Some say that sexual orientation and gender identity are sensitive issues. I understand. Like many of my generation, I did not grow up talking about these issues. But I learned to speak out because lives are at stake, and because it is our duty under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere ~ UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
As non-conforming genders and diverse sexual oriented individuals declare their voices in present data and research, it is becoming clear that the responsibility is on the author to examine their questionnaire and free it of bias and discrimination which leads to oppression of marginalized groups. As Murdock & Forsyth (2011) commented, “Growing awareness of the problem of gender-biased language has led to a series of formal guidelines warning authors to exercise care in their word choices (American Psychological Association, 1975, 1977; John Wiley & Sons, 1977; Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1976; Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1976)” (p. 40). I am interested in using the lens of gender and sexual orientation to understand and examine how biased language is utilized in contemporary research. Sexual orientation bias in questions can be subtle and awareness is slowly increasing in the field of practice for contemporary social issues of adults in the LGBTIQQ community. Denmark, Russo, Frieze, & Sechzer (1998) stated, “Whenever values and assumptions – whether related to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status – affect the research process, bias can operate” (p. 582).
We do not live in a binary world because we are a multi-gendered society. Research has proven that almost every continent throughout history, cultures have acknowledged, valued, and incorporated more than two genders for instance, berdache and two-spirit. Terms such as transgender and gay are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman). (PBS: Independent Television Service, 2011, para). Why does bias language occur in research text? My focus changes to what beliefs, values and assumptions the researchers have that influence their research results as reality is constructed by their own social environments (Merriam & Simpson, 2000, para. p. 97). Our world is complicated and must be reflected in research wording to keep up with the times as the authors realize the importance of respect and participating in social justice in turn, creating social change.
RQ2. Should a researcher have knowledge in the Queer theory and Postmodernism regarding fluid reality to better understand their own bias?
RQ3. Should a researcher explore gender environmentalism, constructivism, and essentialism prior to preparing a questionnaire?
RQ4. Should a researcher understand what sexual orientation bias language means and why it matters?
RQ5. Can political and sociohistorical contexts influence a researcher’s questions?
RQ6. What strategies could be used for researchers to assist in altering the behavior of utilizing gender and sexual orientation bias language?
RQ7. What are my limitations for the research?
RQ8. What are the effects on a participant when bias language is utilized in a research questionnaire?
RQ9. Is there a connection between self-identified sexual orientation, bias and racial/ethnic identities?
I am using the lens of gender and sexual orientation to see this research through. The framework of ideas that make sense to ground my research study begin with the postmodern ideology as I feel it would be influential in shaping how diversity and power is perceived not only to the author, but to the adult learner within the researcher. It is this concept that reveals that identities are not fixed and do not determine who we are and that it can be changed. The concept confronts social ordering of identities and privileges heterosexuals and all else are considered “the other.” When this theory is applied to their questioning, dialogue will occur as they write and speak to the needs of the participants similar to an educator speaking to the needs of their students in their language (Pappas & Jerman, 2004, para. p. 55).
According to Wolfe (2014), “I believe that this concept questions categories in which researchers need to be more aware of as well as its constructs” as this ideology proposes that there is not one universal truth but many as in the case of multiple genders in our society. As a researcher revises their reality it enables the individual and adult learner to deny some of the influences of radical power therefore, being able to critically reflect on the conscious and distorting influences. McGettigan (1998) commented, “While individuals are not capable of generating completely “emancipated” social environments, nevertheless, the capacity for individuals to redefine reality and, thereby, ascertain “moments of truth” implies that it is possible for individuals to obtain an awareness of their real interests.” It can be argued that the process of redefining reality provides the basis for a solution to the paradox of emancipation. (McGettigan, 1998, para. n.p.). Multiple truths are created through language, through narrative, and through culture. This alternative construction is described by Brookfield (1992):
Postmodernism also holds that meaning is malleable and that there is no core, unequivocal meaning waiting to be discovered at the heart of any speech, written text, or visual image. Similarly, it rejects the idea that adults have a core, fixed identity that can be discovered through investigation and analysis (p. 77).
Social changes influence the use of language therefore, a researcher needs to be sensitive to the needs of the participants as it can influence the researcher-participant relationship. When an author is unprepared, lacking knowledge or sensitivity by using bias wording, inclusion is missing from their critical thinking of how to create a successful questionnaire by using gender neutral words and phrases, by not using the words man or woman, by avoiding the connections between men and their occupation and women by their bodily characteristics. For example, within my qualitative research questionnaire I posed the question to two participants, “How do you feel about the question, are you biological male or female” and revised it after reviewing my research findings to read, “How do you describe your gender?” In this instance, as a researcher I did not intend to exclude participants by the words I chose. I revised the question to create an inclusive environment for the contributor as I critically reflected on my own bias and assumptions as Stephen Brookfield (2012) noted:
These assumptions are sometimes correct. At other times, however, the assumptions we base our decisions on have never been examined. Sometimes we hold these assumptions because people we respect (friends, parents, teachers, religious leaders) have told us they are right. At other times we have picked these assumptions up as we travel through life but can’t say exactly where they’ve come from. To make good decisions in life we need to be sure that these assumptions are accurate and valid – that they fit the situations and decisions we are facing. (p. 12).
Gender and sexual orientation bias language is something that is used daily by most people as August (1986) remarked, “As our language demonstrates, such sexist stereotyping, whether unintentional or deliberate, is not only familiar but fashionable,” which affirms my research perspectives thus far as bias language does exist in today’s research. These results were in agreement with the recommendations of the American Psychological Association’s, “Guidelines for Nonsexist Language” (1975,1977): (1) generic phrasings were perceived to be somewhat biased and sexist, (2) designation and evaluation stereotyping was perceived to be extremely biased and sexist, and (3) neutral alternatives were judged to be appropriately nonsexist.(p.39). It is the postmodern theory that allows a researcher to change lenses and view identities and reality more fluidly. There is also a Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concern in the American Psychological Association which acknowledges language and culture are continually changing. Therefore, language may be ambiguous in reference, history has revealed that homosexuality has been connected with mental illness and criminal behavior and it is these stereotypes that create bias, prejudice, and discrimination (American Psychological Association’s, Guidelines for Nonsexist Language, 1975, 1977. para).
How valid are research results when skewed by participants that do not answer a question truthfully, have a fear of being truthful or selecting the “other” option because their answer is not offered? I found my experiences parallel to defining my identity. When in a lesbian relationship, I checked off single and when married to a transman legally I checked off straight. Neither of the responses were accurate for instance the latter, I was pansexual and not heterosexual according to societal beliefs. Hence, skewing the results. According to Savin-Williams (1994) who analyzed studies of hidden populations [in the closet] found they are problematic due to sampling bias, which may reveal findings that are not representative of the group and may, consequently, provide the foundations for misleading generalizations (Melendez, Bonem, Sember, 2006, para p. 23). I may be part of the hidden population when it comes to any forms or surveys I fill out since being pansexual is not an option. Research questions have what is called the “other” as a response when nothing applies or maybe the participants are not comfortable in discussing their sexual orientation or gender. Many participants will choose “other” because transgender, intersexed, pansexual, queer, or questioning are not given as a response. The idea is to study and understand the “other” in a proactive manner by acknowledging and revealing the existence of the other in a respectful way through language and then sharing the knowledge.
There is a link between politics and change associated with postmodern ethics, and self-conscious (Kong et al., 2002, p.241 cited in Price, 2011. para.). It became clear that postmodernism assumes that social constructions are self-confirming…reality beyond social constructions does not exist (Ratner, 2002, para. n.p.) Whitehead (1929) commented, “…challenged the notion of development as the core of life, arguing that since growth is organic, it cannot be controlled or determined. (Wilson & Hayes, 2000, p.527).
The second framework of ideas that make sense to ground my research study is the queer theory seen through the lens of gender and sexual orientation against the back drop of bias language in research. Cossman (2012) describes the ideology, “Queer theory has developed as an interrogation and deconstruction of the multiple discursive productions of sexuality, seeking to denaturalize the assumed connections between sex, gender and desire” (p. 7). It is based on understanding, inclusion and the breaking down of old assumptions while creating a safe space of acceptance for non-conforming participants, researchers, individuals and adult learners to learn and grow. The foundation is through fluid reality, sensitivity and holistic methods of understanding, learning and teaching through process and by using a contextual lens when viewing genders, sexual orientation, and why they matter (Wolfe, 2014, para.). Pappas & Jerman (2004) remarked:
Looking at the structural component of the contextual lens means focusing on how relationships of power across race, gender, class, disability, and sexual orientation affect the ability of adult learners who represent these groups to participate actively in learning processes (Caffarella and Merriam, 2000; Cervero, Wilson, and Associates, 2000; Tisdell, 1993,1998; p.25).
This ideology is the rethinking of culture and a collection of intellectual philosophies relating between sexual orientation and gender. In order for a researcher or adult leaner to explore the concept of identity they must first critically reflect on and challenge their own basic assumptions for instance, how is gender constructed and is sexual orientation innate? This is an important phase as this theory can be put to practice by preventing bias language whether in a questionnaire or in every day discourse resulting in social change. Spargo (1999) remarked:
In challenging our most basic assumptions about sex, gender and sexuality, including the oppositions between heterosexual and homosexual, biological sex and culturally determined gender, and man and woman, these thinkers are developing new ways of exploring the issue of human identity (p. 7).
My qualitative research incorporated many different ways in finding answers although limitations were apparent in my sampling. I was only able to interview two individuals, a straight woman and a transgender man. What made it more difficult was the mandatory number of questions that could be asked on the second inquiry, I was confined to only five questions. I believe these barriers to obtain data intensified as both responses to my questionnaire were received by e-mail. No body language could be used or other variables such as tone of voice or eye contact. These factors meant relying more on scholarly reporting in the field including articles and journals, YouTube videos, classroom videos, and basing the study on action research as Merriam & Simpson (2000) reported, “…is one of analyzing, getting facts, identifying the problem, planning and taking action on the problem…” (p. 125). I selected my focus, identified theoretical perspectives, focused on research questions, collected data, analyzed and now reporting my findings as my plan for my research is to continue learning and growing to share my knowledge.
This type of investigating according to Denzin & Lincoln (2000) was, “…born out of concern to understand the other” (p. 2). I took this quote to heart. I began with a journal that incorporated showing dates of research, important quotes that could help in the progression of my study, ah-ha moments, questions, struggles, realizations, and what stood out for me. For instance one aha moment came when I began to link research bias language, postmodernism, and education as I have found that the ideology of the conception of same sex relations incorporates the examining of the of homosexual revealing no clear type of a person, and opening up multiple truths. It is the old closets that weaken and the new closets that grow. The type of participants has changed and new ways of thinking help in recognizing diversity. The approach is more action oriented, active, reflexive, and reflective as it is decentred, and deconstructed. It opens the door to dialogue on culture and politics.
My research methodology included viewing theorist videos. Libby Tisdell suggests in her video that adult educators are too narrow minded in reading only research within the adult learning field and encourages more collaboration across other education fields. “I just think it is absolutely crucial if we are serious about educating that we have to look at the multiple ways that people construct knowledge and this is also related to culture using what she says are “…the not strictly rational ways of knowing, such as how people connect to spirituality through music, poetry and imagination” (Tisdell, n.d.).
My research methods led to the writing of a poem:
As I reflect on language and its bias against gender and sexual orientation with research, I still have hope that one day change will occur in how researchers use their words that harm others.
I’m tired and yet my mind wanders…language has power
Before I lay me down to sleep
I pray for a world where language
is not biased
against sexual orientation
as we know the pain runs deep
One that takes responsibility for
and learn how
not to hit us
below our core
as we know the pain runs deep
Let me dream of questions
for my research
where there are no labels
where hidden populations
can be seen and heard
where there’s not a
Don’t always assume we all are
Don’t always assume
when using a pronoun
the world just needs to realize
what has been done
and it’s time to
make it right
as we know the pain runs deep
Realize how bias is seen and heard
every day in our words
break the chain
to make the change
as we know the pain runs deep
In today’s research
the time has come to act
not just to dream
but make it a reality
as we know the pain runs deep.
While in the midst of my research I created a visual representation of my progress:
As an adult learner, researcher and individual in order to grow intellectually, mentally and spiritually I must participate and invite inclusion to help create a social change process. Not everyone in society is willing to critically reflect on sexual orientation and gender let alone associate it with bias language used in inquiry. What has emerged for me is a new lens, a perspective on social issues that have been in place due to traditional values and beliefs. While some authors understand the repercussions and are self-directed in abiding and following written guidelines for example, in using correct pronouns, others must be informed and directed to use proper language. This theme is similar in education. There are adult learners that benefit from in class settings though dependent on a teacher for being told what to learn as in Freire’s (1993) banking concept of education where the teacher teaches and the students are taught, where face to face contact is part of their learning process as they are comfortable within that environment. Whereas, in education other students use their autonomy and self-direction for example, in distance learning, to participate while taking control and responsibility for their learning by using new knowledge to improve their lives and the lives around them. It is these independent students and researchers that critically reflect, become aware and conscious of potential bias. When this occurs they will try and correct it resulting in social change.
It is interesting to note that if a researcher is uncomfortable with a topic of inquiry their questions could contain stereotypes. When stereotyping, discrimination and bias language is utilized it is the participant that could be confused, frustrated and/or having a sense of not being included in the study as the participant’s truth of reality and the researcher’s truth of reality are opposed. Debbink & Ornelas (1997) reported, “Not all the people are at the same level in the process. Some are very advanced in understanding their own social reality and consciousness; others are at the beginning stages of understanding. But, the important point is that we all must determine our own reality and not have it predetermined for us by others. (p.27)
RQ1. Can political and sociohistorical contexts influence a researcher’s questions?
A researcher has established assumptions, beliefs and values that are in place prior to writing questions for a survey or questionnaire. Hence, the research process begins with bias feelings or attitudes that can affect the wording of a question posed to a participant.
RQ2. What strategies could be used for researchers to assist in altering the behavior of utilizing gender and sexual orientation bias language?
a) By addressing the issue of bias, judgments, and assumptions a researcher can critically reflect on how their knowledge was constructed and how it can be revised.
b) Using examples of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons when referring to activities (parenting or athletic ability) that are erroneously associated only with heterosexual people by many.
c) Using sexual terminology that is relevant to lesbians and gay men as well as bisexual and heterosexual people (when did you first engage in sexual activity? rather than when did you first have sexual intercourse?). (Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concern American Psychological Association, 2004, para. n.p.).
RQ3. What are my limitations for the research?
My limitations ranged from sampling of participants to distance feedback through e-mail only.
RQ4. What are the effects on a participant when bias language is utilized in a research questionnaire?
A participant can feel distressed, frustrated and confused similar to an adult learner. Sunderland (2004) noted, “Gender bias in a text may adversely affect language learning, but I would suggest that this is very hard to prove… Effects on learning of any text are impossible to predict because we cannot predict a given reader’s response to that text, including what that reader will ‘take’ from it (p, 153).
Implications and Conclusion
In order to understand the philosophical assumptions which my qualitative research is based, is to see that reality is constructed by individuals in interaction with their social worlds (Merriam & Simpson, 2000, para. p. 97). Based on my preliminary findings, I find that research contains bias language when an author confirms the assumptions and beliefs set in society and defends them by using normative justification. There are choices that an author makes in using their power of consciousness and controllability when writing questions. Bias language could be used while the researcher is aware and intentionally selects what is considered the norm.
The using of bias language in research questionnaires referring to sexual orientation and gender reflects on assumptions, values and beliefs that are malleable, that can be learned as well as unlearned. This can be done by creating a space where constructive discourse and feedback will lead to building upon the effective guidelines which are already in place. According to Mezirow (1981), “…process of becoming critically aware of how and why our presuppositions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world…” (p. 22). It will be a place of communication, the breaking down boundaries where responsibility and self-directed actions come together and work as a community to create social change. Friere (1973) commented:
Dialogue is (the) fundamental part of the structure of knowledge (which) needs to be opened to other Subjects in the knowledge process. Thus the class is not a class in the traditional sense, but a meeting place where knowledge is sought and not where it is transmitted. Just because the educator’s task is not dichotomized into two separate moments (one in which he/she knows and another in which s/he speaks about this knowledge), education is a permanent act of cognition (p.149).
My field of practice in contemporary social issues for LGBTQQ adult learners led me to the realization that bias language in research begins with the researcher, their assumptions, views and beliefs. Although in qualitative research it is acceptable for the researcher to have their presence within the results, it becomes their responsibility of where to draw the line and avoid bias language.
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