‘I am striving to promote equity and justice for queer and trans youth'

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work. 

Q&A with Meg Paceley, associate professor of social welfare

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents. 

I'm interested in the health and well-being of LGBTQ young people. And I'm especially interested in how the spaces that they occupy — their families, schools and communities — can both cause harm and also promote well-being based on the stigma and support in those spaces. 

What does your research look like? What methods do you use? 

I identify as a mixed-methods researcher, which means I use whatever methods are the best for the research question. I'm primarily a qualitative researcher; it's what I enjoy, and it's what I'm good at. So when I do things that are more quantitative or statistical, I usually partner with scholars who have expertise in those areas.  

I'm also really interested in using arts-based methods as a way to reduce stigma that can happen throughout the research process. One example is co-creation of poetry, in which participants use the findings to create what are called found or research poems. I also think about other ways to use the arts in research so that it pushes back against the traditional ways that research has also contributed toward oppression.  

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work? 

LGBTQ youth are really who inspire the work that I do. And my practice background as a social worker is working with queer and trans young people. They're why I do what I do. I just want them to be able to grow up in spaces that are not harmful, to have the sort of equity of opportunity to be healthy and empowered and strong — and all of those things that they already are, but that are harder for folks to achieve when they're experiencing stigma and oppression. They really are what guide me and what inspire me to keep doing the work that I'm doing. 

How does your research directly impact your field, society, Kansas, and the world? 

Social work is really rooted in values of social justice. And an aspect of my research, really all of my research, addresses social work in terms of policy and practice. But a specific subsection of it focuses on social justice, particularly around gender and sexuality within social work education. This includes how social work educators can and should be incorporating gender and sexuality in our teaching and the way that we work with all students, and particularly queer and trans students.  

An example of that was earlier this spring, some colleagues and I organized a virtual town hall that was in response to the anti-trans policies that were coming up for the second year in a row. They come up every year, but they're coming up a lot in the last couple of years. It specifically focused on social work education in terms of what we as a profession can do to challenge those policies and the really hostile rhetoric surrounding them.  

A lot of my work is also community engaged. In Kansas, not just Lawrence, there are rural queer and trans youth and organizations that we seek to provide support for. I work directly with those organizations to make sure that the research that my colleagues and I do is meeting their needs — that it's not just something that I as a researcher think is important, but something that these organizations need and that they can use and take back to their communities. 

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share? 

My colleagues and I at the Center for LGBTQ+ Research & Advocacy in the School of Social Welfare partnered with a couple of organizations, including the Wichita LGBT Health Coalition and GLSEN Kansas, which is the Kansas chapter of a national organization that works on providing supportive, safe schools for LGBTQ young people. They came to us and said, “We need data on health and health care access and experiences for LGBTQ people in Kansas; we have some data on adults, don't really have anything on adolescents.” And we said, “Great, we can do that.” 

That’s something that we have — that methods and content expertise. So we partnered with them to create an online survey. They contributed to the questions that we asked; we added some of our own. And we worked with some students who also came on at varying levels to help create the survey and distribute it, and then distributed it throughout the state of Kansas in September and October of 2021. We are in fairly early stages of disseminating that information. We just submitted our first academic paper related to the health care experiences of LGBTQ young people in Kansas.  

And this was an ask from our community partners. They wanted us to get something that they could cite in grant proposals and when working with community leaders and policymakers to say, “This is peer-reviewed data that we have on our kids in the state that we can use that to then create change.” We're looking at multiple other papers and other forms of dissemination to come out of that. For example, a fact sheet for medical students about working with queer and trans people. Whether they think they're going to do gender-specific care or not, pediatricians need to know things like that. So that's probably one of the most recent and one of the more exciting projects because it is so local, and it has such important implications for youth across the state. 

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work? 

Thinking long term, it would be great if there could be sustainable, lasting change, and that we see a decrease in stigma and oppression so, ideally, that there's none. I don't think that that's going to happen in my lifetime, but that's the goal to work toward. I just want to see queer and trans kids grow up happy, healthy and have the same opportunities as other kids. I want them to be able to thrive and do what it is that they want to do and not have to deal with attacks at the policy level or in their families. So that's what I want to see happen.