Lisa Forest, University of North Texas
Most academic advisors have worked with gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT) students, although they may not have realized it. Sexual orientation and gender identities are 'hidden' and often must be deliberately disclosed before others become aware. In order to better serve GLBT students, academic advisors need to create an affirming environment so students feel safe discussing their concerns. Otherwise, we lose an important opportunity to help GLBT students prepare for the academic and professional barriers they may face.
The challenges GLBT students and professionals encounter are frequently the result of laws, institutions, and cultural norms that have a homonegative or heterosexist basis. Heterosexism is the bias that heterosexuality is superior to, or more natural than, homosexuality or bisexuality. Heterosexism functions as the glue that holds barriers (e.g., discrimination, oppression, stigmatization, etc.) against GLBT persons in place. For example, because no federal law exists that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, GLBT persons are often confronted with job security concerns and have credible reason to fear being a target of discrimination.
Advisors must understand how identity management (i.e., deciding when and if to disclose one's sexual or gender identity) affects students' academic success and career decision-making. We should be prepared to help students discern and prioritize their career values so they can make well-informed decisions. Additionally, advisors should become knowledgeable about the realities of oppression and provide students with guidance based in research.
Although research in this area has increased during the past ten years, there is still a dearth of information regarding academic and career development in the GLBT population (Schmidt, 2003). A review of the literature revealed significant barriers GLBT students encounter. GLBT students reported harassment in classrooms and dorms, professors who neglected or negated academic discussion of GLBT-related issues, the detrimental effect of faculty and staff who presume heterosexuality, lost time devoted to studies to protect themselves from discrimination, and daily monitoring of the environment to make wise identity management decisions (Lopez & Chism, 1993). Gay and lesbian students have survived gay-related hate crimes on college campuses and wrestled with feelings of isolation (Leider, 2000). Lesbian women have perceived less respect and acceptance on campus than their heterosexual female peers (Thomlinson & Fassinger, 2003).
Simultaneous identities development
Individuals frequently crystallize social and career identities during adolescence. GLBT adolescents undergo an additional challenge associated with the integration of a stigmatized sexual or gender identity. Utilizing one's psychological energy to defend against societal rejection and oppression detracts from energy given to academic and professional development (Schmidt, 2003). Indeed, many gays and lesbians report their academic and professional pursuits are compromised or placed 'on hold' during their coming out process (Boatwright, Gilbert, Forrest, and Ketzenberger, 1996; Dunkle, 1996; Fassinger, 1996; Leider, 2000; Lopez and Chism, 1993; Mobley & Slaney, 1996; Tomlinson & Fassinger, 2003), sometimes prompting faculty, advisors, and students themselves to falsely conclude they are professionally immature or 'behind' (Prince, 1995).
Importance of affirming environment
Many people cannot successfully complete developmental stages unless they feel emotionally safe (Rheineck, 2005), making an affirming campus climate crucial to the successful academic development of GLBT students (Bieschke & Matthews, 1996; Degges-White & Shoffner, 2002; Fassinger, 1996; Leider, 2000; Lopez & Chism, 1993; Mobley & Slaney, 1996; Nauta, Saucier, & Woodard, 2001; Rheineck, 2005; Tomlinson & Fassinger, 2003). So important is climate, that it has more influence on the career development of lesbians than the degree to which they accept their sexual orientation (Tomlinson and Fassinger, 2003). (The process of discovering, accepting, disclosing, and celebrating one's sexual identity to oneself and to others, termed sexual identity development, is often conceptualized using the theories put forth by Cass, 1979, or McCarn & Fassinger, 1996.)
Nauta, Saucier, & Woodard (2001) found that GLB students reported significantly less support for their academic and career development than their heterosexual peers, a strong need for role models, and a preference for GLB role models or heterosexual role models who are GLB allies. Allies and GLB role models are important parts of an affirming campus climate.
GLBT individuals utilize identity management to cope with discrimination (Chung, 2001), and advisors should be prepared to thoroughly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of disclosing one's sexual or gender identity at work or on campus. For example, students should know that closeted gays and lesbians tend to be less satisfied in their work than 'out' workers (Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Degges-White & Shoffner, 2002). Closeted employees report more internal conflicts (i.e., interpret their non-disclosure as betraying their true identities and their group), anxiety, fear that their sexual orientation will be discovered, and the pressure of vigilantly maintaining a false identity (Boatwright, Gilbert, Forrest, & Ketzenberger).
There are benefits to remaining in the closet, however. Closeted lesbians tend to earn more money, report fewer feelings of isolation and instances of harassment, and experience more networking and advancement opportunities than lesbians who have come out (Degges-White & Shoffner, 2002; House, 2004). Regardless of identity management strategy, though, some discrimination is unavoidable. For example, many GLBT employees do not receive the same benefits that are granted to heterosexuals, such as health insurance for their life partners or use of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
To facilitate the career development of GLBT students at the University of North Texas and to increase their perception of UNT as a supportive environment, the GLBT Career Development program was developed and is implemented each semester at UNT. In the program, student participants discuss and prepare for the academic and professional barriers of greatest importance to them. Additionally, they focus on developing effective coping strategies, including an identity management strategy. The program seeks to increase GLBT students' commitment to, and self-confidence in, achieving their academic and professional goals. Request more information, including the results of a follow-up study, by contacting me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was intended to facilitate a greater understanding of the needs and concerns of GLBT students and future professionals. I am sincerely grateful to advisors who give of their time and talents to help bring about equal opportunity for all student populations.
University of North Texas
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Cite this article using APA style as: Forest, L. (2006, December). Advising gay,lesbian,bisexual,and transgender students. Academic Advising Today, 29(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]