Best practices for LGBTQ+ inclusion during ecological fieldwork

Authors Jaime Coon and Nathan Alexander reflect on their recent perspective piece that discusses LGBTQ+ inclusion during ecological fieldwork, with recommendations for individuals, mentors, and institutions.

All field ecologists have stories involving adventure, creative solutions to unexpected problems, challenging environmental conditions, truck failures, or insect infestations in the fieldhouse. But for ecologists from marginalized groups, field stories shared among community members can also be a mechanism for transmitting identity-based resilience strategies. This can include how to find community in rural areas safely, how to feel connected to community when isolated, or safety measures from lived experience. 

As queer field scientists, we have shared many of these strategies with each other over the years. When we decided to write on the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion in fieldwork, we hoped to make advice available to early-career individuals with less access to LGBTQ+ mentorship within ecology. In addition, we hoped to expand the conversation on advocacy beyond interpersonal strategies, highlighting structural barriers and survival needs that can be addressed by mentors and institutions. 

Stories of Marginalization

We knew through our stories and those from friends and mentees that, like other marginalized groups, LGBTQ+ individuals face unique challenges in field ecology. These barriers include: 

  • Increased risk for violence both within and outside the field team.
  • Unmet refrigeration needs for gender-affirming medications.
  • Inaccessibility of gender-inclusive field housing and bathrooms. 

Cis/heteronormativity is a socio-cultural barrier to inclusion in the field. This is the pervasive cultural norm that pressures individuals to conform to heterosexual and cisgender expectations, which can be especially strong in rural fieldwork locations. Cis/heteronormativity can result in: 

  • Feeling unwelcome in a group due to use of incorrect pronouns (a type of misgendering).
  • Increased rates of harassment and violence for individuals who do not conform to cis/heterosexual expectations.
  • The mental and emotional burden of  ‘coming out’ decisions, which involves weighing mental health and safety considerations. 

These barriers and risks combine with or increase discrimination based in other elements of identity, including race, ethnicity, and disability.

Author of the perspective (T. Clarkberg) shades nestlings from the blistering Iowa sun while other students measure the young grassland birds. We recommend that queer or trans undergraduate students conducting fieldwork for the first time seek out mentors to receive context-specific safety advice whenever possible. Photo used with permission © Jaime Coon

Institutional Change

Institutions and mentors can create inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ ecologists through structural support that reconciles historic exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. This includes:

  • Creating comprehensive fieldwork protocol and safety plans and gender-inclusive housing and bathroom policies.
  • Assisting with paperwork and medication transfers.
  • Purchasing size-inclusive gear.
  • Ensuring medical insurance includes gender affirming healthcare.

Institutions and mentors should also be aware and communicate discriminatory or oppressive laws or attitudes at fieldwork sites prior to travel.

Authors of the perspective (J. Coon) conducts a bird survey along a line transect in rural Iowa. Clearly defined safety procedures that reduce risks for LGBTQ+ people conducting rural fieldwork are needed to increase inclusivity in applied ecology. Photo used with permission © Evan Travis

Interpersonal Change

There are also ways to support LGBTQ+ people on an interpersonal level. We ask that cis/heterosexual peers and mentors:

  • Learn how to combat the pervasive and harmful effects of cis/heteronormativity. 
  • Be vocal in their advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Work to create supportive and welcoming field teams that affirm identities. 
  • Respect identity disclosure decisions by LGBTQ+ individuals, who are navigating sometimes conflicting survival and mental health concerns. 

Importantly, we ask that institutions and mentors act proactively, in consultation with marginalized groups, as they work toward field experiences that are safe and inclusive, especially for individuals with multiple intersecting marginalized identities. 

Authors of the perspective (N. Alexander and K. Fountain) live-trap gophers (Geomys bursarius illinoensis) in rural central Illinois. Queer mentorship and fellowship in the field is critical to increase sense of belonging and support mental health. Photo used with permission © Nathan Alexander

Personal Strategies

Our author team also created a list of personal resilience strategies that may be useful especially to early-career field ecologists. We recommend that LGBTQ+ individuals:

  • Think critically about personal safety, including the role of attitudes and laws.
  • Maintain connections to queer community by getting involved in professional organizations or local LGBTQ+ groups, when available.
  • Bring a token of queer identity to feel more connected and less isolated (e.g., a copy of A Picture of Dorian Gray for one of our authors). 

We acknowledge that navigating career/safety trade offs is often difficult and personal, and so it is important to avoid hard absolutes with recommendations, instead focusing on awareness of risks and making informed decisions. 

LGBTQ+ Inclusion in ecological fieldwork framework © Coon et al, 2023

Sharing Our Stories

Our aim in developing this perspective was to create recommendations based on stories from an author team with diverse experiences. We thus purposefully included people from many different LGBTQ+ identities, career stages (undergraduate to assistant professor) and workplace types (non-academic, predominantly undergraduate, and research-focused institutions), disciplinary backgrounds (ecology, conservation, social-psychology, educational leadership, and Black queer feminism), paying attention to intersections with race and disability.

As a team, we would like to acknowledge that this work is just one step down a path started by others, and we look forward to more recommendations, solutions, and actions that increase inclusivity and accessibility within this field. And to early-career field ecologists who are LGBTQ+: We want you to know that you belong in ecology, we are grateful you are here, and progress is happening. We can’t wait to hear your stories of adventure and fun in the field.

Read the full Open Access perspective, “Best practices for LGBTQ+ inclusion during ecological fieldwork: Considering safety, cis/heteronormativity, and structural barriers” in Journal of Applied Ecology

2 thoughts on “Best practices for LGBTQ+ inclusion during ecological fieldwork

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s