The Life Mapping Project: Research Project Description

Queer Cartographies: Mapping Gay and Lesbian Lives

Caffyn Jesse Kelley

This paper outlines a research project employing multi-method strategies of inquiry to map the life stories of self-identified gays and lesbians in the small B.C. community of Salt Spring Island (population 10,000).[1][1] The objective of this project is to contribute to the design of a research instrument that can be used by gays and lesbians to open new discursive repertoires, engage in intergenerational dialogue, and inscribe queer stories into the social world.

Introduction: The Dreamed-Of Community

Twenty-four people sat in a circle around the living room, ranging in age from 15 to 72. This was a first gathering of older activists from our small community’s lesbian and gay association and students from the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). After a barbeque supper in the home of a gay couple, we each took a turn to speak. Dan, age 72, started the circle with his story, telling of the surprise and beauty of his first gay sexual experience at fifty. Aaron, in his twenties, told us about the bullying he endured growing up as an effeminate boy in rural Alberta. Nicole, a lesbian-identified woman in her thirties, struggled for a more complex term to describe her sexuality, finally coining the word “ambisexual.” Wendy, a lesbian social scientist in her late fifties, described a research project in which she demonstrated that one in three respondents had same-sex sexual experiences, fantasies or desires. Neil, a fifteen-year-old gay student, told us of his conversion from rigid religious fundamentalist to human rights activist. He spoke of the overt and subterranean homophobia at the local high school, and noted that while the young people attending this night’s gathering were strong and open, he knew of other students who could not be “out” to their best friends. But Stephanie, the fifteen-year old lesbian co-founder of the GSA, laughed aloud when we asked her about the stigma that might ensue from their participation in the group. She exclaimed, “We are the coolest kids in the school!”

April, now sixty, described herself as a “child-bride” who married when she got pregnant at age fifteen. After three husbands she found, in her late thirties, that all her friends were lesbians. She finally decided that she must be a lesbian too, and shortly after, she met the woman of her dreams. Suddenly and unexpectedly, April’s eyes filled with tears, as she recalled a vivid moment twenty years past. She had briefly witnessed two strangers – a man dressed in a tuxedo and a woman in an evening gown, walking arm and arm into the theatre – and realized she would never again enjoy that simple privilege. Alongside April’s obvious pride in her long-term relationship with a younger woman, this pain remained as clear and sharp as glass.

At the end of the evening John, a physician in his sixties forcibly retired by a stroke, told of his life’s work educating other physicians on gay issues. He remembered one particular medical student intent on suicide until he learned from John that being a gay physician was possible. From his wheelchair John reflected, “When I think back on my life and what I am glad of, making a difference has been the most important thing.”

A Grade 10 student wrote of the event: “…we heard more touching and powerful stories, and the trusting and open atmosphere was something that I at least have rarely experienced. Like one attendee said: ‘it was similar to the atmosphere of a church congregation, in terms of the closeness’, and of course it was judgment-free and very fun. The stories that were told varied widely, from stories of assumedly-forbidden love to struggles against the many systemic prejudices that plague countless institutions of our country, and they touched my heart and the hearts of colleagues. Not only have we been informed, but also inspired to continue our push for human rights and equality in all walks of life. The night ended late, but to many it seemed too soon; we still had, and have so much work to do, but at least we now know that the process can be done together, collectively, by all those who care, regardless of age.”(Jacob S., 2005)

I was a participant in this evening that occurred in June 2005. In fact, it could be said that I played a large part in constructing it, through several years of effort as a director of Gays and Lesbians of Salt Spring Island (GLOSSI). I am also an observer of social space and cartographer of social meanings, called to bear witness to occasions of community. At this event, the gay and lesbian community on our small island seemed to exist, however briefly, in a way we had always dreamed of. The evening of shared food and life stories generated a web of relationships and a trajectory of community activism, including plans for a GLOSSI-GSA collaboration on the “First-Ever Salt Spring Island Pride Celebration” (see Appendix C) and intergenerational dialogue on a variety of projects (including this). I am a map-maker who yearns for a map that will help us to find our way here again.

Formulating the Research Question and Approaches

Imagine a huge library in which a million books are held. Each book is meticulously crafted – intricate, visionary, funny, courageous, wise – and read by no one at all.[2][2] This library contains the stories of gay and lesbian lives. These stories are lost in the vast silence of heteronormative thinking, caught in the inescapable undertow of homophobic stereotypes, and elided by conventions of self-presentation that preclude intimacy and allow no time for listening with deep respect. How does one begin to read these books, in the face of every inner and outer force that would prevent this? How can gay and lesbian lives be shared in a way that is empowering to participants and the community?

As a first approach to this question, I worked with Dr. Anne Zeller to design a “Life Mapping Project” for the Salt Spring Island gay and lesbian community. We invited interested people to complete a “Life Mapping Survey” and to participate in a collage workshop where they created visual narratives of their lives. These collages were integrated with stories and found poetry excerpted from the surveys, forming an arts-based research installation for public exhibition at a local theatre during the “First Ever Salt Spring Island Pride Celebration” September 10, 2005. Documentation of the project will be made available online and donated to the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives.

Context of Inquiry

This project builds on the work of Canadian scholar and activist Kristopher Wells. Wells developed a visual research methodology that allows queer youth to bear witness to their own life stories and their significance (Wells, 2004). For his Masters degree he worked with four young adults, employing a multi-method design utilizing interviews and visual narratives. Wells and the youth created an arts-based research installation featuring the artworks and “found poetry” (excerpted from interviews) generated by their collaboration. Wells describes this installation as a “radical public pedagogical text” (p. 519) that works to create space for queer identities in public discourse, critiquing, contesting and challenging “dominant heteronormative discourses” (p. 515). Wells is concerned with “constructing emancipatory learning communities … and research methods that empower students to think and act within transformative possibilities for social change” (2003, ¶ 1). I tried to translate Wells’ ideas and practices into community work on an intergenerational project.

The visual research methodology developed by Wells (2004) offers a powerful strategy of inquiry. Wells describes creating space in which participants become co-researchers who make and discuss visual images on themes including identity, safety, community supports, secrets, fears, dreams and desires. He writes, “The co-researcher’s visual narratives created rich visual and symbolic texts that revealed many of the larger institutional and societal discourses and discursive practices that work to regulate and fix their queer bodies and identities” (p. 517).

Wells draws on the work of Laurel Richardson, a pioneer of new writing practices in qualitative research. Richardson (2000) describes a technique for writing research data as found poetry. She coins the term “CAP Ethnography” (p. 9) to describe creative analytical practices that blur and enlarge the ethnographic genre, including poetry, theatre and mixed-genre books incorporating visual art, analysis and stories. Richardson writes, “CAP Ethnographies are not alternative or experimental; they are in and of themselves valid and desirable representations of the social. Into the foreseeable future, these ethnographies may indeed be the most valid and desirable representations, for they open spaces for thinking about the social that elude us now” (p. 10).

In broader terms, this project assumes as its starting point a world-view informed by the work of Michel Foucault, in which knowledge is dubious, contextual, and linked to power, and where both representations and silences are constitutive of social reality, including our subjective experiences. While this view of knowledge and representation deprives science writing of its claims to truth, Richardson (2000) points out that researchers “can eschew the questionable metanarrative of scientific objectivity and still have plenty to say as situated speakers” (p. 8). Foucault’s view of knowledge, power and resistance may be particularly empowering for sexual minorities, as Halperin (1994) explores. He notes that homophobic discourses cannot be refuted by rational argument; they “are not reducible to a set of statements with a specifiable truth-content that can be rationally tested” (p. 32). Homophobia permeates every cultural construction, ranging from war through motherhood to the structure of cities. Understanding culture in this way allows us to locate faultlines in the impervious earth of the hegemonic heterosexist/ homophobic discourse, and foster techniques for resisting and disrupting it (Halperin, p. 48).

This project is situated within the tradition of participatory research, as described by Sohng (1995). She notes “Participatory research is a means of putting research capabilities in the hands of deprived and disenfranchised people so that they can identify themselves as knowing actors; defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, and transforming their lives for themselves…. It is a means of preventing an elite group from exclusively determining the interests of others, in effect of transferring power to those groups engaged in the production of popular knowledge.” The effort to shift the discursive positioning of gays and lesbians from objects of power/knowledge to subjective agents who speak on their own behalf has characterized struggles for homosexual emancipation since the late 19th century (Halperin, 1994). These efforts proceed alongside postmodern understandings that problematize the “I” of the subject and its characteristic relationship with inessential objects. Loftus (1997) explores the inaccessibility of the symbolic “I” to homosexuals, noting, “the queer subject is silenced by the same language s/he speaks” (¶ 14). Jolly (2001) examines the challenges posed by postmodern cultures to the conception and expression of queer lives, while Crawley and Broad (2004) note that storytelling conventions encourage gay and lesbian activists to typify their identities in ways that are constraining, even while they contradict popular stereotypes. Herman (2005) also explores the disjuncture between “academic analysis of the politics of representation, and the playing out of social movement struggle ‘on the ground’.” (p. 9-10). This project uses visual research techniques that allow the pull of contradictory forces on queer subjectivities, encouraging narratives that incorporate paradox, integrate and conscious and unconscious processes, challenge easy understandings, and show the ongoing interaction of participants with a changing world.

An interdisciplinary approach is integral to this project. Interdisciplinarity entails “knowledge negotiation and new meanings” ( Klein, 2000). Lattuca, Voight and Fath (2004) describe “conceptual interdisciplinarity” as an approach to research and teaching that incorporates critical perspectives on culture, gender and power and contends that all questions require interdisciplinary answers. In addition to conceptual interdisciplinarity, this project employs a methodological interdisciplinarity. This approach acknowledges that people have multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1999), and that they learn and articulate knowledge through both conscious/voluntary and unconscious/involuntary systems. The project addresses this complexity with interdisciplinary practices for collecting, interpreting and distributing its results.

This project is intended as a contribution to an established emancipatory tradition in life history research, which seeks to expose hidden controls over human actions (Armstrong, 1987) and unearth people’s “invisible and often disqualified knowledge about themselves” (Cairns & Silverman, 2004).

Research Methods

I have worked with the idea of map-making in several previous projects. Maps bring image and language together to create community knowledge. They reflect understandings of and connections with (or disassociation from) the world around us. A map is an image of place and also a container of values. Learning to map means developing a language to speak of place, and creating ways to defend, document and celebrate the places where we live. In queer terms, homosexuality is a place rather than an essence: it is strategic location and a marginal position vis-à-vis the dominant culture.

I was looking for ways to apply the concept of mapping to the collection of gay and lesbian life stories when I came across the work of Ira Progoff. Through the collection of many hundreds of life histories, and time spent working with Carl Jung, Progoff (1975) developed techniques designed to “evoke and strengthen the inner capacities of persons” (p. 9) through a particular approach to conceiving and narrating their life stories. His book invites readers to conceive of their lives in terms of “stepping stone periods” and to document a dialogue within each period with their creative work, important people, social circumstances and unconscious processes, among other factors. Progoff suggests that such dialogue helps to deepen participants’ relationships with the contents of their life histories and to integrate conscious and unconscious ways of knowing. I found many of his suggestions relevant as I designed a “Life Mapping Survey” and collage workshop for GLOSSI. The “Life Mapping Survey” invited respondents to collect images representing different phases of their lives, and to consider those phases with regard to their passions and achievements, interaction with social forces, and dialogue with nature and spirits. At the collage workshop, participants were similarly invited to consider life phases, and to develop a personal symbolic vocabulary to represent their passions and achievements, relationships, and interaction with social forces and environments.

The use of visual images to trigger and symbolize life phases was key to this community project. In piloting the “Life Mapping Survey,” I conducted a taped interview with Irene, a 78-year old lesbian. In our first discussion, I asked her to imagine images or symbols to represent life phases. The next day, I came with a collection of actual photographs and objects and then continued the interview while referring to visual images. The texture of our conversation changed in ways predicted by Hurworth (2003), who describes photo-interviewing as a “particularly powerful tool for the researcher” that can “challenge participants, provide nuances, trigger memories, lead to new perspectives and explanations….” (p. 4). The first interview seemed burdensome to Irene, whose storytelling abilities are legend and often exercised, but she described the second interview as “fun.” In addition, the images triggered dreams and an “understory” which she later shared, allowing me to hear a more complex, painful version of an oft-told tale. At the collage workshop, the photographs and images seemed to encourage an atmosphere of excited sharing, as participants referred to pictures while discussing painful experiences, boasting of youthful beauty and achievements, and exploring contradictory themes in their present lives. Betty, a 65-year-old lesbian, used happy photographs of herself and partner to represent her public identity, which she described as “how the straight world sees us.” Symbolic images representing androgyny, triangulated passion, women’s community, and lesbian sexuality were interspersed to represent “the other side that is there.” She reflected, “It’s not that this other side is hidden, it’s that they just don’t see it.”

The “Life Mapping Project” created a deep pool of information that can be approached in various ways, as outlined below.


I am struck by how a lifetime spent navigating heteronormative space makes every queer person into an ethnographer. Sexual minorities are socially constructed as people who are perpetually divided between their identities as members and strangers in the everyday lifeworld. We are participants in and observers of the ordinary, with both covert and overt roles. We experience the insecurity engendered by living in two worlds simultaneously, and we evolve strategies that allow us to survive and thrive in this milieu, ranging from “going native” to constructing a positive and visible queer difference. (see Walsh, 2004, for a description of “Doing ethnography.”) These strategies can be described as creative analytical practices, or CAP ethnography, to use Richardson’s (2000) term. Viewing the project participants as fellow-ethnographers, I hope to initiate a conversation on these practices. In taking this “anthropological view of culture” I am informed by Friere (1970), who clarifies the role of people in the world as transforming rather than adaptive beings. Friere’s well-known approach to emancipatory research employs participants as co-investigators who deepen their “critical awareness of reality” and, in spelling out the ways in which they structure, navigate and create their social world, “take possession of that reality” (p. 87).

Telling stories: Griffin (1992) notes, “What is astonishing about putting one’s life into words, about telling a story, is that certain aspects of being are not only revealed but come to exist fully for the first time” (p. 358). She also writes, “The stories we tell ourselves, particularly the silent or barely audible ones, are very powerful. They become invisible enclosures. Rooms with no air” (p. 284). Telling stories about the “Life Mapping Project,” and including stories told by participants, assists in identifying discursive repertoires and narrative conventions that structure the stories of gay and lesbian lives. Munt (1998, cited in Bassett and Riordan, n.d.) writes, “The classic lesbian journey, in the coming out story, is from isolation to exclusion, an idealized trajectory of self-realization” (p. 174). Progress narratives are common in gay and lesbian self-presentations. “Normal homosexuality” is another common theme as gays and lesbians present a description of the present (the happy ending) or a yearned-for future. Other stories stimulate awareness of the storytellers as transformers of the world by foregrounding their creative resistance to heteronormativity.

Drawing pictures: Making images is a form of analysis, as Ali (2004) points out. “Visual narratives permit the connection of the verbal and the visual, and both of these with the emotional – and in explaining these connections, people can ‘bear witness’ to their own life story and its importance” (Weiser, 2001, p. 517, cited in Wells, 2004).

Comparing and Contrasting: The multiple methods employed in the “Life Mapping Project” yielded stories in different media – taped interviews, written survey responses (both emailed and handwritten), collaged images, and documented conversations – that can be fruitfully compared with one another.

Constructing explanations: As CAP ethnographers, gays and lesbians are continually engaged in collecting and deciphering data and formulating theories on the myths, images and stereotypes of the dominant culture. We learn to deconstruct common sense and “what goes without saying” in order to resist the ordinary and make space for self-defined identities. This project invited participants to illuminate this process, making it more conscious and visible. In addition, it asked them to use their analytic powers on their own counter-normative practices, sharing and illustrating the tools and techniques with which they construct their lives.

Negative responses: Negative responses to the “Life Mapping Project” ranged from no response to overtly hostile responses from those (including at least one collage workshop participant) who found the life maps created in the collage workshop disappointing and inadequate.

Promblematizing representation: Creative approaches unlock connections and open possibilities otherwise unintelligible (Richardson, 2000). Jung (cited in Jaffé, 1964) cautions that the deepest insights of consciousness and the highest intuitions of spirit “cannot be thought up” but must grow from unconscious depths (p. 273).

A participant in the collage workshop problematized representation explicitly. Lila, a 53-year old lesbian, telephoned on the morning of the workshop to say she didn’t know whether she could come. After filling out the Life Mapping Survey, she had realized how each representation of her life left out more than it revealed, and while she was willing to share deeply and openly with the community and the public, she did not know how she could do so authentically. I asked Lila to come and share these issues at the beginning of the workshop, so that reflection on the problem of representation became part of the materials with which we all began.

Dewsbury (2002) addresses the problem of representation: “The imperceptibles elided by representation include emotions, passions, and desires, and immaterial matters of spirit, belief, and faith – all forces that move beyond our familiar, (because) denoted, world. These are not light matters for they forge the weight of our meaningful relation with the world”(p. 1907). Dewsbury challenges us to “witness that which is otherwise imperceptible, and otherwise irrevocably lost, and which is perhaps the most truly personal….” Attending to personal as well as collective involvement in the world, without focusing on “meaningful representations” and occluding “ephemeral sensations,” we can begin to grasp that which mystifies and surpasses meaning. Dewsbury claims this form of research-as-witnessing is a political task; it “plugs into a more creative space for social explanation” (p. 1908).

This project is aimed at enhancing understandings rather than unearthing truths. Although Richardson (2000) suggests several criteria for evaluating CAP ethnographies, she calls for a post-modern deconstruction of triangulation, which assumes a fixed central “truth” that can be triangulated. She writes that “in post-modernist mixed-genre texts, we do not triangulate; we crystallize. We recognize that there are far more than three sides by which to approach the world” (p. 13). This project is situated within a research tradition explicated by Lather (1991) and Richardson (2000) (among others), practiced by Wells (2003, 2004, 2005) and Griffin (1992) (among others), and summarized by Adrienne Rich (1979), who writes: “There is no ‘the truth,’ ‘a truth’ – truth is not one thing, or even a system. In is an increasing complexity” (p. 51).

Ethical Issues

This project[3] encourages gays and lesbians to act as storymakers and storytellers of their own lives. The cardinal principal of modern research ethics – respect for human dignity (Medical Research Council of Canada et. al., 2003) – suggests that participants be invited to contribute under their own names. Participants are considered co-researchers, and the application of a blanket privacy and confidentiality provision would detract from their authority and undermine the project’s objectives. The project engages community activists who are known for their work on gay and lesbian issues, and others who are willing to risk the hazards of disclosing their sexual orientation to others – sometimes for the first time – in order to contribute to a project they feel is important. Changing names and disguising sources of dataindiscriminately would contribute to the damaging myth that lesbian or gay identity is shameful and dangerous, and it would be most unethical to apply this model. Bassett and O’Riordan (n.d.) criticize overly-protective research ethics, and comment: “For members of the LGBT[4][4] communities, visibility, and the rights to self-represent and to self-determine are politicalimperatives in a dominant mediascape that continues to marginalize and pathologize them” (p. 13).

At the same time, Wells (2004) notes: “As sex-and-gender outlaws, queer persons often have to hide their queerness in order to maintain their safety….” As we embarked on the “Life Mapping Project,” we felt it was important to discuss openly the real risks involved in disclosing our sexual orientation and personal history to others. We created mechanisms to allow participants to keep their contributions anonymous. While those who completed the “Life Mapping Survey” were invited to do so under their own name, they were also welcome to withhold all identifying information and contribute under a pseudonym. While those who attended the collage workshop were invited to bring photographs, this invitation was always tempered with a discussion of options including bringing photographs in which the were unidentifiable, bringing symbolic objects or images, and using the rich palette of symbols, textures and images supplied at the collage workshop. A discussion about the public nature of the materials we were creating, and reflection on the different ways we would present our selves and represent gay and lesbian identity in “parochial” versus public space (Bassett and O’Riordan, n.d.), began the collage workshop. It formed part of our discussions on the “Life Mapping Surveys” and the art research installation. Some participants wrestled with unexpected self-censorship, even after years of being “out” in the community. Some expressed real fears of evoking homophobic reactions, including violence. Other participants wanted to be bold and provocative in their representation of gay and lesbian lives.

A second ethical issue arose as the project invited people to symbolize and discuss sensitive issues and delicate feelings. Progoff (1975) comments on the fear that in so doing we may increase our vulnerability. In his view, however, by “loosening the soil of our inner lives” (p. 168) we in fact increase our power. Linking events, issues and feelings in our past and present lives, we build inner capacities. He cautions that we must learn to witness one another’s grief without rushing to intervene with helpfulness and sympathy. Instead, we can honor the integrity of individuals by leaving space for them to find, in their own terms, a path of restoration and wholeness. Similarly, Friere says that the efforts of a humanist, revolutionary educator “must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power” (p. 56). Within a context of profound trust and spaciousness that allows participants to experience discomfort and grief, this ethical issue was addressed. Participants in the collage workshop were encouraged to make either small or large collages, with or without photographs and text, and to feel free to withdraw from the project at any stage. One enthusiastic lesbian whose brother had recently died found she was unable to participate because of painful feelings the process evoked. Respondents to the Life Mapping Survey were assured that they need not respond to every question, and that they could make their responses as short or long, intense or superficial as was comfortable. We considered making a list of sympathetic counselors available to project participants, but decided we could not be assured that any local counselors were in fact queer-positive.

Relevance and Dissemination

Martin and Knox (2000) urge researchers to ask: “How will this study benefit the community?” The texts generated by this research project may have social relevance as “images that radically challenge, resist and resignify a history of discrimination that has sought to construct queer persons as members of an outlaw or fugitive culture” (Wells, 2004, p. 518). As the material generated by the project is analyzed in relationship with other academic research, light may be shed on issues that arise in conceptualizing gay and lesbian lives.

This project invites attention to the social construction of homosexuality, and the ways in which prejudice is interwoven with personal experience, history and community norms. Friend (1991) argues that there are two possible responses to the construction of homosexuality as a negative identity. Some gays and lesbians internalize the negative discourse, while others reconstruct the meaning of homosexuality in positive and affirming ways. He suggests that those who construct their sexuality as a positive choice develop skills in several areas, including crisis competence, confronting social stigma, building support systems beyond the nuclear family, and engaging in legal and political advocacy. Chauncey’s (1994) historical work deconstructs the “myth of internalization,” or the notion that gays before the advent of the gay liberation movement uncritically internalized the dominant culture’s view of them. He describes “strategies of everyday resistance” (p. 5) that gay men devised in order to claim space for themselves – space in which they could survive and flourish in the midst of a hostile society. I suggest that attending to the “strategies of everyday resistance” that characterize gay and lesbian lives can stimulate awareness of people’s creative power. An intergenerational dialogue through which we share multiple creative pathways for choosing empowering responses to prejudice can enrich the queer community, as Jacob S. (2005) indicates. Chauncey also notes that attending to the social construction of homosexuality simultaneously reveals the social construction of normalcy, opening hegemonic regimes of power and representation to the possibility of change.

Lather (1991) proposes the notion of “catalytic validity,” suggesting that research should be evaluated by the extent to which it empowers people by enhancing self-understanding and showing them the possibilities of transformation. The Life Mapping Project was designed to respond to this challenge. For participants, it is hoped that the research helped to generate power and energy, evoking their inner capacities and acknowledging their achievements. In the gay and lesbian community locally, I hope this project has helped us build connections across generations that will endure through future projects. For those who come to witness the art research installation or read the final texts, this project is opportunity for imaginative engagement with queer meanings.

Project techniques and results may be of interest to others involved in visual sociology and qualitative research. In addition, the project will be shared with other activist communities who have shown an interest in intergenerational dialogue and collecting life stories (i.e. the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, the LGBT Generations Project in Vancouver and the 519 Community Centre in Toronto). As the aim of this project is to contribute to the design of a research instrument that is useful in a variety of contexts, future projects may involve adapting the instrument to urban queer communities, other small rural areas, and an online educational program.


For years I have wanted to undertake a research project that documents something of the lives of older gays and lesbians. Listening to friends in their seventies and eighties describe their lives, I am struck by the multiple ways their distinct personal narratives intersect with wider social history (Ali, 2004). Although their lives have been constrained by social forces, and often they are deeply wounded, these “survivors” have wonderful stories that communicate their determination, resiliency, creativity, and powerful strategies for living social transformation.

In formulating an approach to this research interest, I began with an idea for a study exploring the contradictory findings of published research. While some articles suggested that gay and lesbian seniors were peculiarly competent at facing the challenges of aging (due to their experiences in creating community and managing stigma), other studies (or contradictory findings within the same study) showed gay and lesbian seniors to be particularly vulnerable (because of the absence of traditional family care, and homophobia amongst service providers). Right away, this approach felt unsatisfying, in part because of the way this formulation construed social reality and expert knowledge, as if gay and lesbian seniors could adequately be viewed as data sources whose words and experiences would reveal some hitherto unrealized truth.

I considered a project using traditional oral history interviews to explore generative themes in the life stories of gay and lesbian seniors. Reading about new practices in visual sociology encouraged me to hope that adding consideration of treasured objects or photographs to traditional oral history interviews might assist in shifting representations from the oft-told tales that comprise the easily accessible stories, to include more chaotic, contradictory, and multi-dimensional aspects of these elders’ lives. Yet this construction of the project was similarly unsatisfying. From previous experience with this process, I realized how few people I could interview within a very limited time frame. I wondered what the project would create, beyond a few tapes and summaries residing in a dusty vault. And then I came across a complaint from lesbian elders MacDonald and Rich (1983). They protest that younger women see lesbian elders as mere museum-pieces, interesting only for their past lives and not their present experiences. I had to recognize that my conceptualization of an oral history project had indeed construed gay and lesbian elders in this way. I determined to reconceive the project to encourage intergenerational dialogue on current issues.

Much of my own prior work has been aimed at creating space in which underrepresented people speak for and represent themselves. For me, the notion of speaking for and about others is highly problematic. Readings in postmodern and emancipatory research practices, including Fine (1998) and Lather (1991) revealed that this is also an issue amongst researchers. Learning about standard approaches to ethical issues, such as anonymizing data (Medical Research Council of Canada et. al., 2003) and deleting potentially damaging stories (Jacobs, n.d.) heightened my concerns, and I finally decided to redesign my project to allow for co-authorship by project participants. Wells (2004) conscientiously avoids conveying the impression that he can create a single representational truth that can speak to his co-researchers’ unique identities. He draws on the writing of Chen and Minh-ha (1994), who describe “speaking nearby” as a practice and positioning of the self in relation to both object and subject. I recognized that despite my propensity to serve as advocate not anthropologist, I could find kindred spirits in the realm of research. I learned that research could be conceived and practiced as a tool for community development, art, and social change.

My first research question – Can the life narratives of gay and lesbian elders be mapped and shared in a way that is empowering to participants and the community? was eventually reformulated as: How can gay and lesbian lives be shared in a way that is empowering to participants and the community? As the scope of my question broadened, my focus narrowed when I decided to undertake the project within the local gay and lesbian community on Salt Spring Island. My decision to focus on local knowledge in a community where I am a key participant was practical. It also reflected a shift in my understanding of the validity of research methods, as I read exciting, innovative research papers based on personal stories (Richardson, 2001) and work with three and four people (Wells, 2003, 2004). The “Life Mapping Project” involves collecting images and stories from more than twenty-five residents of a small community. While I have no expectation that project texts will be generate “results” that can be applied formulaically to other individuals or places, this work may still have the potential to inspire a multiplication of local projects in different contexts.


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[1][1] In this paper, the words “gay” and “lesbian” are used to describe self-identified gay men and lesbian women, as well as men and women who describe themselves as homosexual, or those who describe their primary affectional and sexual relationships as same-sex relationships, including those who self-identify as queer. The word “queer” denotes an identity that includes gays and lesbians as well as bisexuals, transgender and transsexual persons, and other sexual minorities. The term “queer” implies a community, culture and philosophy that connects the experience of difference with broad demands for social justice, and especially, with bringing an end to bringing an end to social prejudice against sexual minorities. The relationship between queer and gay/lesbian identities is explored briefly in the section on “Relevance and Benefits” below, and could be a focus of the final report on this project.

[2][2] As the British artist Rachel Whiteread imagined in her Holocaust Memorial for the city of Vienna (2000). She cast an entire library in concrete, presenting the concave spines of thousands of books, as a symbol of the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed in the war.

[3][3] During the “Life Mapping Project” on Salt Spring Island, Dr. Anne Zeller, an experienced social scientist, supervised the consideration of ethical issues.

[4][4] LGBT is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender.