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Making the Grade? Classroom Climate for LGBTQ
Students Across Gender Conformity
Jason C. Garvey, The University of Alabama Susan R. Rankin, The Pennsylvania State
University Using data from the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People (Rankin,
Weber, Blumenfeld, & Frazer), this study examines campus climate perceptions for LGBTQ
undergraduate students across gender conformity and the extent to which relevant variables
influence perceptions of classroom climate. Findings reveal more positive classroom climate
perceptions for gender conforming students than gender non-conforming students and show
significant relationships between classroom climate perceptions and outness, LGBTQ inclusive
curricula, institutional support, and resource use. This study investigates the classroom climate
for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students across gender conformity.
Research on LGBTQ students often conflates sexuality and gender, thus diminishing the
importance of gender identity and expression in the experiences of LGBTQ students. Gender
identity refers to a person’s inner self of being a man, woman, both, or neither. The internal
identity may or may not be expressed outwardly and may or may not correspond to one’s
physical characteristics (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010). Gender expression is the
manner in which people outwardly represents their gender, regardless of the physical
characteristics that might typically define them as male or female (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber,
& Frazer, 2010). Gender non-conforming people are those who have either gender identities or
expressions that are non-traditional or variant (Sausa, 2005). Gender non-conforming individuals
may have gender identities as transgender, transmasculine, transfeminine, androgynous, gender
queer, fluid, two-spirit, third gender, polygender, gender neutral, or neither/both gender, among
others (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010). Gender non-conformity also includes
people whose gender identities do not traditionally match their gender expressions (i.e. feminine
men, masculine women). By including individuals with both variant gender identities and
expressions, the authors are able to capture the experiences of students who navigate spaces
differently because of their gender non-conformity. In contrast, individuals who are gender
conforming include those whose gender identities and expressions align with traditional social
standards. For the purposes of this study, this group includes feminine women and masculine
men. Jason C. Gravey, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, The University of Alabama
Susan Rankin, Associate Professor of Education (retired), Pennsylvania State University. Susan
R. Rankin, Department of Education Policy Studies, The Penn State University. Correspondence
concerning this article should be addressed to Jason C. Garvey, University of Alabama, 315J
Graves Hall, Box 870302, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487. E-mail: [email protected]. Garvey,
J.C., & Rankin, S.R. (2015). Making the Grade? Classroom Climate for LGBTQ Students Across
Gender Conformity. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 52(2), 190–203. ISSN:
1949-6591 (print)/1949-6605 (online) 190 doi:10.1080/19496591.2015.1019764 © NASPA 2015 JSARP 2015, 52(2) Literature Review The
following review of literature discusses LGBTQ students’ experiences with and perceptions of
campus and classroom climate, specifically as it relates to gender conformity. The authors
consciously used other scholars’ language when discussing certain identities (e.g., transgender,
sexual minority) and groups of people (e.g., LGBTQ, LGBQ) so as to represent how scholars
identified participants in their research. Campus Climate Colleges and universities remain largely
hostile environments for LGBTQ students (Vaccaro, 2012), who generally perceive the campus
climate as less inviting, or chillier, than their peers (Brown, Clarke, Gortmaker, & Robinson-
Keilig, 2004; Gortmaker & Brown, 2006). Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, and Frazer (2010) found
that approximately one quarter of LGBQ students and one third of transgender students had
experienced harassment or violence on campus because of their sexual and/or gender identity.
These findings were supported by another recent study conducted by Woodford, Howell,
Silverschanz, and Yu (2012) that examined heterosexist language (e.g., “that’s so gay”) and its
impact on LGBTQ students. The results indicated that heterosexist language was one of many
mechanisms through which heterosexism was enacted and communicated anti-gay sentiment
towards LGBQ people. The results also suggested that hearing “that’s so gay” significantly and
negatively influenced LGBQ students’ health and well-being. The extent to which LGBTQ
students disclose their identities also influences the ways in which they experience campus
climates. Findings regarding identity disclosure are conflicted. Some studies report LGBTQ
students who disclose their identities more openly experience harassment and victimization at
higher rates than those students who do not (Gortmaker & Brown, 2006; Rankin, 2003). Other
scholars suggest LGBTQ students who hide their identities from other students have less positive
perceptions of campus climate (Tetreault, Fette, Meidlinger, & Hope, 2013). Based on these
findings, that campus climate significantly influences LGBTQ students’ decisions to transfer to
another college or university is not surprising (Rankin, 2003; Tetreault et al., 2013). Such
disparities in campus climate for LGBTQ students may prevent them from achieving academic
success and/or integrating into the campus community (Rankin, 2003) because students who
endure harassment and/ or victimization on campus are less likely to have positive academic or
social outcomes (Milem, 2003; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005; Reason, Terenzini, &
Domingo, 2006; Umbach & Kuh, 2006). McKinney (2005) indicated that although student
affairs practitioners recognize the unique needs of LGBQ students, “[l]ess acknowledged are the
gender identity issues frequently faced by transgender students” (p. 64). More students are
coming out as gender non-conforming, yet colleges and universities have been slow to recognize
and address their needs (Beemyn, 2005; McKinney, 2005). Research on gender non-conforming
students, though limited, suggests that among LGBTQ students, a significantly higher proportion
of transgender individuals experience harassment as compared to their peers (Rankin, 2003).
Other scholars have found that the climate is unwelcoming for transgender youth (Bilodeau,
2009; Bilodeau & Renn, 2005; Hart & Lester, 2011). In their report on national transgender
discrimination, The National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that harassment among
transgender students was so severe that it led almost one-sixth of respondents to leave their
schools (Grant et al., 2011). Classroom Climate For student affairs practitioners, the classroom
climate either directly or indirectly relates to their work as they often function as teachers and
instructors across all higher education contexts (Degen & Classroom Climate JSARP 2015, 52(2)
© NASPA 2015 doi:10.1080/19496591.2015.1019764 191
Sheldahl, 2007). Classroom dynamics and culture are no longer exclusively the responsibilities
of faculty. Both student affairs staff and faculty must recognize the unique contexts of the
classroom experience for LGBTQ students and, in particular, gender non-conforming
individuals. Several scholars have documented the negative experiences of LGBTQ college
students in the classroom (Gortmaker & Brown, 2006; Rankin, 2003). As a result of these
negative experiences, LGBTQ students may feel silenced and detached from the classroom
dynamics (Renn, 2010) and may feel invisible, as they do not see their experiences or identities
represented in curricula (Gortmaker & Brown, 2006; Rankin, 2003; Renn, 2010). Negative
experiences and unfair treatment by faculty impact LGBTQ students’ perceptions of climate and
likelihood of leaving campus (Tetreault et al., 2013). Rankin (2003) noted, “A heterosexist
climate has not only inhibited the acknowledgement and expression of GLBT perspectives, it has
also limited curricular initiatives and research efforts, as seen in the lack of GLBT content in the
university course offerings” (p. 3). LGBTQ students have expressed the need for more courses
addressing LGBTQ topics and content in higher education classrooms (Brown et al., 2004;
Rankin, 2003). Despite the documented need for such curricula, classrooms appear to lack
relevant LGBTQ foci. Case and Stewart (2013) recently examined the affect of introducing
educational interventions about transgender people to undergraduate students at an urban state
university in Texas. The results of the study indicated that these educational interventions
significantly lowered participants’ negative attitudes and stereotypical beliefs about
transgenderism, but there was no significant relationship between respondents’ likelihood of
discriminatory behavior. The students were supportive, but how their attitude changes might
influence how they treat transgender people was indeterminable. Rye, Elmslie, and Chalmers
(2008) found that having a transgender guest speaker talk about her experiences to undergraduate
students in an upper-level human sexuality course resulted in the participants expressing more
positive attitudes toward transgender people. This class program was the first time many students
had met a transgender individual. For some students, the experience changed their perceptions of
diversity and inclusion. These two studies that focused on curricular inclusion for transgender
people demonstrate that even a small step to educate students about transgender people can have
a large impact. What Drabinski (2011), however, referred to as the “special guest” model is
limiting, as it continues to treat transgender people and their experiences as peripheral. To create
more comprehensive and lasting curricular change, all disciplines must engage in “gendercomplex education”—education that recognizes the existence and experiences of transgender
people (Rand, 2011). Purpose Outside of the above literature, there is limited research on the
experiences of gender nonconforming students in a higher education classroom. Few studies
have examined the unique and varied experiences across gender conformity for LGBTQ
students. To address this gap in the research, the purpose of this study is to investigate the
classroom climate for gender nonconforming and gender-conforming LGBTQ students. The
following questions guide the study: ● Are there differences in the perception of campus climate
between gender non-conforming and gender-conforming LGBTQ students? ● To what extent do
individual contexts, classroom contexts, and campus contexts influence LGBTQ students’
classroom climate? Classroom Climate 192 doi:10.1080/19496591.2015.1019764 © NASPA 2015 JSARP 2015, 52(2) Method Survey Instrument
Data for this study come from the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People (Rankin,
Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010). The survey contained 96 close-ended questions (e.g.,
Likerttype, single-response, select all that apply) and several additional open-ended questions
designed for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff to provide information about their campus
experiences, their perceptions of the climate on their campus, and their perceptions of
institutional actions including administrative policies regarding LGBTQ issues and concerns on
campus. These campus climate and experience dimensions were derived from Rankin’s (2003)
work examining the campus climate at more than 100 college campuses. Questions were worded
in non-biased and non-leading ways to prevent guiding participants toward any particular
responses. These precautions helped support the overall validity of the instrument (Rankin,
Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010). Data Collection Data collection for the 2010 State of
Higher Education for LGBT People (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010) involved nonprobabilistic chain-referral sampling—a method that is commonly used when sampling-related
information is lacking (Semaan, Lauby, & Liebman, 2002). Invitations were distributed via
known LGBTQ listservs and organizations (e.g., Consortium of Higher Education for LGBTQ
Resource Professionals, Campus Pride, Intersex Society of North America, National Gay &
Lesbian Task Force, National Center for Transgender Equality). To ensure inclusivity of LGBTQ
youth of various racial identities, invitations were also extended to organizations that focus
specifically on these youth (e.g., Hetrick-Martin, A La Familia, Mosaic, Spectrum). Outreach to
LGBTQ spirituality groups was also included (e.g., Integrity, Al-Fatiha Foundation).
Participating institutions included colleges/universities from all Carnegie Basic Classifications of
Institutions of Higher Education and from all 50 states. Sample The authors selected all
undergraduate student cases (n = 1,671, 32.5%) from the 5,149 cases in Rankin and colleagues’
2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People dataset. Given the varied experiences and
perceptions among constituents in higher education, the authors concentrated solely on the
undergraduate student experience, eliminating faculty, staff, and graduate students from the
sample population. Groups were determined based on respondents’ answers to questions on the
survey about gender identity and gender expression. On the survey, participants were asked to
select their gender identity, with four response options: man, woman, transgender (please
specify), or other (please specify). Participants were given three response options for gender
expression on the survey: masculine, feminine, or other (please specify). Gender non-conforming
students included those whose gender identity was transgender, transmasculine, transfeminine,
androgynous, gender queer, fluid, two-spirit, third gender, polygender, gender neutral,
neither/both gender, or another nontraditional gender identity. Also included among gender nonconforming students were those whose gender identity did not traditionally match their gender
expression (i.e. feminine men, masculine women). In total, this group included 394 of the 1,671
respondents (23.6%). The comparison group was composed of gender conforming students who
did not identify as transgender or another non-traditional gender identity, and whose gender
identity matched their Classroom Climate JSARP 2015, 52(2) © NASPA 2015 doi:10.1080/19496591.2015.1019764 193 gender expression (i.e.
feminine women, masculine men). This group included 1,277 of the 1,671 respondents (76.4%).
Study Constructs A variety of factors were developed from Rankin and colleagues’ 2010 State of
Higher Education using principal axis factoring (PAF; Thurstone, 1935, 1947) with oblique
rotation to improve the meaningfulness and interpretation of the extracted factors. Promax
rotation was used to obtain a solution that provided the best factor structure with the lowest
possible correlation among factors. Cronbach’s (1990) coefficient alphas were calculated for
each factor to assess reliability for this study’s sample population (Table 1). Classroom climate
was the dependent variable for this study and measured attitudes, behaviors, and standards held
by students concerning the access for, inclusion of, and level of respect for LGBTQ individuals
and groups in their classrooms (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010). The classroom
climate factor was created through PAF (α = 0.85) and included five questions that asked about
students’ perceived safety in classroom buildings, overall comfort with classroom climate, and
perceptions of whether the classroom climate is welcoming for LGBTQ people. Low scores on
the classroom climate factor indicated a negative perception of classroom climate, and high
scores corresponded to positive perceptions. LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, institutional support,
and resource usage were also created through PAF (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer,
2010). LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum included 14 questions that measured students’ perceptions
of how often classroom experiences included LGBTQ authors, class lectures, readings, and
presentations (α = 0.96). A low score indicated bad/non-inclusive curricula. Institutional support
included six questions that measured students’ perceptions of leadership on campus (i.e.
academic deans/unit heads, department heads/ direct supervisors, faculty) who advocated for
LGBTQ individuals on campus (α = 0.93). A low score indicated poor perception of support for
LGBTQ people from campus leadership. Resource usage included eight questions that measured
the frequency in which students used campus offerings within the past year (α = 0.91). These
resources included LGBTQ student services office and staff, LGBTQ student organizations,
LGBTQ- or ally-focused programs, LGBTQ library resources, and communications for LGBTQ
students (e.g., email, website). A low resource usage score indicated a low use of resources. This
study also included the variables level of outness (i.e. identity disclosure) and known LGBTQ
faculty/staff. Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, and Frazer (2010) collected data to understand how
much students disclosed their sexual and/or gender identities as LGBTQ people to different
groups of people: friends, immediate family, extended family, and colleagues. Students were
asked to place themselves on a continuum of outness, with low scores representing not being out
at all and high scores representing being completely out. Scores for all four responses were
added together to create a composite outness score and then standardized for interpretation.
Students were also asked how many LGBTQ faculty and/or staff members they currently knew
on campus. Participants responded to the number of LGBTQ faculty/staff known across five
response options (1 = none; 2 = 1–2; 3 = 3–5; 4 = 6–8; 5 = 9–11). Data Analyses To determine if
there were differences in classroom climate perceptions between gender nonconforming and
gender conforming LGBTQ students, the authors first ran an independentsamples t test. They
also calculated Cohen’s d to measure the effect size of the difference in Classroom Climate 194
doi:10.1080/19496591.2015.1019764 © NASPA 2015 JSARP
2015, 52(2) Table 1 Principal Axis Factoring and Coefficient Alphas Item Loading Cronbach α
Coding Classroom Climate α = 0.85 Low score is negative classroom climate, high score is
positive classroom climate Perceived safety in classroom buildings 0.48 Overall comfort with
classroom climate 0.59 Classroom climate welcoming for women who are GLBQ 0.87
Classroom climate welcoming for men who are GBQ 0.90 Classroom climate welcoming for
people who are gender variant 0.82 LGBTQ Inclusive Curriculum α = 0.96 Low score is
bad/noninclusive curriculum, high score is good/ inclusive curriculum Classes include authors
identified as woman loving woman 0.75 Classes include lesbian issues in class lectures 0.84
Classes include readings about lesbian issues 0.87 Classes include authors identified as man
loving man 0.71 Classes include gay male issues in class lectures 0.80 Classes include readings
about gay male issues 0.83 Classes include authors identified as bisexual 0.71 Classes include
bisexual issues in class lectures 0.82 Classes include readings about bisexual issues 0.82 Classes
include authors identified as gender variant 0.77 Classes include gender variant issues in class
lectures 0.84 Classes include readings about gender variant issues 0.84 Classes include readings
about homop …
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