Authors: Arrthy Thayaparan and Alex Lukey (Blog Coordinators)
Published: June 4th, 2021
Interviewee: Dr. Robert-Paul Juster, PhD, University of Montreal
For this month’s Behind the Science feature, we spoke with Dr. Rober-Paul Juster, an assistant research professor in the department of psychiatry and addiction at the University of Montreal.
As Dr. Juster is a proud member and advocate for research with the LGBTQ2S+ community, we discussed the challenges faced by this community in the sciences. In honour of Pride month, we hope that these discussions bring to light the challenges faced by queer and gender diverse communities.
Additionally, we talked about Dr. Juster’s work on sex and gender research to understand the effects of stress and adversity. He is currently conducting an ongoing survey of COVID-19 that focuses on sex and gender. If you are interested in learning more or participating in his work, check this link out.
But without further ado, we introduce Dr. Juster...
How did you get into the sex and gender research field?
The first scientific project that I was involved in looked at sex differences in cognition, which was something I was learning in a class at the time. Then I remembered learning about gender roles, masculinity, and femininity in another class. I just sort of put them all together and was particularly interested in the LGBTQ2S+ community. I ignored these interests a bit during my master’s. But then, in my PhD, I had the opportunity again to revisit and look into them further.
I'm a gay man. So I think the best research often has a personal meaning to the person. I think we can debate whether that makes us purely objective, but I think I had a real desire to contribute to the community and engage in activism through my science. So I think that was always sort of there in my mind, that I wanted to be involved through science. And it so happened that that's probably been one of the most interesting and fruitful parts of my career so far.
Why is it important to have research that focuses on and includes diverse communities like the LGBTQ2S+ community?
That's a great question. I think underrepresentation is something that we talk about not just in the field of sex and gender. More broadly, there is still so little research tat has been done with consideration of women. I've always felt a real alliance with women, in particular. I think gay men and heterosexual cisgender women have a pretty interesting alliance. My dedication to advancing research and especially health research among the LGBTQ2S+ community is really focused on the desire to really represent better. I think representation is really the most important thing for my research.
Is there enough representation of the LGBTQ2S+ community within the sciences?
I don't think so, especially for trans and/or non-binary people. I think there's not a sufficient amount of representation. It's something new as an ally, I can do my best to lend my interest and my research focus to these and other underrepresented communities. But I feel like so many areas that have not received sufficient representation in science and health research are often the ignored people of those communities.
So I think there is a slowly growing number of people from the LGBTQ2S+ community represented in academia and in STEM. But I think there's always more that's needed.
I think we talk a lot about equity, diversity and inclusion. More needs to be done to really be aware of that reality and to be sensitive to the fact that even though you're an ally with an identity that is also marginalized, you can never truly understand the experiences of every subgroup that you're interested in.
That's been an interesting process for me of humility, being really humble and always being aware of the realities of other groups that have not received the same representation. Nor the same privileges. As a white cisgender male, I have a lot of privileges that I think a lot of other groups don't and it’s important to acknowledge that.
When working with diverse communities, there’s always the potential to create harm when conducting research. How can that harm be mitigated?
Even researchers with the best possible intentions can go into research among a group and not identify their real needs. I think particularly for the transgender and/or gender non-binary communities, there's been a lot of research that has focused on the origins of difference. Same thing for sexual minorities to try and identify brain regions that are different. This inquiry aims to explain why people are gay or why they're trans.
I mean, human beings are curious, and we want to identify the causes of things. But I'm not sure that that research really speaks to any sort of direct needs of the community. Being mindful about what is important to the communities that you want to study and serve is really the essential thing. We can have all kinds of great ideas about research that would be great among the communities that we're interested in, but it just doesn't speak to their needs.
And that's potentially damaging, because there's no investment of taxpayers dollars to an issue that might not actually be pertinent to the communities that you're studying. So I think it's so important to be engaged in participatory research and to really be attentive to the needs of the community and being able to adjust research accordingly.
Can you explain your research to us?
My research aims to understand how men, women, and gender diverse people each have unique health and wellness needs. Beyond binary sex or any kind of focus on categories of groups of people, my work is really focused on the nuance within sex. So trying to identify how things, like sexual orientation, sex hormones, gender roles, or combinations and social economics in relation to your gender, all relates to your health and well-being.
I'm also really interested in groups that are exposed to different forms of stress and can develop inspiring resilience. What are the things that they do to help minimize their stress? What are the factors that contribute to their protection or resilience to certain conditions? I want to spend my career answering those questions
So studying the LGBTQIA2S+ community, for me, is fascinating because there's so much gender diversity, and just so much lived experience that is mixed with adversity and resilience. It provides a really strong lens from which to identify how people can become quite tough in terms of facing problems in the future.
Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
Studying sex and gender research is much more complicated than it seems. Each and every different group combines with other factors like social economics, geography, age, race, and ethnicity, that collectively influence people's health. We have a tendency, I think the general public and scientists sort of silo off different groups of people. But the bottom line is that every individual has multiple identities that can protect them, but can also affect their health in negative ways, based on stigma and inequalities. The take home message is that allowing groups and subgroups to really express their lived experiences. It’s so important to be attentive, sensitive and engaged to find ways to be an ally.
You know a lot of the time, people will talk about the transgender community and they'll be like, ‘Well, you know, [transgendered people] only represents one to two per cent.’ That's still a substantial number of people. And I think there's a tendency for a lot of the general public, as well as scientists, to sort of dismiss that if it's a small group of people, then it's not really going to affect everyone else. But I really argue that you're all connected. It's so important to be able to represent all these different groups and to learn from them. Because I think a lot of people that are underrepresented and have been marginalized, engage in very unique and very powerful coping responses that make them resilient. Being able to understand those mechanisms is actually kind of a hopeful message for all.
And this applies for the rest of society as well. It doesn't just become about doom and gloom and how society stigmatizes you and your poor health, but more about how you navigate these issues that we're trying to slowly fix as society progresses, so that we can work on those different factors in the future. In the context of COVID-19, different groups within the LGBTQ2S+ community are engaging in different coping strategies. And while for instance, trans and non-binary people are dealing with a lot of mental health problems, like so many other people they're also engaging in seeking social supports in virtual ways. In any kind of situation where there's adversity, people that have faced adversity for reasons of their identity are going to engage in ways that the rest of society can learn from.