|Dr. Martin Blais is a professor in the Sexology Department of the Université du Québec à Montréal. His research focuses on sexual-minority youth.|
|Dr. Corey Flanders is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario. She conducts research with sexual-minority and gender-minority people, predominantly on mental, sexual, and reproductive health inequities.|
|Gabe Murchison is Senior Research Manager at Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the US. He focuses on research that “helps us understand the unique challenges that LGBTQ people deal with, and the resources we have for tackling them.”|
Why did you do this research?
Murchison: “To prevent sexual violence we have to understand how it happens, and there’s very little research on violence against LGBTQ students. Overall, our data suggests that students with more internalized homophobia were more likely to have experienced sexual assault and coercion, while students with a stronger sense of LGBTQ community were less likely to have had those experiences.”
Blais: “My research was focused on documenting traumas (such as family violence, childhood sexual abuse, dating violence, and bullying) among youth from the general population as well as from vulnerable populations including LGBTQ youth. We wanted to identify the risk and protection factors and document the impacts on mental health and psychosocial adjustment.”
Flanders: “I wanted to know whether bisexual women are more likely to be sexually assaulted compared to heterosexual women, and if they are, whether that’s because of certain assumptions people make about them. I also wanted to understand how young bisexual women perceive their sexual and reproductive health needs, and the challenges to achieving those needs.”
Definitions: transgender, gender nonconforming, cisgender, & more
This list is adapted from the Glossary of Terms published by the Human Rights Campaign. Terminology relating to gender and sexual identity is variable (e.g., a non-cisgender person may identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, queer, or genderqueer). Always respect individuals’ preferences.
Asexual The person does not experience sexual attraction or desire for other people.
Bisexual The person is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity.
Cisgender A person’s gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.
Gay The person is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to people of the same gender.
Gender identity A person’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither; how individuals perceive themselves, and what they call themselves.
Gender non-conforming The person does not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or their gender expression does not fit neatly into a category; also termed “non-binary.”
Genderqueer The person rejects static categories of gender and embraces a fluidity of gender identity (and often, though not always, sexual orientation); may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or outside these categories.
Homophobia The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, people who are attracted to those of the same sex.
Lesbian The woman is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to other women.
LGBT An acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.”
Queer Fluid gender identity and/or sexual orientation; often used interchangeably with “LGBT.”
Transgender The person’s gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth; transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.
Transphobia The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, transgender people.
What’s the difference between transgender and gender non-conforming?
“I use transgender to refer to people who identify with a different gender than they were assigned at birth. I use gender non-conforming to refer to people who consistently and noticeably express themselves outside of the norms for their gender.
“Like anyone else, a transgender person could be gender-conforming or nonconforming after they transition. Some transgender men dress and act in stereotypically masculine ways, while others are more feminine than the average man, and the same is true of transgender women.
“There are also many transgender people who don’t identify exclusively as men or women, but as neither, or a combination of both. I use the umbrella term ‘non-binary’ for these identities, because they are outside of the male-female ‘gender binary.’
“Many health researchers use the umbrella term ‘gender minorities’ to describe transgender and gender nonconforming people. In the study we’re discussing, I didn’t ask participants about being gender nonconforming, so I can only talk about transgender students’ experiences. Other research has found that LGBTQ youth who are gender nonconforming have different experiences than those who are gender-conforming—for instance, they are more likely to be bullied in school. Whether being gender nonconforming affects the likelihood of experiencing sexual violence is an important question for future research.”
What are internalized homophobia and transphobia?
What is internalized homphobia?
Dr. Martin Blais:
“Sexual minorities are in the difficult position of trying to build a positive self-identity while experiencing social stigma and exclusion. When people apply anti-LGBT stigma to themselves, it results in self-loathing. Internalized homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia—internalized homonegativity—is associated with shame and lower self-esteem. When it’s harder for people to acquire a positive self-identity, it’s harder for them to cope with social stigma, exclusion, and victimization.”
Dr. Corey Flanders:
“Internalized homophobia [is when you] take these negative messages or stereotypes about same sex desire or sexuality onto yourself. For instance, if we think about how there are higher rates of negative mental health outcomes among gay and lesbian people in contrast to heterosexual people, there could be a general message that you’re depressed because you identify as gay or lesbian, as opposed to [understanding that] you’re depressed because you’re exposed to all of these additional social stressors that heterosexual folks aren’t exposed to.”
What is internalized transphobia?
Internalized transphobia may occur at a higher rate than internalized homophobia, research suggests. In a 2016 study, transgender participants reported higher rates of discrimination, depression symptoms, and suicide attempts than cisgender LGB participants. Among transgender people, depression symptoms were associated with a lack of self-acceptance around identity, researchers wrote (Transgender Health).
Transgender, gender non-conforming, and genderqueer people experience pressure from multiple sources. “According to research, stressors include being bullied at school and work, reduced access to housing, loss of friends and family, physical violence, harassment, and assault, and reduced medical access,” says Joleen Nevers, Sexuality Educator at the University of Connecticut.
Dr. Corey Flanders:
“With all of the negative stereotypes about transgender people, even if you recognize these are not based in truth or not based in your experience, it can still be really difficult to not take on those negative messages. Sometimes you apply those messages to yourself even if they aren’t an accurate reflection of your experience or your identity.
“For example, the message that trans people are confused about gender identity; this is a stereotype that isn’t necessarily true. But if you have internalized that, then you might feel like you should be confused about your identity, or that the stressors you’ve experienced related to your identity are somehow a reflection of your confusion.”
What did researchers look at?
Gabe Murchison: “We surveyed about 700 LGBTQ college students, at hundreds of colleges and universities. We used this data to look at three big questions: First, is sexual violence against LGBTQ undergraduates basically similar to what heterosexual, cisgender women tend to experience? Or do ‘hate crime’ attacks play a big role? Second, do LGBTQ students have unique experiences that affect their risk of sexual violence? Third, we knew very little about gender: Do LBQ women tend to be assaulted by men, women, or both? What about GBQ men? And what about people with a non-binary gender? That would help us understand whether this violence tends to take place within LGBTQ relationships or communities, or whether it’s mostly perpetrated by heterosexuals.”
Dr. Corey Flanders: “The majority of my research on sexual violence has focused on young bisexual women or women who use other identities to describe attraction to more than one gender, such as pansexual women. For example, we conducted a community-based research project that included an advisory committee of young bisexual women, academic partners, and a community health centre. Four two-hour focus group sessions were conducted with a total of 35 participants. Participants found that negative stereotypes around bisexuality made it really difficult for them to navigate conversations around sexual consent. Oftentimes, potential sexual partners would see them as automatically consenting because of their identity. This sometimes led to people consenting to sexual situations that they didn’t want to participate in. Sometimes the stereotypes were used as justification for people who had committed sexual assault against young bisexual women.”
Dr. Martin Blais: “Our research team focuses on various forms of interpersonal traumas among youth, including homophobia among LGBTQ youth, and the impacts on social wellbeing and mental health. Sexual minorities experience social stigma and exclusion, and violence related to their gender and sexual orientation. ‘Homonegativity’ describe prejudices and stigmatization based on nonconformity to cultural expectations—homophobia, biphobia, lesbophobia, transphobia, transqueerphobia, etc. This kind of prejudice sends the message that (for example) non-heterosexual relationships, or being not masculine enough for men or not feminine enough for women, are unwelcome, undervalued, or illegitimate. Those views legitimize homophobic prejudices and behaviours.”
How different is trans students’ experience?
Murchison: “In my sample and another recent US study, transgender students experienced the highest rates of sexual assault and coercion. Trans students report facing more discrimination on campus than non-trans LGBQ peers. Some students are even targeted for sexual assault because they are trans. On average, trans students also seem to have a weaker sense of community on campus.”
Flanders: “In our study, participants said that because they identified as trans, their service providers didn’t believe them when they talked about their sexual health experiences and needs. So that creates another barrier to accessing services.”
What cultural problems did you identify in your peer work?
Murchison: “Some students who wanted to make friends with other LGBTQ people felt like the only way to do that was to be part of a hookup scene. That led to them having consensual sex they didn’t really want, and sometimes made them targets for coercion.”
Flanders: “In our study, participants spoke to the stereotype that bisexual people are seen as being hypersexual, and felt this may be associated with justifications for committing sexual assault against bi-people: ‘You must want it all the time from everyone, so I’m going to treat you that way.’ Another participant identified as pansexual, and she had trouble navigating consent with female-identified partners who did not understand why she did not want penetration.”
Blais: “People who object to homosexuality may be unaware how their views can stigmatize and marginalize LGBTQ individuals. Prejudice may make the general population less sympathetic to the challenges faced by LGBTQ communities. For example, they may minimize the rate of same-sex sexual assault or its impact.”
How can schools help?
Use campus programming to set the tone
- Health services should use inclusive language—like “students who need a Pap test” instead of “women who need a Pap test,” since some transgender students will need that service as well.
- All programming should include LGBTQ students among its examples.
- Health, sexuality, and sexual violence workshops should feature characters with gender-neutral names and point out that both consensual sex and sexual violence can occur in any gender combination.
Create safe spaces and clear, inclusive policies
Dr. Martin Blais: “The schools need to commit explicitly to creating a safe space for LGBTQ students, and take a clear and overt stand against gender- and sexual orientation-based prejudice.”
Continue to spread awareness and education
Dr. Corey Flanders: “Visibility campaigns can do a lot—a poster campaign that points out what sexual stigma looks like for the LGBTQ community, or a video campaign, either in school buildings or through social media, to get people looking at messages they hear and thinking critically about them. For example, the study participants really wanted consent-based education with a specific lens on sexual stereotypes around sexual-minority people—e.g., that hypersexuality among bi people is a myth.”
Create supportive social structures and opportunities
Dr. Corey Flanders: “We know social structures can influence health. A lot of social opportunities for LGBTQ people centre around bar culture, but an environment that includes alcohol and drug-use may not [work for everyone]. Schools could potentially work towards creating social opportunities for the LGBTQ community that are accessible to everyone, with different types of entertainment. Maybe that means hosting a burlesque night on campus.”
What if there isn’t a strong LGBTQ community?
Seek out online communities
Dr. Corey Flanders: “Online support resources may be helpful. For example, several nationwide helplines, such as YouthLine, focus on younger LGBTQ people and their needs. You can access either by calling someone or by doing an online chat. YouthLine also has a text-based service. Or you can check out the Teen Health Source with Planned Parenthood Toronto. You can also seek out bubbles of community on places like Reddit or Facebook or other other peer-to-peer online groups.”
Gabe Murchison: “It’s important to have friends who support your sexual orientation or the fact that you’re transgender—but that doesn’t mean they have to be LGBTQ. Many LGBTQ students make their closest friends through athletics, arts, religious organizations, or housing assignments. For some, most or all of those friends are straight and cisgender. Since LGBTQ people are just as diverse as any other group, it’s very likely that you’ll meet like-minded LGBTQ friends throughout your life, even if you don’t fit in with the LGBTQ students you’ve met on campus.”
What’s the rate of sexual assault and coercion among LGBTQ students?
Gabe Murchison: “There are not a ton of data on LGBTQ undergraduates specifically. From what exists, it appears that:
- “Gay, bi, and queer men are at higher risk than other men (but still at lower risk than women).
- “Lesbian, bi, and queer women seem to be at similar or slightly higher risk compared to other women.
- “Transgender students, particularly those with non-binary gender identities (not exclusively male or female), seem to be at higher risk than cisgender students.”
“‘Queer’ is how respondents self-identified. Thirteen percent of my sample described their sexual orientation as queer. The term has been adopted by the major US advocacy organizations and is used in some (not all) research on this population.” For research references, see Sources.
Dr. Martin Blais: “LGBT youth face the same risk factors as the general youth population for sexual pressure, harassment, or coercion—factors to which they are often more vulnerable—and also specific challenges relating to cultural bias. LGBTQ youth are almost four times more likely to report sexual abuse before the age of 18 than the general youth population, according to a 2011 review of studies.
“In our research among LGBTQ youth in Quebec, we found:
- 31 percent reported having been touched sexually when they did not want to be, or having been manipulated, blackmailed, or physically forced to touch someone sexually.
- 23 percent reported that someone had used manipulation, blackmail, or physical force, to force or obligate them to have sex (including oral, vaginal, or anal penetration, and excluding the sexual touching mentioned previously).
- In total, 35 percent reported either one or both types of incidents.
- 15 percent reported being followed, touched, pinched, or kissed unwillingly, or experienced unwanted sexual advances; 9 percent were forced to engage in sexual activities, experienced a sexual assault, or were the target of voyeurism or exhibitionism.
- 17 percent reported nonconsensual sexual situations in the six months prior to the study that seemed to happen because people thought they might be LGBT, or because they are LGBT.”
How can we support LGBTQ students?
Check in with friends and younger students
Murchison: “Checking in is really valuable. If someone is in an intense relationship that you’re unsure of you can ask some open-ended questions like, ‘How are things with Ryan?’ Even if everything is fine, they’ll feel supported. Reaching out to younger or newly out students can be especially effective. They may be particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, or just plain loneliness.”
Educate yourself and avoid making assumptions
Flanders: “Recognize that people who identify as LGBTQ do experience sexual violence. The rates among young queer, or sexual minority, women are typically reported higher than among heterosexual women. Think about enrolling in courses that include discussion of experiences for LGBTQ people; this may help you become more effective advocates for your LGBTQ peers.”
Speak up for inclusion
Flanders: “If you hear someone saying something transphobic, biphobic, or homophobic, call people out. When people make rape jokes, if you’re safe to do so, you can start conversations on the importance of taking sexual violence seriously.”
How did you aim to build a safer culture?
Create non-sexual spaces and conversations
Murchison: “As an undergraduate, I was in a peer education program. We got LGBTQ student leaders on board to help change the way people talked about hooking up, and to be intentionally welcoming to younger students. We started hosting LGBTQ events that were not at all sexualized—like a fantastic pie-baking event.”
Build discussion into the curriculum
Flanders: “We need to be talking about sexual assault in a broader context and identifying how cultural bias permeates many levels of our society and our universities. This doesn’t need to be limited to conversations around sexual health. If you have an English class and one of the texts that you’re using is perpetuating negative stereotypes and assumptions about sexuality and gender, talk about it.”
More ways for students to be allies to LGBTQ peers?
Gabe Murchison: “Do your best not to assume someone is heterosexual or cisgender. My college had a dance where first-year students set up dates [for students who wanted to date] for the people they live with. Some people made a point of asking each suitemate about their gender preferences for the date. For some LGBQ people, that was the first time they felt comfortable coming out to the people they lived with.
“Be an advocate. Staff often take students’ opinions seriously. These staff can affect the decision-making process on issues that affect LGBTQ students, like funding an LGBTQ centre or creating mixed-gender housing options. If you know LGBTQ students on your campus are advocating for this type of goal, you can write or talk to student affairs staff and explain why you feel it’s important.
“Speak up. If an LGBTQ person (or anyone else) hears stigmatizing comments all the time, they may be too afraid or frustrated to address them. Try to respectfully but firmly shoot down any anti-LGBTQ remarks you hear.”
Dr. Martin Blais: “Students and other peers need to become allies; i.e., individuals who do not identify as LGBTQ but who do support and stand up for equal civil rights for LGBTQ communities. Allies are very important in offering social support and bringing about change in attitudes and policies.”
Dr. Corey Flanders: “Student governments can be advocates for thinking about including or developing LGBTQ services for survivors of sexual assault.”
Sexual assault is never the fault of the survivor. Become familiar with your campus and community resources. Campus resources for survivors of coercion and/or sexual assault include the counselling centre, student health centre, women’s centre, and sexual assault centre. Community resources include rape or sexual assault crisis centres and hotlines.
Gabe Murchison, senior research manager, Human Rights Campaign. Murchison’s master’s thesis (not yet published) was advised by Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University, and John Pachankis, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health.
Joleen Nevers, MA Ed, CHES, AASECT Certified Secondary Education, sexuality educator, health education coordinator, University of Connecticut.
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