Kathy J. McCleaf, Mary Baldwin College
As new students arrive on our doorsteps, many are unaware of the personal growth to come. Recent researchers (Bruch et al. 2004; Banks et al. 2001; Hurtado et al.1999) have noted the changing ethnicity of students. What has not been as readily recognized in circles of multicultural understanding is the uniqueness of students who fall into the category of “other” as a sexual minority.
Savin-Williams (2001) used the term sexual minority to “refer to individuals who report that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, unlabeled, or sexually questioning, or have same-sex attractions” (p. 15). It is important that we realize that not all students will identify with these labels. Frequently, ethnic minority students will not ascribe to the use of socially constructed labels reflected in the dominate culture. Instead, they may use alternative language, e.g., Native Americans who use the term “Two Spirit” to celebrate those “believed to possess both male and female spirit” (Garrett and Barret, 2003, p. 134). Hall (as cited by Garrett and Barret) reflects that “because you are elements of both male and female– but you’re neither. You don’t fit in, you’re a go-between. And consequently, it’s easier for you to transcend from the physical to the spiritual realm” (p. 134). Use of the term sexual minority allows for inclusion of the complexity of each individual’s background and multiple intersections of their identities.
The young adult years in American culture include room for student inspection of who they are and how they can make a difference in the world. Astin and Astin (2004) noted that this generation of American students is far more ready than their predecessors to ask global questions of life purpose and engage in dialogue about issues of peace and civility. Thus, it is logical that sexual minority students may add to this conversation.
Recent research allows us a glimpse into our students’ presence. Savin-Williams (Winter, 2004) posits that today’s youth do not want the stereotypes associated with sexual identity labels. An expression of fluidity without expectation for certain behaviors is more the norm for today’s young people (Savin- Williams, 2005).
Konik and Stewart (2004) found that college students who identify as a sexual minority are linked with “more advanced global, political, religious, and occupational identity development” (p. 815) than their heterosexual peers. Advisors should note that the very gift of difference, both generational and in sexual identity, can be nurtured into a contributing gem of insight for a young gay person who participates in these global discussions. Maybe what we must learn from our advisees includes watching how our young people deny the social constraints of heterosexism, homophobia and other cultural barriers. So, how can we apply what seems intrinsic to some students as we advise them during their college careers?
Active Support Suggestions
As advisors we can contribute to the thoughts and challenges of every student by validating the contributions of minority peoples, including sexual minorities. We must continue personal efforts to educate ourselves about sexual minority individuals who are making a difference by serving in our government, our schools, and the corporate, sport, and global arenas. These contributions should be shared. Recently, a sexual minority student expressed the need for role models, both those out as heterosexuals and those out as sexual minorities: I need to see other gay people who have made it in this world; I also need to know about individuals in my career and major who have expertise in what I will need to be successful (Anonymous, personal communication, November 6, 2006, paraphrased).
Consider that all students should openly learn about sexual identity development, not just sexual minorities. Although the literature reveals only two recent studies on heterosexual identity development (Konik & Stuart, 2004; Hoffman, 2004), much like the limited literature on white identity development, majority cultures often assume that only those not fitting the majority paradigm should be researched as if a problem or an anomaly is evident (Hoffman, 2004).
Advisors who are available and affirming to students who share important milestones of romantic interest, cultural festivities, and group identification, demonstrate support that may lead to increased institutional retention and students better integrating their intellectual and social identities. Advisors who make their offices welcoming to all students show active support through the display of sexual minority affirming symbols such as rainbow flags, stickers and buttons or pink triangles on bulletin boards or book shelves.
These displays of affirmation let students know that their advisor is a safe and non-judgmental adult who welcomes discussions in regards to issues surrounding sexual minority identity or choices for major or career options. It also means understanding and actively talking about the heterocentric constraints decisions students may make. This includes having conversations about any negative dimensions of our heterocentric culture – for example, offering students considering military careers resources on how to navigate the culture of don’t ask, don’t tell. Discussion of how personal levels of authenticity may be dissonant in various settings will help students assess what comfort levels are appropriate for themselves.
We should do our part to make our campus climates friendlier by actively combating the homophobic statistics uncovered in recent studies (Rankin, 2005; Brown et al., 2004). Access to a resource network for sexual minorities can be a tremendous help to academic advisors and the students they serve. Connecting with a Safe Space or Safe Zone program (National Youth Advocacy Coalition, 2006) that combats homophobia and encourages dialogue around sexual identity development issues can make difficult conversations easier and bring resources closer.
Becoming a part of Safe Zone contacts provides a network of campus colleagues who can direct students toward multiple resources, including academic, health, safe social venues, spiritual, and listening and affirming adults. The program this author facilitates encourages networking for faculty and staff in supporting this population of students. Academic advisors can help all students become tomorrow’s leaders regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Advisors should become active participants in the networks that support sexual minority students.
Kathy J. McCleaf
Mary Baldwin College
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Cite this article using APA style as: McCleaf, K. (2007, June). Sexual minority students: An academic advisor's thoughts. Academic Advising Today, 30(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]