Point of View
When I began to realize that I was gay as a youth, I read everything about sexual orientation that I could get my hands on in my hometown library in Northwest Louisiana. Much of it was written by psychologists, and their writings had a tremendous impact on my own sexual identity development.
The chance to pursue a profession that would allow me to have such an influence on social thought on individuals like myself was too exciting to pass up. Like some of my lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT)-and probably heterosexual-colleagues in graduate school, my motivation to study psychology is largely personal.
Yet, pursuing study in an area that is so personally relevant is associated with a variety of unique factors. For LGBT graduate students who choose to pursue LGBT-related topics of study, the following issues may need to be considered:
Being out. For some LGBT students who are involved in LGBT-related professional pursuits, the option of not being out may not exist. For instance, during the first day in my program, I was asked to state my research interests in front of my classmates. After telling them that I was interested in gay male mental health, I assumed that I had outed myself for the remainder of my career.
Yet, coming out is a continuous process. One's classmates, for example, may know that one is LGBT, but this news does not automatically make its way to all faculty, administrative staff and students in other areas of one's department. The decision to come out to these individuals may be quite difficult as there are no hard-and-fast rules to help decide (see "Coming out, finding a fit"). For students in clinical or counseling programs, coming out to clients can also be a similarly challenging issue.
Challenging bias. Sexual minority-related bias can be quite stressful for LGBT students. One manifestation of bias that rarely gets discussed is the notion that LGBT-related research is not a sufficient base from which to build one's career. To challenge such notions, LGBT students who are interested in LGBT-related topics often need to convince colleagues that they are competent scholars by carrying out research in non-LGBT-related areas.
Bias also occurs in other instances, such as when colleagues don't take an LGBT student's LGBT-related research ideas seriously or, more unfortunately, when they allow that person's sexual orientation to overshadow other unique and valuable contributions. For example, they may see the person as an expert in only LGBT issues despite proven expertise in other areas.
Each time that bias is encountered, an LGBT student has to make a decision to either ignore the incident or try to understand why the bias occurred and take the necessary steps to ensure that such an incident does not occur in the future.
Challenging bias can lead to negative consequences, as dissent from students is often discouraged. However, the personal consequences of not standing up for one's beliefs and rights can be quite damaging as well, leading to an emotional fallout such as depression and anxiety. Additionally, such challenge can be educative for the involved persons and lead to a deeper respect and understanding of diversity.
Seeking support. All graduate students need support to deal with the enormous demands of rigorous programs. LGBT students often need extra support in dealing with the additional factors they encounter while negotiating a diverse identity in graduate school. Such support often comes from other LGBT students or faculty members.
Still, empathic heterosexual colleagues can be an enormous source of support as well. For example, in my program, which has very few openly LGBT students, I have received overwhelming support from heterosexual classmates and faculty members who make an enormous effort to appreciate the unique issues involved in being LGBT.
Another source of support for LGBT graduate students are professional organizations with large LGBT student contingents. For example, within APAGS, the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns (CLGBTC) serves a substantial role in APAGS's mission of providing resources for diverse graduate students. Currently, CLGBTC is creating a resource guide for LGBT graduate students that will elaborate on the topics discussed above and address many others. We expect to publish the guide by year's end.