Queer people historically shared personal and queer tales, recounted stories of queer joy to maintain hope, and whispered warnings through anecdotes of hardship. Further, queer artists contributed to the shaping of social trends and values through their creations. In this article, we explore how blending the practices of storytelling and artmaking can provide a powerful way to conduct research, co-construct knowledge, and sit within complex epistemological spaces with queer participants. We provide brief descriptions and reflections of our experiences conducting scholarship through the combination of narrative inquiry and arts-based research as queer researchers working with queer participants. Ultimately, we argue that combining these methods allows us to access new, deeper meanings alongside our queer participants.

Queer storytellers have made deep, long-standing contributions to cultural practices and beliefs worldwide; Woolf carefully guided readers To the Lighthouse, García Lorca rocked his Deep Song, Baldwin opened Giovanni’s Room, Mishima whispered his Confessions of a Mask, and Davis asked Are Prisons Obsolete? Similarly, queer artists continue to shape artistic practices, methods, and trends; Warhol titillated with Torso, Cahun blurred lines of identity and gender in self-portraits, Kahlo bestowed dignity to Dos Mujeres, and Haring reminded the public that Ignorance = Fear. While not everyone sees the queerness in these works, many readers and viewers find their queer subjectivities and experiences represented (e.g., Lawton & Cain, 2022). For example, many queer youth find a sense of belonging in popular culture spaces (Creekmur & Doty, 1995; Peele, 2007; Scahill, 2019).

It is for this reason that we, Leia and Michael, turn to these methods of knowledge transmission (i.e., storytelling and artmaking) in our social science research. We individually conducted studies blending narrative inquiry and arts-based research (ABR) to work alongside queer participants, and have each concluded that these methods were particularly powerful in these projects. In this article, we explore these methods, examining the potential power in blending the two when conducting research with queer participants.

Though some scholars consider narrative to be a form of arts-based inquiry (Barone & Eisner, 2006), we discuss them separately to highlight important distinctions. First, we describe foundational practices and provide brief histories of ABR and narrative inquiry. We then explore how these blended methods provide powerful opportunities for queer researchers and participants in knowledge construction and creating situated queer epistemologies. Finally, we describe how we individually used these tandem methods with queer populations.

“ABR exists at the intersection of art and science.” (Leavy, 2017, p. 3)

ABR, simply put, describes the amalgamation of the arts (e.g., painting, photography, sequential art, poetry, collage, stage performance) and research (Leavy, 2015; McNiff, 2014). Arts-based researchers often argue that the combination of artistic expression with research can solve complex problems, develop new insights of existing knowledge, and make lasting impressions on readers (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2006; Leavy, 2017). While definitions vary, the most common requirement to constitute ABR is for scholars to incorporate art in some aspect of the meaning-making process. Thus, ABR allows for a vast array of possibilities.

Arts-based methods began in the 1970s; by the 1990s many scholars saw ABR as constituting a methodology (Leavy, 2015). Arts-based therapies were instrumental to this shift (Leavy, 2015). Scholars who embrace arts-based methodology hail from a wide range of disciplinary fields, but they commonly seek to disrupt and reinterpret traditional and normative conventions about science, research, and knowledge construction (Finley, 2005; Leavy, 2015).

Arts-based methods constitute a type of participatory and critical social science research (Finley, 2005, 2018). We view ABR as “a performative research methodology that is structured on the notion of possibility” giving it emancipatory potential and, therefore, situated in a critical paradigm (Finley, 2018, p. 561). Arts-based inquiry is expansive, evoking powerful responses and emotions in viewers/readers, challenging oppressive ideologies by centering marginalized perspectives, conveying multiple meanings, and creating useful research (Leavy, 2015, 2017).

Philosophical Foundations of Arts-Based Research

Many arts-based scholars argue that ABR is not solely a methodological approach but constitutes a worldview (Gerber et al., 2012; Leavy, 2017; Rolling, 2013). A central tenet of ABR as a paradigm is that art creates and conveys meaning (Barone & Eisner, 2012; Leavy, 2015). Creating knowledge by incorporating artistic elements is “aesthetic knowing” (Leavy, 2015, p. 5), which draws on emotion, perception, and embodied and imagined ways of knowing (Chilton et al., 2015).

Finley (2018) asserted the ongoing need for arts-based methodologies to combat increasingly neoliberal, positivistic, nationalistic policies and politics. Often ABR involves researchers creating art to represent data (Gerber et al., 2012; Leavy, 2017). We were initially drawn to ABR because we value the ability to center our ethics of mutuality and care, which are embedded in ABR, by asking participants to create art (Finley, 2005).

“Telling stories is an astonishing thing.” (Bruner, 2002, p. 8)

Narrative scholars collect, construct, and analyze stories shared by research participants who describe their lived experiences (Bochner & Riggs, 2014; Clandinin, 2006). McAdams (2012) summarized narrative research as grounded in these foundational principles:

(1) People construct and internalize stories to make sense of their lives, (2) these autobiographical stories have enough psychological meaning and staying power to be told to others as narrative accounts, and (3) these narrative accounts, when told to psychological researchers, can be analyzed for content themes, structural properties, functional attributes, and other categories that speak to their psychological, social, and cultural meanings. (p. 15)

Narrative methods are particularly useful because humans often share stories of themselves and others to communicate (Bochner & Riggs, 2014). People frequently situate their identities through these stories for and with those who are listening, thereby resisting “the idea of a unified, fixed, and singular self ontologically prior to and apart from a person’s living experience” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, p. 195). Narrative methods, then, allow individuals to move beyond the false premise of a static self, instead replacing this idea with “the notion of a multiple, fluid, and negotiated identity that is continuously under narrative construction” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, pp. 195–196). Scholars use narratives to provide a complex and fluid amalgam of truths, ultimately interpreting their collected data to share complex representations of lived experiences (Clandinin, 2006; Craig & Huber, 2007). Some scholars use narrative to demonstrate how the storied lives of humans often fall into specific patterns and tropes (Bochner & Riggs, 2014; Bruner, 1991). Similarly, other scholars use narrative inquiry to examine storytellers’ construction of meaning and of themselves as a character in their stories (McAdams, 2012; Wang & Geale, 2015).

While storytelling has been a cornerstone of human communication throughout documented history, narrative theory began in the 1970s—as did ABR—primarily grounded within psychoanalytic- and humanities-based fields (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990; Josselson & Hammock, 2021). From these beginnings, narrative methods gained popularity across social science fields in the 1980s (Clandinin, 2006; Kim, 2016) before blossoming across an incredibly diverse range of fields in the 1990s (Josselson & Hammock, 2021; Lieblich et al., 1998). Indeed, this rapid spread of narrative caused Reissman and Speedy (2006) to argue that narrative study is incapable of fitting in the boundaries of a single scholarly field. The 1990s explosion of interest in narrative inquiry is often called the “narrative revolution” (Lieblich et al., 1998, p. 1). This period ushered in a renaissance of scholarly creativity.

Perspectives vary on what constitutes narratives. Reissman (2012) distinguished narrative inquiry from storytelling by arguing that narrative methods involve attention to (1) the context in which narrative interviews take place and (2) examination of researcher positionality relative to the narrative. Alternatively, Connelly and Clandinin (1990, 2006) asserted that narrative scholarship entails constructing a holistic view of individuals’ experience (both alone and within society) in storied form. This construction is relational; researchers and participants contribute to a shared narrative (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990). Some narrative scholars expansively see narratives as an “embodied social performance…[that is, constituting] emotions, nonverbal communication, and possibilities for dialogue and community” (Chase, 2018, p. 547). This conceptualization pushes narrative inquirers to think beyond narrative as words and to attend to non-linguistic elements of fieldwork and knowledge/narrative construction.

Despite these differences, a common belief among narrative scholars is that stories—and the meanings individuals create based on their understanding of stories—constantly shift. Stories are negotiations among researchers, participants, and readers. This occurs because the process of co-constructing narratives more easily allows for the disruption of static ideas of “truth,” instead leaning toward a holistic representation of the participant’s story as told within a third space outside of the researcher, participant, and time itself (Clandinin et al., 2009; Craig & Huber, 2007; Josselson & Hammack, 2021). Therefore, narrative methods can be particularly powerful, as they allow researchers to provide complex representations of participants’ experiences and to study diverse phenomena at individual, institutional, and societal levels and life events ranging from the quotidian to the disruptive (Reissman, 2012).

Philosophical Foundations of Narrative Inquiry

Narrative scholars resist normative regimes of scholarship and science, eschew methodological orthodoxy, evoke strong responses and multiple truths, and contest dominant depictions of oppressed populations (Josselson, 2011; Kim, 2016). Utilizing narrative and storytelling for academic knowledge production, including generating and analyzing narratives, grew from a rejection of positivism and postpositivism during the 1990s (Clandinin, 2006; Kim, 2016; Lieblich et al., 1998; Reissman & Speedy, 2006). Narrative methods allow for a wide variety of philosophical and onto-epistemological commitments (Riessman & Speedy, 2006). Some scholars approach narrative inquiry through critical and poststructural frameworks (Andrews et al., 2004; Josselson, 2011). Others posit narrative methods as a way to authentically represent participants’ stories (Thomas, 2012). For many narrative scholars, any philosophical framework that embraces a multiplicity of realities and truths is appropriate (Andrews et al., 2004).

Narrative inquiry drew us in because of this philosophical capaciousness. Like many scholars before us, we found that narrative methods provided the perfect opportunity for collaboration across differences (Clandinin, 2006; Josselson, 2011; Riessman, 2007). In our previous, co-conducted research, narrative inquiry was particularly helpful to honor our significantly different paradigmatic commitments (i.e., critical interpretivist and poststructural) while also recognizing the epistemological and teleological borderland space we shared through narrative methods (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007). In this borderland, our differences converged and overlapped in generative ways (Andrews et al., 2004; Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007). For example, our differences opened up multiple readings of participant narratives. Their stories could be read either, or both, as representations of a social reality and/or reflections of larger cultural discourses (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007). We also both viewed narratives, however constructed or read, as having powerful effects that other methods cannot achieve (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007). Narratives can speak back to and resist normative power structures (Andrews et al., 2004).

Combining narrative with participant-generated art falls within the category of multimethod ABR, the combination of two or more artforms (Finley, 2018). Scholars differ on what multimethod research requires. One of the primary questions for arts-based researchers is whether “ABR is epistemologically consistent with qualitative research approaches, or…methodologically distinct from qualitative research approaches” (Finley, 2018, p. 481). Whether ABR is compatible with other qualitative approaches may concern researchers who view narrative inquiry as a traditional qualitative method. While we see narrative as firmly belonging to ABR and synergistic with ABR (Finley, 2018), we acknowledge, like Mello (2007), that not all narrative inquiry is arts-based or arts-informed.

Published scholarship combining narrative and ABR is limited. Our search for inquiries combining narratives with participant-created art resulted in few journal articles. Most of these studies, like most ABR, involved researcher-generated artwork. The few that involved participant-created artwork had notable contextual differences from our studies. For example, Kaimal et al. (2020) used narrative interviews in conjunction with art therapy sessions in an experiment to help hospice caregivers’ mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Elliott (2011) used in-depth interviews with artists about their already-created art. Lavoie (2021) worked with trans young adults using combined arts and narrative but did so over a 3-year span with individuals already involved with community-based arts groups. Other studies we found had similar, years-long engagement (McGarrigle, 2018) or preexisting programmatic structures and resources to support art creation (Ciribuco, 2022). The study we found that most resembled our own was a master’s student thesis. Messing (2022) asked fat people to create artwork about their feelings about their body and also engaged them in individual and group interviews. Narratives were created from the focus group, individual interviews, and artwork to combat anti-fatness. As our research shows, combining narrative with art created by participants with no formal art training is rare—thereby sparking our call to this method as a departure from traditional critical research practices.

Historical and Practical Relevance

We see the combination of narrative inquiry with participant-created art as a powerful methodological choice for research with queer populations for three main reasons: (1) shared historical roots between these methods and queer activism; (2) congruence with our values as queer researchers and potential benefits they provide to participants; and (3) the way they allow the construction of queer epistemologies. Narrative inquiry and ABR, as demonstrated, are both relational methods that impress upon others the importance of researcher and participant collaborating to co-construct knowledge from stories. Leavy (2015) argued that the emergence of creative nonfiction within popular culture and news reporting within the 1970s provided fertile ground from which both methods emerged and blossomed into the more popular methods they are today. Further, Silver (2023) identified that decade as the roots of North American queer, feminist, and queer feminist art activism. The use of art, performance, and narrative was central in many queer and feminist political rights movements, perhaps most visibly during the height of the AIDS activism (Denton, 2022). The incorporation of art and narrative in social science research provided new opportunities for scholars to deepen their understanding of their content areas (Leavy, 2015; McGarrigle, 2018) and, additionally, provided participants with the ability to share aspects of their stories when language felt limiting (Leitch, 2006).

The historical association of art and narrative with queer resistance and worldmaking provides a foundational rationale for our decisions, as queer researchers working with queer students, to combine them methodologically. Additionally, the many strengths of arts-based and narrative methods appeal to us. Most notably, they speak to our values of mutuality, reciprocity, and presenting complex, sensitive, and holistic portrayals of participants while still allowing for examination of oppressive dynamics (e.g., cissexism, genderism, heterosexism, trans oppression). These methods also speak to our desire to involve participants more in knowledge construction and representation of knowledge. While we do not want to overstate the impact using these methods can have, if these methods were to provide any degree of therapeutic benefit to participants, given the methods’ historical roots, that would be ideal. Indeed, participants from our individual studies shared that these methods were helpful to them.

Arts and Narrative Methodologies as Queer Epistemology

Narrative combined with ABR methods have practical and historical relevance for queer populations. Like Leavy (2017), we agree that ABR constitutes a paradigm. Seen as such, we contend that the art created by our queer participants in tandem narrative methodology (Gavidia & Adu, 2022) utilized by us, queer scholars, creates a queer epistemology. This queer epistemology is a specific, contextualized, complex worldview co-constructed between queer participants and researchers. The ethical grounding of narrative and ABR methods in resistance to conceptualizing human knowledge and experience as certain or stationary (Leitch, 2006) facilitates this queer epistemological creation.

Conceptualizations of queer epistemologies encompass different queer ways of knowing. For example, Johnson (2011) expressed a Black queer epistemology rooted in his home and community experiences, Southern Black masculinity, and church. Another example, Jotería epistemology, draws on “mestiza/o subjectivities and identities,” including queer “Chicana/o and Latina/o…[and] Mexican, Latin American, indigenous, and other populations in and outside of the United States” (Pérez, 2014, p. 144). Pié-Balaguer and Planell-Ribera (2020) conceptualized a queer-crip pedagogy, combining deconstructive theories of sexuality, gender, and ability, specifically in a Latin American context. Queer epistemology also includes trans* epistemologies, ways of knowing “inclusive of all people who do not identify with the gender assigned at birth” (Radi, 2019, pp. 45–46). In other words, there are many queer epistemologies; any singular, unifying epistemic orientation would violate the tenets of queer methodology (Das, 2020).

While many of these epistemologies use queer theory as a starting point, some expand on it (e.g., with intersectionality, postcolonial theory, crip theory) or depart from it (e.g., some trans* epistemologies). These expansions and departures illustrate the multiplicity of what constitutes queer epistemologies. Given the social location and historical moment of researchers and participants, other perspectives and frameworks may be needed. For example, if disability is an important context, then crip theory or critical disability theoretical ideas may need incorporating. In other instances, queer epistemology may leave the ideas of queer theory behind because they do not express or adequately frame what participants and researchers create together.

Despite numerous differences among these queer ways of knowing and being, a common commitment across queer epistemologies when applied to empirical research is a challenge to positivistic and disciplinary norms (Binnie, 1997; Eng et al., 2005; Shannon, 2022). Queer epistemology refuses institutionalized regimes of knowledge production that “ask informants to conform to pre-existing proformas of knowledge, truth and experience…to ‘make sense’ of them” (Shannon, 2022, p. 17). Queer epistemology, then, is not necessarily dependent on poststructural paradigms, but can blend various paradigms, theories, along with experiences of queer participants and researchers, to produce new knowledge. In this way, ABR-as-paradigm and queer epistemology are compatible, capacious departures from normative qualitative frameworks.

Shannon (2022) maintained that centering queer participant voices involves “complex practices of subcultural participation, meaning-making, and resilience” that require queer epistemology (p. 18). Using ABR with narrative provides tools for queer researcher to co-construct a queer epistemology specific to participants, their social (and geographic) contexts, and the researchers working with them, especially when those scholars participate in the same queer subcultures as participants (Halberstam, 2005). This was true for each of us; Leia is a Bible Belt–raised and located queer cisgender woman, and Michael is a cisgender gay man impacted, like all gay men, by the cultural discourses of HIV/AIDS (Odets, 2019).

Participant narratives, for us, reflect a construct negotiated between subculturalists (e.g., Bible Belt queer people, gay men). Sharing cultural ground between researchers and participants facilitated interviews, narrative construction, and interpretation. We also shared the emotions often expressed by participants. We viscerally felt the queer joy and pain shared by each participant, familiar with these feelings in our own lives. Indeed, many interview spaces involved mutual tears, laughter, and connection across ways of knowing and being. This shared emotional space was later expressed in our construction of participants’ narratives. Our job as queer scholarly collaborators involved contextualizing participants’ expressions to highlight the social order in which they were generated (Lather, 2007). Participant-created artwork complemented narratives by re-creating their expression of queer affect (Finley, 2018).

The nexus of queer subcultural collaboration through narrative in combination with art resulted in queer epistemologies specific to those studies. These epistemologies offer textual, visual, embodied, emotional, accounts of queer people’s lives not often centered “in all their specificity” (Halberstam, 2005, p. 161). These queer epistemologies, never previously created and never to be created again in their exactitude, were made possible through this blended methodology.

We are two queer scholars who met as colleagues when we were both non-tenure-track instructors just out of graduate school. Michael had written an arts and narrative methodological dissertation on gay college men living with HIV, and Leia conducted a mixed-methods dissertation on a Bible Belt institution’s environment for LGBTQ college students. Soon after our meeting, we embarked on a joint narrative study of transgender college students who gender transitioned while enrolled in college. Since then, Leia has completed additional research projects centered on LGBTQ students, one of which, a narrative and arts-based study, we discuss in this article. Michael has begun a new research project that incorporates narrative and arts-based methods but does not focus on LGBTQ students. We have, over time, entered both tenure-track positions at different institutions and, more importantly, a deeply loving friendship.

While significant differences, such as our epistemological lenses, exist between us, among our many mutual similarities (e.g., being white, queer Southerners), interests (e.g., being nerds), and values (e.g., social justice) is a commitment to using research to center queer students’ experiences with the goal of addressing systemic, cultural, and institutional injustices and inequalities. We share a concern about the historical and still-ongoing ways academic scholarship often creates partial, limited, superficial, and oppressive portraits of LGBTQ people. To ensure the complexity and diversity of queer experience is represented and expressed in studies, to avoid replicating in the study the various forms of oppression queer people face, and to create a study that resists those oppressions, scholars must critically reflect upon their methodological and design-based decisions.

We are drawn to the combination of narrative and arts-based methodology as one approach to achieving our goals. Many methodological roads can lead to socially just outcomes in research with, about, and for queer students. For example, Michael used this combination to enact a methodology resistant to AIDS stigma and reflective of queer theory and activism (Denton, in press; Denton & Abes, 2022). Alternatively, Leia used ABR and narrative to explore how collegians describe the complicated intersection of being queer and southern within the U.S. Bible Belt. Our intention is not to suggest our approach is correct, preferred, perfect, or even new, unique, or novel. Rather, we discuss why these methodologies undergird (some of) our work, discuss the studies we used them in, and provide recommendations for others who see their benefit for research with queer students and other LGBTQ populations.

Gay Men Living with HIV: Michael’s Study

To highlight the neglected experiences of gay men living with HIV (GMLH) in higher education, I, Michael, used narrative and arts-based methods to create a queer methodology that would do justice to participants’ stories and resist homophobic interpretation. Two questions guided my study: (1) What discourses did GMLH use to narrate their relationship to HIV/AIDS? (2) What were the cultural practices of GMLH?

Abundant research on cisgender gay college students exists; however, Michael’s study of gay college men living with HIV is the only study focused on this population, and the only recent study about any college student population living with HIV (Denton & Abes, 2022; Williams & Thompson, 2022). Although societal attitudes toward gay men have improved, they are still stigmatized (Merck, 2021; Odets, 2019; Worthen, 2020). AIDS stigma compounds the stigma gay men face (Worthen, 2020). Merck’s (2021) national survey of young adults indicated HIV/AIDS stigma is still prevalent. Higher education environments perpetuate AIDS stigma through silence, outdated, and incorrect instruction, homophobic attitudes, and other forms of symbolic violence (Denton, in press; Denton &Abes, 2022).

Onto-Epistemological Commitments

As a poststructuralist, I approach research through deconstructing the knowledge I co-create with participants. Lather (2007) called this “knowing through not knowing” (p. 17). I also view research as a form of surveillance and site of concession, which “has in the Western world been considered for a long time a condition for redemption…or an essential item in the condemnation of the guilty” (Foucault, 1999, p. 159). Therefore, I remain dubious and suspicious of the very endeavor I engage in. As part of the research process, I continuously examine the shortcomings and “wounds” of my methodologies (Britzman, 1998, p. 322). However, letting skepticism prevent me from conducting a study about a highly stigmatized and often-invisible population is problematic. Likewise, my fear that I might inadvertently romanticize or exoticize gay men living with HIV should lead to critical reflection, not inaction. I firmly believe that stories and art move people to see others differently (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007). Being able to situate these men’s stories within the societal, cultural, and institutional systems that create them provides a path for addressing inequities (Lather, 2007). The paradox presented in the construction–deconstruction bind allows a description of “what the ‘not yet’ is in our movement away from the ‘no longer’” (Lather, 1991, p. 89). This aligns well with Muňoz’s (2009) view of queerness as “not yet here…an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future” (p. 1). Muňoz asserted that a queer aesthetic provides a way forward to a better future. Narrative and ABR in tandem provides, not despite the deconstructive bind but because of it, an expression of queer aesthetics.

Methodology

Queer theory informed the study design. Queer theory is a poststructural theory examining how discourses shape a sense of self and outward expressions, particularly regarding sexuality, sex, and gender (Namaste, 1996, p. 155). Given the deconstructive, antinormative principles of queer theory, the concept of a queer methodology may be paradoxical (Das, 2020). Queer methodologists are skeptical about normative ideas of qualitative research (Das, 2020). Ultimately, like Ghaziani and Brim (2019), I concluded that, however designed, queer methods should work to establish what would create better educational environments and highlight how these men engaged in queer worldmaking. To do this, I followed the tradition of ACT UP, a radical grassroot queer- and feminist-led activist coalition (Schulman, 2021). ACT UP relied on performance, narratives, and visual artwork as part of their tactics (Schulman, 2021). I used arts-based methods: life story interviews to create personal narratives and participant-made art to represent their relationship to HIV/AIDS. I chose arts-based inquiry for its sensitive portrayals and ethic of mutuality between researcher and participants (Leavy, 2015). I chose narrative methods for their history for allowing people living with HIV to tell counter stories to dominant contemptuous narratives (Andrews et al., 2004). As a poststructuralist, I use narratives to understand how social discourses inform participants’ narratives (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007).

I conducted two to eight in-depth, semi-structured interviews with each participant, from 30 minutes to over 2 hours. In all, I conducted 53 interviews over 62 hours. Participants created art that reflected their relationship to HIV/AIDS, discussed during final interviews. Multiple sessions created rapport and gave time for participants and me to reflect on prior sessions. I used a modified McAdams (2008) life story interview protocol. Life story covers the lifespan, allowing participants to shape interviews. It also reflects my understanding that discourses shape us throughout our entire lives.

Analysis

I used constructive analysis to build narratives. Narrative construction is a subjective process that is a product of interactions between researcher and participants (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007); therefore, narratives are situated in a specific context. After constructing narratives, I invited participants to review final narratives to make changes and ensure they saw themselves in the stories. Afterward, I deconstructed the texts, an “illustration of the implicit underpinnings of a particular binary opposition” (Namaste, 1996, p. 198), through the use of close reading. Close reading is an analysis of text as object, an examination of the “texts within the texts themselves” (Lockett, 2010, p. 400). I then examined all the narratives for intertextual meanings but also analyzed narratives separately. I did not analyze the art. Instead, I let participants’ explanation of the art stand on its own to provide more of a “voice” to participants in the study. This decision violates, to some degree, my poststructural commitments but also seemed—and continues to seem—congruent with other aspects of queer methods (Ghaziani & Brim, 2019).

Reflections on Methods

The deconstructive nature of queer theory challenged balancing my respect and desire to honor these men while not holding their narratives as beyond critique. It literally hurt to critique these men’s stories. My heart beat faster; my shoulders tightened with an accompanying burn. I constantly wondered, “How will they feel about what I had to say?” I worried they would think they misplaced their trust in me. The entire study was, to paraphrase Halperin (2012), drenched in affect—as emotion and discourse—for me and participants. I often found myself deeply moved, sharing their sadness or anger. At times I experienced anger and frustration with what participants said or did.

In telling their stories, I wanted to represent the men as I understand them, but not suggest a coherent, unified, unchanging, decontextualized story. I wanted to archive and honor their experiences but not valorize their perspectives as being the best way to understand living with HIV as a gay man in the United States. From a queer perspective, I was concerned with my right to represent these men but also recognized that my concerns, while not unreasonable, were also a form of romanticization. I tried to resolve my personal “crisis of representation” by telling their stories using a queer aesthetic—that is, resisting normative storytelling conventions and tropes—and through their art.

Several men noted the study allowed them to reflect differently on their lives in helpful ways, partly fulfilling my desire to demonstrate reciprocity. Simultaneously, several expressed how difficult telling some stories was or how challenging making art about their lives was. Yet, in a follow-up, one participant, a 27-year-old midwestern white gay man, told me that he hung his painting in his living room, serving as a way for him to discuss HIV with people. During narrative member checking, another participant, a 22-year-old Southern Black gay man, informed me that he decided to speak at his state capitol about AIDS as an HIV-positive gay man. He told me his participation provided him a space to reflect on his status for the first time with someone who listened, and that led him to take a public stand. In multiple presentations to various audiences, I have found that people respond strongly to the participants’ artwork, especially the visual images. My experience is that people find their own personal hook into the images, allowing them to create a relationship to the participant’s representation in a way that makes sense to them. People who may have otherwise not thought, or perhaps cared much, about GMLH demonstrate an interest, and often empathy, because something in the art speaks to them on an emotional, embodied level. Thus, narrative methods in combination with participant created art demonstrates that, even used through a deconstructive queer lens, can be enabling and used toward justice.

Queer on the Buckle of the Bible Belt: Leia’s Study

My purpose in conducting this study was to explore how LGBTQ individuals within post-secondary institutions describe and represent their identities as Southern-and-queer in a geographical region of the United States commonly referred to as the Bible Belt (i.e., Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia; Barton, 2011; Cain et al., in review]; Cook & Cain, in review). I was particularly interested in this topic because LGBTQ individuals within this part of the U.S. often encounter difficulties due to the region’s deeply held Evangelical Christian beliefs and associated political conservatism (Barton, 2011; Dews & Law, 2001; Sears, 1991; Sears & Williams, 1997). In fact, this overlap deeply impacts the lives of queer folks, as biblically-grounded popular opinions regularly contribute to legal and structural inequalities (Birden et al., 2000) and increased levels of discrimination due to lower levels of tolerance for diversity (Barton, 2011; Dews & Law, 2001; Sears, 1991), cyclically reproducing marginalization. LGBTQ college students who experience victimization are less likely to feel as though they belong on campus (Renn, 2007; Strayhorn, 2018), report lower levels of academic success (Rankin, 2003), and suffer from negatively impacted mental health (Cochran et al., 2003; Grzanka & Miles, 2016). Though I knew that the ability to move states and escape this bleak cultural landscape is a privilege that not everyone can pursue, I could not help but continuously find myself wondering why queer people decide to stay here.

Additionally, as a queer Southerner who grew up firmly in rural, impoverished, conservative North Carolina, I did not understand why I ran back to the Bible Belt after 5 years living outside of it. I was relieved to once again order sweet tea in every restaurant, run barefoot among the fireflies, and chat with others on front porches with haint blue lingering overhead…but I was also resentful of losing my ability to hold my partner’s hand in public, the ability to adopt children through the state, and to once again face the fight to maintain marriage equality. I also grew up surrounded by storytellers and artists and have always associated these methods of creativity with home.

Methodology

I combined narrative and ABR methods to explore how queer collegians described and represented their identities and experiences within the Bible Belt. In particular, I was interested in learning about each participant’s lived experiences as a queer university student within this region and how they understood the relationship between their Southern and queer identities. Beyond the reasoning we offered previously, I further chose to blend narrative and ABR due to the region’s established reputation for valuing storytelling and artmaking (Essin, 2009; Gibbons et al., 2022). Further, I had utilized narrative methods previously while conducting research within the Bible Belt and, at that time, had asked participants how they felt about being prompted to share stories instead of the more traditional, established practice of back-and-forth interviewing, and every participant in that study (n = 11) responded positively to the experience.

Participants completed two 60- to 90-minute interviews and created one piece of visual artwork in between those interviews that represented being a queer university student in the Bible Belt. I specified on all recruitment materials that artistic talent was not required, and during data collection, shared that participants were welcome to use any visual medium and to be as abstract or as literal as they would like. Overall, 24 individuals who were spread across the Bible Belt participated in the study; participants were primarily undergraduate students (n = 17) enrolled in public universities (n = 18), of whom the majority were social science majors (n = 11). The group of participants was overwhelmingly white (n = 18), though I also interviewed participants who were Asian, Black, Chicano, and Mexican. Additionally, the majority of my participants identified as non-binary or gender queer (n = 15), and as a whole, participants were identified with a wide variety of sexualities (e.g., queer [n = 6], bisexual [n = 6], gay [n = 4], lesbian [n = 3]). Of the 24 participants, 22 individuals, unprompted, discussed the process of creating art and sharing their stories to be “incredibly powerful,” “meaningful,” and helped three participants “learn more about [their] identities than [they] had ever thought of before.”

Analysis

I inductively approached participants’ narratives, utilizing the context of discovery to uncover “broad patterns, themes, images, and qualitative characterizations in order to generate new theories about lives” (McAdams, 2012, p. 16). I then drew inferences about participants’ identities from extended passages of text, noted/tallied significant excerpts, and built themes (Alexander, 1988; McAdams, 2012). Additionally, I closely scrutinized each participant’s stories to understand the underlying social and cultural discourses at play (Andrews et al., 2004) within the Bible Belt. I chose this process, which is similar to the typical practice of interpretivist thematic analysis without coding (Thorne et al., 2004), because narrative and ABR’s strengths lie in their unique abilities to understand complex phenomena and experiences with a holistic approach. Further, I chose not to analyze the participants’ artwork, instead only utilizing it as another form of data generation. Instead, their art served as the focal point for our second interview, wherein participants were asked to share their stories of making their art. Participants produced art in a wide variety of mediums, including paintings, photography, makeup looks, crochet, original music, and refrigerator magnet poetry.

Onto-Epistemological Commitments

I do not believe that it is possible or desirable to remove ourselves, as researchers, from the process of knowledge (re)construction. Instead, I feel that our responsibility as scholars is to utilize our uniquely situated knowledge to understand our topic of study and to transparently account for our identities and biases so that readers can understand how we engaged in the meaning-making process. Further, I do not believe that power and knowledge are able to be separated or exist without the other. As such, I identify as a critical interpretivist (see Pozzebon et al., 2014; Prasad & Prasad, 2002). Scholars who embrace this epistemological commitment argue that, in order to draw holistic, subjective inferences from data, a researcher must consider how “[each] person and world are inextricably related through lived experience of the world,” which is inherently shaped by power (Sandberg, 2005, p. 43). By combining narrative and ABR, I sought to understand each participant as a socially positioned actor who shapes and is shaped by society. Additionally, I sought to minimize my power to the extent possible by (1) tasking participants with sharing stories as they chose during the first interview, (2) having freedom to create a piece of visual artwork with a vague prompt, and (3) entering the second interview without pre-written questions, and instead, simply using the participant’s artwork to generate questions and follow threads that were important to each storyteller.

Reflection on Methods

Seeing each participant’s artwork and using their work to frame our second interview was magical. Typically, I began the second interview with each participant by asking them to share the story of creating their artwork. Some participants recalled their planning and creating process in very technical terms—justifying their medium of choice and connecting specific symbols to elements of the stories they shared in the first interview. Most, however, initially struggled to describe the thought process behind their work—sharing, instead, that they worked “from instinct” or did “what felt right.” These interviews were, perhaps, even more exciting than those conducted with the first group, as I began to probe for further reflection. For example, when “Christina” shared that her mind felt “blank” while she was painting, I began to inquire about specific elements of her work, saying, “Okay, let’s start in this corner. I noticed that the blue you used in this mountain’s shadow is the same shade that you used for another mountain’s removed peak. Was that decision purposeful?” Christina, at first looking taken aback, confirmed my thought, stating,

I’m surprised you can tell it’s the same shade—YES. Yes. Yes, thank you—I chose to use that shade in both spaces because the shadow—you know, the darkness within the shadow—echoes the darkness of what they did when they hit the Appalachians with mountaintop removal. It was so fucked up. It was the absence of color, of happiness, of everything that made us, us.… People take. They just take from queer people. They just took from the mountains. They took our mountains. It—it’s like we don’t even matter.

Before this moment, Christina had not discussed mountaintop removal as important in her experiences as Southern and queer, though she had mentioned coming from a small town in which coal mining was a cornerstone of the local industry—one that had crumbled, leaving locals and their natural resources in poverty. As someone who is not Appalachian and was unaware of mountaintop removal, I would not have known to ask about this particular phenomenon. As Christina continued to share the meanings behind her work, she consistently repeated that she was surprised about how “amazing and healing” it was to talk about her art.

Another participant, Taylor, crocheted a queen-size blanket that included 13 unique, complicated, stitching patterns. Taylor shared that they had never considered the intersection of their queer and Southern identities, but decided to think back through their life while creating the piece, describing it as “this weird form of meditation where I was seeing how being queer and being in the South had impacted me.” They later clarified that they changed the stitching pattern each time they felt their life was impacted by these identities. Previous to being tasked with creating a piece of art for this study, they had not even realized that these times had been so important in their development and life experiences. Though this knowledge was new to Taylor’s conscious mind, the impact of each of these instances was clear as they shared their stories. Further, similarly to my interactions with Christina, I was able to explore elements of Taylor’s life that I would not have known to ask about.

“I am convinced that in any creativity there exists this element of revolt.”

-Leonor Fini

Through sharing our experiences combining narrative inquiry and ABR, we hope to demonstrate the power that blending these two methods can wield when used by queer researchers conducting research with queer participants. We encourage other social scientists to synthesize narrative and ABR methods, as the power inherent in their combination has the ability to reframe queer research and offer a departure from common critical qualitative methods. As demonstrated, we embrace varied epistemological paradigms (e.g., constructivism and critical interpretivism), and both felt that our use of narrative and ABR provided a methodological framework that aligned with these commitments. By synthesizing design elements from each of these methods, we were able to explore how each participant conceptualized and represented their identities within existing social structures and geocultural regions. In each of our studies, participants shared stories and described their art creation process that allowed us to holistically explore their lived experiences, both through (1) careful story prompting and (2) participants’ freedom to represent and describe their artwork as they choose.

Additionally, through seeking storied accounts of each participant’s experiences, we were able to analyze their narratives by carefully seeking instances wherein systemic, cultural, and institutional injustices overlap to negatively influence participants’ lives. We combined practices from narrative and ABR specifically because of the importance placed on art and storytelling throughout queer history. However, we also chose to synthesize these methods as a direct rejection of historical and current scholarship, in which researchers often create partial, limited, superficial, and oppressive portraits of LGBTQ people (Halberstam, 2005). We sought to resist and minimize these oppressions by empowering participants to provide a more holistic and nuanced perspective of their experiences. Participants were able to choose which experiences were most applicable when sharing their perspectives, thereby acting as the driving force within each interview space.

Through co-constructing narratives and meanings with participants in each of our studies, we found ourselves exploring shared queer epistemological spaces and engaging in topics that we would not have known to ask about initially. Additionally, by asking participants to create artwork, we relinquished some of our control over the ability to guide our studies’ outcomes. While this decision complicated data analysis, it also allowed us to explore concepts and topics that we may not have otherwise known to pursue. We encourage other researchers to continue to expand beyond extant methods, as we must continue to traverse new methodological terrains in order to better our understanding of queer people.

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