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Heteronormativity in Leisure Research: Emancipation as Social Justice.

Author: Jeremy Robinett

Robinett, Jeremy. “Heteronormativity in Leisure Research: Emancipation as Social Justice.” Leisure Sciences, vol. 36, no. 4, July 2014, pp. 365–378. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/01490400.2014.917000.

Leisure research has the capacity to contribute to social justice when it provides emancipatory spaces for the interrogation of pervasive heteronormative ideologies. Heteronormative ideologies permeate social practices much like infections pollute a body. Research is not immune to heteronormativity, given that assumed links among sex, gender, and sexual orientation can pervert empirical inquiry. In this essay I suggest that by interrogating categories and relational positions as practices of power, leisure scholars may better examine to what level heteronormative ideologies are corrupting socially just research. By exposing how social practices regulate bodies relationally, emancipatory space is created for describing, interrogating, and challenging how heteronormative regulatory practices simultaneously privilege and oppress. I conclude this essay by suggesting that emancipatory research can create opportunities for social justice when researchers and participants are transparent in recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of their own positions and those of others.

Keywords: emancipation; gender; heteronormativity; social justice


What does it mean to be heterosexual? This question became very consequential when five men were charged with being non-gay and were forced to explain their sexual orientations to a protest committee at the 2008 Gay Softball World Series (GSWS). The GSWS is officiated by the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) and involves more than 800 teams in 45 leagues across the United States and Canada dedicated to promoting softball among all persons, but places a "special emphasis on the participation of the Gay Community" (NAGAAA, 2013).

The five men charged with being non-gay were part of a men's team that had successfully competed and earned the opportunity to participate in the championship game. However, before the championship game, members of another team filed a protest claiming that five men on the opposing team were not gay. At the time NAGAAA's rules allowed each team to have no more than two non-gay members and did not include explicit language categorizing those who identified as bisexual or transgender. Two of the men identified with the Alliance's definition of non-gay; however, the other three men felt their sexual orientations did not neatly fit at either end of the gay/non-gay binary. The men competed with their team but were summoned before a protest committee to answer questions about their sexual orientations. Following the review, the protest committee ruled that the three men did not qualify as gay and their team's second place finish was invalidated. Following the panel's decision, the three men filed a lawsuit claiming they were victims of discrimination (Bishop, [ 6]).

While there are contradictory interpretations of what ensued during the review and lawsuits that followed, three results are clear. One result was that the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance changed its rules so that sexual orientation is now determined by self-declaration. Further, the definition of gay was broadened to encompass individuals who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. In its most recent Instruments of Governance (2013) the NAGAAA defines gay as including "gay, bisexual and transgender (GBLT or LGBT) individuals" and says that Non-LGBT "(also referred to as straight, non-GLBT or non-gay) means not gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender" (p. 17).

Another result was a settlement between the Alliance and the three men that awarded them an undisclosed amount of money and restored the team's second place finish. The third result was that a U.S. District Judge ruled that the First Amendment allowed the Alliance to limit the number of heterosexuals who could play on a team (Bishop, [ 6]; Lee, [37]). This ruling was similar to precedents that have allowed organizations to limit or exclude individuals based on sexual orientation. The causes, circumstances and outcomes of this case offer space for questioning how and why social practices reliant on categorizations of sex, gender, and sexual orientations can be problematic and consequential.

Categories matter because social practices make them meaningful. Social practices, such as the disqualification of three players on the softball team, are often dependent on who is involved, how they are perceived, and the circumstances in which interactions occur. Why does it matter if someone is perceived to be heterosexual? It matters because, through time, political and cultural understandings have crystallized into institutionalized practices that hierarchically privilege heterosexuality as the natural, unquestioned norm against which other categories are positioned as different. It matters because social understandings grounded in historic and cultural practices of power legitimize experts (e.g., judges, protest committees, doctors, researchers) as more able to determine sexual orientations than individuals. It matters because privileges and contradictions exist at the intersections of self-identifications, public perceptions, and social practices. Building on these beliefs, I suggest that by interrogating categories and relational positions as practices of power, leisure scholars may better examine to what level heteronormative ideologies are infecting socially just research.

Categorization can be done justly; however, categorization becomes an unjust social practice when categories are based on unquestioned beliefs that reify privilege for some and marginalization for others. As Valentine ([51]) noted, "people everywhere categorize themselves and others; this is one of the most fundamental aspects of human language and meaning making" (p. 5); however, he also argued that how these categories come to be and the effects they have are never neutral. Categories only make sense when there are meaningful differences; however, because of the pervasiveness of heteronormative beliefs differences between bodies are often assumed to be more meaningful than feminists and other critical theorists argue they should be (Butler, [10]; Foucault, 1975/1995; Lather, [36]; Scott, [46]).

Leisure researchers are not immune from social practices that instill heteronormative ideologies as natural. Like everyone else, researchers negotiate sets of assumptions grounded in historical, cultural and political practices of power that shape their beliefs. Leisure researchers can engage in empirical explorations that reify unjust social practices, but they also have the ability to interrogate and challenge them. Socially just leisure research can serve emancipatory purposes and work to make people aware of unjust expectations and policies. Lather ([36]) stated that "emancipatory knowledge increases awareness of the contradictions distorted or hidden by everyday understandings, and in doing so it directs attention to the possibilities for social transformation inherent in the present configuration of social processes" (p. 52). Through empirical research, leisure scholars can disrupt unquestioned assumptions by demonstrating how social positions and practices have changed throughout time. Working with participants, they can empirically document and describe the complexities involved in negotiating individual and collective understandings. Through their privileged socialpositions as experts they can advocate for changes in understandings and policies to facilitate more just social practices.

Emancipatory research allows scholars and participants to question their own assumptions and to frame social practices as regulation of everyone. This type of research allows researchers and participants to situate their experiences and positions within social practices of privilege rather than internalizing them as personal successes or failures. Recognizing the important contributions made through emancipatory consciousness raising research done by leisure scholars, I suggest that socially just leisure research facilitates emancipation by exposing, interrogating, and challenging social practices and assumptions supported by heteronormative ideologies.

Social justice should not be envisioned as a category or context of leisure research; rather it should be thought of as a uniting goal or purpose. Building on Angrosino's ([ 5]) conceptualization of social justice in observational research, this essay suggests that a social justice agenda in leisureresearch should incorporate the following practices: demonstrate consideration of leisure as relational and meaning-containing social practices; critically and historically situate why some leisure practices are privileged as more normal than others; and remain transparent throughout the process of inquiry of intersecting practices of power between researchers, participants, and those who may be affected by the research. Goodin ([26]) wrote that the pursuit of justice involves exploring processes that "prevent people from knowing and applying for themselves the rules by which they are ruled" (p. 726). Research involves using practices of categorization to compare similarities and differences. How researchers describe participants influences how they and their experiences are interpreted. How researchers analyze and describe what is meaningful about participants' experiences influences understandings and resultant social practices.

Unpacking Hegemonic Normativity

Scholars have argued that we are born into a world full of pre-existing ideologies that relationally situate individuals and groups based on historical and cultural practices of power (Butler, [10], [12]; Gramsci, [27]; Lather, [36]). Even before individuals are born, appropriate names are chosen and structures exist that they will negotiate for the rest of their lives. Through interactions with others they learn how to interpret lived experiences (Mead, [39]). They learn how their bodies and behaviors situate them relationally to others. They learn which restrooms they are supposed to use; how they are supposed to look and behave; and what actions lead to them gaining praise and avoiding punishment. They learn as they watch television and through interactions with their parents, coaches, and friends. They learn what it means to be "normal" and what happens to those who are not. Through all of these practices they become self-regulating (Foucault, 1975/1995; Mead, [39]). These commonly understood behaviors and expectations that are reinforced through social practices of regulation that position some individuals as more normal than others can be referred to as hegemonic (Gramsci, [27]).

Davis ([14]) noted there is probably no arena in modern life where a norm or average does not exist and said, "The norm pins down the majority of the population that falls under the arch of the standard bell-shaped curve" (p. 29). Because it is perceived as being the most common, the norm is often assumed to be what is most natural. There is privilege inherent in being perceived as natural. Individuals perceived as natural are rarely called upon to explain themselves. In the United States hegemonic beliefs exist that there are two and only two sexes. When people are not easily identifiable as male or female, there are often stares, whispers, and sometimes questions. Hegemonic beliefs reify heteronormativity whenever individuals are forced to categorize themselves as male or female, such as when they choose restrooms, join teams, or fill out documents (e.g., surveys, college applications, and medical forms) that only give them two options. Fitting within privileged categories exempts people from having to explain themselves and grants them a sense of belonging that is denied to those positioned as different.

Hegemonic practices often hide the prevalence of difference by ignoring or criminalizing those bodies and actions that are not perceived as normal. Laws like the proposed "Don't Say Gay" bill seek to prohibit "the teaching or furnishing of materials on human sexuality other than heterosexuality in public school grades K-8" (Rosenthal, [44]). These types of laws erase or marginalize those who do not meet the expected norm of heterosexuality. Hegemonic beliefs permeate social practices so that those being marginalized also come to view themselves in ways that reinforce social inequalities. As Anderson ([ 4]) noted, "the key element to hegemony is that force cannot be the causative factor in order to elicit complicity. Rather, people must believe that their subordinated place is both right and natural" (p. 21). By viewing themselves as subordinate or different from the norm, individuals become complicit in their own oppression and the oppression of others like them. Instead of questioning social practices that privilege some categories as the norm, research as a kind of social practice often assumes the norm to be understood as natural rather than something that requires a social or cultural context to explain it. While this essay interrogates how hegemonic heteronormative ideologies permeate empirical research, this special edition argues the importance of questioning assumed norms related to categories and the intersections of identity markers such as race, ethnicity, (dis) ability, and social class.

Unpacking Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity is a dominant ideology within Western culture that encompasses many of the most pervasive and unquestioned norms that structure society. Heteronormativity's foundational belief is that there are two, and only two, biologically determined sexes that naturally behave differently and desire each other (Blank, [ 8]; Butler, [10]; Schilt & Westbrook, [45]). Heteronormativity is negotiated through practices of privilege and oppression used to regulate congruence among individuals' sex, gender, and sexual orientation (Butler, [10]; Seidman, [47]). At its broadest level, heteronormativityrests on the assumption that there are meaningful differences that emerge from individuals being biologically male or female. This assumption builds to binary categories for gender and sexual orientation. Heteronormative expectations have remained pervasive though feminist understandings and critical social science research have demonstrated that social practices related to sex, gender and sexual orientation are not historically constant and are negotiated contextually on personal, social, and cultural levels (Blank, [ 8]; Butler, [12]; Deutsch, [16]; Scott, [46]; Wearing, [52]).

Unlinking Identities

Feminist and other critical frameworks offer space for exploring sexes, genders, and sexual orientations as social practices of power rather than unavoidable or nature-determined outcomes. Feminist and postmodern scholars have argued that bodies do not have set genders, but rather individuals engage in patterns of behaviors that are recognized as gender because of historic, political, and cultural practices of power (Butler, [10], [12]; Foucault, 1975/1995; Scott, [46]). Butler's concept of performativity (1993) argued that gender involves negotiations of social categories, bodies, and behaviors. She argued that bodies and behaviors do not inherently contain meanings; rather, meanings are attached to bodies and behaviors in which they engage through social practices. Through learned understandings it becomes possible to categorize a body as male or female according to its appearance and the behaviors that it performs. Butler ([10]) referred to this making sense of bodies as "intelligibility" and argued that "'Intelligible' genders are those which in some sense constitute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice and desire" (p. 17). Gender; rather than sex, is the primary category of meaning for feminists and other critical scholars because individuals' genitals and/or sexual orientations are rarely apparent in social interactions. Sex, gender and sexual orientation intersect, but are different categories of identity.


Sex is a biological status indicated by chromosomes, external genitals, and reproductive organs (American Psychological Association [APA], [ 3]). While many view sex as a binary category (male and female), medical researchers, professional associations and social scientists have argued against this practice. Fausto-Sterling ([20]) argued that "biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male" (p. 21) and labeled those falling somewhere between male and female as intersex. Based on a review of medical literature, Fausto-Sterling ([21]) suggested that 17 out of every 1,000 children born are intersex. Individuals may never know that they are intersex if their external genitals appear normal and circumstances do not force them to question their sex. In her book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, Hanne Blank ([ 8]) shared the story of her husband who was born with a fully functioning penis, but has both male and female sex chromosomes. She suggested that while estimates vary, "At minimum, there are about half a million Americans whose genetics are this way, most of whom will never know it" (p. 6).


Unlike sex, which is most often biologically categorized, gender is usually described as the social presentations of a body. Gender is commonly conceptualized as a spectrum ranging from feminine to masculine. Some scholars pinpoint various spaces along this spectrum utilizing descriptors like androgynous, fem, and butch. Rather than being inherently linked to biology, many scholars agree that gender involves individual (gender identity) and social understandings (gender expression). According to the APA, gender identity refers to how individuals perceive themselves in regard to being male, female or something else (2011). Because gender identity conveys an individual's perception of his or her sex, some researchers have adopted the practice of using gender instead of sex as a category. While allowing participants to define their own identities is more just, it does not address the complexity of lived experiences. As noted by Henderson and Shaw ([30]), treating gender as an independent variable does not accurately represent the complex interactions between patterns of behavior, privilege and marginalization, and the social interactions through which they are experienced and negotiated. To be more just, leisure researchers could be transparent about explanations for use of sex and/or gender as meaningful categories in their process of inquiry.

Gender expression refers to the way a person acts that conveys a given gender within a particular culture (APA, [ 3]). Blank ([ 8]) conceptualized gender as referring "to all the manifestations of masculinity or femininity that are not immediately, demonstrably biological. These include mannerisms, conventions of dress and grooming, social roles, speech patterns, and much more" (p. 17). Within heteronormative ideologies those believed to be male are expected to be more masculine than those perceived as female. Common gender beliefs in the United States suggest that women are "nurturant, suggestible, talkative, intuitive and sexually loyal" while men are supposed to be "aggressive, tough-minded, taciturn, rational, analytic, and promiscuous" (Connell, [13], p. 60). While cisgender is commonly used to describe those whose gender identity and gender expression match what is typically associated with their perceived sex, the American Psychological Association ([ 3]) defines transgender as "an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth."

Genderqueer is another term sometimes used by individuals whose gender identity or gender expression differ from commonly understood sex categories. According to the American Psychological Association ([ 3]), genderqueer individuals "may define their gender as falling somewhere on a continuum between male and female, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms." Scholars have used leisure contexts to situate and expose the lived experiences of transgender and genderqueer individuals across a range of lived experiences (Browne & Bakshi, [ 9]; Jones, [31]; Lewis & Johnson, [38]; Travers, [50]). What all of these gender categories demonstrate is that there is much greater diversity in bodies and behaviors than binary heteronormative gender classifications allow.

Sexes, gender identities and gender expressions cannot be assumed by appearances and behaviors. Individuals may have a gender identity and/or gender expressions that differs from what is commonly expected of their biologically categorized sex. Individuals are said to be gender conforming when their gender expression is compatible with their perceived sex and gender nonconforming when it is not. Empirical research across a variety of fields has demonstrated that individuals whose bodies, gender expressions and/or sexual orientations place them outside the socially accepted range of heteronormative expectations negotiate increased risks of marginalization. The consequences of such risks may negatively impact their abilities to successfully perform in a variety of institutional contexts, such as leisure activities, education settings, and employment situations (Blackburn, [ 7]; Ezzell, [19]; Grossman, [28]; Robinson & Espelage, [43]).

Sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation "refers to an individual's enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person" (APA, [ 3]). While it is often conceptualized on a spectrum ranging from homosexual to heterosexual, with bisexual somewhere between, heteronormative social practices center heterosexuality as the norm against which other sexual orientations are judged. Rich ([42]) argued that heterosexuality "needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution" (p. 637), and that failing to do so is "like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness" (p. 648). Many scholars have built on her work to argue that through subliminal and forcible regulation individuals are forced to practice what she termed compulsory heterosexuality. Rich ([42]) argued that "however, we choose to identify ourselves, however we find ourselves labeled, it [compulsory heterosexuality] flickers across and distorts our lives because it rests on "a profound falseness" (p. 657). One example of falseness is assumed links between gender expression and sexual orientation.

According to the American Psychological Association ([ 2]), "although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors." Nor is there a universally agreed upon measure for determining sexual orientation. There are more than 200 empirical scales used to classify behaviors linked to physical and emotional attractions recognized as sexual orientation (Davis, Yarber, Bauserman, Scheer, & Davis, [15]); however, perceptions are still common in the United States that gender expression and sexual orientation are linked. For those operating within heteronormative frameworks, men whose gender expression is perceived as feminine are often labeled as gay; women with masculine gender expressions are often assumed to be lesbians. In many cases, men and women who are heterosexual but whose bodies are less-readily identified as male or female, or who exhibit nonconforming gender expressions, face increased risks of marginalization. Often this marginalization takes place through regulatory social practices such as homophobic teasing, harassment, and scrutinizing questions about their sexual orientation (Ezzell, [19]; Plummer, [41]; Wellard, [53]).

Leisure research has demonstrated how social practices are used to regulate bodies and behaviors. The work of Kivel and Kleiber ([35]) explored the role of self-identification and personal meanings in regard to gendered leisure ideologies. Using phenomenology as their theoretical framework, they conducted a retrospective study asking self-identified lesbian and gay adults between the ages of 18 and 22 to explore the role of leisure in their identity formation. They found that for many of the participants the "influence of leisure contexts in terms of the integration of personal and social identity was mitigated by the extent to which young people felt the need to conceal their sexual identity" (p. 215). Self-identification and its regulatory power on leisure are crucial to conversations about social justice.

Leisure scholars have been slow to examine meanings and practices of power related to sexualities. In their review of leisure journals, Henderson and Gibson ([29]) identified five studies with samples comprised of gay, lesbian and/or LGBT samples between 2006 and 2010. Kivel and Johnson ([34]) suggested that the leisure field might have been slow to investigate sexualities because "this identity marker is controversial, because this identity marker has been seen as personal rather than public (although sexual identity in all its manifestations is a very public issue)" (p. 170). Sexual orientation, because it involves social interpretations, is not lived as an individual phenomenon. Indeed the interactions between individual perceptions and the perceptions of others create tensions that must be negotiated at the social level.

Interrogating Privileged Positions

This essay is written to facilitate space for furthering explorations of socially just leisure research that describes, exposes and transforms socialpractices that reify heteronormativity. It is written with "emancipatory aspirations" in that it argues that some forms of research "enables people to change by encouraging self-reflection and a deeper understanding of their particular situations" (Lather, [36], p. 56). As more individuals become emancipated and change their own understandings and behaviors, more opportunities are created for transforming what are perceived as dominant social understandings. I offer my experiences as contextual evidence of how heteronormativity and social practices are lived through experiences (Lather, [36]).

I grew up an able-bodied, middle-class, White, Christian male in the United States. As such, I benefited from many social practices granted to those perceived to be normal. I was rarely called upon to explain or question my relational positions in society. To the best of my recollection, I was never asked to explain what it meant to be male, to be White, or to be Christian. I never gave much thought to which privileged positions freed me from questioning whether or not I would be welcomed in given locations. Like many of my peers, social practices did not encourage or force me to question my relational social positions so I never developed an awareness of most of them (Whitehead, [54]). I never questioned what it meant to male and masculine, but I spent a great deal of time questioning what it meant to be heterosexual.

Leisure contexts were often the interactional spaces that facilitated my growing awareness that I was not like other masculine boys. If feeling conspicuous is like being under a spotlight then many of my teenage years and early twenties were spent under a strobe light as I constantly tried to find new ways to negotiate my family and friends' seemingly never-ending questions about girls, romance, dating, and sexual activities. I avoided, evaded, ignored, and even lied in order to escape answering their questions. I remember the joy I felt as I watched Doing Time on Maple Drive (Duff & Olin, [18]) on television and saw a character like me: male, masculine, and not heterosexual.

I gained an appreciation for how often people wanted to put me in particular boxes and that it was problematic for them that categories they viewed as incompatible (e.g., gay and Christian, gay and masculine, male and not having sex) were ones that I was attempting to integrate into a cohesive person. However, through those interactions I became aware of the privileges I gained when some people perceived me as a sexually active, heterosexual, masculine male. They included me in their social activities and allowed me to be part of their conversations. I was included as part of the "WE" when "We're going to..." statements were made. I recognized how my height, weight and gender expression made it easy for individuals to perceive me as heterosexual and how those perceptions protected me from the teasing and harassment focused on others labeled as gay. When I encountered the work of Garland-Thompson ([24]) it rang true that "indeed, one of the major liberties accorded to the ordinary is civil inattention – that is, the freedom to be inconspicuous" (p. 35). Through those situations, when I was perceived as heterosexual and those times when I admitted I was not, I gained awareness of my social positions and how important perceptions are in heteronormative social practices.

Even though I have lived through these experiences, my awareness of the importance of social positions does not insulate me from reifying heteronormative assumptions when engaged in research. Belonging to a marginalized group does not immunize a researcher from reifying hegemonic ideologies. When I began researching masculinity and leisure, heteronormative assumptions perverted the purpose of inquiry. Focusing on socialpatterns recognized as masculinity negotiated by men, women, transgender and other self-defined categories would have provided me with far richer data than simply asking those I identified as men to describe their perceptions of masculinity. However, heteronormative ideologies corrupted my research and I approached inquiry assuming that categorical labels were universally shared and understood. I assumed that I was able to determine who was or was not a man, that masculinity had similar meanings to all men, and that there were shared understandings of what leisure was and was not.

At the time of my initial set of research experiences, I gave little consideration to the pervasiveness of heteronormativity or the complex intersections of sex, gender expression and sexual orientation. When specific identity markers are used to explain or predict social phenomenon it privileges those aspects of the person as the most meaningful in explaining the phenomena being explored. Kivel ([32]) argued that "rather than simply making visible the leisure experiences of individuals using different markers of identity, we need to ask how individual identities and experiences are produced through oppressive social structures" (p. 81). Simply stating that all participants were men lumped them into an assumed shared experience and reified the category of male as meaningful. It did not question why sex-based categories were or were not meaningful in the process of inquiry. It did not position participants relationally within the category of male, or position them in relation to female, transgender, or individuals identifying as intersex. While it categorized behaviors as masculine, it did not expose the social practices the participants felt were meaningful in classifying them as such. It did not interrogate how gender identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations may or may not have intersected or been salient in influencing the participants' behaviors and understandings. In short, rather than achieving any of the goals of socially just research, I reinforced heteronormative ideologies linking men to masculinity, and suggested that there was somehow a masculine, male norm to which the participants could be compared.

Existing frameworks of sex, gender, and sexual orientation do not always encompass the lived experiences of those who participate in research. In a recent study that sought to explore if and how sexual orientation plays a role in social practices related to negotiating stress, I struggled to describe the sexual orientation of a person who identifies as transgender. I spent long hours considering if his genitals, gender identity, attractions or previous sexual behaviors constituted the best way to categorize his sexual orientation. Then, I realized I was trying to do what the rules committee of the NAGAAA had done. Through these experiences, I have learned to resist the employment of the usual categories related to sex and gender, and instead explore participants' self-constructed framework of sex and gender as well as their positioning of themselves in their frameworks.

Emancipation as Social Justice

Empirical research can create opportunities for emancipation when researchers and participants recognize and respect the uniqueness of their own positions and those of others. Heteronormative ideologies permeate social practices much like an infection pollutes a body. One may feel sick but not realize he or she has an infection. It is often not until an infection is identified that it can be treated and a body healed. So too can heteronormative ideologies lie undetected and pollute our understandings of self, social practices, and processes of empirical inquiry. Critical frameworks, like feminism, offer opportunities for exposing ways heteronormative ideologies infect individuals and social practices. Critical social science research facilitates space for the development of shared understandings and ways of talking about social practices that may not have been previously considered. When research incorporates and explores similarities and differences between relational positions and/or disrupts assumed social practices it offers possibilities for emancipating all involved. Emancipation helps participants understand that "People make rules; not the reverse" ([49]).

A purpose of socially just research can be to create spaces for emancipation that provide opportunities for individual and collective healing. Emancipatory research offers the capacity for individual and collective healing when participants develop shared understandings of relational positions, privileges and tensions that are negotiated through lived experiences. Ahmed ([ 1]) eloquently argued that "healing does not cover over, but exposes the wound to others: the recovery is a form of exposure" (p. 200). Researchers and participants may never have given thought to how they themselves have contributed to the oppression or marginalization of others like them. They may also never have recognized ways their own experiences and behaviors have been influenced by social practices. Critical theorists and feminist scholars have long advocated for learning about ourselves and others as processes of emancipation and social transformation. Freire (1970/2012) argued that in order to achieve liberation, those who are oppressed "must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform" (p. 49). Emancipation involves helping individuals recognize not only their privilege, but how their practices can be altered to be more just.

Leisure scholars have used collective memory work as a form of emancipatory consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising is educational and emancipatory because it allows individuals space to question their own experiences and learn about the lived experiences of others ([49]). Consciousness-raising involves small groups of individuals coming together to jointly explore their social positions. These spaces allow individuals who have never been forced to question their social positions to do so, and for members of marginalized groups to publically voice their experiences. Discussions are used as a way of examining how participants have come to understand themselves and others, and how policies and social practices influence ways they view the world.

Dunlap and Johnson ([17]) stated that "implicit to collective memory work is the recognition that identity is the negotiation of social norms, such as heteronormativity, within the context of an individual's daily lived experiences" (p. 69). Kivel and Johnson ([33]) argued that through collective memory work "the participants use early memories to make sense of how, unconsciously and through the internalization of taken-for-granted beliefs, they have created social and ideological dimensions of identity, including gender, race, sexual orientation and other socially relevant categories" (p. 114). Collective memory work often begins with individuals writing responses in the third person to questions that ask them to describe significant memories of specific experiences. The responses are distributed among the participants who are then brought together for a researcher facilitated process of analysis that interrogates the adjectives, verbs, emotions and meanings contained within the stories. The participants analyze not only their own stories, but all of the participants' stories, and the research assists in finding common themes and understandings that run through the stories and the processes of analysis. Collective memory work is a socially just form of consciousness raising in that it demonstrates respect for individual stories, interrogates practices of power as relational, and builds shared understandings for ways social practices influence participants' lives and the lives of others.

Creating and fostering opportunities for social justice through emancipation are built upon actions that demonstrate respect for all involved throughout the entire process of inquiry. Building on feminist understandings and leisure work that has contributed to social change, there are three requirements that must be met if emancipatory research is to contribute to social justice. First, the process of inquiry must demonstrate that time was allowed for questioning understandings and practices. Second, the study must be designed in such a way that its practices demonstrate respect for changing identities and the development of shared understandings throughout the process of inquiry. Finally, researchers must be transparent in documenting and describing how their own ideologies, social positions, and interactional practices have affected the process of inquiry from beginning to end.

Emancipation Takes Time

Emancipatory research that offers opportunities for social justice requires allowing time for all involved to negotiate tensions associated with challenging assumptions. Individuals, including researchers, come into processes of inquiry with different experiences and understandings of the socialworld. Research that is emancipatory does not require that at the end of research all participants possess the same beliefs; it requires that when the inquiry is concluded all participants feel they had time to cultivate understandings of each other's positions, privileges and tensions. Time must be allowed for rapport to develop; time must be allowed for reflection; time must be allowed for gathering new information to address questions that emerge.

Emancipation Is Facilitated by Respect and Shared Understandings

Emancipation cannot occur if participants in the research process feel as though their understandings do not matter; rather, they should feel their interpretations are respected even if they are not the most commonly held views. As noted by [49], facilitating an environment of respect rests on practices of clarification, not criticism. Research that seeks to emancipate incorporates participants and researchers in the practice of power and allows all involved the opportunity to define themselves and their understandings. This means that a researcher must acknowledge that participants may not want to change their practices. Participants may want to perpetuate their behaviors and/or may not interpret social practices as unjust. However, for emancipation to be facilitated, participants' positions must be respected. It requires asking participants what their understandings are repeatedly throughout the process of inquiry.

Researchers and participants should greet others' opinions with questions that seek to understand the nuances of the experiences and opinions, not with statements and questions to prove them wrong, or that try to place them within existing definitions. Emancipation allows for the creation of new understandings that incorporate participants' experiences. This can be a form of social justice as it provides opportunities for healing among individuals who have often negotiated not fitting within normative boundaries. Hardy (2013) argued that promoting healing involves the process of naming. He said "lacking a common language to convey what is happening deepens the self-doubt/self-denigration cycle" (p. 28). Participants and researchers may invent new language not found in empirical literature and/or may feel certain words fail to capture the essence of their experiences. Providing opportunities for participants to define and redefine themselves and their experiences on their own terms facilitates social justice. As participants and researchers gain or deepen understandings throughout the process of inquiry, they may or may not change categorical labels and/or understandings through which they define themselves and others.

Emancipatory Research Involves Transparency

Researchers, often privileged as experts by social practices as objective, may be reluctant to give up their position by admitting or exploring how heteronormative assumptions have influenced their lives and the inquiries they guide. However, they, too, are participants in the process of inquiry and therefore must also recognize that they need time for interrogating how they have been affected by heteronormative practices. To ignore their own experiences or to privilege certain categories over others does not show respect for the commitment, time and emotions experienced by all participants throughout the process. Glass ([25]) stated:

The truth of oppression and the power of the dominant ideology in our lives can be humiliating and reinforce a sense of incompetence, fostering even overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame at thus being dominated or controlled by forces beyond us. (p. 30)

Participants and researchers interested in emancipation must shoulder risking these feelings and be committed to sharing in the hope that conversations and understandings emerge that challenge injustice.

To demonstrate respect for all involved, researchers should document changes in understandings throughout the process of inquiry. To argue that emancipation has occurred or that injustice has been challenged, researchers should explain how shifts in understandings, including their own, have affected the process of inquiry from beginning to end. Emancipation and social justice are not one-step processes; rather, they are incremental and involve negotiating contradictory understandings that can be challenging, painful, or pleasurable. Participants may move back and forth across positions, identities, and understandings. However, if a purpose of emancipatory research is to contribute to social justice, it must allow for individual and collective shifts in understandings and demonstrate respect for participants by affirming these shifts rather than ignoring or limiting them.

The processes of doing research and the way it is written for publication can involve acts of justice. Stewart, Parry, and Glover ([48]) argued that by being sensitive and acknowledging ideological discourses and contexts, "leisure research will enhance its credibility, extend its impact, and more effectively reach its goals" (p. 362). Mindful attention to what ideologies research counters or supports and clearly positioning the researcher's purpose can be practices of emancipation. This requires researchers to be transparent about why some experiences were chosen for scrutiny instead of others. It also requires researchers to be transparent about their own relational positions as researchers and to acknowledge tensions they encounter throughout the process of inquiry.


Throughout the process of writing this essay, my understandings of research, heteronormativity, social practices, and the importance of identities have been challenged by lived experiences, conversations with peers, and critiques from reviewers. Through the process I have gained new awareness of how complicated social practices and relationships that intersect researchers, participants, and the communities in which they are situated can be. I began this essay asking what it meant to be a heterosexual. I end the essay knowing that social justice is intimately tied to ways in which responses to this question are developed.


The author would like to express his gratitude to Bill Stewart for facilitating spaces for exploring leisure research as social justice. He would also like to thank Dana Kivel for her research and mentorship that have greatly influenced this essay.

DMU Timestamp: February 03, 2020 23:30

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