FIELD Experience: Dr Kaitlyn Gaynor
Who are you?
I’ve always been fascinated by animal behavior, and have been privileged to turn this fascination into a research career. I study how human disturbance in its myriad forms influences animal movements, activity, distributions, and interactions. Ultimately, I am motivated to understand how people and wildlife can better coexist on an increasingly crowded planet. This work has taken me around the world, and I have spent considerable time conducting fieldwork in Kenya, Mozambique, and California, studying species that range from blue monkeys to elephants to black-tailed deer. I relish the opportunity to work in diverse ecosystems, build friendships and collaborations with people from very different backgrounds, and better understand global patterns and local contingencies in ecology and conservation.
Navigating relationships and community-building while conducting fieldwork has forced me to reckon with complex issues of privilege, positionality, and power as a queer white woman. I grew up in a predominantly white upper-middle class suburban community, and have spent my adult life living in very diverse cities where I have rarely felt out of place. Through fieldwork, I have been exposed to new contexts in which different aspects of my identity have become more or less salient. These experiences have ultimately given me a greater understanding of my own identity and appreciation for the diverse experiences of others.
Growing up, I was largely ignorant of my white privilege, and living in Kenya as an undergraduate student brought this privilege to the forefront of my daily lived experience and consciousness. It was startling to recognize that my race dictated so much of how people interacted with me in rural Kenya—being a white person determined the amount of (wanted and unwanted) attention I received, the expectations of my behavior, the extent to which my voice was heard over others, the prices I was charged. This experience opened my eyes to the fact that my race always dictates how people interact with me, even when I am not ‘othered,’ which my sheltered upbringing had not previously exposed. These first forays into fieldwork, along with my exposure to new perspectives and ideas as an undergraduate in New York City, prompted me to expand my knowledge of systemic injustice and structural inequities.
While conducting fieldwork in Africa, my whiteness has largely overshadowed my female identity in interactions with others. In rural North America, however, I have found that my most salient identity is as a woman. My research on wildlife in California brought me into contact with ranchers, hunters, and local agency biologists, who were overwhelmingly white men. In these interactions, my whiteness granted me some privilege, but my gender did not. Men would frequently address their comments to my male colleagues, even when I had been the one to pose a question. I learned that I had to do more to earn trust and respect, to have my expertise recognized, and to have my opinion valued. This experience stood in contrast to my experience in Africa—although I was far less experienced and knowledgeable during my early-career work in Kenya, my whiteness opened many doors, which I later found closed in the United States as a woman despite my more advanced qualifications.
While my race and gender are visible aspects of my identity, my queerness is something that I can hide. While people sometimes read me as queer on the basis of my gender presentation, I find this to be less common in the field, where my field fashion and grooming choices are geared more towards practicality than self-expression, and heterosexuality is a more firmly held assumption. Out of concerns for safety and discrimination, I have largely kept my sexual orientation private while conducting fieldwork in both Africa and the United States. When people see my wedding ring and make assumptions about my husband, I do not correct them. As I spend more time with people in the field, I find myself trying to gauge their attitudes towards gender and sexuality to assess whether they might be an ally. I have sometimes gauged incorrectly, and have found on a couple of occasions that colleagues distance themselves from me once they learn that I am queer, which is of course alienating and disappointing. In other cases, rather than share my own sexual orientation I have instead exposed colleagues to queerness (watching Glee marathons with Kenyan field assistants, explaining gender diversity to Mozambican students) with the hopes of increasing acceptance. My hope is that I can be more forthcoming about my full identity in the future, as attitudes change worldwide.
My fieldwork also occurs against a backdrop of past and present global colonialism, and I continue to reckon with my role and responsibility given that my ancestors were settlers on Lenape land, and given that I am not indigenous to any of the places where I conduct research. I have been heartened by recent conversations about how to make ecological research more ethical and anti-oppressive (Trisos et al. 2021). I look forward to continuing to reckon with questions of privilege, positionality, and power in my future research and student training, as this learning process has made me a better scientist, community member, mentor, and global citizen.