- Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Experiences:An Exploratory Study
The current status of higher education research on lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students offers an incomplete picture of their overall college experiences (ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, 2001). Much of the literature on LGB college students discusses overt and covert forms of discrimination (e.g., Aberson, Swan, & Emerson, 1999; D'Augelli, 1992; White & Kurpius, 2002). Another portion of the LGB literature focuses on psychological issues and counseling treatments (DeBord, Wood, Sher, & Good, 1998; Fassinger, 1991; Lipton, 1996; Sweet, 1996) and alcohol use (DeBord et al.). A final domain of research focuses on heterosexual students' attitudes toward LGB students (e.g., Bowen & Bourgeois, 2001; Engstrom & Sedlacek, 1997; Liang & Alimo, 2005; Simoni, 1996).
Although valuable, the extant literature is incomplete because LGB students are also students who attend class, interact with faculty and peers, participate in cocurricular activities, live on campus, and are academically and socially influenced by their college environments. However, very little research exists on how LGB students perceive their broader college experience, including how these experiences may be similar to or differ from those of heterosexual students. Sanlo (2004), for example, in a thorough review of the research, found no work on LGB college students' retention, academic success, or resilience. Accordingly, in this exploratory quantitative study, we examined differences in involvement in various college environments and self-reported outcomes among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual college students at 34 postsecondary institutions. This research contributes to the literature by offering a portrait of the national college experience for LGB students, which may help campus educators and practitioners facilitate an environment conducive for LGB students' learning and development.
Campus Climate for LGB Students
LGB students often remain closeted because of the hostile climate they experience on college campuses (Rankin, 2003). Research conducted in the late 1980s documented LGB students' experiences in unwelcoming, threatening, and unsafe campus environments. In a study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students at Yale University, 26% reported threats of [End Page 215] physical violence, 50% reported two or more incidents of verbal assault, and 48% felt that future harassment was fairly or very likely to occur (D'Augelli, 1989). D'Augelli and Rose (1990) found that 29% of heterosexual first-year students believed that their institution would be better if only heterosexuals attended and reported that they often heard disparaging remarks about lesbians and gays.
More recent research indicated that harassment and negative attitudes toward LGB students was still prevalent on college campuses. Rankin (2003) reported that 74% of LGB undergraduate and graduate students rated their campus as homophobic, and 60% of LGB students reported concealing their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid discrimination. In addition, 40% of the study participants indicated that they would likely hide their sexual orientation to avoid discrimination, and 36% experienced harassment within the year prior to taking the survey (Rankin). An investigation of student attitudes toward gays, lesbians, and bisexuals found that 25% of randomly selected students indicated anti-LGB attitudes were prevalent on their campus (Malaney, Williams, & Geller, 1997). Because there are widely varying perspectives and attitudes regarding the climate for LGB issues, multiple approaches are needed to address and improve the campus environment for LGB students (Brown, Clarke, Gortmaker, & Robinson-Keilig, 2004).
The Campus Environment and LGB Identity
The campus climate for LGB students affects the process of LGB identity development (Evans & Broido, 1999). However, research about LGB college students does not always include discussions of how sexual identity development is related to LGB students' college experiences (DeBord et al., 1998; Sanlo, 2004). The importance of connecting the environment to identity is particularly relevant with the LGB student population, given that the college environment is often the context for the coming out process (Evans & Broido, 1999). Student development theory suggests that sexual identity formation is a developmental task of the college years (D'Augelli, 1991; Evans, Forney, & Guido-DiBrito, 1998).
The process of developing an LGB identity is complex; it is psychological (e.g., Cass, 1979), social (e.g., D'Augelli, 1994), and age-related (D'Augelli, 1991). It is...