Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer
An ongoing study conducted by the VCU School of Social Work is analyzing ways that pets and other forms of social support can impact the lives of LGBTQ youth.
The study, conducted by associate professor Shelby McDonald, is interviewing LGBTQ volunteers between 15 and 21 years old about their relationships with pets.
The study started in 2018 and has focused on the role of animals from the beginning. However, COVID-19 has added a new dimension to pets’ roles and has forced McDonald and her team to conduct all interviews via video conferences.
“We added questions about experiences with pets during the pandemic because we wanted to expand our focus to understand how pets might support gender and sexual minority youth who were forced to live at home in a family environment that might not affirm their identity,” McDonald said.
Interviewers asked LGBTQ volunteers about:
- Their relationships with their pets
- Stressors related to living with a pet
- The impact of pets on the stay-at-home experience
Some of the study’s participants were from VCU and others were referred by community organizations including Nationz, Health Brigade, Planned Parenthood and Side-By-Side. Before COVID-19, most of the interviews took place at the VCU School of Social Work.
A team of student researchers, a majority of whom identify within the LGBTQ community, assist the study alongside associate professors Alex Wagaman and Traci Wike.
Student assistants Caroline Richards and Ryan O’Ryan started working on the project through the Honors College summer research program and said they have become close friends while working on the team.
“I was excited to see research on queer people supported by queer professors on campus,” said Richards, a recently-graduated gender studies and sociology major.
Richards said there is “very limited” literature on the experience of queer people, and even less on their experiences with their pets.
“The goal is to see how the human-animal interaction might affect a person’s experience and well-being when faced with victimization,” said O’Ryan, a psychology and sociology double major.
McDonald, who has researched the role of animals in the lives of children for 10 years, said her research started focusing on LGBTQ youth two years ago.
McDonald said she’s heard scholars argue that dog-walking reinforces positive social interactions, but she kept hearing “horror stories” of gender-minority youth being “harassed and misgendered” while outside with their dogs.
McDonald says research on the benefits of pets is mainly focused on people who are not discriminated against by society. Because of this, pets may lead marginalized people to “a path of financial stress and housing instability,” issues McDonald says the LGBTQ community already struggles with.
Richards said pets can be stressors. Finding appropriate housing can be difficult, and the associated costs of pets can be high.
“Pets can better people’s lives,” Richards said, “but it’s also been interesting to see the ways in which pets can be stressors for people experiencing homelessness and financial insecurity.”
So far, researchers have conducted 164 initial interviews. McDonald says they have a fairly diverse mix of subjects, but she and her students agree there is still work to be done to include more people of color in this type of research.
“We’ve collected a pretty diverse bunch,” O’Ryan said, “but the participants we interviewed have been largely white, cisgender, bisexual women. I wish we had the chance to interview more people of color and more people from diverse gender identities.”
Richards said he hopes community organizations will help bring a more diverse mix of volunteers to the project.
“There’s always room for improvement, and there’s always more room to be intersectional,” Richards said.
O’Ryan and Richards both said having a research team with LGBTQ members may have given reassurance to young LGBTQ people volunteering for the study.
“People can come in knowing that this is for them,” O’Ryan said. “It’s very much designed to be a safe space.”
For more information or to join the study, email [email protected] or call 804-828-0410.