A Radical Geography Community
by Blake Hawkins, University of British Columbia, email@example.com
From September 2015 to January 2016, I lived in Prince George, Canada, to undertake fieldwork for my Master’s thesis. My research was centered on trying to better understand spatial and other aspects of LGBTQ youth health information seeking behaviors. In many literatures about the LGBTQ community, cities like Prince George (mid-sized and/or non-centrally located Canadian cities), along with other more rural spaces, tend be forgotten or otherwise underrepresented due to their locations and smaller populations (Bell and Valentine 1995). During my fieldwork experience, however, I noticed additional challenges that can exist for predominantly non-heterosexual men living in Prince George, by virtue of its relative geography and their place-related identities within it. Particularly, this city seems to express a legacy of rugged heterosexual masculinities. This community “standard” seems to be known and understood by local residents, and can, explicitly and/or implicitly, socially subjugate young, non-heterosexual men, making them feeling uncomfortable about discussions of sexuality, even for research-related purposes (Coen et al. 2014).
The central goal of my thesis was to investigate how young LGBTQ men in Prince George seek out health information. I wanted to know when, where, and how LGBTQ youth obtain their health-related information, and to get an idea of the sources preferred, as well as the sources they avoided. The literatures that informed my investigation included selections from both geography (especially critical and queer geographies) and information studies. Both of these scholarly areas suggested an interconnectedness of place and information seeking behaviors. Because of this, I decided that questions about where, how, and why youths obtained information could not be researched separately, and that the interconnectedness of their processes and decisions should also be considered (Savolainen 2009). To do this, participants engaged in participatory mapping in order to visually represent spaces that were “preferred, somewhat preferred, and disliked” for information-seeking visits about everyday health concerns (Freund et al. forthcoming; Martin et al. 2010). After engaging with mapping, participants contributed to focus groups, and provided feedback about the participatory mapping activity, as well as discussing and their current everyday health information-seeking behaviours and practices.
Despite being a member of the demographic I was seeking to work with, having pre-existing connections with Prince George via four years of university life there, and returning to invest time in building relationships and engaging potential participants with the local Pride Centre at the University of Northern British Columbia, I only succeeded in recruiting two non-heterosexual men as participants. This is quite a contrast with the nine non-heterosexual women participants who came forward and also generally exhibited greater willingness to contribute in the research project. The difficulties I had in recruiting men and the ease with which I recruited women participants made me further ponder relationships between gender, sexual orientation, health information-seeking, and the nature of Prince George as a place, particularly with respect to which cultures and messages of masculinity and sexuality seem to dominate.
Cause For an Intervention
While trying to conduct fieldwork for my research in Prince George, I experienced low recruitment rates, and difficulty inviting non-heterosexual young men into the project and its discussions. Beyond worrying about my own project and timelines, this gave me great cause for concern in that I am interested in improving the health and wellness among such populations, and felt that coming forward was far more difficult and barrier-riddled than I had previously imagined. And, as a geography-inclined academic, I found little guidance in the literature.
A predominant theme in the current geographical methodological literature has concerned feminist epistemologies and ontologies concerning research design (Moss 2002; Valentine 2003). The most significant contribution to geographical methodological literature concerning LGBTQ population and queering research is Kath Browne and Catherine Nash’s (2010) Queer Methods and Methodologies. Despite being a substantial contribution to queer geography and, more broadly to qualitative research, the book includes an insufficient treatment of rurality. Related research methods literatures inadequately deal with the intersections of masculinity, sexuality, and rurality. In response to this gap regarding the rural – in contrast to a disproportionate emphasis on urban LGBTQ research and methods – there is a need for further scholarship and discussion on the inter-mingling of rural localities or smaller cities, young non-heterosexual men, and research design for participant recruitment within these contexts. This would involve asking critical questions about gendered and geographical patterns in terms of research foci, such as: Are we leaving some populations out of queer geographies? How might we think through the multi-scalar and differential articulations of queer masculinities if rural geographies are in play? How do rural geographies and city/town size shape gendered and queer identifications? Do we make problematic assumptions about gender when designing projects or employing research methodologies? Paying attention to questions such as these should help us to gaps or problematic aspects of gender-related research, and to work toward empowering research participants, especially those belonging to sexuality or other minority groups.
Prince George, in Northern British Columbia, Canada, is a rather complex community. Recently changing demographics (in the last 20 years or so), a dynamic economy that is primarily based on a mix of extractive economies, and a college and a university town, shape its geography. Prince George has a population of nearly 80,000 residents; however, the city has many cultural attributes of less-urban cities Canada (Gumprecht 2003). I noticed and was told by my research participants that many residents in Prince George would identify with more rural gender and sexuality normativity (the community is understood to be, for example, less supportive of same-sex hand-holding or public displays of affection). Some of these rural residents were typically working in the resource industries as laborers or other jobs associated with the extractive economies in Prince George (Halseth 2000; Meletis and Hawkins forthcoming). Many of these individuals typically associated with gender normative roles for the family and male body. From my observations, there were predominantly married or common-law couples in the community. Despite the predominant diversity in Prince George, I still noticed that the legacy of rugged masculinity (Ekers 2013) shaped gender norms. These expressions of masculinity included owning larger trucks, dressing conservatively, and using certain body language (Campbell and Bell 2000; Campbell et al. 2006; Coen et al. 2014).
For the kind of research I was proposing to do for my Master’s degree (on the spatial and behavioral trends of LGBTQ youth health information seeking), building trust and community was critical for beginning to promote the project and recruit participants in Prince George. As part of my attempts to build relationships with the local LGBTQ community prior to starting the fieldwork, I hosted a panel for people identifying as LGBTQ to share and discuss their lived experiences in Northern BC. My hope was that creating such a panel invitation would help to draw young (18-25 year-old) non-heterosexual men to participate, even if only as audience members. I was disappointed with the low turnout from this demographic; not one of the panelists who came forward, later, as interviewees, was from this group. My fears about barriers to open LGBTQ young male identities in Prince George were realized when I received an email from a potential participant before the panel. He stated being too scared, and wrote that he felt it was too risky to come to the event. His unwillingness to participate demonstrates the risk and fear many young non-heterosexual men in Northern BC potentially face in their everyday lives as a sexual minority in the region (Holmes 2009). Furthermore, there are strong binaries for young non-urban non-heterosexual men. In many situations these men are categorized as a stereotypically effeminate gay no matter their sexual or gender identity (Waitt and Gorman-Murray 2011). Despite early setbacks in recruitment, I did manage to collect enough data to inform my research project.
Sexuality and Place for Rural Non-Heterosexual Men
Prince George seems to have a strong culture that reinforces a two-sexed (male or female) cis-gendered heterosexual system; these themes underwrite a lack of understanding regarding challenges of being LGBTQ communities (there have been multiple debates on UNBC social media, for example, about the purpose of Pride and Women Centers). My sense is that the rural characteristics of Prince George, or at least its distance from large urban centers, as well as its conventionally dominant industries, play roles in this. I would argue that many non-heterosexual young men in Prince George do not feel comfortable living their sexual and gender identities freely if these deviate from the norm. In many of these spaces, there are powerful and lasting legacies of gender and sexuality-related expectations. For example, powerful cultures of resource-industry related hypermasculinity (e.g. male loggers; miners; foresters; tradesmen) impact how men and women are conceptualized and expected to behave, particularly when in public (Coen et al. 2014; Ekers 2013; Kimmel 1994; Thien and Hanlon 2009). In some rural Canadian places, the concept of the nuclear family as the most desirable and expected social unit remains powerful and the standard to which citizens are held (Campbell et al. 2009). Rural places are also romanticized and idealized as far removed from the “ills” of cities that might house social deviants, and undesirable social elements such as behaviors that are “unsafe for children” (Bell and Valentine 1995; Muller Mydrahl 2013). In many smaller rural communities being LGBTQ is associated with such undesirable social components, particularly in the case of men. Common reactions to non-heterosexual men involves reinforcing negative stereotypes – such as the feminization of masculinity, which is a negative characteristic across gender identifications! – that can adversely shape young men’s understanding of themselves, queer cultures, and gender (Kimmel 1994). In my study, as well, the non-heterosexual women participants acknowledged that embracing queerness is more difficult for the young men in the community. These experiences can produce further social stigma for these young men, who are potentially facing many other challenges as they discover their sexuality (Saewyc et al. 2007).
Queer young women, from my project, and men I met in Prince George described young non-heterosexual men living in the community as having tenuous or problematic relationships with the queer spaces. Queer spaces provide the opportunity to partake in destabilizing behaviors that otherwise would not be possible. Instead of being spaces of safety, this queering is meant to operate beyond the normative behaviors that are encrypted (Browne 2006; Halberstam 2005; Oswin 2008). In Prince George there are currently two non-heterosexual and queer spaces that provide a safer environment and the opportunity to trouble heteronormative behaviors (like casual lesbian and gay sex). I had the opportunity to visit both spaces on multiple occasions and witnessed discussions about queer sex, casual same-sex relationships, and other behaviors that were not visible elsewhere in the community. Instead of being socially stigmatized, these lesbian and gay or queer spaces produce an opportunity to embrace what is different and troubling within heteronormative space. It provides, for many, liberation from spaces that are not normative for the LGBTQ body and mind (Brown and Knopp 2003; Halberstam 2005).
Statistically, we know that young male LGBTQ participants potentially live in Prince George. As a former member of the community, I am also personally aware of their existence. Why then was it so difficult for me, a member of the queer community, to recruit research participants from this demographic? I think it was because of the social and internalized stigma many young non-heterosexual men endure in Northern BC. On more than one occasion, I emailed or chatted with some potential participants who were uncomfortable about participating in my project. These unwilling participants’ reasoning for not joining was twofold: 1) they were not comfortable with being in a lesbian and gay or queer space, i.e., the Pride Centre where the research activities happened; and 2) the young men were extremely uncomfortable with discussing their sexuality around others. These reasons are potentially problematic for a range of non-heterosexual young men in Prince George, as there cannot be a complete understanding about their perceptions of spaces preferred to visit and their behaviors while seeking health information. Potentially, these young men are misinformed, they may choose incorrect information that is found online, and/or they may partake in risky activities (unprotected sex, drug usage, dieting, etc.) (Hawkins and Watson 2016). It is necessary for researchers to consider new novel ways to deal with these issues with stigma facing this population to increase participant recruitment.
Having limited queer spaces may create further challenges for some young non-heterosexual men as they feel obligated to “fit” (Waitt and Gorman-Murray 2011) within certain expectations for this demographic. These glorified characteristics for young non-heterosexual men include partying, taking drugs, same-sex contact, and objectification. As younger non-heterosexual men, who may be completely new to the LGBTQ community, they may also face the challenge of being “fresh meat” and being of premium value for their youthful looks and bodies (Valentine and Skelton 2003). Therefore, having clubs as one of the only queer spaces may make it difficult for young non-heterosexual men in a less-urban location to discuss their sexuality.
While designing this project, I chose the Pride Centre and LGBTQ group-based activities because using such spaces been described as ways to make such research more approachable, particularly for minority and vulnerable populations (e.g. see Delgado 2002). However, this did not seem to work for my project. While some young men were willing to discuss their health with me, they did not feel comfortable going to the Pride Centre. Interestingly, though, Pride Centre club members were also unwilling to discuss their health. During initial discussions with multiple Pride Centre members prior to the fieldwork, I was forwarded the suggestion that young men are unwilling to have conversations about their sexuality in a space like Queer Straight Alliances (QSA). They hinted that the more rural nature of Prince George and region is an influence on this. Considering how to overcome or address this influence is important – as QSA have been described as beneficial places for LGBT youth – in terms of contributing to improving their health outcomes (Saewyc et al. 2014).
My push is for radical geographers to continue exploring how to choose the best recruitment methods that motivate participation from marginal communities (like non-heterosexual young men in Prince George). As noted above, there has been some research in geography regarding sexuality, research methods and design. The pioneering collection edited by Browne and Nash (2010) considers the impacts and possibilities of integrating queer ontologies within research design and practice. However, I believe that more needs to be done especially for effectively targeting rural non-heterosexual young men for research aiming to improve their health and everyday lives. Many of these men hide and conceal their sexuality and queer desires for years. If this is the lived experience for most non-heterosexual young men in smaller cities/towns or rural regions, the research recruitment process needs to be reflective. From my experience, it was not always effective to reach the young non-heterosexual young men by making a private Facebook page, hanging up posters at the Pride Centre, and sharing the information with different people in the Prince George LGBTQ community.
Based on my fieldwork experience, I have suggestions that would help fellow rural researchers recruiting non-heterosexual young men. It may have been appropriate to assume that young non-heterosexual men may not be as open with their sexuality compared to the women. Having multiple options for meeting location options may have helped recruit the young men who did not feel comfortable inside the Pride Centre. Previous scholarship on integrating queer friendliness into heteronormative spaces described a more disruptive and art-based approach (Mitchell 2001). I am uncertain that level of visibility would be realistic in Prince George or other less-urban cities. In a place like Prince George, I noticed that most young people are connected through different social networks. If a young non-heterosexual young man would create or view this art, there is a significant risk of other people knowing. It may be useful to use non-queer spaces as a meeting location for these young men. Having to meet in a queer space to discuss a sensitive topic may have been too overwhelming for some of these men. In the future, I argue that researchers need to consider the significance of meeting locations while recruiting participants. Using an online presence could have improved awareness and made this project a safer opportunity for the participants. An online presence, with apps like Grindr, would have been useful in disrupting heteronormative spaces and bringing a subversive queer presence. Furthermore, participants could have used this space to be anonymous to discuss questions and request particular meeting locations for the research. My own research project has allowed me to think about how researchers need to become more creative when trying to find participants that are non-heterosexual in less urban communities. The typical methods of recruitment used by researchers need to appropriately protect and recognize the potential risks for these young men. I advocate that researchers need to further reflect on what it means to be flexible when completing research and spend more time to understand the issues facing the population. In the case of this project, I had been a long term resident and still did not have a full understanding of the dynamics facing young non-heterosexual men.
Developing a more comprehensive understanding of non-heterosexual young men, and how to recruit them for research projects (especially those that stand to benefit them as a greater population) is important because it shifts the focus of queer geographies away from urban centers asks that we consider how sexuality intersects with more complex spatial processes. Thus, our literatures and our research practices must reach out to recognize and include such sub-populations, including how best to recruit such men in places where it is not very safe or common place to be out as LGBTQ. This is especially true if we consider health – if we know little about queer communities in non-urban spaces, and we have difficulty recruiting them to participate in health-related research, and their access to health information may be undermined. Having a perspective that, we know they are out there it is just difficult to understand the populations’ needs is not acceptable (Bowering 2012). Instead, we need to use our geographical and critical theory knowledge to inform discussions about improving research recruitment of members such groups, and to mobilize resulting data for positive social change, including improving the safety and social acceptability for LGBTQ members in a wider array of smaller, more rurally-influenced Canadian places.
I sincerely thank the 11 LGBTQ youth from Prince George that shared their experiences, the University of Northern British Columbia and the Northern Pride Centre for hosting my research, Dr Zoe Meletis for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this paper, and my supportive supervisors Drs. Luanne Freund and Elizabeth Saewyc.
 Prince George is on the traditional and unceded territory of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, and this population has a significant role in the region (Halseth 2000). Like elsewhere in Canada, this region and its communities are shaped by systematic racism and settler colonialism (de Leeuw 2009; de Leeuw et al. 2013, Harris 2002). My fieldwork did not draw in anyone who self-identified as Indigenous, First Nations, or Aboriginal, which means my overarching project excludes this community; however, this absence also speaks to how recruitment processes can also marginalize queer indigenous and two-spirited youths. See Morgensen (2012) for a discussion of settler colonialism and LGBTQ2S communities.
 The two public queer spaces are the University of Northern British Columbia Northern Pride Centre and a queer-friendly bar called Lambda.
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