Viewport width =
July 24, 2017 | by  | in Interview |
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Interview: Gloria Fraser

Gloria Fraser is a researcher at VUW whose PhD is focused on rainbow community members’ experiences of accessing mental health support in Aotearoa. Last year, she came to us at UniQ for help with contextualising her planned research and gathering participants. Today, she has had more people volunteer to participate than could be funded, which has only heightened anticipation for the next stages of her project. UniQ caught up with Gloria to ask her a few questions about her research and its implications.

 

How do you identify?

I identify as a straight cis woman of Pākehā and Ngāi Tahu descent. I am also a cat lover and future psychologist!

 

How would you summarise your research?

My research aims to understand what the experiences of queer and trans young adults are as they seek mental health support in Aotearoa. Although there’s an ever-growing body of literature telling us that queer and trans people have disproportionately high rates of mental health problems as a result of ongoing stigma and discrimination, we still don’t have a good idea of what happens when they end up talking to counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals. I’ve been hearing socially for years that mental health professionals in New Zealand lack knowledge about sex, gender, and sexuality. If we are going to change this, then we need solid research telling us what queer and trans people need to make the system better.

 

What was it like trying to find research participants?

Before I started my research, I was really worried about finding participants. Being relatively new to Wellington, and not a member of the rainbow community myself, I thought that nobody would want to talk to me! I’d read entire papers dedicated to discussing the difficulties of doing research with “hard-to-reach populations” like rainbow communities, making me even more worried. What ended up happening instead was totally unexpected — lots of the groups and organisations I’d met with to chat about my research (including UniQ) shared my research flyer on social media, and I ended up with five times as many people as I had planned to interview contacting me to volunteer. My supervisor was kind enough to set aside a bit more funding, so I increased my original group of 20 participants to 32, but I was unable to talk to everyone who got in touch.

On the one hand, it was a relief to know that I could go ahead with my PhD, and that I had chosen a topic which is important to a lot of people. On the other, though, I think the fact that so many people put up their hands shows what a huge issue this is, how many people in the rainbow community have a story to tell about their mental health experiences. Almost without exception, my participants have told me that they came forward for the study because they want queer and trans people who need mental health support in future to have better experiences than they had. Of course, some of my participants have worked with wonderful mental health professionals who have had a really positive impact in their life. I like having those conversations too, because we can use those stories as a model for future work in the mental health sector.

 

How do you see the current political climate influencing what your participants have said?

I guess the current political climate influences my participants’ experiences in a few different ways. There are some experiences which tend to be common for all consumers of mental health services at the moment, not just those who are queer or trans. For example, the lack of funding in mental health services means that a lot of my participants who have urgently needed support have been turned away from services because they do not meet the threshold required. They are unwell, but not unwell enough to qualify for the mental health care they need. Really wonderful services like Evolve have had to shut their doors to new clients because they’re at maximum capacity, and they have also had to lower the cut-off age for their services over the past few years. Most people can’t afford to pay for private mental health care, and many who are students have had to wait for long periods to see a counsellor at Student Health. Because of this, some of my participants told me that they currently need to see someone about their mental health but, for them, there is no help available.

There are other experiences which are more unique to the people I talk to for my research. Something that comes up a lot is the pathways (or lack thereof) for people who need gender-affirming healthcare, like hormone therapy or surgery. It’s hard to know where to even start with this one. At the moment, there are no New Zealand-specific guidelines for the provision of gender-affirming healthcare. Healthcare professionals use international guidelines instead, but they don’t all use the same ones! Some use DSM-V criteria for “gender dysphoria” (which is pathologising and generally considered to be total rubbish — one of the diagnostic criteria for children is “a strong preference for the toys, games, or activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender” — as if this is going to tell you who is trans and who isn’t). Others use guidelines from organisations like the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, which are still imperfect. There is some really cool work going on to streamline and make clear the pathways for accessing gender-affirming healthcare. The Sex and Gender Diverse Working Group in Wellington and the Transgender Health Project in Auckland have been influential in making improvements within their own district health boards. There’s still, in my opinion, a lack of funding and political will in this area, so lots of trans people face lengthy waiting times to receive the care they need, and often face invasive questioning about aspects of their lives that aren’t at all relevant to their gender identity. Those in rural communities may not have anyone in their area who can provide these services, and often end up in an endless and exhausting cycle of referrals.

 

Is there anything else about your research that stands out to you as unexpected or significant?

Something that I have been surprised by, probably very naïvely, is the very real risk that coming out can pose for queer and trans young adults. Although I was aware that homophobia and transphobia still exist, I wasn’t expecting to hear from some of my participants that they do not hold their partner’s hand while walking down the street, or that they’ve been at university for an entire semester and haven’t felt able to tell their new class friends about their sexuality. I think it’s really important for straight/cis people, like me, to remember that marriage equality hasn’t fixed everything, and that we still have a long way to go in this area.

Other significant things — every single one of my participants have said that they are happy to answer questions about what pronouns they use. This is not necessarily the same as asking someone what their gender is, but rather how they’d like to be addressed. The most common recommendation for improving mental health care provision has been to make no assumptions. Use neutral language wherever possible! Another huge takeaway from my research so far is that the rainbow community is incredibly diverse. Often participants who identify in exactly the same way with regard to gender and sexuality will have wildly different opinions, experiences, and preferences with regard to their mental health care, so one person’s knowledge does not necessarily generalise to others they share identities with.

 

Do you have any advice for other researchers at VUW for working with a representative group like us or the rainbow community more broadly?

I sure do, and it’s easy! Go and talk to the people whose experiences you are researching. Let them guide your research questions, your ethics application, your recruitment method, and your data collection. This isn’t something that happens once — this is about building ongoing relationships, returning for advice at every stage, and remembering that you are probably not the expert on other people’s lives, especially if you come from outside their community. For the rainbow community in particular, it’s really important for researchers to take the time to build trust and show queer groups and organisations that you know at least a little about what you’re talking about, because straight and cis researchers have been producing really damaging, pathologising work for a long time. (A pet peeve of mine — why does anyone bother writing a paper about the origins of queerness when nobody has ever written about the causes of being straight?!) If people don’t email you back, wait a few weeks and email them again politely. These are busy people and they’re probably not ignoring you on purpose! Make sure that you are giving back, not just taking, and be up front about your own motivations, and how your research will benefit the community. In any community, it is essential that you know how to ask for feedback, and that you take that feedback on board.

I want to emphasise here that I by no means get this stuff perfect. My first interviews were a huge learning curve, and I am so grateful to my participants for being patient through my monologues in the middle of interviews, and my unfortunate habit of asking four questions at a time instead of one. I was really scared when I started this project that I’d make a terrible faux pas and be rejected by the entire community! But people are perceptive and understanding, they know when your heart is in the right place, and if you mess up you just apologise and move on. Straight/cis people need to care about these issues and be a part of working toward change, because although amazing research comes from within rainbow communities, this work can’t be left to the rainbow community alone. Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi!

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

About the Author ()

Add Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent posts

  1. An (im)possible dream: Living Wage for Vic Books
  2. Salient and VUW tussle over Official Information Act requests
  3. One Ocean
  4. Orphanage voluntourism a harmful exercise
  5. Interview with Grayson Gilmour
  6. Political Round Up
  7. A Town Like Alice — Nevil Shute
  8. Presidential Address
  9. Do You Ever Feel Like a Plastic Bag?
  10. Sport
1

Editor's Pick

In Which a Boy Leaves

: - SPONSORED - I’ve always been a fairly lucky kid. I essentially lucked out at birth, being born white, male, heterosexual, to a well off family. My life was never going to be particularly hard. And so my tale begins, with another stroke of sheer luck. After my girlfriend sugge