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LGBTQIA+ Equity in Research: Q&A with Vincenzo Malo and Marcel Foster

image of the lgbtqia+ flag

The LGBTQIA+ community is a resilient, diverse community that is often excluded from—and stigmatized in—research. This can contribute to the systemic harm that LGBTQIA+ individuals and the larger community experience. We sat down with Vincenzo Malo (he/they) and Marcel Foster (they/them) to discuss their new RTI press publication "To whom it may affirm: Considerations for advancing LGBTQIA+ equity in research" (co-authored with Sunnie Hodge (she/her)) to understand why and how researchers should incorporate the concerns and priorities of the LGBTQIA+ community in their work.

What is equity-centered research and why is it important?

Equity-centered transformative research was recently clarified as a framework that “departs from mainstream methodologies to serve liberation and social justice” in a separate RTI Press publication by Nitya Venkateswaran and co-authors. The authors note, “For research to be in service of equity and transformation, it should focus on or be committed to examining and dismantling systems of oppression.” Our contributions were absolutely built on the important work of these and other experts from across a variety of disciplines. We decided to discuss equity in the context of LGBTQIA+ communities to expand upon some of the nuances of how systems of oppression affect LGBTQIA+ people and discuss what researchers and policymakers can do to help dismantle these systems. Furthermore, in line with the recommendations of Venkateswaran and colleagues, we sought to discuss LGBTQIA+ equity in a way that highlights the strengths of the LGBTQIA+ community and the expertise of LGBTQIA+ researchers to begin shifting away from disparity-focused narratives.

Why do LGBTQIA+ communities need to be equitably included in research, particularly in health research?

Many federal, state, and local agencies, in addition to LGBTQIA+ experts from countless organizations, recognize the importance of promoting LGBTQIA+ equity in research for a variety of reasons. Some of these include:

  • The LGBTQIA+ community, among many other groups, has been absent from most fields of research, with researchers not measuring LGBTQIA+ identities and thus excluding them from research narratives.
  • The absence of quality research with LGBTQIA+ folks means that they are less likely to benefit from research findings and initiatives inspired by the research, perpetuating many identified and unidentified disparities.
  • When LGBTQIA+ communities are included in research, they are often misrepresented, stigmatized, and “othered” in a way that contributes to systemic harm for participants, as well as the community as a whole by fueling the stigmatizing and hateful dialogues that we see so clearly today.

Taking an approach that prioritizes LGBTQIA+ equity means that researchers 1) educate themselves on the systemic processes, like transantagonism, that drive outcomes and opportunities for LGBTQIA+ people; and 2) take measures to ensure that research contributes to dismantling these systems by uplifting LGBTQIA+ voices and their priorities throughout the entire research process. By prioritizing equity, we can begin to conduct research that meaningfully engages and benefits LGBTQIA+ populations and shifts narratives in a way that demonstrates the strengths and contributions of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Your paper discusses eight actionable priorities that researchers can adopt to ensure LGBTQIA+ equity in research. How can implementing some or all of these practices help improve outcomes for the LGBTQIA+ community?

As we mention in the paper, these eight priorities serve as a starting point for researchers to begin engaging with LGBTQIA+ equity and are not an exhaustive list. We chose these priorities because we believe that they represent some fundamental and often misunderstood concepts regarding the LGBTQIA+ community in research. We believe that learning more about these considerations can help prepare researchers and policymakers to begin engaging in conversations about why prioritizing LGBTQIA+ equity is important and equip them with some tools to normalize implementation of these practices in their own work. For example, we discuss how researchers can apply community-based practices in the context of research with LGBTQIA+ communities. This framework has been shown to be successful at promoting inclusivity, bidirectional learning, and meaningful engagement with communities, and therefore offers some very concrete and evidence-based suggestions that researchers can apply to their work with LGBTQIA+ populations.

By implementing these considerations, researchers can improve how they partner with LGBTQIA+ participants and collaborators in the research process and help them to collect quality data that more accurately characterizes the experiences of LGBTQIA+ populations in their work. And as we note in our paper, both are critical to improving outcomes for LGBTQIA+ populations.

How is RTI prioritizing LGBTQIA+ equity in research?

RTI sponsors excellent opportunities to promote LGBTQIA+ equity in the workplace, such as a training on pronouns and another ally training on workplace equity. Additionally, RTI’s Global Gender Center prioritizes strategies and best practices to expand RTI’s research and projects that positively impact LGBTQIA+ people. Educating other non-LGBTQIA+ employees about ways in which they can be allies in the workplace and in their work is so important to foster a workplace culture of belonging for LGBTQIA+ employees. RTI’s efforts towards Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging (EDIB) include the LGBTQIA+ Pride Employee Resource group, which uplifts the voices of LGTBQIA+ employees and provides critical resources for allies. Creating these spaces is critical for LGBTQIA+ researchers at RTI to continue to champion LGBTQIA+ equity.

What is your hope for researchers and practitioners going forward?

There is so much potential to meaningfully engage LGBTQIA+ populations in our work by taking time to learn about LGBTQIA+ equity and take part in conversations about how to center LGBTQIA+ communities’ priorities, experiences, and strengths throughout the research process. Our hope is that researchers can:

  1. Recognize the importance and necessity of centering equity in research with LGBTQIA+ populations
  2. Take initiative to educate themselves and other researchers on what operationalizing LGBTQIA+ equity can look like
  3. Be emboldened to challenge non-inclusive research precedents and adopt research processes that meaningfully includes, engages, and benefits LGBTQIA+ populations.

This is a continuous learning process that we all must take part in – it takes time, energy, and investment that might seem challenging given the already existing complexities of research. Additionally, it requires researchers to be a bit vulnerable and accept that some previous work and practices could have been improved for stronger inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people. However, we hope that this article underlines the necessity of engaging with this work and demonstrates that there are many resources to guide folks on their journey to advance LGBTQIA+ equity and improve the well-being of LGBTQIA+ people.

Read the full publication: To whom it may affirm: Considerations for advancing LGBTQIA+ equity in research

Learn more about the RTI Global Gender Center

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Vincenzo Malo (Public Health Analyst) and Marcel Foster to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.