting the negative examples.
3.28 Similarities in the experiences of members of the gay community and members of other minority groups (Moore 2006; La Sala 2003; Croom 2000) explain the importance of these discussions. If researchers have previously been criticised for heterosexism, racism, sexism etc., more positive representations redressing the balance are surely justified. However, over-egging the positive representation can have the opposite effect. Firstly, it could underplay difficulties LGB elders have, for the sake of queer politics, such as accessing formal care (Lee 2007; Heaphy, Yip and Thompson 2003; Kitchen 2003). Secondly, it does not effectively consider non-heterosexuals in social policy contexts, missing opportunities to constructively assist their daily living. It would also down play the risks of an ‘insider’ being too close to their participants and from assuming ‘insider’ status, when in fact they might be as much an ‘insider’ as a heterosexual colleague (La Sala 2003).
4.1 This paper has outlined the approach taken to researching British OGM. Explaining the fieldwork processes contributes to the literature on qualitative research and, specifically, that relating to gerontology and gay men. There are a number of important considerations when ‘doing gay research’, especially relevant to OGM. For example, sharing elements of participants’ sexual and gender identities is highly influential to generating trust and rich data. I also attempt to retain and report much of the interviewees’ personal, first-hand accounts because each participant is an individual. However, individual life stories and identities help, also, to develop a collective understanding of OGM.
4.2 Using some existing gay and feminist methodological theory, I have argued that a proportion of the gerontological literature is not sufficiently reflexive. It down plays sexual diversity and negative aspects of elder LGB lives, or misrepresents their experiences. This has led to my presentation of work that compensates for these limitations to produce more balanced knowledge. Finally, it is hoped that these ordered thoughts will stimulate debate within and out with LGB and gerontological studies.
Notes1 I have deliberately chosen not to identify the groups contacted for reasons of participant and organisation anonymity, in a relatively small and interconnected geographical area.
2 La Sala (2003: 16) explains: The emic perspective is the viewpoint of the members of the group or culture being studied. Behaviour and events are described strictly in terms of what they mean to the informants. For the etic or outsider standpoint, behaviour is explained using theories that are thought to be applicable to all groups and cultures. Good research incorporates an integration of both.
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