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Student Attitudes Toward Gay and Lesbian Issues: The Impact of College
Diana Kardia, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan

Students enter college with varying levels of knowledge and diverse perspectives on lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people. Entering students’ attitudes mirror the varied reactions to this topic in the larger society where homosexuality remains a controversial social and political topic. As with other social issues, college offers students a unique opportunity to confront and explore the meanings of their reactions to issues of sexual orientation through both curricular and extra-curricular discussions.

Theoretically, the goals of intellectual exploration, academic freedom, and critical thinking are consistent with such an examination and provide the context in which the respect and tolerance needed to sustain diverse communities can be promoted. But is this happening on today’s campuses?

Survey and interview data collected at the University of Michigan suggest that it is. The following conclusions are drawn from longitudinal survey data collected from over 1000 students at entrance to college (September, 1990) and again near the end of four continuous years at the university (March, 1994) as well as interviews conducted with individuals from this cohort during the Spring and Summer of 1994.

This study found five key results. First, the majority of students became more accepting of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people during their four years at college. Sixty to seventy percent of students entering with negative attitudes became more accepting and 50% of those entering with ambivalent attitudes displayed more positive attitudes at the end of four years. For instance, one student we interviewed who prided herself on being “open-minded” described her pre-college attitude this way: “Oh, that is embarrassing! Beforehand it was sort of an “ugghh” type of concept, before I came here, because I didn’t know anything about it.” In college, she found herself “being more exposed to it, and learning more about it, and understanding it more.”

Second, on average, women entered college with more accepting attitudes than men and also increased their acceptance over four years more than men. These gender differences correlated with women having higher scores than men on indicators relating to cognitive, social, and moral identity development.

Third, getting to know lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people was a primary mechanism through which students’ attitudes changed. For students who entered college with negative attitudes, contact through casual acquaintances and classmates helped students re-examine prior stereotypes and assumptions. For students who entered college with ambivalent or positive attitudes, contact through close friendships with a lesbian, gay male, or bisexual person helped bring meaning and conviction to students’ attitudes.

Fourth, attention to this topic through curricular and co-curricular programming helped to establish norms of respect and promoted thoughtful considerations of these issues. One student described a class discussion: “In one class, a fellow student talked about lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people...the people in the class were receptive, it was a good group. We were able to really ask personal questions, to ask what we were curious about.” Curricular and co-curricular programming on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues seemed to minimize polarized or reactive contexts for dialogues about these issues. These settings also promoted students’ acceptance by providing accurate information on the topic and by promoting the visibility of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people on campus.

Finally, this study found that fraternities and student religious groups are two peer environments that countered the more general trend on campus. Participation in fraternities was associated with male students’ attitudes becoming more negative over four years. Participation in student religious groups was associated with a lack of change in students’ attitudes on this topic.

This research is clearly just a starting point. We need to understand better how students traverse the uncomfortable, sometimes antagonistic terrain associated with communities in which lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people are a visible presence. Higher education is a setting in which individuals can become more accepting of the diversity of American communities. We need more institutional experience and additional research to help them do this.

Complete agreement within the student population regarding these matters is not possible or desirable. However, mutual respect and acceptance of difference are necessary, attainable, and consistent with the goals of a liberal education. Addressing issues of sexuality in diversity programming and research will help us to achieve these goals.

For a fuller description of the survey’s results and methodologies, see DiversityWeb at http://www.diversityweb.org/
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