In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Considerations for Queer as a Sexual Identity Classification in Education Survey Research
  • Jason C. Garvey (bio)

The general omission of sexual identities in quantitative education research is highly problematic, though not entirely surprising. Few national higher education data sets include sexual identity in data collection, resulting in an astonishingly low proportion of quantitative studies examining students’ academic or social outcomes in relation to their sexual identities (Garvey, 2014). Quantitative studies are central to advancing policies and practices in higher education (Stage, 2007), and without empirical examinations about students’ sexual identities, researchers hinder institutional advocacy, policy reform, and resource allocation for large groups of individuals, namely lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) students (Rankin & Garvey, 2015). Including sexual identities in education survey research is critically important to uncover large-scale processes that perpetuate systemic social and institutional inequities and more appropriately describe LGBQ educational experiences (Stage, 2007).

In recent years, education researchers have begun adding a sexual identity demographic question on national surveys. The 2015 Freshman Survey administered by the Higher Education Research Institute allowed students to identify their sexual orientation for the first time in the survey’s history (Eagan et al., 2016). Other researchers have also included sexual identity in their national survey designs, most notably the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership (Dugan & Yurman, 2011) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (though only if an institution specifically elects to include the question; Indiana University School of Education, n.d.).

Unfortunately, there are few guidelines for how to adequately represent participants’ sexual identities in survey instrumentation and question construction, which is evident when examining the response categories included across the aforementioned survey instruments (Table 1). Indeed, all three survey instruments include response options for certain sexual identities: heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian, and bisexual; however, one sexual identity classification has varied inclusion: queer. The Williams Institute provides arguably the most widely used guide to the best scientific approaches for gathering data on sexual orientation (Badgett & Goldberg, 2009). Their best practices add to the confusion of whether to include queer as a sexual identity classification, because question constructions put forth by the Williams Institute’s multidisciplinary expert panel do not include queer as a categorical response option.


The purpose of this article is to clarify the discrepancy in the use of queer as a sexual identity classification in education survey research. This study extends the work completed by Dugan and Yurman (2011), who empirically demonstrated problems with treating LGB students as a homogenous [End Page 1113] population through collapsing all respondents into a single category in quantitative designs. Their findings point to statistically different outcomes among LGB students and advocate for testing to see if there are within-group differences prior to conducting analyses.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Table 1.

Question Stem and Response Options for Sexual Identity

In demonstrating the importance of sexual identities shaping unique within-group experiences, Dugan and Yurman (2011) dilute “any kind of queer sensibility” (Kennedy, 2014, p. 119) by including only LGB sexual identity response options. Using solely LGB sexual identities relies on hegemonic understandings of social categories and essentializes boundaries of sexuality (Browne, 2008). Higher education scholars have explored empirical and theoretical differences between queer and LGB students (Abes & Kasch, 2007; Rankin, Weber, Blumenfeld, & Frazer, 2010). In this study, I further substantiate the differences between queer and LGB students found by previous scholars by empirically demonstrating the necessity of including queer as a sexual identity response option in survey design.


I use the term sexual identity to represent “an enduring self-recognition of the meanings that sexual feelings, attractions, and behaviors have for one’s sense of self ” (Savin-Williams, 1998, p. 3). I consciously chose this term as it reflects the predominant language that critical and poststructural scholars have used to describe sexuality (Denton, 2016). Using sexual identity terminology also aligns with survey design, which in essence requires students to identify their sexuality categorically. Other researchers have used the term sexual orientation in survey design to represent “sexual or erotic feelings, thoughts, fantasies, and/or behaviors one has for members of one sex or the other, both, or neither” (Savin-Williams, 1998, p. 3). I use sexual...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 1113-1118
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.