The Importance of Allyship in Community-Engaged Research

November 20, 2023

This blog is written by Marina Khonina (they/them), a PhD student in the Faculty of Health Sciences who studies the experiences of trans and non-binary athletes in Canadian sport. Marina is also a track and field athlete and coach. 

For many researchers working on 2S/LGBTQ issues and social justice more broadly, their research interests stem from lived experience. This kind of research can be deeply meaningful, fostering a connection to the communities that we work with and motivating us to work for social change.

At the same time, the lived experience of belonging to a marginalized group is often a traumatic experience, making this research emotionally and psychologically taxing.

As a result, the work of research becomes both a labour of love and an experience of grief. David Kinitz calls this “stomach-churning analysis” and observes how academic environments both encourage equity research by scholars with lived experiences, especially those early in their careers, and fail to provide support to counter the emotional burden of doing this research1.  

Allies offer powerful remedies for this unjust burden. An ally shows empathy and understanding, while actively working to dismantle the structures that create injustice. To illustrate this, I want to share a story of community action related to my doctoral research project, which looks at transgender (trans) participation in sport and physical activity.

As an athlete, I often train at a public fitness facility in my community. There are many things to love about this gym, which is very well-designed and equipped. Yet, there was one thing that made my experience there extremely negative. Over the past year, I have experienced and witnessed multiple instances of transphobia and sexism at this facility.

I considered going elsewhere, but then realized that the problem would continue to affect others. I repeatedly raised the issue with the staff and management of the facility. Frustratingly, even though I received a sympathetic response, nothing was done to address the behaviour of other gym users that made the space unsafe for women, queer, and trans people. This experience was particularly troubling to me as I thought about my research—and about other trans and gender nonconforming people across Canada who have to navigate significant barriers just to be able to get physically active or participate in a sport.

Eventually, I found myself in a meeting with Alison Gu, a councillor for the City of Burnaby, where the facility is located. I reached out to Councillor Gu, whom I had met at an academic event, because her story as an immigrant and her passion for social justice resonated with my own. When we met, she took the time to listen to my story and agreed that transphobia and sexism had no place in a public facility. That conversation in itself was very affirming. In addition, seeing my concerns validated strengthened my resolve to address them.

I explained what I wanted to see changed: staff training, a clear code of conduct for users, and inclusive signage. To my surprise, a few weeks later, I received an email from the facility’s supervisor acknowledging the issue and inviting me to a meeting to discuss how to implement these changes.

Active allyship works in support of at least two of the ethical principles of CER: power examination and active redistribution, as well as focus on relationships. By applying active allyship practices to CER, researchers can deepen their commitments to action research while expanding the scope and impact of their studies.

Allyship is a core tenet of community-engaged research at SFU-based and CERi-supported lab, the REAFFIRM Collaborative. At REAFFIRM, the team examines the social contexts in which 2S/LGBTQ people find their identities affirmed or denied–this includes organized sports, as well as mental healthcare and school-based sexual health education.

All trainees bring their lived and living experiences as 2S/LGBTQ people into their research. This positionality makes the research stronger. It also means that lab members who occupy different social positions—e.g., a settler supporting an Indigenous Two-Spirit researcher or a cisgender person supporting trans research—have an active role to play in providing support to labmates who are managing the emotional labour of researching a topic of personal experience and significance.

One example of this is the lab’s collaboration with community organizations that work with survivors of so-called ‘conversion therapy. At the onset of this work in 2021 Parliament was in the process of passing Bill C-4, which made it a crime to perpetrate ‘conversion therapy’ in Canada as of January 2022. We worked with No Conversion Canada to interview dozens of ‘conversion therapy’ survivors in order to understand what supports they needed in their recovery from traumatic forms of anti-2S/LGBTQ conversion practices. The results of this research have been translated into a new website, launching in November 2023,

As allies with no direct experience with ‘conversion therapy’, SFU graduate student Reilla Archibald and principal investigator Travis Salway worked closely with survivors to ensure that the questions we asked were meaningful, sensitive, and sure to generate actionable results. What we’ve learned is that our work in addressing ‘conversion therapy’ is far from over now that we have a federal ban.

On this Trans Day of Remembrance, we therefore call on researchers to find new ways to make their projects meaningfully inclusive of trans and gender expansive populations.

Thank you to Dr. Travis Salway for his contributions to the portions of this article pertaining to REAFFIRM's conversion therapy research.


Kinitz DJ. The Emotional and Psychological Labor of Insider Qualitative Research Among Systemically Marginalized Groups: Revisiting the Uses of Reflexivity. Qualitative Health Research. 2022;32(11):1635-1647. doi:10.1177/10497323221112620

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