Too Fabulous to be Anonymous?
“I’m too fabulous to be anonymous!”
To anonymize or not to Anonymize: That is the question(?)
I first met with “Miss McQueen”, a drag performer here in Glasgow, for a chat one summer afternoon in Katie’s Bar. I’d come to one of her shows and had gotten in touch through a fellow performer and mutual friend. She was intrigued that someone would be interested in her in an “academic way”. Additionally, a queen with a less-than-supportive family, passionate about pursuing her art, she felt that her story was “unremarkable”.
“I’ve never met an unremarkable queen, ” I told her.
“Ha! Well chat with me again after you see XXXXX perform. She’ll show you unremarkable! Ha!”
“Shade!” I cried.
We laughed, I ordered drinks, and we talked for over an hour.
She was kind, funny and forthcoming. I told her that she could refuse to answer any of my questions at any time. I also let her know that all the information would be kept coded and anonymous, to which she replied: “Why on Earth would you do that? I’m too fabulous to be anonymous!”
Indeed, I thought.
In my initial attempts to frame the data (these interviews) in academic language, I felt silly. I can still see the odd look she gave me. In her mind, sharing the narratives involved in the drag world was a big part of supporting both appreciation for it as an art form. It was also necessary for society to understand the prejudice and threats those who embrace drag as a lifestyle (and open expressions of it) suffer..
When we conduct interviews in the process of our PhD research, we must approach them ethically, responsibly, with an eye on suitability, organization and anonymity. People become “subjects” and they are “coded” to protect their identities, for a variety of important reasons - privacy, politics, prejudices, even matters of safety. We craft our questions carefully, we follow the protocols of our discipline, we seek the advice our supervisors and the and ethics approvals from our colleges and/or various IRB Boards, where appropriate.
But what should we do when our subjects don’t want to be anonymous?
My interviews were begun as a point of reference for the creative element of my degree; I was looking at the ways in which drag culture has/hasn’t not changed: not only in the public view but also within the LGBTQ communities, both in the US and in the UK. It was a challenge to “defend” the traditional academic view that those were the exact reasons that I had to apply through an Ethics Committee for permission to conduct the interviews in the first place. You see her humor here, right? Buying a round of apple-tinis, she thought anonymity was a bizarre idea, with me having to (a bit awkwardly) explain that UofG was ultimately concerned with her mental health and well-being. I had assured the College of Arts Ethics Committee that I was not going to traumatize a queen by asking her to talk about herself and her entry into drag (her two favorite topics). This all seemed silly to her, but we discussed the idea that not every queen was as resilient as she was in this matter. Talking about the stigma, prejudice, and often violence enacted against those in the LGBTQ (including drag) communities was possibly harmful to the participants. When framed in this way, Miss McQueen agreed but was still not completely happy.
Her assertion was that anonymizing voices was another way of silencing them, and that was the last thing the queer community needed.
She viewed this process as another way to silence marginalized voices, which negatively impacted their power and strength. The novel that I am writing as a part of my Practice as Research degree (PaR), involves looking at the impact of inherited narratives on identity development, specifically those in the queer communities and those managing chronic and terminal illnesses (e.g. cancer, AIDS/HIV). Miss McQueen’s arguments resonated with me, causing me to pause and ask, is anonymity always the best way to go?
As a PGR, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to defend an anonymization policy; I don’t have a substantial reading list that will help you with your dilemma, but these articles helped me to enter the conversation:
Moore, N. (2012). The politics and ethics of naming: questioning anonymisation in (archival) research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 15(4), 331-340.
Saunders, B., Kitzinger, J., & Kitzinger, C. (2015). Anonymising interview data: challenges and compromise in practice. Qualitative Research, 15(5), 616-632.
Interested in the Glasgow Drag Scene? Drag 101, hosted by our very own Gilchrist Postgraduate Club is a great place to start. Mothertucker, hosted by the QMU is another fabulous intro to drag in Glasgow that happens on campus. AXM Glasgow showcases Glasgow’s most creative and glam queens, who often host some of your favorite RuPaul’s Drag Race stars too! Also, there is Drag-Opticon, a monthly drag and variety show at the famous Glasgow’s famous Britannia Panopticon, the world’s oldest surviving music hall (and where Laurel and Hardy got their big start!) And don’t forget Lady Balls Bingo! hosted once a month by West End’s Hillhead Bookclub!