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Openness and Privacy

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Edited by Anita Naoko Pilgrim, Friday, 29 Sept 2017, 21:05

Issues of privacy have been much more prominent in my research than issues of openness. The argument that all data are sensitive and should be treated equally (as mentioned in The Open University 2017) has met with polite scorn from me.

Much of my research was with, firstly black gay communities in Britain, and then in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer Muslim community.

I interviewed people whose families were extraordinarily rational in their acceptance of lesbian and gay children, who considered that once they had argued their case out, the principles of their faith were such that they should peacefully allow their children to live life as they saw fit. I met one lesbian woman who had been denied access to her university mosque on the grounds of her sexuality. An Imam was brought in to discuss the situation with her. He  said to her fellow students that they had put their case to her, she had listened and had decided how she would live her life and she should be allowed to practise her faith in the mosque in peace now.

I also met people who had left home and moved to the other side of the country, cutting themselves off from family and friends in order to live with a loved partner. I met people whose family members had brutally assaulted and hospitalised them. I met people who were in fear of being kidnapped and forcibly married.

The circles I moved in while conducting this research were necessarily small. I knew there were other academics in them. Even when writing up the case study material for deposit in obscure academic repositories, I took great pains to anonymise it so that participants' rights to privacy could be fully respected.

At the same time, in the queer communities, the rhetoric was about coming out, showing the world: "We're here, we're queer - and we're not going shopping!" That was a slogan used by the activist lesbian, gay and bisexual people who would do same sex kiss-in's at shopping centres in the States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We also shouted it on Gay Pride marches in Britain, although I remember one Winter Pride a small committed band of us were marching and diligently shouting on our way to the Winter Pride fair in what was then called ULU (the University of London students' Union). Someone said: "Hang on a minute, we're going to the Winter Pride fair and when I get there I intend to look at all the stalls, especially the leather goods [I will save your blushes here by not describing those in detail! big grinwink]." Someone-else said: "Yeah, so do I!" We decided to chant: "We're here, we're queer and we ARE going shopping."

Those who braved the risk and volunteered to be interviewed for the research project I was involved in with lgb Muslim people did so (even though they feared it was a cover for a brainwashing programme), in order to show the world that it is possible to be Muslim and same-sex oriented, to save others the isolation that they themselves experienced.

My job as the academic was to mediate between their absolute and vital (in the full sense of that word) need for privacy, and our wish to tell it as it was, to tell their stories so that others would know they are not alone in a pitiless faith - and to contribute safely to the stock of openly available knowledge about the world, to science.

Some of the people I spoke with had thought long and hard - had agonised, had gone through the principles of Islam and could argue with scholarly authority that there was nothing wrong or inconsistent with being a lesbian, gay or bisexual Muslim. (Queer may be another matter - see Pilgrim, 2012.) However, they felt a strict obligation to keep their sexuality private for their families' sakes. People frequently said they could not come out themselves, because it would ruin the marriage chances of brothers and sisters, and even their cousins.


The Open University, 2017. '2.4 Online privacy and identity', H818 Unit 2 Openness and privacy [online]. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1097703&section=4 (accessed 29/09/2017).

Pilgrim, A.N. 2012. “Sexuality Politics in Islam” in Farrar, M., Robinson, S., Valli, Y. and Wetherly P. (eds) 2012 Islam in the West, Palgrave Mcmillan. 

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