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ANN ARBOR – According to University of Michigan researcher Michael Woodford, “heterosexism still exists” and influences college students’ opinions. His recently published findings on attitudes, bias and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships, is the topic of a new U-M study. The research shows that about one in five college students oppose or are neutral to LGBT policies involving employment protection and nearly a third oppose or are neutral to same-sex marriage and civil unions.
“Broadly, this study helps us better understand the nature of young people’s views about much-needed LGBT civil rights. Specifically, we have some new insights into the factors linked to endorsement for LGBT rights among heterosexual college students. Previous studies suggest that young people tend to hold more progressive views toward LGBT people and LGBT civil rights than other age cohorts. We found great support for same-sex marriage, civil unions, and LGBT employment protections. But not all students agreed. Given this, it is important to look closer at their attitudes and what explained them,” said Woodford, assistant professor of social work and the study’s lead author.
The research addresses issues of social exclusion of marginalized groups and looks at promoting their full inclusion through social policies and programs. Woodford noted that alongside prejudice and discrimination perpetuated by individuals, heterosexism also occurs at the societal level and is often institutionalized in social policies.
“Examples include laws that prohibit same-sex couples from having their relationships legally recognized or laws that don’t protect a transgender man from being fired from his job because of his gender expression,” he said. “Though important advances have occurred in LGBT rights, especially this past year with the Supreme Court’s ruling recognizing same-sex marriage federally, LGBT people throughout the country do not necessarily have the same rights as their heterosexual neighbors and friends.”
A sample of 2,568 heterosexual sophomores, juniors and graduate students were asked about contemporary LGBT civil rights issues, including whether same-sex couples should have their relationships recognized through civil unions or if they should have employment protection rights.
The study shows that collectively, students agree with LGBT civil rights. In fact, their endorsement is much higher than among the U.S. general population. But support is not universal among either students or issues: 78 percent support employment protections, 11 percent oppose and 11 percent are neutral; 71 percent support civil unions, 13 percent oppose and 16 percent are neutral; and 68 percent support same-sex marriage, 22 percent oppose and 10 percent are neutral.
“However, we don’t know much about the factors that are related to young people’s opinions about such rights. If organizations like Equality Michigan want to build support among young people for LGBT civil rights and protections, the results of this study can inform those efforts,” said Woodford. “Not surprisingly, we find that students’ attitudes about the acceptability of same-sex relationships is connected to their support for LGBT rights. Those who believe same-sex relationships are okay tend to report more progressive attitudes toward LGBT rights. We also find that politically conservative and highly religious students are more likely to be less supportive of LGBT rights than liberal students and those who are less religious. The issue of religiousness is intriguing because some people tend to overlook or minimize the influence of religion in the lives of young people and their political views. This study indicates that religiosity does matter among college students, and the LGBT movement should consider this in its pro-LGBT civil rights campaigns.”
What is most important, he said, is the finding that students who appreciate the challenges of LGBT people being out are more likely to report progressive views about LGBT attitudes.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to look at this factor. What it suggests to us is that by helping heterosexual youth to understand heterosexism and its consequences for LGBT people, then there may be a ripple effect in that support for LGBT rights and protections may increase,” he said.
To facilitate this process, Woodford suggests talking about LGBT people rather than directly talking about LGBT rights.
“Outreach needs to happen with politically conservative and highly religious students. Partnering with allies who share these identities and creating tailored educational campaigns is an important first step. We need to learn more about their objections and start to challenge these viewpoints,” he said.
Currently, universities across the country are committed to fostering safe spaces for all people, including LGBT students, staff and faculty. “That’s why we have programs like My Voice (Speaker Panels) and Ally Development Training, which can also help prepare allies who are advocates for LGBT rights and acceptance. By fostering acceptance of LGBT identities and relationships, we can build support for LGBT rights. Thus tackling misconceptions and stereotypes about LGBT people would be important to building support,” he said.
The U-M office of LGBT affairs, known as The Spectrum Center, is engaged in education and training which is generated per request. “It would be great to see some of this integrated in current curriculum and trainings of all staff and faculty,” said Jackie Simpson, the center’s director.
The center offers support programs like the Coming Out Group, the Gender Explorers, and the Riot Youth Mentoring Program. A retreat for first-year undergraduate students is also offered to build a sense of community on campus, explore identities a little more deeply, and to connect students with some valuable resources on campus.
“We see students on a regular basis who speak to micro aggressions on campus, such as wrong pronouns, hearing of the term faggot, assumption of heterosexuality and many other things,” said Simpson. “We are very grateful for the study that Michael Woodford has done. There are few people who take the time to do research on the LGBT community, so having the knowledge to share at higher education institutions is always helpful.”
Mary Larkin, program coordinator for the LGBT Resource Center at Eastern Michigan University agrees. “We feel good about the bridge between academic affairs and what we do over here. The tactic that works is to absolutely meet these students where they are, allow them to feel uncomfortable and talk about it. We’ve seen a shift in attitude when doing this,” she said. “Orientation is mandatory for our first-year students. During those four days, discussions about diversity come up numerous times in lots of different formats. Diversity is the value of our institution. We ensure our students understand what that means and what we expect. To create the best professionals out in the world, this is the conversation that needs to be had.”
The common denominator seems to be raising awareness as Central Michigan University’s Office of LGBTQ Services has found that the more visible their community is on campus, the more people’s attitudes begin to change.
“Heterosexuality is the dominant narrative ingrained into the institution of higher education and society. It is something folks doing LGBTQ work battle on a daily basis when we do programming, education in the classroom, meetings with administration, and more,” said Shannon Jolliff-Dettore, the director of CMU’s Office of LGBTQ Services.
“The key is to not be silenced by heterosexism. Being that it is the narrative we see playing out on our campus fuels the fire to continue with our programs and to be present sharing our stories in the classroom. I think it might be more difficult to deny someone rights when you have heard their story and heard the challenges of not receiving basic rights. When you are in a privileged position, you do not have to think about employment discrimination, so we need to make folks aware to shift the narrative.”
The study’s co-authors were U-M graduate Brittanie Atteberry; Matthew Derr, president of Sterling College; and Michael Howell, assistant professor at Appalachian State University. The findings appear in the Sept. 5 online issue of the Journal of Community Practice. Campus resources: LGBT Resource Center at Eastern Michigan University http://www.emich.edu/lgbtrc/; Central Michigan University’s Office of LGBTQ Services http://www.cmich.edu/office_provost/OID/LGBTQ/Pages/Default.aspx; The Spectrum Center http://spectrumcenter.umich.edu.