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This Just Published: What's new in LGBTQ+

by Brett Ranon Nachman | Oct 9, 2017

This Just Published logo, WISCAPE
Brett Ranon Nachman is a ​doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a ​project assistant for WISCAPE. His research primarily focuses on the experiences and depictions of college students on the autism spectrum, as well as STEM community college students’ experiences and transfer pathways.

This inaugural post showcases how recent higher education literature has addressed the LGBTQ+ community. Three articles are covered.

Miller, R. A. (2017). "My voice is definitely strongest in online communities": Students using social media for queer and disability identity-making. Journal of College Student Development58(4), 509-525.

View the journal article.

The experiences of LGBTQ college students are overlooked, and even more so in capturing their lives in digital landscapes. Add in the intersectional identity of having a disability, and you have a novel study that looks at the complexity of a population only recently receiving mainstream attention in higher education literature. Journal of College Student Development published an article based on Miller’s qualitative study of how 25 LGBTQ college students with disabilities navigate and make sense of themselves via a variety of social networking platforms.

As the author notes in the literature review section, social media can serve as a double-edged sword for doubly minoritized populations, in that they serve as settings for constructing identities, but can also be prime ground for further isolation and bullying. Through conducting a situational analysis that utilized many elements of grounded theory, Miller’s social media-based study, which derives from a larger study, offers insight into the challenges that emerge in these students coming into their own, albeit virtually. 

Semi-structured interviews with these students, consisting of both undergrads and graduate students, revealed fascinating themes. For one, their identities were multifaceted and varied. Though most participants were white, more than one-third of the sample identified as Mexican American, Chicana/o or Latina/o. Queer students accounted for a majority of the sample. Most notably, the diversity of the participants’ disabilities makes this a fascinating portrait of LGBTQ college students. A majority of participants identified as having a mental health issues or psychological disability. Other conditions, including learning disabilities and being on the autism spectrum, accounted for others’ identities.

Based on his conversations with students, Miller identified the prevalence of the students’ expressions of their own intersectionality. These students’ ability to connect with other individuals on online spaces allowed for a multitude of positive experiences, including feeling validation about their identities and advocating for causes. That said, some students experienced mixed reactions to relationship-based platforms and found some online communities to promote negative content. As Miller wrote, “engagement with social media gave students in this study a chance to explore their identities, and, for some, to cement how they identified or gain new language that prompted a revelation.”

The author acknowledges some important limitations, including its large PWI context. This framework does not make the study representative, especially for institutions that may have more closeted individuals, both in terms of their sexuality and disabilities. Even more, due to the constant emergence of new social media platforms, it is also a time capsule of this place and era. The study’s merit, though, is evident for several reasons.

For one, the novelty of the subject matter adds both relevance and further significance to the rich results gathered from these interviews. The quotes from a select number of students are rife with self-awareness. Second, the pool of participants, based on sexual orientation, disability type, and other demographic factors, captures a wider breadth than many studies that look at one factor of an individual, let alone the intersectionality of several characteristics. Third, the discussion section, especially, reveals the nuanced complexity of these students’ lives in a digital realm fraught with both inspiration and ambiguity.

For its impressive execution of capturing a multifaceted population, complemented by the insightful data gleaned from these students, Miller’s study offers opportunities for further inquiry that can build upon on exploring the role of social media, and perhaps particular platforms like Twitter, in both fostering and inhibiting minoritized college students’ development. The onslaught of new tools each year will only encourage scholars to examine the role they have in influencing how users communicate with and perceive one another.

Nicolazzo, Z., Pitcher, E. N., Renn, K. A., & Woodford, M. (2017). An exploration of trans* kinship as a strategy for student success. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education30(3), 305-319.

View the journal article.

Developing bonds, or kinship, among fellow college students is often an essential part of any experience, but not all groups are always captured in exploring these types of studies. Z Nicolazzo, Erich Pitcher, Kirsten Renn, and Michael Woodford look at the networks that trans* students have forged and been involved in, as well as how this impacted these students’ success, in a qualitative study featuring narratives of 18 trans* students. This study breaks new ground in offering context on the experiences of how trans* students navigate postsecondary education.

The authors immediately and precisely document the omission of trans* college students from academic literature centered on belonging. They write that “we suggest that queer kinship –- and specifically trans* kinship -– is formed by actively choosing and continuing to provide support and care to others.” It is this support that can facilitate feelings of community, they contend.

This notion of kinship also emerged among the four authors. From the onset of the study’s purpose, they make note of the supportive associations cultivated among the two primary authors, who identify as trans* and were doctoral students when the study was conducted, as well as their senior researcher colleagues. Such transparency offers further gravity and honesty to the nature of their collective work.

Through using data from the National Study of LGBTQ Student Success, the researchers purposefully selected 18 students and conducted semi-structured interviews that centered on the students’ levels of support as LGBTQ college students. This purposeful selection accounts for the study’s notability in featuring participants with a variety of identities, based on racial/ethnic identity, gender identity, and sexual orientation, as well as from a range of academic majors and institutional types.

Several major findings emerged from the data, and the authors categorize them into three domains that each take on a different form. First, in terms of material domains, the researchers recognize how physical spaces, such as organizations and offices, are very important in accepting and fostering the trans* community. Knowing that they could turn to peers in these venues allowed some participants to gain comfort. Sometimes students opted for off-campus spaces to attain additional resources. Second, students found kinship via virtual domains. Possessing parallels to Miller’s aforementioned study centered in the virtual space, this study notes how online mediums were adaptable in the sense that sometimes relationships forged in virtual venues translated to real life. Just as importantly, virtual domains allowed for some students to come out. Finally, the affective domain speaks to how sharing feelings and emotions were vital in building community with their peers. Talking about common college problems, complemented by marginalization, allowed some students to build kinship; in some cases, the support of a college counselor was further useful. Having that go-to person for assistance was especially vital.

A few limitations noted by the scholars may have influenced the data they captured, such as enlisting participants at a student leadership conference, but this does not compromise the integrity of the study. Rather, it provides a window into the feelings and experiences of this particular population, and offers inspiration into future studies that can be conducted to include other trans* college students. In fact, a future study could explore trans* kinship forged among students who only recently joined a LGBTQ+ club or organization at their respective institutions.

Certainly, this study adds to the literature by not only exploring the notion of kinship across many mediums for a growing population of students (trans* students), but also establishing distinctions between queer kinship and trans* kinship. It also points to potential new routes for inquiry in examining the intersectionality of trans* college students and identifying which identities take precedence in different contexts. Perhaps most significantly, this study allows trans* students’ voices and feelings about their college experiences to surface, and not just speaking about them, in terms of accommodations, as some other previous studies have solely addressed. Certainly, Nicolazzo, Pitcher, Renn and Woodford are both filling a gap in the academic literature and paving the way for fellow scholars to address the lives of the trans* college student community.

Taylor, J. L., J. Dockendorff, K., & Inselman, K. (2017). Decoding the digital campus climate for prospective LGBTQ+ community colleges students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 1-16.

View the journal article.

In an age when prospective students increasingly utilize digital means to gather information about colleges, the framing of content and language to describe marginalized populations is of particular importance. For Jason Taylor, Kari J. Dockendorff, and Kyle Inselman, their content analysis of nine community college websites for prospective LGBTQ+ students uncovers the major gaps of online institutional infrastructure in demonstrating a welcoming environment. 

Based on the nascence of measuring LGBTQ+ students’ experiences within physical environments, the importance of this digital-based inquiry is heightened. Even more, variety of community colleges that prospective students may have as an option only underscores the vitality of websites’ portrayals of campus climate for this student population. The authors spell out the purposeful sampling approach of identifying nine community colleges in Iowa, Colorado, and Washington, three states with much variation based on location, political ideologies and politics related to the LGBTQ+ issues. With a mix of public rural and public urban institutions, all with varying sizes as well, the authors compile a nice mixture of community colleges, though these are by no means representative of the larger landscape.

Over a seven-month period, the authors gathered data based on conducting searches on various keywords involving terms related to sexual orientation, gender identity and discrimination, among other relevant themes. The information collected, ranging from addressing campus programs to student handbooks, allowed the authors to employ inductive data analysis processes to categorize themes. Consequently, they determined not only a wide range in total webpages across nine institutions, but also breadth in the framing and type of content.

Many intriguing results mark this study. While all institutions featured nondiscrimination policies that addressed sexual orientation, gender identity was inconsistent in appearance. Also, it was ambiguous as to whether or not some content related to LGTBQ+ student life was timely or outdated. Each of the colleges possessed unique characteristics related to website content, though a few stand out in particular. For one, Hawkeye Community College, a public rural institution in Waterloo, Iowa, listed sexual orientation hate crimes as a type of hate crime on its website, although, none had been reported. Kirkwood Community College, located in Cedar Rapids, meanwhile, offered an Introduction to LGBT Studies class. Seattle Central Community College possessed content that accounted for several student identities, such as the deaf LGBTQ+ community. These examples accentuate the good work many community colleges are utilizing to account for LGBTQ+ student population, but do not dismiss the bevy of challenges they have yet to address.

The authors also notate pivotal themes, such as a lack of clarity related to the newness of LGBTQ+ programming. Conspicuously, gender identity is sometimes left out of the nondiscrimination policy conversation entirely. These examples represent the ground these institutional websites must cover in meeting the needs of LGBTQ+ students. Campus climate possesses many connotations, and the virtual realm is instrumental in setting the tone for what prospective students may experience upon enrollment at a community college.

Undeniably, due to the fluid nature of digital spaces, the content that the authors captured may not reflect the same material on the same community college websites today, to which the authors explicitly acknowledge as a limitation. By the same token, this may represent an opportunity for these scholars, or fellow scholars, to identify changes in content, in both types of themes and frequency of themes, from one point in time to a few years later. A longitudinal review could also offer insight into what factors at individual colleges may have led to the development of new content. Additionally, it would be fascinating to discover how the presence of LGBTQ+ individuals in major leadership positions may influence content. The authors raise further, similarly compelling ideas of future research opportunities. 

Taking a thoughtful and thorough approach to gathering and analyzing data on such an emerging topic elevates the quality of an already well-coordinated study. Its potential in guiding the discourse on LGBTQ+ campus climate is significant. The study reinforces the imperative of analyzing website content to make sense of understanding a landscape’s community, especially within institutions where college choice takes on a different definition.


This concludes the first edition of “This Just Published.” Follow the author on Twitter @bnachmanreports or email him.

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