Campus Climate for Gay, Lesbian, Bi, and Transgender Students

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Historically gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students have been heavily stigmatized and subjected to harassment, discrimination, and violence.(Ellis, 2009) University and college campuses may be viewed as places for individuals to explore and express themselves freely. This may not be the case with GLBT individuals. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in a study done on 14 campuses, 51% of GLBT participants concealed their sexual identity to avoid negative consequences. ("Report Says Gay and Lesbian Students Face Hostility on Campuses," 2003) There is minimal research exploring GLBT students perception of campus climate. Furthermore, there is even less research that explores heterosexual students' perceptions of the GLBT campus climate. By comparing GLBT students' perceptions to that of heterosexual students, it would provide overall knowledge and awareness of the actual climate experienced by GLBT students.

Campus climate has been studied throughout many generations and as seen in research, measuring campus climate for minority groups has become more common among universities and colleges.(Jeff, 1999; Ponjuan & Hurtado, 2005; Sandler, 1988) It provides all members of the campus community with a better understanding of how the overall environment on campus is being perceived by these minorities. Sexual minorities are underrepresented in campus climate studies but many experience discrimination and harassment on college campuses. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that in 2009, 18.5% of hate crimes in the United States were motivated by sexual orientation bias.("Hate Crime Statistics," 2009) College is supposed to be a fun and exciting time for individuals and by looking at the campus climate for sexual minorities, steps can be taken to allow them to experience college to its fullest.

A consensus on a definition of campus climate has not been determined as shown in many in research studies. (Hart & Fellabaum, 2008; Kendra, 2006; Snyder, Bauer, & Shenkle, 1998) For the purpose of this study, the definition for campus climate defined by Dr. Susan Rankin, a well-known author in campus climate studies, will be used. "…the cumulative attitudes, behaviors, and standards of employees and students concerning access for, inclusion of, and level of respect for individual and group needs, abilities, and potential."(S. R. Rankin, 2005, p. 17) Rankin (2008) uses 3 factors to measure campus climate: personal campus experience, perceptions of campus, and perceptions of institutional actions.(S. Rankin & Reason, 2008)

Personal Campus Experience

The goals of most, if not all, higher education institutions are to educate their students, provide a safe environment, and give each individual an equal opportunity to succeed. A student's perception of their academic experience is often determined by how well these goals are met. Research shows that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transvestite (GLBT) students often perceive their academic experience more negatively than those of heterosexual students. (Robert, Brandy, Valerie, & Rachael, 2004; Waldo, 1998) Although most universities and colleges have an anti-discrimination policy in place, homophobia, discrimination, and harassment still remain issues on university and college campuses. In 2010, Franklin reported that 10% of heterosexual students on a college campus admitted to physically harming or threatening to harm an individual who they believed to be homosexual. Furthermore, 24% admitted to calling others anti-gay names such as gay, dyke, homo, etc.(Franklin, 2010) Instances such as these create a negative and even hostile environment for GLBT students. It is difficult to concentrate on academics and social life, when an individual does not feel safe in the campus environment. Campus climate surveys identify these personal experiences and how they affect the individuals' perception of the campus.

Perceptions of Campus

Going to college is something that most students look forward to. Choosing a university/college can sometimes be a difficult choice. One component of an individual's choice to attend and remain at the school is how the campus is perceived. College classrooms, activities, athletics, clubs, and overall campus should be a place where students feel safe and welcomed. By taking into account personal experiences and observing how other individuals are being treated on campus, can give a person an idea of how respectful and accepting the campus is.

Perceptions of Institutional Actions

Institutional actions may have the most effect on the campus climate for all students and more specifically minorities. There are many options for institutions for increasing awareness and acceptance of sexual minority students. Ben-Ari (1998) describes ways in which individuals homophobic attitudes can be changed.(Ben-Ari, 1998) He states, "homophobia can be confronted in at least three ways: exploring one's history, learning the facts, and getting to know lesbians and gay men. (Ben-Ari, 1998, p. 62) Institutions can play a major role in these three areas. By informing students of the facts and encouraging positive interactions with GLBT students, it possible that many heterosexual students will experience a shift in the way that they had previously viewed GLBT students. Also, institutions providing information and resources will benefit GLBT students by providing them with the knowledge of opportunities and resources that are available to them.

Professors, faulty, and staff also have a major impact on GLBT students' college experiences. They can provide a safe and accepting classroom and learning environment for these students. If these institution employees display non-tolerant attitudes for homophobia and all anti-gay acts, students are likely to respond in a similar manner. Hiring staff and faculty member that are GLBT is also a major benefit to the school. This provides the GLBT students with someone on campus that they feel as though can relate to. It is sometimes difficult for GLBT students to deal with the challenges that face them while attending a college or university and these faculty members serve as an outlet for these students.

Institutions should include GLBT studies into curriculums, as appropriate, to provide GLBT students with opportunities to be involved in academic studies that reflect them. In the state of Texas, there is only one out of 208 universities and colleges that offers a minor in GLBT studies. GLBT students like any other student, need to feel as though they are part of the college experience and by offering courses that discuss sexual minorities, these students feel more included in their college or university,

Institutions can help promote a more positive campus climate by providing a resource center for GLBT students to go when they do not feel safe on campus or are faced with challenges or negative experiences. These individuals need a place where they know that their concerns will be taken seriously and where they can go for help.

When you combine the 3 factors, personal experience, perception of campus, and institutional actions you can get a clear idea of how an individual perceives their overall campus climate. This study looks at both heterosexual and GLBT students' views of the campus climate for GLBT students to see if there is a difference between their perceptions. It is hypothesized that GLBT students will view the campus climate for GLBT students more negatively than heterosexual students.

Method

Sample

All of the participants in this study were full-time undergraduate students at the University of Texas San Antonio with ages ranging from 18 to 26.

GLBT Students

GLBT students were sampled using a snowballing technique. 54 (29 female and 25 male) participants identified their sexual orientation as gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual. Of these 54 students, 15 identified as lesbian, 22 as gay, 3 as transgender (all of which identified themselves as female), and 14 as bisexual (11 female and 3 male). Of the participants, 27 (%50) were Caucasian, 15 (28%) Hispanic, 3 (6%) African American and 9 (17%) Other.

Heterosexual Students

Convenience sampling design was used to recruit heterosexual students. They were recruited through introduction to psychology courses, in which the course required them to participate in an online survey. All of the students identified themselves as heterosexual. 85 (52 female and 33 male) students identified their sexual orientation as heterosexual. 49 (57%) of these students were Caucasian, 30 (36%) Hispanic, 1 (1%) African American and 5 (6%) Other.

Measurement

The instrument used in this study is the Assessment of Campus Climate for Underrepresented Groups. It is composed of 55 items and 1 page for additional comments. This instrument is composed of three factors: personal campus experience, perceptions of campus, and perceptions institutional actions. These factors were determined by conducting an exploratory factor analysis and all three having eigenvalues over 1 and factor loadings over .40. Reliability analysis of these factors yielded fairly strong alpha coefficients; personal campus experience (r=.84), perceptions of campus (r=.81), and perceptions of institutional actions (r=.74). (S. Rankin & Reason, 2008) The author of the instrument, Susan Rankin, was contacted by email for more information regarding reliability and validity of the instrument but her response did not provide any more information.

Procedure

The study first had to receive Institutional Review Board approval before it was conducted. Once approval was received, the survey was posted online at www.surveymonkey.com. The survey was available online for 6 weeks. Because the purpose of this study was to compare GLBT students' opinions to that of heterosexual students, a random sample was not appropriate. A random sample would result in the opinions of the majority sexuality so a snowball sample was used to recruit GLBT students to participate. It is often difficult to study statistical minorities and snowball sampling is a technique that can assist in the recruitment of these individuals. (Salganik & Heckathorn, 2004)

After the survey was posted, the faculty supervisor of the GLBT club on campus was contacted and informed about the study. He then agreed to send an email to all club members that included: a link to the survey, information about the study, and requesting that the student share this information with other GLBT undergraduate students.

Professors of intro to psychology courses were also contacted to inquire about having their students participate. Of the 3 professors contacted, all agreed to inform their students of the study and to offer credit that would fulfill the courses requirement to participate in an online survey. An optional item was added to the survey requesting that students that were participating for credit in an intro to psychology course enter their name. After the survey was no longer available online a list of these names were given to the professors so that the students could receive credit for their participation. These students' names will in no way be connected or recorded with their responses.

After the survey deadline, data was recorded into an SPSS spreadsheet on a password protected computer and to insure confidentiality all students' names were removed and all participants were given a unique ID as to conceal their identity. Due to the sensitivity of the responses gathered, anonymity in this study was essential.

Analyses were then run to compare the perceptions of the campus climate for GLBT students by that of GLBT students and heterosexual students.

Discussion

The results of this study were consistent with previous research in that GLBT students' views of the campus climate for GLBT students were more negative than that of heterosexual students.(Robert, et al., 2004; Waldo, 1998) This suggests that heterosexual students are less aware of the overall campus climate for GLBT students. 65% of GLBT students reported experiencing a level of harassment that interfered with their ability to learn. Whereas, only 20% of heterosexual students reported that they believed that GLBT students were harassed to a level that interfered with the student's academics. Because the level of harassment was so high, there may need to be institutional actions taken to reduce this. Such a difference in percentages suggests that heterosexuals may be unaware or oblivious to GLBT students being harassed and the levels of severity. 90% of GLBT students and only 19% of heterosexual students reported that they would challenge others on derogatory commits made about GLBT students. These results show that heterosexual students are more tolerant of anti-gay slurs and although they may or may not be making the remarks, they are allowing GLBT students to be harassed and discriminated against.

An item that both GLBT and heterosexual students scored similar on was included in the factor institutional actions. Both sample groups agreed that there was a lack of awareness/sensitivity programs on campus and that by adding more, it would considerably improve awareness of the campus community. These findings could add to previous research in support that students view having on campus GLBT awareness/sensitivity program as being a positive movement in the acceptance of GLBT students.

Heterosexual females were more likely to view the campus as having anti-gay characteristics than heterosexual males. This is also consistent with previous research (Robert, et al., 2004) and shows that male heterosexual students may need more awareness of the actual experiences of GLBT students.

Limitations

There were several limitations of this study that need to be taken into account when interpreting the findings. First, the study did not use a random sampling technique and therefore, there is a greater likely hood of sampling error. The sample used in this study only included undergraduate students from intro to psychology courses and a select group of GLBT students. Because of this, the findings may not be representative of all students on campus. Furthermore, the overall sample size (N=139) was extremely small considering the university enrollment (approximately N=30,000). In order to get a better estimate of all students perceptions, future research in this area may want to want to use a larger broader sample of students.

Secondly, this study was conducted at only one university. Because of this, its findings are only specific to that university.

Thirdly, specific reliability and validity information for the instrument was not available and so the findings may not be accurate. Future research in this area may want to further probe the author of the instrument for this information or possibly use an instrument in which reliability and validity information is available.

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