Out of the Shadows: One Queer Researcher’s Journey

ACPA’s Standing Committee for LGBT Awareness began from a collaborative idea at the 1983 convention. More than 30 years later, SCLGBTA is thriving in its commitment to mobilize members of ACPA – College Student Educators International to build community, empower advocacy, and advance knowledge with people of all genders and sexualities. This Developments series celebrates 30 years of LGBTQ issues and identities in student affairs from three perspectives: administration, research, and association. Each essay explores the history and current status of LGBTQ individuals in higher education, providing insights into current and future advocacy.

In his 1932 book, titled The Sociology of Teaching, Waller offered the following:

“Homosexuality is a deviant, contagious, and dangerous disease that could and should be avoided in the schools by firing teachers who demonstrated homosexual traits including, carriage, mannerisms, voice, speech, etc.” (Waller, as cited in Tierney & Dilley, 1998, p. 51).

The climate of fear offered by Warren was also evident in higher education where the expulsion of students believed to be gay was a commonly adopted practice among colleges and signaled a belief that homosexuality was caused by the influence of those determined to spread its ills. Colleges and universities during this era thus viewed same-sex attraction and, more pointedly, the behaviors accompanying it, as a reflection on the institution as a whole and sought to distance themselves from it (for a comprehensive history see Marine, 2011). Pre-1970’s research on and about queer and trans spectrum people further pathologized their lives (Beeymn & Rankin, 2011; Marine, 2011). Post-1970’s research offered visibility to queer and trans spectrum people on college campuses leading researchers to explore ways to understand their identities and their experiences (Marine, 2011; Renn, 2010; Tierney & Dilley, 1998).

It was within this environment that I found myself, an “out” lesbian, working in higher education in the late 1970’s. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would be intimately involved in a social justice movement that eventually led me to a research agenda focusing on the experiences of queer and trans spectrum faculty, staff, and students on college campuses. Renn (2010) and Marine (2011) offer more comprehensive reviews of the evolution of research in higher education focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender faculty, staff, and students. I encourage readers interested in this history to read their thorough and thought provoking reviews. I chose to focus this essay on the study of the climate in higher education for queer spectrum and trans spectrum people both as a researcher and a participant.

According to Hill and Grace (2009), the United States academic environment promulgates a dominant heteronormative culture. With its entrenched tendency to replace heteronormativity, fighting back has proven an arduous task requiring the courage and persistence of activist researchers. As one of many advocates and activists in the 1990’s at Penn State fighting for visibility and inclusion, we had worked quietly and consistently to urge the institution to include sexual orientation in its stated nondiscrimination policy. A Task Force was charged by then President Joab Thomas to examine the need for adding sexual orientation in the policy and my task, with Lee Upcraft, Bill Tierney, and Estela Bensimon as mentors, was to provide a study that examined the climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual faculty, staff, and students at Penn State. The “perfect storm” erupted when at the same time. Then women’s basketball coach Renee Portland publicly offered that one of her three “training rules” include “no lesbians.” As I was then serving as the women’s softball coach, my vocal disapproval of Coach Portland’s remarks led to my dismissal (see the documentary Training Rules). The Task Force project became my dissertation and the impetus for my life-long research.

Campus Climate for Queer Spectrum and Trans Spectrum People – A Summary

Early literature (1980-1999) indicated a lack of tolerance toward queer and trans spectrum members of the academic community. (For a detailed review of this literature please refer to Rankin, et al. 2010). The research documents that queer and trans spectrum people on campus were subjected to physical and psychological harassment, discrimination, and violence, all of which obstructed achievement of personal, educational, and professional goals. Based on my dissertation work and continued interest in these issues on campus, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) provided me with a small grant to conduct the first national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) campus climate survey in 2003. The results paralleled those of the earlier studies indicating that 33% of LGBT students experienced some form of harassment, with 11% of respondents indicating they had experienced physical violence enacted on the basis of their perceived or actual sexual identity. The overall climate was described by respondents as “homophobic” and many people indicated that they hid their sexual identity or gender identity to avoid discrimination and harassment. Further, only 5% of participants felt that their colleges addressed issues related to sexual and gender identity.

The queer and trans spectrum research since 2003 has exploded. In a search of articles in education journals with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and or transgender content since 2003, over 6,000 references were cited, many of them focusing on the experiences and perceptions of sexual and gender minorities intersecting with other identities (e.g., race, class, spirituality). However, in 2003 only 99 campuses had offices or centers that focused on the issues and concerns of queer and trans spectrum people. In 2010, that number had risen to 160. With the rise in queer and trans spectrum research and concurrent increase in student services, it was time for a follow-up climate assessment.

My Campus Climate Research Journey

In 2010, with support from Campus Pride, I worked with an amazing team of colleagues that resulted in the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People report (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010) Based on the research that underscores the importance of the perception of non-discriminatory environments in achieving positive educational outcomes for students (Aguirre & Messineo, 1997; Flowers & Pascarella, 1999; Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Terenzini, & Nora, 2001) and to successful personal and professional development of employees (Settles, Cortina, Malley, & Stewart, 2006), the report documents the experiences of nearly 6,000 students, faculty, staff and administrators who identify as queer or trans spectrum at colleges and universities across the United States. The results suggested that queer and trans spectrum students, faculty, and staff experience a climate in higher education that often interferes with their ability to successfully work or learn on campus. One quarter (23%) of queer spectrum staff, faculty, and students reported experiencing harassment (defined as any conduct that has interfered with a person’s ability to work or learn). Almost all participants identified their sexual identity as the basis of the harassment (83%). An even greater percentage of trans spectrum students, faculty, and staff reported experiencing harassment (39%), with 87% identifying their gender identity/expression as the basis for the harassment. Due to this challenging climate, more than half of all faculty, students, and staff hid their sexual identity (43%) or gender identity (63%) to avoid intimidation. The challenging climate had a direct influence on persistence given that one-third of queer-spectrum (33%) and trans-spectrum (38%) students, faculty, and staff have seriously considered leaving their institution. These numbers were significantly higher for queer and trans people of color.

It seems appropriate that my most recent climate assessment was to study the influence of climate on the academic and athletic success of student-athletes. How ironic that the governing body that was silent when I was dismissed for being too vocal about my own “queerness” and the heterosexist environment in sport in 1996 provided a grant, inclusive of questions on sexual identity and gender identity, to study student-athlete experiences. The larger report included an examination of multiple identities and offered significant differences in academic and athletic success for student-athletes based on racial identity, gender identity, sexual identity, divisional status, disability status, and sport (see Rankin et al., 2011). Campus Pride provided a grant to report on the responses of the 401 queer spectrum student-athletes and the 7 trans spectrum student athletes. When examining the academic success of heterosexual student-athletes and queer spectrum student-athletes there were no differences in academic or athletic success. However, when climate is introduced, queer spectrum student-athletes have significantly lower levels of academic success and athletic success than their heterosexual counterparts (Rankin & Merson, 2012).

The intersections of societal climate, campus climate, and the climate in intercollegiate athletics are inextricably tied to my own personal journey. In her analysis of the literature, Renn (2010) called for renewed attention to the selection of thoughtful methods for answering questions about queer spectrum and trans spectrum identities and challenges in substantive ways including the continuation of large-scale studies of campus climate. I am thrilled that the body of knowledge on queer spectrum and trans spectrum is growing both in depth and breadth. I am equally excited that the research on queer and trans spectrum people in academe is continuing and inclusive of the influence of campus climate. For example, Garvey’s 2014 national study on the experiences of queer spectrum and trans spectrum alumnae and Woodford’s 2013 national project examining queer and trans spectrum student success. I am also buoyed by the recent acceptance of queer spectrum and trans spectrum researchers in the higher education profession as evidenced in the Queer Special Interest Group in the American Educational Research Association and the new Queer Scholarship group at the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Our work is no longer in the shadows. Many thanks to those who lit the way. Time to pass the torch.

Discussion Questions

  1. Has your campus conducted a climate assessment inclusive of sexual identity and gender identity questions? If the response is “no”, what are the obstacles to conducting an assessment inclusive of these questions?  If the response is “yes”, what actions were realized (metrically measurable outcome) based on the results of the assessment?
  2. Given the importance of documenting our history, is there an historical account of the queer spectrum and trans spectrum movements on your campus?  If not, what are the challenges to developing an historical time-line of queer and trans spectrum milestone events on your campus?
  3. What actions have you personally taken to ensure that your campus provides a nurturing environment for queer spectrum and trans spectrum students?


Aguirre, A., & Messineo, M. (1997). Racially motivated incidents in higher education: What do they say about the campus climate for minority students? Equity & Excellence in Education, 30(2), 26-30.

Beemyn, G., & Rankin, S. (2011). Lives of Transgender People. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Flowers, L., & Pascarella, E. (1999). Cognitive effects of college racial composition on African American students after 3 years of college. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 669-677.

Grace, A. P., & Hill, R. J. (2004). Positioning queer in adult education: Intervening in politics and praxis in North America. Studies in the Education of Adults, 36(2), 167-189.

Marine, S. B. (2011). Stonewall’s legacy: Bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender student in higher education. ASHE Higher Education Report, 37(4).

Rankin, S. (2003). Campus Climate for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered People: A National Perspective. New York, NY: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.

Rankin, S., Blumenfeld, W. J., Weber, G. N., & Frazer, S. (2010). State of higher education for LGBT people. Charlotte, NC: Campus Pride.

Rankin, S., & Merson, D. (2012). LGBTQ College Athlete National Report. Charlotte, NC: Campus Pride.

Rankin, S., Merson, D., Sorgen, C., McHale, I., Loya, K., & Oseguera, L. (2011). Student-Athlete Climate Study (SACS) Final Report. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Renn, K. A. (2010). LGBT and queer research in higher education: The state and status of the field. Educational Researcher, 39(2), 10.

Settles, I. H., Cortina, L. M., Malley, J., & Stewart, A. J. (2006). The climate for women in academic science: The good, the bad, and the changeable. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30(1), 47-58.

Tierney, W. G., & Dilley, P. (1998). Constructing knowledge: Educational research and gay and lesbian studies. In W. Pinar (Ed.), Queer theory in education (pp. 49-71). Princeton, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishing.

Whitt, E. J., Edison, M. I., Pascarella, E. T., Terenzini, P. T., & Nora, A. (2001). Influences on students’ openness to diversity and challenge in the second and third years of college. The Journal of Higher Education, 72(2), 172-204.

About the Author

Dr. Sue Rankin retired from the Pennsylvania State University in 2012 where she most recently served as an Associate Professor of Education and Senior Research Associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. Over her 36-year tenure at Penn State, Dr. Rankin has presented and published widely on the intersections of identities and the impact of sexism, genderism, racism and heterosexism in the academy and in intercollegiate athletics. Dr. Rankin’s most recent publications include the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People, The Lives of Transgender People (2011) and the NCAA Student-Athlete Climate Study (2011). In her consulting work, Dr. Rankin has collaborated with over 120 institutions/organizations in implementing climate assessments and developing strategic initiatives. Dr. Rankin is a founding member of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, a network of professionals doing advocacy work for LGBTQ people on college campuses. Dr. Rankin is the recipient of the ACPA 2008 Voice of Inclusion Medallion, an award that recognizes individuals who embody the student affairs values of social justice. In 2013, Dr. Rankin was selected as the ACPA Standing Committee for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Awareness’ Senior Scholar.

Please e-mail inquiries to Sue Rankin.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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