The research experience of a mobile queer scholar (Nikos Lexis Dacanay)

Photo by Waranont (Joe) | Unsplash 

From 12-16 April 2021, La Trobe University is celebrating PRIDE Week. 

PRIDE Week is a fantastic opportunity to show support for our sex, gender, and sexuality diverse community members. 

La Trobe University is fortunate to have researchers undertaking innovative LGBTIQA+ scholarship. This week the RED Alert blog will be sharing posts focused on the experiences of our diverse LGBTIQA+ researchers and profile some of the fantastic LGBTIQA+ research that our scholars are contributing to.

In this post Nikos Lexis Dacanay reflects on his current and past research work with queer subjects in Southeast Asia and what it means to be a Filipino queer scholar based in Melbourne. 

Follow #LTUPRIDE2021 if you are participating online! 


I’m currently a PhD candidate with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at the School of Psychology and Public Health. I’m studying the risk environment inhabited (and pleasures experienced) by migrant male sex workers (MSW) in Thailand.

I guess what got me interested in this subject is my past research and development work in Southeast Asia. From 2003 – 2006, I lived in Bangkok and studied Thai men who go to gay saunas for my master’s thesis. In 2013, I did another master’s and this time I studied a community-based organization in Jakarta where young gay men use social media to encourage other young gay men in the city to access HIV counseling and get tested for HIV. In between finishing these two master’s degrees, I was involved with different non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Thailand where I worked with migrants from Myanmar and with civil society representatives to the board of UNAIDS, the United Nations Joint Programme to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In retrospect, I think my experience in studying queer identities as well as working on health and other issues of key populations at the grassroots and policy levels has shaped the ways I am now framing mobile and cross-border male sex workers in Thailand. These academic and development endeavors have also profoundly shaped my understanding of myself as a Filipino queer scholar and my own personal politics. For instance, while I identify as gay, I am conscious of how this term is grounded in my owned lived experience and different positions of privilege and marginality, and informed and influenced by the different systems of gender and sexuality operating in the Southeast Asian contexts where I have lived.

Researching at La Trobe University as an international student and queer scholar

I remember on my first day at La Trobe university, some of the people at the Centre were discussing and theorizing different kinds of sexual practices in the pantry while sipping coffee. I knew right then and there that this was a safe environment for me!

I want to describe ARCSHS as a self-contained lesbian, gay, trans and gender diverse, intersex and queer (LGBTIQA+)-friendly zone. The walls in the office are covered with beautiful LGBTIQA+ posters, and I think that many PhD students here identify within the LGBTIQA+ spectrum. In the office, people discuss sex, drugs, queer subjectivities and health in a non-judgmental manner. On my first week, after my supervisors had welcomed me, the next order of business was orienting me to the LGBTIQA+ scenes in the city – the venues and events in Fitzroy, the queer film festival, the pride celebrations, and the different LGBTIQA+ social groups. Eventually, I also learned about the different LGBTIQA+ support systems provided by the university and the city of Melbourne.

For someone not used to a dizzying array of activities specifically organized and tailored around LGBTIQA+ identities, everything was both exciting and overwhelming. I’ve never seen queer communities so very visible and public.  At the same time, I can’t help but also wonder: how do LGBTIQA+ people of color in Melbourne see themselves within the larger LGBTIQA+ community/ies? How do aboriginal LGBTIQA+ individuals articulate their queer identities vis-à-vis their racial and other political identities?

I also find myself constantly reflecting about home and wondering what an enabling environment for LGBTIQA+s in Southeast Asia might potentially open up. How might more publicly visible and supported queer communities lead to better and more fulfilling queer lives?  Would it lead to better harm reduction programs? Would it be able to significantly reduce the now rising HIV infections amongst young gay men, men who have sex with men (MSM) and male sex workers?

My takeaways from my PhD experience in Melbourne

I’ve still got a long way to go before I finish my PhD. But as early as now I’m observing some things that I think would be interesting to follow in the Southeast Asian context. ARCSHS works closely with the Rainbow Health Victoria, a program funded by the Victorian State that supports LGBTIQA+ health and well-being. Many of the research projects of ARCSHS feed into the activities of Rainbow Health, informing their training, resources and policy advice. I think this model of close collaboration between a research center and an LGBTIQA+ program is important as research is translated into evidence-based policy interventions and services for LGBTIQA+  communities. I think this kind of collaboration could really benefit development and advocacy work in Southeast Asia. 

Moreover, I think collaboration between and amongst queer scholars in Southeast Asia can also be productive. I observe that in my centre, researchers work together from across disciplines and with other researchers from other universities, allowing for sharing of ideas. I think that if there are more joint LGBTIQA+ research projects by different disciplines and universities in the region, a research agenda can be mapped out that can touch on relevant issues affecting LGBTIQA+ communities.

I’m really happy to be celebrating Pride Week with others here at La Trobe University, and I’m sure the energy from the celebration will motivate me as I continue to think about ways I can contribute to the bigger project of queer emancipation in Southeast Asia.


Nikos Lexis Dacanay is a graduate researcher with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University. Under Associate Professor Adam Bourne, he is studying the role of insecure and uncertain environments of migrant male sex workers in Thailand in producing and increasing their risk to HIV infection. Nikos is from the Philippines and - before starting his PhD – had been based in Thailand since 2009.