How “Chilly” Climates for LGBTQ+ Students Deepen Inequalities on Campus

When someone brings up “chilly” campus climates, it might draw forth images of female students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classrooms. In fact, a long history of scholarly research traces the ways STEM fields have been unwelcoming toward women students, faculty, and workers. This chilly environment translates into lower pay than male counterparts, more distant relationships with shot-callers in the field (e.g., supervisors and professors) than the ones men benefit from, and much more. These sorts of shortcomings often lead women to either leave STEM fields or never enter them in the first place.

But women aren’t the only ones who suffer the chill in STEM specifically or on college campuses more broadly. Scholars have found that underrepresented racial minorities and LGBTQ+ (or queer) people also face a chill—and that goes for both students and faculty. Facing unwelcoming environments on campus (e.g., classrooms and research labs) can and does translate into education and career disparities between women and men, people of color and whites, and – as is becoming clearer – queer people and straight people.

When I was conducting interviews with queer college students for my master’s thesis on allyship, I noticed that several respondents initiated conversations about classroom experiences, coursework and projects, relationships with their instructors and advisors, and other curricular college aspects not quite tied to my initial research focus. Still, their narratives sparked a new interest for me. How were students discussing the majors and disciplines they perceived to be better or worse at broaching queer topics and supporting queer students? I published on this very topic in a new article in the Journal of LGBT Youth.

Overall, I found that queer students perceived a welcoming/unwelcoming split in college majors and disciplines. I named the unwelcoming majors “queer-free”, which meant that students felt those spaces were often made to be or should be devoid of discussions about sexuality. One person I spoke with, Sadie, told me that when she tried to start a discussion about sexual minorities’ transportation needs in a community planning course, her professor and peers didn’t really engage with the topic at all and the conversation quickly moved on from her point. Understandably, she felt like she’d done something wrong by bringing it up at all. Another person, Gary, said he couldn’t understand why anyone would expect discussion of sexuality to come up in a biology class: “Biology people don’t think about this. They don’t think about how people interact with each other. They think about how mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.” However, it wasn’t just classroom discussions that were made queer-free. At times, students felt like they as queer people were the pieces that did not fit in certain disciplines. This was especially pronounced among my trans respondents. Take Veronica, for example, who said that because French was a gendered language she had to put up with constant misgendering. Through my analysis, I found that heterosexism and transphobia made several curricular spaces of college – beyond just STEM fields – unwelcoming places for queer students.

I named the majors that students made out to be welcoming fields “queer-friendly”. These majors tended to be in the social sciences and humanities, and they were ones where students felt they could more easily engage in queer class discussions, be their authentic queer selves, and seek out support from faculty and staff. Tonya told me that her sociology classes “often talk[ed] about groups and culture, so things surrounding the queer community can come up.” Likewise, Austin told me that she’d only ever outed herself as a sexual minority in her English classes; when I asked why she’d never come out in any of the other classes she said, “It just [hadn’t] come up.” It became clear to me that students’ experiences and majors’ reputations were driving forces behind the queer-free and queer-friendly split.

Though I understand this distinction is likely a defense mechanism to protect queer students, I argue that such a split deepens inequalities on college campuses. For starters, it isn’t fair to any student to have to consider where they might face less heterosexism or transphobia when they are choosing a major—this is a consideration straight and cisgender students never have to make. Academic majors have implications for what sorts of careers students have access to in the future, so queer students should not be constrained in their selections. Moreover, because chilly climates extend into the professoriate, women and faculty of color are also more likely to be concentrated in queer-friendly disciplines. On one hand, this could mean queer students receive the support they seek. On the other hand, this could mean that woman and people of color, who already perform a disproportionate amount of service work in universities in relation to men and white people, also do the lion’s share of work when it comes to mentoring, advising, and supporting queer students. 

Ultimately, I recommended two practices in my article based on my findings. The first was mandatory Safe Zones and Allies education trainings for all faculty and staff. If nothing else, such a mandate could try to establish a baseline for all college professional staff in supporting queer students. The second was LGBTQ+ affinity groups in departments and colleges, especially those viewed as queer-free. For example, if queer engineering students can meet in hyper-visible ways, and if they have the support and guidance of a faculty advisor, I believe they could begin to change the faulty narratives that queer people do not exist in engineering and that queer issues do not intersect with engineering.

When it comes to supporting queer students in college, educators and administrators shouldn’t rest until the entire campus could be considered queer-friendly.

TehQuin D. Forbes is a doctoral student in Sociology at Florida State University. He employs qualitatively-driven mixed methods to study how inequalities are reproduced through well-intentioned interactions and practices, especially as it concerns queer people of color. He does so by drawing on social constructionist and intersectionality perspectives. His current work has been published in outlets such as Social Problems, Sociological Perspectives, and Journal of LGBT Youth.

The feature image is from the Durango Herald.

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