FIELD Experience: Carlo Vreden

Who are you?

I am a queer, nonbinary 3rd year PhD student at Durham University. For my thesis, I am studying the early development of empathy in human infants in Uganda and the UK, as part of a larger cross-cultural, cross-species project investigating the evolutionary origins of empathy. I was out as queer before starting my undergrad at the University of Kent and came out as trans just before starting my master’s at Leipzig University. I have always been committed to living my identity openly and unapologetically, so starting a PhD featuring fieldwork in Uganda, where that would be illegal, has been quite the process – especially because my original field site was supposed to be on the other side of the world in a cultural setting that recognises gender identities beyond male and female (long story short, the pandemic made it impossible to work there).

When I’m not pointing camcorders at babies or battling with R, I use every chance I get to return to the small village in the Alps where I used to live and work pre-PhD to spend time in the mountains. Hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, you name it. From one small, rural community to another, just on another continent and with the small difference that in this one I get to live out my identity without any risk of repercussions.

What is your favorite field food?

Rolex, Uganda’s most popular street food. An omelette cooked on a greasy coal stove by the side of the road, if you’re lucky with a bit of onion and tomato, rolled up in a chapati. Rolled eggs, rolex, get it? When I came home for 3 months in-between field trips, I ended up missing rolex and even experimented until I could make it myself.

Tell us about your field work

I’m writing this on my second trip to my current field site, sat in a banda, a reed-thatched pavilion, in a village on the edge of Budongo forest in Western Uganda. Data collection takes us to our participants’ homes in the surrounding villages, which means a dusty bicycle ride along red dirt roads, views of banana plantations and prehistoric-looking hornbills, and setting up our experimental equipment under huge mango trees. On a rainy day, it mostly means mud. Enough of it stuck to the bottom of your shoes that you suddenly are 5cm taller.

The most special part of my work is that it has taken me to a place I otherwise never would have visited and that I get to experience life and community here in a way I wouldn’t have, even if I had one day come as a tourist. Living in the village amongst our participants means everyone knows you: You can’t walk down the main road without a dozen “Habari!” “Muzuri!” exchanges and weekend cycling expeditions often turn into extended visits to our research assistants’ homes, who won’t let us go past without inviting us in for a snack and drink.

Of course, there are the usual challenges of fieldwork, like rainy season turning roads into rivers, power outages (at the time of writing, we haven’t had power at our house for 3 weeks and are charging electronics via a car battery), missing food that is not rice and beans, and mosquitoes. So many mosquitoes. But there are also the funnier challenges, like turning around to check on the second camera during a behavioural experiment and seeing that a group of baby goats have decided to assist you with filming and are a second away from toppling the tripod.

How does your identity interact with your field work?

In a country dubbed “the worst country to be gay” in a BBC documentary a few years back, being out in the field was never an option. For me, that meant two layers of going back into the closet: The first of those, my sexual orientation, was the “easier” one to hide, by avoiding the topic and lying when pressed about it (so much for “easier”). The second is my gender identity and expression. When and where it is safe for me to do so, I am very open about my gender, or my lack thereof: I use gender neutral pronouns in my personal and professional life, have medically transitioned to the point where I get to play with how people read my body, and I am one of a few hundred people in my home country with an X in my passport where most others have an M or and F. Unsurprisingly, all of that had to be reshaped into a coherent, binary gender for fieldwork. Because my gender can be read differently depending on the context, I waited until my arrival in Uganda to see which gender box people would place me in and then went along with the most common assumption. People see what they want to see and reinforcing an idea they already have is easier than convincing them of something new.

So far, this has worked, and I have been lucky to have been safe during my fieldwork; the main challenge remains the mental toll of going back in the closet. Long conversations with good friends have made me realise that after having been out for so many years, having to hide my identity again brings back feelings of being a closeted teenager, constantly worrying about the what-ifs of people finding out. For most, the period before coming out is not a pleasant experience, so it’s no surprise that going back to a similar state would be exhausting. But unfortunately, being out in Uganda is not and will not ever be an option for me during fieldwork, so back to the closet I go.

While being forcibly closeted in the field will never be risk-free, there are still measures put in place to keep me, but also other researchers on the project, safe. The first one is that no researcher is ever alone at the field site for extended periods of time, so as to have a permanent safety net and support system. The second is that all other non-Ugandan researchers know the full scope of my identity and are briefed on how to treat me in public vs. private. That way, I get to be myself without constantly looking over my shoulder when around them and they can intervene if things ever get complicated for me (an emergency hospital trip where my body is questioned or a roadside police check of my documents is all it takes, after all). Lastly, I keep my time spent in the field to a maximum of three months and take sufficient breaks in-between which I spend in an environment where my identity doesn’t pose a risk to me or my work. Then, after a few months, I am ready (or as ready as one can be) to go back in the closet for fieldwork again.

How to navigate identity-related challenges in fieldwork will differ for every LGBTQ+ researcher, based on both aspects of their identity and their field site. This means each of us needs to know our own limits, ideally identified pre-departure and, if needed, adjusted once in the field. Once you know your own limits, these can be communicated and put down as clear boundaries with your supervisor and/or other members of the research team. This can include things like setting down maximum lengths of field trips, communicating who will be told what about your identity, what is available in terms of mental health support during and after fieldwork, and – worst case – an emergency plan for if things go south.

Ultimately, the key thing to keep in mind is that your mental and physical wellbeing are more important than your research. If you do not feel safe in the field, you have a completely valid reason to leave, even if “nothing bad has happened yet”. We have a right, as queer researchers, to participate in fieldwork, but we also have a right to be (and feel!) safe. Diversity in fieldwork seems to be a blind spot on many institutions’, supervisors’, colleagues’, and students’ radar, even though more people working in field settings are queer than I ever expected. And there is more than just us LGBTQ+ researchers diversifying fieldwork – it can be just as tricky to navigate based on gender, disability status, ethnicity, or religion, and the intersections of these different parts of our identities – meaning most people doing fieldwork have something to contribute to the conversation. There is power in these numbers to make that conversation about identity and fieldwork a loud one and to push for both awareness and policy changes, to make fieldwork more accessible, safe, and fun for everyone.

Ultimately, fieldwork as a queer person has in some ways been easier and in other ways harder than expected, but at the end of the day, when I’m lying in my hammock watching the monkeys in the mango trees behind our house, it is absolutely worth it.