Making a Doctoral Program Lesbian & Bisexual Friendly/Welcoming

Roberta L. Nutt, Dorothy J. Edwards, Faye A. Reimers, Brenda M. Karns, Patricia K. Jackley, Sylva D. Frock, Evelyn J. Maddux, Marguerite R. Ruppenicker, & J. Alison Bess: Texas Woman's University

Nutt, R. L., Edwards, D. J., Reimers, F. A., Karns, B. M., Jackley, P. K., Frock, S. D., Maddux, E. J., Ruppenicker, M. R., & Bess, J. A. (2002, Spring). Making a doctoral program lesbian and bisexual friendly/welcoming. The feminist psychologist: Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, 29(2), 6-7 

The most important quality of a doctoral program that is friendly toward lesbian and bisexual individuals is a collection of faculty and staff that hold among their core   values a genuine celebration of diversity, which, by definition, excludes them from holding heterosexism as a value. This quality speaks to a pervasive, all-encompassing recognition that everyone is not heterosexual, and it is that absence of heterosexism that, almost by definition, creates a doctoral program that is friendly towards and welcoming of individuals of any sexual orientation. Perhaps the goal of such a doctoral program is not “gay-friendliness,” but instead the absence of heterosexism.

To illustrate, consider three points on a hypothetical continuum of “gay-friendliness of a doctoral program.” Point 1 (to the far left of the continuum) is a non-gay friendly (that is, rampantly heterosexist) program in which there is little visible recognition that everyone is not heterosexual. This “invisibility” is apparent in lectures, discussions, readings, research topics, practicum settings, faculty, and the student body. Point 2 (midway on the continuum) is a “gay-friendly” program in which professors make a concerted effort to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) issues in their texts and lectures, regardless of personal belief systems, and faculty espouse a nondiscriminatory policy and educate on the whole spectrum of diversity. LGBT students are treated fairly and with respect.

Point 3 (on the far right of the continuum) is a non-heterosexist program in which faculty include LGBT issues in their lectures and texts, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it would not occur to them not to include such issues. They treat LGBT students with fairness, respect, acceptance, and celebration, not, despite their personal values because it is the right thing to do. They do this because recognition of the richness of diversity is their values—it would not occur to them not to be inclusive in their language and their interactions. These inclusive attitudes pervade the entire environment, so, regardless of the values of individual students entering the program, there is a clear and immediate message that heterosexism is not the norm, nor is it tolerated. A group that fights heterosexism moves a step beyond a group fighting homophobia.

This kind of environment will manifest in a multitude of ways. If the program genuinely celebrates diversity, then these ideas will naturally follow. In the absence of such an environment, attention to the suggestions on the next page could help lead toward such an environment. These suggestions create an open, supportive, affirming, and growth-enhancing environment for all students, both LGBT and heterosexual.

Roberta L. Nutt is Director of the Counseling Psychology Doctoral Program at Texas Woman’s University (TWU), which emphasizes women’s/gender issues and family

Dorothy J. Edwards completed her internship at Appalachian State University Counseling and Psychological Services Center in August, 2001, and is currently working on her dissertation. She specializes in women’s and diversity issues and is mother to a young daughter. Her master’s research concerned ethnicity, internalized homophobia, sex-role identity, and self-esteem in lesbians.

Faye A. Reimers is an advanced doctoral student at TWU. She is an instructor, a single mother of two daughters, and a dedicated social justice advocate. Her master’s thesis was entitled, “The relationship between feminist identity development and the degree of homophobia.” She has just begun her dissertation in which she will attempt to construct a class-based theory of sexual oppression.

Brenda M. Karns is currently on her internship at James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Mountain Home, TN.

Patricia K. Jackley received her PhD in August, 2000, and currently works at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Sylva D. Frock, PhD, works in research and independent practice in Dallas, TX. Her research projects focus on how lesbians are affected by internalized homophobia. Her dissertation title was “The Relationship Between Internalized Homophobia and Psychological Distress in Lesbians.”

Evelyn J. Maddux completed her internship at the University of Oregon Counseling Center in August, 2001, and is currently working on her dissertation. Her master’s thesis concerned cohesiveness, enmeshment, and communication in lesbian couples.

Marguerite R. Ruppenicker received her PhD in December, 2001, and resides in Connecticut. Her dissertation was entitled, “Lesbian Appearance Stereotypes: A Preliminary Study of the Personality Characteristics of the Butch Femme Dimension.”

J. Alison Bess is a current doctoral student and an active advocate for social justice causes, especially for women and GLBT issues. Her masters thesis from Radford University was entitled, “Bisexual Identity Formation: An Empirical Study.”

Specific Recommendations for a Non-Heterosexist Program

  • Using LGBT-inclusive texts and readings in all or most coursework with materials interwoven extensively throughout the curriculum. 

  • Having LGBT-inclusive lectures and discussions. 

  • Accepting and encouraging LGBT thesis and dissertation topics. 

  • Ensuring LGBT representation in faculty, staff, external supervisors, and students. Within the student body, a “critical mass” can aid in the development of clinical skills, professional identity, and understanding of diversity. 

  • Accepting and rewarding (promotion, tenure, and so on) faculty research on LGBT topics. 

  • Developing awareness of gay culture and social venues available in the geographic area, readily shared with new students and faculty. 

  • Having a library containing gay-focused journals and books. 

  • Recognizing and participating in gay-pride events (as well as other events celebrating all forms of diversity) by both LGBT and straight faculty and students. 

  • Participating in LGBT advocacy in all possible forms, such as, letters, articles, marches, financial contributions, and political action. 

  • Using non-heterosexist and inclusive language in all communication, not only in courses but also programmatic social events (such as flyers or announcements for parties reading “partners welcome” versus “spouses welcome,” and so on.). 

  • Speaking explicitly about issues of openness regarding gay identity and such career issues as internship applications, geography of job searches, and so on, just as one would address issues around ethnicity, gender, ablebodiness, and writing good cover letters and vitae. 

  • Welcoming partners of LGBT faculty and students to program events in the same way as partners of heterosexual faculty and students. 

  • Pairing incoming LGBT students with an LGBT mentor already in the program to help them become familiar with gay-friendly resources both on campus and in the larger community. 

  • Funding of research grants for LGBT research interests or identifying such external funding sources for all students and faculty. 

  • Creating practicum placements that are based in or serve the LGBT community and familiarize prospective or new students with these opportunities. 

  • Listing faculty and student research topics including those regarding LGBT issues on the program website to communicate the LGBT friendliness of the program. 

  • Including LGBT topics on comprehensive exams for all students. 

  • Including mention of LGBT and other diversity values in recruitment materials and activities. 

  • Emphasizing LGBT issues in courses focusing on relationships and families. 

  • Challenging heterosexist research paradigms, methods, and strategies. 

  • Including questions about heterosexism in the interview process for faculty and students. 

  • Inviting LGBT experts to present research symposia or guest lecture in classrooms. 

  • Encouraging membership in APA Division 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues) for all faculty and students. 

  • Attaching LGBT safe zone stickers on faculty doors or walls. 

  • Inviting presenters with expertise in LGBT-affirmative religious perspectives. 

  • Critiquing testing/assessment instruments for heterosexist bias. 

  • Critiquing counseling and therapy theories, strategies, and techniques for heterosexist bias. 

  • Tying LGBT issues with other diversity issues such as ethnicity, race, gender, ableism, culture, class, SES, and so on. 

  • Including LGBT affirmative films, videos, and documentaries in classroom experiences. 

  • Supporting LGBT bookstores and learning about LGBT history. 

  • A general feminist orientation can encourage expression, advocacy, and social reform action as part of a training model.