LGBT perspectives and learning at university

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In Higher Education, what we include and how we teach it are intrinsically interlinked and together form part of the basis of the dominant culture provided by the student’s subject area and institution. If this dominant culture clearly negatively judges or omits the LGBT experience, it is perhaps not unsurprising that expectations within this group are likely to be more pessimistic than optimistic.

Areas of HE practice to review inclusion of LGBT positive examples, from University of Hertfordshire.

Areas of HE practice to review inclusion of LGBT positive examples, from University of Hertfordshire.

Why should the perspectives of this minority group matter? The primary answer to this question is a law-based one. The Single Equality Act (2010) requires universities as public authorities to:

  • eliminate discrimination
  • promote equality of opportunity
  • foster good relations between diverse groups

As members of a protected characteristic minority (as defined within the Act), the LGBT community is covered by the Act. Apart from this legal context, however, there is also an educational perspective: the outcomes of research on LGBT student experience of the learning environment provide the justification for taking the issue seriously even without a legislative requirement to do so. For example, research on ‘campus climate’ in the USA and Australia has indicated that LGBT students frequently report the following problems (Hurtado, Carter, & Kardia, 1998):

  • fears for their physical safety
  • frequent occurrences of disparaging remarks or jokes regarding sexual orientation
  • anti-gay graffiti
  • a high degree of inaccurate information and stereotypes reflected in student attitudes
  • lack of visibility of gay role models or access to supportive services
  • conflicts in classes regarding the topic of sexual orientation
  • students feeling as if they need to censor themselves in classroom environments or
  • academic activities for fear of negative repercussions
  • lack of integration of sexual orientation into the curriculum.

Clearly, the way LGBT students experience campus at both interpersonal and structural levels has an impact. Little research occurred with respect to the LGBT university student experience during the period in which Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) was enacted. Since the repeal of Section 28, UK based research has suggested that LGBT students value their universities as a place where they can be themselves, but regularly experience verbal harassment and anti-gay sentiment, particularly from other students (Valentine, Wood & Plummer, 2009; Ellis, 2009). Additionally, in a recent study commissioned by the UK organization, Stonewall, it was clear that many Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual individuals anticipate that ‘being open about their sexuality’ will hold them back in politics, education, families, and the justice system (Hunt & Dick, 2008). If Higher Education has played any role in the development of such expectations, it is worth reviewing:

  • how we teach
  • what we ask our students to learn
  • whether the environments we provide are ‘inclusive’.

Further information (and full references for the above) can be found in a joint report published by Stonewall and the University of GlasgowAcademic Development Discussion Briefing: LGBT perspectives and learning at university

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