LGBT Students Perceptions of Campus Life

Journal Club #7: S. J. Ellis, Diversity and inclusivity at university: a survey of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) students in the UK, Higher Education, 2009, 57, 723 – 739.

A recent conversation led me on the trail of looking to see what literature exists on issues around transition from school to college for LGBT students. The answer, briefly, is very little. Most studies on LGBT issues in college are based in the US, and most of these appear to be relate to staff rather than students. One paper that came close is this one, examining campus climate in 42 UK universities by surveying students.

The entire topic is fraught with difficulties. As the paper states, it is difficult to determine if there is under-representation (or if there is a greater dropout rates) of LGBT students as we don’t have any population information; either of each year’s class (or indeed of the population as a whole). Therefore, it is difficult to state if there is a problem at all. However, given there is data at second level, regarding greater levels of truancy, early exit and underachievement at second level, it seems a logical statement that there is at the very least cause for monitoring third level, although LGBT students are not typically included under the “widening participation” umbrella. In addition, college is often the first time students are not living at home, and are free from constraints of second level and parents.

The study sampled 291 self-selected LGBT students, mostly undergraduate, from 42 HE institutions in the UK. The survey consisted 25 questions covering four themes: actual harassment, perceptions of campus climate, campus climate and outness, and LGBT inclusiveness.

Actual Harassment/Discrimination

About 1/4 of students surveyed had experienced actual harassment, consisting of derogatory remarks, threats of violence or verbal abuse, pressure to conceal, and a small number of actual physical assault. This was mostly perpetrated by other students, with a very small number of academic staff (4.4%) and other staff involved. Some particularly unpleasant scenarios are reported, perpetrated by members of religious groups/societies. In another case involving staff, presenters at an LGBT stand were asked not to make the stand “too overt”. Remarks in this category were most frequent with other people, followed by friends, followed by academic staff.

Perception of Campus Climate

Just under 2 in 5 students surveyed considered that they thought anti-LGBT issues existed to some extent on campus, although only a small amount felt that an LGBT person was likely to be harassed on campus. Male respondents were significantly more likely to think this, suggesting that most harassment is directed to this group.

Campus Climate and Outness

4 out of 5 students agreed that they felt comfortable being out on campus, although half conceal their sexual identity to certain groups to avoid the threat of harassment. 2 in 5 avoid revealing to an academic staff member or tutor for fear of negative consequences.

LGBT Inclusiveness

Opinion was evenly split as to whether universities addressed campus issues relating to inclusiveness. Less than 1 in 5 agreed that LGBT issues were adequately dealt with in the curriculum.

Summary and discussion

Overall the study is reasonably positive, with data suggesting that homophobia is not overwhelming, but is prevalent. The question that arises for me is what extent do universities as institutions and in terms of lecturing/tutoring staff be involved in representing LGBT issues in terms of dedicated LGBT support, in terms of curricula, and in terms of creating a more accepting, more mature culture. I do feel that institutions pass the buck somewhat is allowing LGBT societies take up much of the support work needed. In reality, change will only come, and more research on this topic will only emerge, if LGBT students are included in the diversity umbrella, and hence have a link with the funding of institutions.

2 thoughts on “LGBT Students Perceptions of Campus Life

  1. Over the past few years I’ve had several ‘conversations’ with students who have used the word gay as an insult to their fellow, male, students. It gets scrawled on registers next to names, used as an all purpose descriptive insult etc. I’m sick of it and I believe any member of staff encountering that kind of attitude should interrogate it. For some students it is a habit picked up with no thought to the meaning of the term, like most swear words or insults I fear. For others it is deliberate and hateful. I agree entirely that creating safe and diverse campuses is the responsibility of all, not just the lgbt societies (or other societies). The question then becomes how to support a group that may not wish, for very legitimate reasons, to self identify? Including lgbt issues under diversity is definitely the way forward but helping staff confront things in a positive way would help as well. I won’t tolerate discrimination, deliberate or otherwise, in my classroom and my students are warned of this from day one. I’m possibly getting more uncompromising on the matter…

    1. Thanks Katherine. Yes, it’s that point where you see something where you can speak up and make a point of it or shrug your shoulders. We’re all busy, and it is probably easier to to tut tut and not say anything, but I hope I would always say something.

      The paper mentioned staff training programmes, but said that the experience was that it was usually those already sensitive to the issues tended to turn up (sound familiar?!)

      I have this image of you with a taser gun now, ready to zap anyone who dares 🙂

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