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Championing LGBTQIA+ Equity in Research: A Call to Action

At RTI International, I have had the privilege to devote time and energy to helping the RTI community critically think about how we carry out our mission “to improve the human condition” in the context of the continued mis- and under-representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals in research settings. As a queer-identifying researcher, this effort is of great personal importance for me, as debates about the legality of my identity permeate society, leaving many intervenable LGBTQIA+ disparities unaddressed. I hope to use this personal drive to improve the human condition by contributing to the development and implementation of inclusive research practices that meaningfully advance LGBTQIA+ equity.

This past year, with the support of the Center for Health Analytics, Media, and Policy (CHAMP), the RTI Global Gender Center, and the PRIDE Employee Resource Group, I conducted a review of recommendations for engaging LGBTQIA+ populations in research and shared my findings with my colleagues. I synthesized the recommendations of various academic and community-serving organizations, in collaboration with subject matter experts from across RTI, with two overarching goals: (1) to make the case for formally developing and implementing LGBTQIA+-inclusive research practices, and (2) to provide researchers with some basic tools and guidance that we can use to champion this inclusivity in our work.

In this blog post, I highlight five reasons why we should all adopt inclusive LGBTQIA+ research practices in our work and provide a brief overview of how we might start to engage in conversations around these practices:

  • Dismantling the systemic marginalization of LGBTQIA+ populations through respectful language and practices: Historically, LGBTQIA+ identities have been systematically excluded from and misrepresented in research. Increasing accurate and meaningful representation in research is an important step in calling attention to the systematic inequities that continue to afflict these populations. Using inclusive and representative practices in all aspects of the research process further ensures that evidence can meaningfully contribute to policy aimed at dismantling dismantling systems, like heteronormativity, that perpetuate these inequities.
  • Upholding the basic, yet vital, ethics of human research: Two of the major tenets that guide our research are beneficence and justice, which demand that we as researchers respect and protect our respondents as well as ensure that our research has a fair distribution of benefits. Excluding or misrepresenting LGBTQIA+ populations in research can not only make respondents feel confused or disrespected, but also produce inaccurate findings for these populations that will result an unfair distribution of benefits for already marginalized populations.
  • Improving research credibility and quality: It is well-documented that outdated or inaccurate research questions can confuse survey respondents and bias research findings in favor of privileged groups that are well-represented in research. Thus, findings for LGBTQIA+ populations may be inaccurate or misleading in some settings. Updating our research processes so that they evolve with the social rhetoric and language used to describe identities is essential to building rapport with respondents and producing high-quality, accurate research.
  • RTI’s mission, code of conduct, and business prospects: RTI, as a champion of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging, already challenges us to strive beyond compliance with basic standards. By prioritizing these values in concert with producing research of superior quality, RTI calls on each of us to seek out ways in which we can implement respectful, inclusive, and culturally competent policies in the workplace and in our project work.
  • Promoting equity and reducing disparities: Implementing transformative policies often requires equally transformative and informative research. LGBTQIA+-inclusive research directly leads to more awareness, advocacy, and evidence-based policy for LGBTQIA+ populations, all of which contribute to the reduction of disparities and the promotion of equity-focused decision-making. In light of the proven success of previous work, there is substantial evidence justifying and encouraging the adoption of these practices in our future work.

Just as LGBTQIA+ populations are extremely diverse and the language around sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex (SOGII) is ever evolving, there is no single, clear-cut approach to LGBTQIA+ inclusive research; however, that does not mean that we lack examples or guidance. In the absence of “gold standards,” advocates for equity-focused research have highlighted considerations that we should be cognizant of when conducting research with LGBTQIA+ populations and outlined steps we can take to re-examine our approach to research. We can use this information to guide conversations with the project team, community partners (especially communities contributing to the research), and other individuals involved in the research process to determine what approaches will produce the most meaningful findings in the context of our research.

My goal is that research teams can use the guidance from my review as a starting point to champion these conversations around LGBTQIA+ equity and explore ways in which they can apply equitable practices in their own work.  Although I have synthesized a lot of discourse around SOGII research, my work is not meant to serve as a short-cut for SOGII measures that one can simply copy and paste across projects. Rather, it is a call to action for (hopefully) many future conversations about the importance of critically thinking through the measures and processes we adopt in our research. Continuously engaging in these discussions is critical if we truly wish to conduct equity-focused research in an equitable manner.

I feel fortunate to have been able to conduct this investigation and share these findings with my colleagues at RTI, and I look forward to continuing similar work exploring how we as a research community can strive to meaningfully improve the human condition for all individuals.

Learn more about RTI's work in LGBTQIA+ Research.

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