written by: Dr. Michael A. Goodman
According to Victory Institute (2021), a nonprofit focused on increasing the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people in public office, there has been a large increase in the election of LGBTQ people in U.S. politics. However, LGBTQ individuals are significantly underrepresented in elected positions (Victory Institute, 2021). As of June 2021, there were 986 known out LGBTQ elected officials in the United States; the organization posited that 28,116 more LGBTQ leaders would need to be elected in order to achieve equal representation (Victory Institute, 2021). More recently, Gallup found that the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as LGBT or non-heterosexual increased to 7.1% (Jones, 2022). Thus, 35,876 more LGBTQ people would need to be elected to public office to achieve equitable representation (Victory Institute, 2022).
Despite college student government (SG) being a form of public office (Goodman, under review), and although not considered in Victory Institute’s data, the election of LGBTQ individuals to college SG is a form of representative leadership that is worth exploring (Goodman, 2021a, 2021c, 2022). Given the dearth of literature on SG presidents–and LGBTQ people in SG specifically–this article is guided by the following research questions:
- What are the experiences, perceptions, and identities of college SG presidents who served during the 2021-2022 academic year? Specifically, what are the experiences, perceptions, and identities of those who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and pansexual (LGBTQP) in some capacity, and compared to their heterosexual peers?
A review of literature is warranted and the following section examines existing scholarship including empirical research, book chapters, and institutional press.
The role of identity among SG presidents is an area that continues to be explored. For example, scholars have studied the role of women in SG, and found that while women were involved in SG, they were less represented in president and vice president roles (Miller & Kraus, 2004). Further, Workman et al. (2020) suggested SG was a “boys’ club” that led to a “chilly climate” for women (p. 44), and that SG was less tolerant to mistakes, supported inherent biases against women, and that women had to work harder than men to be taken seriously by peers. In a study of Black womyn SG presidents at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hardaway et al. (2021) found that experiences were interwoven together as race-gendered, and “rooted in the intersectional crossroad shared by womyn who stand in one of the most powerful, standpoints in which two prominent systems of oppression come together” (p. 147).
Hotchkins and McNaughtan (2021) found that Black student leaders attending a PWI enacted social justice as a way to resist, reorganize, and restructure exclusionary campus systems like SG funding policies. In another example, Hays (2020) found that student leaders of color at dominantly white Christian institutions gravitated toward peers, faculty, and staff who understood and identified the same as them; one participant who was involved in SG described that students of color saw a lot of white people in SG and did not think they could fit in, and therefore did not try. The lack of representation drove participants in Hays’ (2020) study to become leaders at their institutions.
Next, there are few known studies that center on openly LGBTQ students involved in college SG. However, in two articles on openly gay men in elected SG, participants described representation and their visibility as out and elected to be of great importance (Goodman, 2021a, 2021c). Yet, to be visible as openly gay in their elected roles was also complicated. Participants grappled with internalized homophobia, and Men of Color participants specifically recalled having to work at least twice as hard and up to ten times harder than their white and heterosexual peers as a result of their race, sexuality, and leadership role (Goodman, 2021a).
Elected LGBTQ students are often notable “firsts” in the discourse on the evolution of diversity in SG. In 2020, Claire Murashima was elected student body president at Calvin University, a Christian university in Michigan. Murashima (2020) wrote, “In the 102 years that Student Senate has existed, we’ve never had an openly gay student body president… I’m proud to be the first” (para 1). Identifying as bisexual and queer, Murashima (2020) wanted other queer students to see themselves in their story. Murashima (2020) shared, “I’d feel as if I’d made a mistake as student body president if I did not use my platform to do so” (para 3).
Such a representation is ongoing, as many SG “firsts” continue to be publicized by institutions and the students themselves. In addition to Murashima, Ky Freeman was elected SG president at Indiana University in 2021. Freeman was the first openly gay, Black male president in the institution’s history (IU, 2021). Additional notable “firsts” include Jack Baker, the first known openly gay SG president in the U.S. (Anderson, 1972; Dilley, 2002; Goodman, 2021a), as well as significant institutional firsts like Toni Luckett, who was elected the first out lesbian, Black SG president at The University of Texas at Austin in 1990 (Weiner, 1990).
The significance of “firsts” associated with historic elections also includes the election of Alberta Hamm, the first known transgender person elected college SG president (Blotcher, 2002; Obituary, 2019). In 2002, Hamm was elected SG president of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) as an openly transgender woman (Blotcher, 2002). Hamm ran against four other students in a conservative area, and with great knowledge of the role and issues on campus (Blotcher, 2002). She went on to serve two terms as SG president of HACC (Obituary, 2019). More recently, Abel Liu was elected SG president at the University of Virginia and is the first transgender person to hold that role on campus (Goodman, 2022; Wyant, 2021). Each of these elections shed additional light on the ways identity intersects with college SG. More broadly, the literature serves as a reminder of the challenges and successes that exist at this intersection of identity and college SG.
This study is the result of data collected and analyzed from a public survey on the experiences, perceptions, and identities of college SG presidents. The survey was open to college SG presidents from November 2021 through January 2022, and respondents must have been 18 years of age or older and serving as college SG president during the 2021-2022 academic year.
This Institutional Review Board-approved survey was made up of 35 questions, comprised of number of committees served, number of meetings with administrators, percentage of voters in student body election, personal demographic information, and perception questions based on a five-point Likert scale (with five being Strongly Agree and one being Strongly Disagree). Surveys were distributed in public social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and through email by way of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Student Government Knowledge Community.
Individual respondents must have been presently serving as a student government, student body, or student association president at a degree-granting institution for higher education in the United States. Respondents granted consent before being presented with survey questions, and 242 total surveys were started. Descriptive statistics illuminate data from 218 completed surveys, which were processed using data cleaning techniques (Allen, 2017; Salkind, 2010). Respondent fill-in-the-blank numbers were averaged in cases where an improper number or percentage was written in. A statistician used R, a statistical computing software, to run descriptive statistics and cross-tabulation reports. These reports were then examined through univariate analysis and with frequency distribution(s).
This article focuses solely on the nuances associated with SG presidents’ gender and sexuality. While this study contains findings of self-identified sexuality descriptors, the level of respondent “outness” is not known (e.g., one may identify as gay or bisexual, yet not be as public as others). Additionally, this study is based on responses from 218 SG presidents, a small sample size compared to the larger body of U.S. postsecondary institutions.
Geographically, LGBTQP respondents were least represented in the South and Mid-Atlantic regions. Five (2.39%) respondents identified as transgender, and three (1.38%) as questioning/unsure or preferred not to disclose. Similarly, regarding gender, 10 (4.78%) individuals identified as nonbinary in some way, with 97 (46.41%) identifying as man and 98 (46.89%) as woman. The breakdown of sexual orientation weighed heavily heterosexual (142 at 67.94%), however, there was a notable number of bisexual respondents (22 at 10.53%). Additionally, four SG presidents identified as lesbian (1.91%), 13 as gay (6.22%), 14 as queer (6.7%), and five as pansexual (2.39%). In the overall sample of respondents, 24 (11.48%) identified as African American/Black, 18 (8.61%) as Asian American/Asian, 12 (5.74%) as Hispanic/Latino/a, and 120 (57.42%) as white. Considering the 142 heterosexual respondents, 20 (83.33%) of the African American/Black respondents identified as heterosexual, as well as 10 (55.55%) of Asian American/Asian respondents, seven (58.33%) of Hispanic/Latino/a respondents, and 85 (70.83%) of white participants.
When asked if they see others of the same sexual orientation as them in SG, the most variation came from bisexual and gay presidents. Bisexual (n=22) respondents responded strongly disagree (9.09%), somewhat disagree (18.18%), neither disagree or agree (31.82%), somewhat agree (31.82%), and strongly agree (9.09%). Gay (n=13) respondents responded strongly disagree (7.69%), somewhat disagree (30.77%), neither disagree or agree (23.08%), somewhat agree (30.77%), and strongly agree (7.69%). Consequently, heterosexual respondents shared that they strongly agree (47.88%) and somewhat agree (28.87%) to seeing students of the same sexuality as them in SG (totaling 76.76%).
Next, 27 (41.54%) LGBQP respondents were involved in high school SG (compared to 48.59% of heterosexual respondents). On average, gay respondents were involved in college SG for 3.5 years and bisexual respondents for 2.75 years. The only question that asked about additional student involvement (as also done in Templeton et al., 2018) was sorority/fraternity (SF) affiliation, in which LGBQP presidents were largely missing. Just 12 (19.05%) of LGBQP respondents were members of a sorority or fraternity, compared to 51 (80.95%) of SF-affiliated students who identified as heterosexual.
Finally, 80% of LGBQP respondents either strongly or somewhat agreed that college SG felt like public office. Further, 83.08% of LGBQP respondents strongly agreed they had relationships with campus administrators (compared to 80.98% of heterosexual respondents). Of those LGBQP individuals, 100% of gay and pansexual respondents strongly agreed that they had relationships with administrators. In sum, these findings bring forward emerging data regarding gender, sexuality, and the college SG presidency during the 2021-2022 academic year, in particular, the experiences, perceptions, and identities of those who identify as LGBTQP in some capacity and compared to their heterosexual-identified peers.
While SG remains a predominantly heterosexual space, it is encouraging to see emerging data regarding the number of LGBTQP SG presidents. Earlier this year, Gallup found that one in five Generation Z adults in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ in some way (Jones, 2022). The number of bisexual SG presidents in this study, for example, is noteworthy and may align with the comfort of being out among Generation Z students (Moskowitz et al., 2021). As SGs are seen as “the formal face of the student body” (Miller & Nadler, 2006, p. 11), to be out and elected is a courageous act for those who fill these positions. Representation is an important part of the role of SG (Goodman, 2021c; Kuh, 1995; Laosebikan-Buggs, 2006), and is heightened in the context of identity and position. In this case, it is important to know the sexuality and gender demographic makeup of SG presidents, much like the work done annually by Victory Institute. The relevance of Victory Institute is that this research highlights existing data on LGBTQP collegians similarly serving in public office (in this case, collegiate public office; e.g., see Goodman, 2022; Goodman, under review). It is important to know the sexuality, gender, and racial makeup of SG presidents because identity is highlight politicized in the U.S., much like elected leadership roles. To know the sexuality, gender, and racial identities of SG presidents may help provide an additional glimpse into the experiences of these students, and at this intersection of their identity(ies) and elected role.
In U.S. politics more broadly, LGBTQ elected leaders of color grew at a greater rate than their white peers, however white LGBTQ elected officials are still overrepresented (Victory Institute, 2021). This overrepresentation is also the case in the college SG presidency. For example, as elected gay Men of Color work harder than their heterosexual peers (Goodman, 2021a), the intersection of sexuality, gender, and race remain an important consideration. Percentages of LGBTQ representation in U.S. politics are still incredibly low; two U.S. Senators (out of 100), nine U.S. Representatives (out of 435), two governors (out of 50), and six mayors out of the top 100 cities are LGBTQ (Victory Institute, 2021). If SG is a form of public office (Goodman, under review), numbers such as these and those in this study are necessary to understand the “big picture” of student leadership today. Perhaps to value LGBTQP SG president elections as significant and relevant, then, as a step toward the 35,876 leaders yet to be elected in order to achieve LGBTQ equality in elected office (Victory Institute, 2022).
First, recommendations for student affairs practice include continued support for LGBTQP students with attention to the leadership nuances and intersections provided by elected SG. Understanding the identities of those in SG may help administrators and advisors better support LGBTQP SG officers. Further, knowing who makes up college SG can help faculty teach about student involvement and leadership with gender and sexuality in mind. Graduate students, then, can anticipate an evolution mindset regarding student development theories and models surrounding student involvement experiences. For example, if graduate students are learning about early LGB identity development models and theories, more recent data on student involvement of LGBTQP students may help them think critically about the evolution of these models and theories.
Next, administrators and advisors can be mindful of advising and advocacy tactics when working with SGs, and in particular SGs with openly LGBTQP leaders. For example, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB 1557) and Tennessee’s proposed textbook and instructional materials ban (HB0800) may have LGBTQP student leaders feeling particular vulnerable as publicly out, even in the collegiate context. As SGs have taken on issues such as debating Chik-fil-A’s presence on campus (Goodman et al., 2021), student affairs practitioners may create space for openly LGBTQP students to talk about their experiences with local and state legislation about LGBTQP people, broadly and in education contexts.
Support for LGBTQP SG presidents (and officers) can come in many forms. Student affairs practitioners can create inclusive leadership training for students and communities and allow leaders with shared gender identities and sexualities to caucus alongside one another. This may even involve engaging openly LGBTQP SG presidents with campus LGBTQP faculty/staff affinity spaces, or a Queer Equity Center should one exist. Graduate students and new professionals might also consider the ways identity “firsts” exist on their campus and throughout history. For example, a course or work project might be to illuminate the identities of SG officers over the history of the SG organization. Or practitioners could bring in panelists who previously served in SG and who identify as LGBTQP in some way. A panel such as this would allow students to ask questions about their experiences as a way to inform current practices.
Next, though this study is consistent with the number of respondents in studies conducted by Lozano (2018) and Templeton et al. (2018), future iterations will aim for a larger number of SG presidents. Future research might also include more detailed statistical relationships between respondents and perception questions, specifically, which was not the primary scope of this article. Additionally, future qualitative research may allow respondents to elaborate or rate levels of outness, in and in tandem with SG. For example, much like that of students also involved in FS, scholars might consider studying additional spaces of campus involvement such as a Residence Hall Association, student trusteeship, NCAA or club sport, or academic honors group. Further, future qualitative research may aid in (better) understanding the intersection(s) of gender, sexuality, and race, and the salience of these identities in SG spaces. Qualitative research on SG presidents who identify as LGBTQP may also be nuanced when exploring this population through the lens of institution type, size, and geography.
Similar to the support for openly LGBTQP students in the south, it is worth understanding the experiences and identities in state-by-state contexts, and outside of a region more broadly (e.g., Mississippi and Florida, rather than “the south”). To understand representation in state contexts would allow future research to illuminate vulnerabilities in these regional contexts and based on current events and discourses in various states. Knowing the LGBTQP makeup of SG presidents in a particular state may be significant, particularly in locations where anti-LGBTQP legislation is written and enacted. For example, bills prohibiting healthcare for transgender youth and restrictions on identification documents (ACLU, 2021) are topics that might impact an openly LGBTQP SG leader. Research on their perceptions of and lived experiences related to current events and issues in their state would be useful in further telling the story of the college SG presidency, and SG leadership experiences more broadly.
The election of LGBTQP students to college SG offers a path toward more expansive visibility. Representation, and specifically the identities, perceptions, and experiences of LGBTQP students in representative spaces, is important to know and understand. And yet, gender, sexuality, and identity do not exist in a vacuum. To better support this population of students involved in SG is to interrogate more deeply who is and can even show up to be involved on college campuses. As Gallup reported that the number of LGBT people in the U.S. doubled between 2012 and 2022 (Jones, 2022), such a question remains for those LGBTQP students in college SG. Perhaps such increase will appear in SG spaces as well. Perhaps, over time, LGBTQP students will, too, gain equitable representation.
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Dr. Michael A. Goodman is an Assistant Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and serves as a Co-Coordinator for the Program in Higher Education Leadership. Goodman is a former undergraduate and graduate student government president, and resides in Austin, Texas.