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We’ve researched the experiences of transgender and non-binary people, particularly in the workplace, for much of the last ten years. Our original motivations remain: generate robust evidence.

However, the environment is unrecognisable from when we started. Politicised media stories and polarised views are now ubiquitous. Researchers can contribute evidence and tools which could help.

Robust research evidence is needed across a range of issues relating to trans people. Alongside colleagues across the research sector, we have played our own small part in contributing to knowledge.

Hate crime against transgender people is on the rise, and persistent negative workplace experiences show that employers need to put better safeguards in place for trans people. Our work includes research on this issue for public bodies, professional membership bodies and academic scholarship.

The findings of a 2022 research report suggest that most people support a compassionate approach to transgender inclusion. But louder negative voices have changed the landscape.

Sharing research

Our experience of sharing our research online has changed. Our platforms are neither particularly large nor vocal, but we have received abuse in response to our research. As a result – and to avoid future occurrences – we are consciously not on X (formerly Twitter).

Although X was a valuable space to share academic work and connect internationally, the risks are not worth it. We are selective with what we say, and where we say it.

We have also had our credibility as academics questioned. Like all researchers, we welcome meaningful critique. However, it has become less productive in a context of hyper-politicisation. We have been labelled “lobbyists” and accused of having an “agenda”. Our methodological transparency and competency as researchers has been dismissed.

Messages also get contorted. In recent work, we used empirical data from focus groups, interviews and round table discussions to provide illustrative real-life examples of how organisations “do” trans inclusion in ways that works for them.

However, we faced accusations on social media of forcing organisational policy changes, such as pronoun usage or multiple ID cards. This distorted the more nuanced approach we attempted to take, while also indirectly branding us as poor researchers. The attempts to devalue evidence-based work represents an uncomfortable disregard for research integrity.

Changing language

Language is a frequent flashpoint for disagreement over transgender and non-binary inclusion. We now have much trickier and lengthier discussions about phrasings and individual words. The wrong choice can spark a backlash.

In our own work, we have drawn on multiple perspectives and thought carefully when researching how organisations might want to draft policies on issues such as parenting or menstruation. Our preferred inclusive approach is to add options rather than removing them, creating space for everyone. This might mean using the phrase “pregnant women and other pregnant people”.

But this now does little to dampen negative responses. Caring about language is very beneficial for inclusion. However, the current impasse is an impediment to research and positive change.

Doing research

We’ve faced difficulty even getting our research off the ground. Ten years ago, it was relatively straightforward to connect with potential research participants. Now, it is far harder. Some people and organisations are intensely reluctant to associate with anything remotely “trans-related”, even completely anonymously. Participants ask to review their data more frequently, and in more detail. Generally, far more reassurances are required.

We prioritise the ethical recruitment of research participants, but are often hampered by shrinking budgets, funding regulations and rigid – yet obscure – institutional processes and systems. We are left frustrated with the limited scope of possibilities.

We’ve also found our attention increasingly directed towards simply justifying the very existence of our research, rather than enhancing knowledge. This directs our focus away from intellectually stimulating exploration to simply just defending our position. Diversity and inclusion scholars are having to explicitly defend well-established philosophical positions and debunk accusations about poor or unscientific scholarly practice.

We work together as researchers, but we have different scholarly backgrounds – one of us is a sociologist, the other from a business and management background. These disciplines share common interests, but have different priorities and cultures. When we collaborate, we find ourselves often having to confront and navigate divergent expectations.

We also have to ask ourselves questions about when, and how hard, we should challenge people and organisations – and when we should back down or reflect on our position. Going too hard, too fast, or not acting at all, could all do more harm than good. Simultaneously, being labelled “an activist” could discredit research legitimacy.

As scholars, we are at a difficult crossroads. The right way forward is very hard to find.

This article appeared first on The Conversation. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives licence.

About the Authors: Rosa Marvell is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. Luke Fletcher is an Associate Professor in Human Resource Management at the University of Bath.