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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.”
Murchison has a master’s in public health from Yale University. As an undergraduate, he spent three years with Yale’s sexual violence prevention program, Communication and Consent Educators. His master’s thesis examines sexual assault risk factors affecting LGBTQ people and how to make our communities safer.
Why did you do this research?
“To prevent sexual violence, we have to understand how it happens, and while we know a bit about how sexual violence against straight, cisgender women tends to look, there’s very little research on violence against LGBTQ students. As a result, most prevention efforts are designed for straight, cisgender women. There’s very little research telling us whether they serve LGBTQ students equally or at all.
“Overall, our data suggests that LGBTQ students’ unwanted sexual experiences (coercion or assault) are similar to what we know about heterosexual, cisgender women’s. For instance, in the research we conducted, many of the perpetrators were friends, romantic partners, exes, or hookups, and coercion and alcohol incapacitation were more common tactics than physical force.
“However, 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. We found that 82 percent of perpetrators were male—surprisingly, that number was similar regardless of the survivor’s gender.”
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 non-conforming 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 non-conforming people. In the study we’re discussing, I didn’t ask participants about being gender non-conforming, so I can only talk about transgender students’ experiences. Other research has found that LGBTQ youth who are gender non-conforming have different experiences than those who are gender-conforming—for instance, they are more likely to be bullied in school. Whether being gender non-conforming affects the likelihood of experiencing sexual violence is an important question for future research.”
What are internalized homophobia?
“Living in a culture that stigmatizes one or more of your identities—your race, status, sexual orientation, or many others—can affect your health negatively. One way is through internalized stigma: when you come to consciously or unconsciously believe the negative cultural ideas about yourself. Internalized homophobia is internalized stigma about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer.
“Absorbing negative beliefs about one’s LGBTQ identity can cause a range of problems, like making someone more prone to depression or anxiety, or affecting their sexuality and relationships.
“For instance, it appears that some abusers take advantage of internalized homophobia to control their partners. When we were planning our research, we thought that sexual aggressors could do something similar, and there was some qualitative research (interviews with LGBTQ people about their unwanted sexual experiences) backing that up.
“It’s important to note that internalized stigma is not something to be ashamed of. It’s an almost unavoidable consequence of having any stigmatized identity, but most people find positive ways to cope with it.”
For research references, see Sources.
What are 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 nonconforming, 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.
“Trans students report facing more discrimination on campus than their cisgender LGBQ peers. Trans students deal with a number of challenges that don’t affect cisgender LGB students, like difficulty accessing housing and restrooms that match their gender. School policies may have a serious impact: Transgender people denied access to these facilities are more likely to have attempted suicide.
“On average, trans students also seem to have a weaker sense of community on campus, even though they’re equally involved in groups and leadership activities.”
For research references, see Sources.
What did researchers look at?
“We surveyed about 700 LGBQ college students at hundreds of colleges and universities, using questions that measured their levels of internalized homophobia and their sense of LGBTQ community on campus. We also asked them about some things that are related to sexual violence risk among heterosexual women, including how many romantic and sexual partners they’d had during college. Finally, we asked them about different types of unwanted sexual experiences they may have had, and about how and with whom those experiences happened. 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? While those women’s experiences vary, common themes include assault while incapacitated by alcohol or drugs; assault or coercion by a dating partner; and initially consensual hookups that end in assault. I guessed that LGBTQ students would report similar experiences, but many people assume that ‘hate crime’ attacks play a big role, so it was an open question.
- “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.”
How different is trans students’ experience?
“Technically, our study was about sexual orientation, not gender. However, many transgender students are also LGBQ. In my sample and another recent study by the Asssociation of American Universities, 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. We don’t know how transgender stigma on campus relates to sexual assault and coercion, but given the high rates of both discrimination and sexual violence, the question deserves more attention.”
How can we support LGBTQ students?
“We researched how feeling that you belong to a community affects the incidence of sexual assault. A strong sense of LGBTQ community is beneficial, potentially because it helps people deal with internalized homophobia and transphobia.
“The peer education program I worked with in college is based on the idea that changing how students think about sexuality, sexual pressure, and even ‘going out’ can make sexually aggressive behavior harder to get away with and help all students feel more empowered.”
How can schools help?
“Campus programming sets the tone for LGBTQ students and straight, cisgender students,” says Gabe Murchison. The following approaches can help build an inclusive community, he says:
- 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.
What if there isn’t a strong LGBTQ community?
“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, Greek life, 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?
“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.”
For research references, see Sources.
“‘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.”
What cultural problems did you identify in your peer work?
“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. Also, some people talked about experiencing sexual aggression when they were newly out and thinking maybe that was normal or acceptable among LGBTQ people—because they didn’t yet have many LGBTQ friends to discuss it with.”
How did you aim to build a safer culture?
Create nonsexual spaces and conversations
“We decided that building a stronger sense of community could help. First, we got LGBTQ student leaders on board to help change the way people in their circles talked about hooking up, and also to be intentionally welcoming to younger students. Second, we started hosting LGBTQ events that were not at all sexualized—like a fantastic pie-baking event that’s become an annual tradition. Third, we made sure that the more sexualized spaces were still low-pressure. For example, after an LGBTQ dance, we showed Mean Girls until 3 a.m. People loved it, and it showed that you can go out and dance without ending the night in someone’s bed.”
How can all students reach out to LGBTQ peers?
Check in with friends and younger students
“Checking in is really valuable. If someone is in an intense relationship and you’re not sure if it’s good-intense or bad-intense, 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.”
Pay attention to who seems left out
“Some students don’t participate in the LGBTQ community because they feel excluded—most visible LGBTQ social groups might be mostly white, mostly a particular gender, mostly secular. Also, not all LGBTQ communities are great at supporting transgender, non-binary, or bisexual students. Set an example by learning more about being bi- and trans-inclusive, and asking your friends to do the same.”
More ways for students to be allies to LGBTQ peers?
“Do your best not to assume someone is heterosexual or cisgender. My college had a dance where first-year students set up dates 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. Student affairs staff often take students’ opinions seriously. These staff can affect the decision-making process on issues that affect LGBTQ students, like funding an LGBTQ center 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.”
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 counseling center, student health center, women’s center, and sexual assault center. Community resources include rape or sexual assault crisis centers 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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