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Assessing the Status of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Students on Campus
Lisa Bernstein, Program Coordinator, AAC&U


There is still very little research documenting the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students on college campuses today. A new book, Toward Acceptance: Sexual Orientation Issues on Campus, begins to address this lack of evidence. It offers overviews of current research and models for what new assessments might be done.

Authors in Toward Acceptance critically review the existing empirical literature on this topic, summarize the findings of the current data-based research, and examine such topics as religiously affiliated institutions and sexual orientation, classroom issues for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, the role of ethnicity within the population, and strategies for becoming allies to these students. Articles in the book also provide recommendations for future study of these populations. Noting the dearth of published studies regarding lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students, the authors find that three themes dominate the current literature: the identity development process, experiences on campus, and health issues.

Current Research

Current studies suggest that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students experience high rates of discrimination and harrassment on campus; that classroom environment has an impact on students' coming-out experiences; and that developing an individual sexual identity is often linked to becoming politically active in support of gender and sexuality issues.

Toward Acceptance also reports some results of research concerning health issues of lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students. However, the authors caution that there are methodological flaws in much of the current research and further studies are needed. The published literature finds lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students more likely to be sexually active and to have more partners than heterosexual students. Research also shows that both heterosexual and gay, lesbian and bisexual college students report having changed their AIDS-risk behaviors in response to the AIDS epidemic.

Sketching a Research Agenda

In addition to summarizing results of published studies concerning lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students, authors in Toward Acceptance develop a research agenda based on their methodological critique of the existing literature. Based on their analysis of research design, sampling, data collection and data analysis, and discussion of results, they develop a set of guidelines for researching the lesbian, gay, and bisexual college student population.

Authors Kathleen J. Bieschke, Amy B. Eberz, and D'Andre Wilson recommend further attention to students' negative college experiences to see whether some students may be more or less targeted for discrimination or harrassment and how such an environment affects students' academic and emotional functioning. They also suggest that new research is needed on affirmative factors that may contribute to a positive and supportive campus climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. They advocate conducting further empirical studies addressing identity development issues that explore the different and unique aspects of this process in these particular populations as well as the connection between personal identity development and political activism. Finally, they support more conclusive research into the health behaviors of lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students as they relate to identity development and the coming out process.

A Model for Future Research

In another article, Wallace Eddy and Deanna S. Forney use the information gleaned from existing empirical research to create a model for future assessment of the status of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. Applying the reviewed theory of identity development and the literature concerning lesbian, gay, and bisexual students' experiences, they develop a measurement tool, called the Reflection Assessment Tool (RAT), to assess the campus environment as it affects these populations.

The RAT is designed for campus practitioners, such as educational advocacy groups, ad hoc study groups, and senior management groups, to gather information and to establish action plans for improving the campus environment with regard to lesbian, gay, and bisexual identity development.

The RAT is based on five elements identified by Widick, Parker, and Knefelkamp (1978) in the work of Erik Erikson (1968) as necessary for identity development: freedom from excessive anxiety, time for reflection and introspection, the experiencing of choice, experimentation with varied roles, and meaningful achievement. Accordingly, it consists of Reflective Thought Questions concerning these five areas. Section One asks questions that discern whether a campus environment affords gay, lesbian, and bisexual students freedom from excessive anxiety--for instance, through the inclusion of sexual orientation in the school's non-discrimination policy, a heterosexual population educated about lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues, and a tolerant climate in the residence halls.

Questions related to giving students time for reflection and introspection include whether the curriculum adequately addresses the needs of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, what campus and local clubs and organizations are available, whether religious affairs staff are open to and knowledgeable about issues of sexual identity, and whether safe spaces exist for lesbian, gay, and bisexual groups.

Relevant to students' experiencing choice are the existence of campus role models and such resources as texts and videos showing the normalcy of a variety of sexual identities. Questions assessing students' experimentation with varied roles include whether they have freedom and support to create their own organizations, to become peer helpers for others, and to connect to lesbian, gay, and bisexual community organizations. Finally, meaningful achievement depends on the role lesbian, gay, and bisexual students play in the institutional governance structure and the supportiveness of campus leaders in helping students become involved in meaningful campus and community activities.

Clearly, additional research is needed, but Toward Acceptance lays out a useful starting point and provides tools for campuses to begin to assess these students' experiences and improve the campus climate for them.

Sources: Erickson, Eric, Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: Norton, 1968); Wall, Vernon A. and Nancy J. Evans Toward Acceptance: Sexual Orientation Issues on Campus (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000); Widick, Carol, Lee Knefelkamp, and Clyde A. Parker, eds. Applying New Developmental Findings (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1978)


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