Research Spotlight: LGBQ College Students’ Diverging Narratives of Peer Behaviors: Harassment or Not Harassment?

A few decades ago, experiences of peer harassment were common among college students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ).  Since then, campus climates have substantially changed, and today, LGBT students’ experiences of peer harassment vary considerably across individuals.  That is, some report frequent experiences, and others report no experiences.  Scholars generally consider these variations as an indication that LGBQ students differ in their chances of facing peer harassment, but it is also possible that these variations result from interpretive differences.  In other words, similar peer behaviors may be viewed as harassment by some LGBQ students and as not harassment by others.  We explored the possibility in the forthcoming article in Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.  We analyzed data from in-depth interviews with LGBQ students in the Southeastern US.

There are two major sexuality discourses among LGBQ people in contemporary US—stigma discourse and post-closet discourse, and we argue that these discourses serve as LGBQ college students’ interpretive frames for peer behaviors.  Stigma discourse was prevalent before 2000s and emphasized LGBQ students’ challenges inside and outside college campuses, including peer rejection, harassment, and exclusion.  Fearing these negative consequences, many LGBQ students remained in the closet, which made them invisible on campus.  Some students disclosed their sexualities and became politically active because being an LGBQ person in a hostile environment required them to constantly resist to the environment.  Thus, their resistance was an important component of stigma discourse.

Post-closet discourse emerged in 2000s and emphasized that LGBQ people are accepted by their heterosexual peers and that they do not feel ashamed or make conscious efforts to sustain their pride.  Instead, they consider sexuality as only one part of who they are, and they emphasize their sameness with heterosexual peers, rather than differences.  Researchers vary in the ways they interpret the increasing prevalence of post-closet discourse, but many scholars critically argue that post-closet discourse tends to overlook or downplay the challenges that LGBQ students continue to face in society. 

Consistent with this argument, our analysis showed that LGBQ students interpreted similar peer behaviors differently by aligning their interpretations to stigma discourse and post-closet discourse.  Specifically, some participants drew on stigma discourse and reported that they regularly experienced and observed blatant harassment such as name calling as well as microaggressions such as stereotyping and jokes.  They explained that these incidents undermined their campus experiences, and they saw the incidents as a reflection of a hostile campus climate.

Others used post-closet discourse to interpret similar peer harassment incidents by describing those peer behaviors as isolated incidents and minimized its importance for the overall campus climate.  By doing so, they maintained the view that their institutions had a friendly climate.  For example, regarding invasive questions (i.e., possible microaggression), these students emphasized that these questions reflected peers’ positive motivations such as curiosity.  In another example, a lesbian student reported that her heterosexual male friend assumed she had male-typical interests.  Instead of describing the incident as negative stereotyping, the lesbian student described it as the male student’s friendly gesture to share interests with her, and she embraced her sameness with straight men.

Interpretations also varied among participants who did not experience harassment.  Some of them used post-closet discourse and straightforwardly interpreted their lack of harassment experience as an indication of an inclusive campus climate.  However, others constructed stigma narratives by emphasizing that harassment happened to other students even when those participants did not know or had not heard about specific incidents.  These students explained that they had not been a target of harassment because they were White and had gender conforming presentations and that harassment happened to LGBQ students of color and those who had gender nonconforming presentations.

By emphasizing the constructive aspect of students’ narratives, we do not claim that students distorted facts.  In a given social interaction, various cues were available for interpretations—some cues indicated heterosexual peers’ rejection, and others were neutral or indicated their acceptance.  As LGBQ students constructed their narratives, they emphasized certain cues and downplayed others, and there were individual differences in this process.  Yet, these differences were not random, and they formed two major patterns that were aligned to stigma discourse and post-closet discourse.

These results have important implications for student affairs practitioners, assessment professionals, and upper-level administrators.  Specifically, these stakeholders need to develop assessment tools that allow them to understand LGBQ students’ narrative construction.  Specifically, the assessments tools should include open-ended questions about experiences of potential peer harassment to solicit detailed information about how the incidents took place and what meaning the incidents have for the campus climate in students’ eyes.  Further, it is important to phrase the questions broadly to include potential harassment because students may downplay subtle cases and fail to report them. 

Regardless of data collection methods, assessments require careful analysis because self-reports may reflect LGBQ efforts to construct narratives.  For example, students who tell post-closet narratives may overlook peer behaviors that others consider as harassment, which would lead assessment and student affairs professionals to underestimate the extent of these behaviors.  Similarly, students who construct stigma narratives may overlook the progress that colleges have made to improve campus climate, and overemphasizing these students’ views in institutional assessments and administration may alienate LGBQ students who feel accepted on campus and heterosexual allies who strive to increase LGBQ students’ safety on campus. 

These findings also have significance for the daily work of college faculty and staff because they are an important source of support for LGBQ students.  We argue that frontline college personnel who directly interact with LGBQ students should be aware of their narrative construction, which might hinder the personnel’s ability to identify the needs of those students.  For example, LGBQ students who frame potential harassment as harmless may be successfully coping with the situation, but continuing to engage in such mental work may become stressful and negatively impact mental health and academic performance in a long run.  For this reason, we recommend that training and professional development programs for frontline college personnel should include the literature on narrative construction.

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