Living on the "virtual" edge: Researching young people's marginalised sexual and gender identities and distress through the internet
Social Policy & Social Work University of York York, UK
Department of Psychology University of Oslo Oslo, Norway
AIM: This paper reports on a pilot online qualitative study which aimed to test the feasibility of virtual methods for investigating young people, sexual and gender identity and emotional distress.
BACKGROUND: International research shows clear links between LGBT young people, emotional distress and suicidal behaviour. However, there is a lack of research within most European countries demonstrating this relationship, and there is a lack of research internationally examining how this connection operates. Quantitative psychological studies have brought attention to the elevated rates of LGBT youth suicide, but understanding the social, cultural and economic "context" of young LGBT people's lives is important for explaining the higher suicide risk.
METHOD: This pilot study used online interviews and recruited participants through a UK queer youth website. There are a minefield of ethical and methodological problems arising from researching LGBT youth, and these are amplified in research on sensitive topics such as emotional distress. We designed a virtual qualitative study with the intention of reaching a small number of participants who were diverse in terms of their sexual and gender identifications. Fourteen participants responded to our on-line questionnaire, six signalling willingness to participate in an on-line interview. They identified variously as transsexual, queer, transgender, lesbian, pansexual, asexual, genderqueer, and gay. They ranged from having left school at 16 without qualifications to going to university.
RESULTS: The study generated important methodological and substantive insights. We found online methods were useful for recruiting LGBT participants who may otherwise not take part in research, e.g., transpeople, and those outside of established LGBT youth groups. The study confirmed the importance of the internet to LGBT youth for constructing identities in safe spaces. The study suggests that identity management strategies across the young people?s life domains may be important to understanding emotional distress.
CONCLUSION: Internet methods provide the means of recognising sexual and gender fluidity in young people, and the possibility of understanding the relationship of sexual and gender identity and deliberate self-harm. Virtual methods provide potential for working across Europe to develop understandings of sexual and gender identities in young people.