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Research as change: GLBTTQ and allies' relationships in transition

Frances Ricks and Silvia Vilches

Abstract: Increasing numbers of young people are speaking up about sexual orien­tation and gender identity issues, yet our institutions are ill-prepared to accommodate diversity, never mind discuss issues. A participatory re search project at the University of Victoria gathered experiences of managing visibility, made recommendations for change, and initiated action to transform the work and study environment. The success of managing visibility depended on maintaining an open attitude, developing an atmosphere of trust and humour, and using the power of networks to enact change, one relationship at a time.

Craig Bowman, executive director of National Youth Advocacy, an umbrella organization for gay and lesbian youth groups, has stated that

It’s not that it’s unhealthy or more unsafe to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, or transgendered by virtue of that fact alone, but it is in a society in which young people are having to face the fear of being beat up, being called names, getting thrown out of the house. Those are terrifying things. Young people are having to struggle with that. (Wildman, 2000, p. 40)

While sexual minority1 members across Canada are coming out at younger ages and speaking in public about sexuality and gender identity, institutions are ill prepared to accept and discuss such matters in the public arena of work. This is no less true within our Canadian universities. While there are advocacy groups within academe, such as Gay Pride, Lesbian Child and Youth Care Workers, or Allies of Sexual Minority Members, such organizations only offer safe havens for some sexual minority members during their years of academic study. As constituency groups, they lack the power and scope to address the systemic barriers that exist for sexual minority faculty, students, and staff within the academic work and study environment.

It takes courage to address such matters systemically, and this is the story of an intervention planned and executed by an advocacy group that emerged at the University of Victoria. This group dedicated itself to understanding the issues for sexual minority members in order to create a healthier work and study environment for all. We share our experience to encourage other institutions, particularly those that serve youth, to consider their systemic barriers for sexual minority youth and how they might be addressed.

In the summer of 1998 the newly appointed Women’s Advisor took on the task of exploring what it was like to be a sexual minority member within the university community. The initial inquiry was to conduct a literature review to find out what approaches had been taken to address discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, Two Spirited2, transgendered, and queer people (GLBTTQ), particularly in Canadian academic institutions. The literature survey (Vilches & Ricks, 1998) revealed extensive exploration and theory generation on homophobia in both academic and non-academic studies, as well as burgeoning fields of study in the areas of gender and sexuality and queer theory. There was overwhelming evidence that lesbians and gay people experienced hostility and prejudice (D’Augelli,1989; Page, 1998; Rabson,1998). Qualitative explorations of the theoretical constructs of homophobia, cultural studies of the lives of gay people, and psychological measures of homophobia in the population were available in addition to documentation of high rates of violence (Baker & Fishbein,1998; Herek,1991; Walter & Hayes, 1998). This presented a well-rounded picture of societal attitudes toward GLBTTQ people. However, there was little evidence about the effects of these attitudes on people’s lives within work institutions. Understanding these effects on people at work seemed critical for understand­ing what steps need to be taken to address systemic barriers and to create equal access and opportunities for sexual minority members.

Wanting both to take action and to work with GLBTTQ members of the campus community, the first action was to create an advisory committee com­posed of both heterosexual and non-heterosexual members. The process by which the committee formed was one of exploration and inquiry. This process foreshadowed a research project that is presented in this article. The suc­cess of the committee’s work can be attributed to the questions people raised, as well as their commitment to creating a better work environment.

Participatory design
The approach taken was participatory, exploratory, and qualitative. Participatory approaches require that community members become invested in the research process and researchers be part of the community. In participatory approaches, community members determine the focus of the research. When community members determine the focus and thus the questions, there is more assurance that the results are relevant to the setting and couched in the language and beliefs of the community (Stringer, 1999). The committee members formed the research plan, acted as the pilot focus group, and par­ticipated in facilitating the focus groups. The committee members’ presence in the focus groups ensured that listeners were attuned to the contributions of different participants.

Fifty-three people were interviewed in focus groups and one-to-one interviews. The questions were designed to inquire into their experiences, whether they were GLBTTQ or heterosexual community members. The questions were as follows:

Gathering the data
The University of Victoria Human Subjects Ethics Review Committee approved the project in August 1999. To recruit participants, posters and electronic mail notices were distributed in early September. Committee members served as the first focus group, with heterosexual members of the committee interviewing the non-heterosexual members. “Having the committee serve as the first focus group also allowed the Committee to explore the issues with each other, a process that gave members a shared grounding and respect for the personal contributions of each other and future participants” (Committee on the Status of Sexual Minorities, 2000).

The committee conducted six focus groups involving 32 non-heterosexual community members including students, staff, and faculty. Eight other participants were accommodated by personal interviews. The focus group participants were diverse, representing different sexual minority groups, First Nations’ students, students who came from out of the country to attend the University of Victoria, and instructors on campus. There were more women (n = 19) than men (n = 13), and proportionately more staff (n = 5) and instructors (n = 6) than undergraduate students (n =12) compared to the population distribution of the university.

Focus groups were chosen as the way to obtain information because we wanted to encourage participants to share in a manner consistent with their social group. For example, a women’s student group might encourage sharing that is relevant to their experiences as women and students, whereas a faculty group would encourage sharing relevant to faculty experiences. In addition, focus groups not only generate data but also allow an opportunity to connect with others and to learn from each other. This strategy prompted the beginning of conversations on campus about a topic that is not usually discussed (Committee on the Status of Sexual Minorities, 2000).

Committee members reviewed the results of the GLBTTQ focus groups and discussed what to take forward to the heterosexual groups. The intent was to present key findings from the GLBTTQ groups in order to probe into how heterosexual people understood the experiences of GLBTTQ people. This was an essential element for promoting effective dialogue and action across the groups. Heterosexual groups were conducted with 6 heterosexual instructors, 10 staff, and 4 students with representation from the sciences (n = 3) and arts (n = 3) as well as from administrative areas (n = 10).

Understanding the results
All the contributions from focus groups and interviews were transcribed, analyzed for themes, and then reviewed by the committee. The material continued to be sorted until themes began to emerge as the strategies people used to deal with GLBTTQ issues. This provided essential information about the experiences of people on campus, and surprisingly, most GLBTTQ people said they were “having a pretty good time,” meaning that they didn’t have horrific experiences to report. However, this masked significant overall effects.

During the process of gathering information, and as the results became clearer, the committee continued in its commitment to action. For example, early results about student experiences in residences prompted contact with the housing manager. The housing manager decided to involve the undergraduate gay and lesbian students’ organization (U.Vic Pride Alliance) and establish diversity committees (multi-cultural and GLBTTQ and allies). The manager also asked a housing staff member to join the Committee on the Status of Sexual Minorities, and this person helped foster other initiatives in on-campus housing, including a safe spaces initiative, enhanced sensitivity training for residence advisors, and special events. Networking in this manner facilitated change on campus through committee activities (anti-homophobia comedy event, speaking to classes and at events, doing community outreach, and submitting a poster to the university equity poster contest, which won the People’s Choice award). These activities are important as they speak to the changes that were evolving during the “research as change proc­ess” (Douglas, 2002). The process provided opportunity and evidence for change and is as meaningful as the experiences reported by the focus groups.

Focus group themes
The details of the experiences of people at the University of Victoria are in the committee’s report, GLBTTQ Spoken Here (2000), which is available from the Equity Office of the University of Victoria. The findings led directly to recommendations about ways to implement change and were based on the following themes.

The title of the report says it all. GLBTTQ Spoken Here represents the pri­mary theme of the need to make sexual minorities visible on campus and be able to speak about their presence, their experiences, and the experiences of their allies. For many participants, being able to talk about GLBTTQ issues was a “relief” regardless of their sexual orientation. At last sexual orientation could be spoken about. At last it was acknowledged that there are sexual minority members on campus. At last both heterosexual and non-heterosexual were being asked to discuss what many knew all along but were afraid to make transparent in an open and understanding dialogue.

Second to the theme of visibility on campus was the theme of managing visibility. Instructions that GLBTTQ people received, such as to “tone it down,” “to not assert who you are,” “to put aside your sexual orientation because that has nothing to do with the University,” or just the feeling of “not knowing how safe it was going to be” were essentially instructions to “manage” their appearance or visibility within the environment. Heterosexuals were managing the presence of sexual orientation in their environments as well (for example, keeping a colleague’s sexual orientation secret), and sexual minority members were adroitly managing to stay safe.

The lack of safety and the need to manage visibility posed particular problems for students when instructors were ignorant, homophobic, or did not know how to handle class discussions pertaining to sexual minority is sues. Students sometimes reacted inappropriately by laughing, making jokes, or expressing derision about GLBTTQ content in class. Managing visibility in what sexual minority and heterosexual community members perceived as an unsafe environment interfered with learning and work.

A third theme was the work environment theme that pointed to the lack of safety to discuss personal circumstances that are part of one’s life. This included not being able to engage in such ordinary practices as acknowledging one’s partner at work, being invited to and attending faculty and university social events, or knowing whether it was a good or bad idea to be explicit about one’s sexual minority status in an application for employment. For example, sexual minority status needs to be acknowledged on work applications because it affects obtaining partner benefits. In spite of this, all forms at the university assume heterosexual partnerships.

A final theme was not being able to manage certain structures of the university that maintain old assumptions and ways of relating. For example, the university library is organized to represent sexual minority status as “abnormal or deviant” and therefore material is classified in the “HQ” section between sexual deviance and prostitution. Graffiti and vandalism communicating hatred toward sexual minority members of the community was present and had to be confronted daily. A transgendered participant dealt with inaccessible washroom and recreation facilities because of stereotyped gender labelling. There was an added complexity to managing when a person was gay and also a member of another marginalized group, such as ethnic or cultural groups. Being First Nations or handicapped, for example, is already difficult because the dominant culture marginalizes these groups on the basis of prejudices like “uneducated,” “drunk,” “stupid,” or “not belonging here.” The GLBTTQ person has to struggle with whether to come out and make themselves a target in yet another way. There is the added risk of alienating themselves from one minority group by making explicit their membership in another.

The understanding of heterosexual experiences with GLBTTQ issues was enlightening, considering that most research focuses on homophobic attitudes of heterosexuals (assuming ignorance and homophobia). Heterosexuals were aware of GLBTTQ issues and felt like they were acting in isolation in their attempts to counter homophobia and support their GLBTTQ friends and acquaintances. Some heterosexual individuals acted publicly as allies and faced as much violence as GLBTTQ people, particularly verbal violence and social isolation. Negative experiences for heterosexual participants occurred when other heterosexual people were homophobic and went on the attack. This resulted in some heterosexuals “being a silent witness” to painful negotiations of GLBTTQ people at work.

Ideas for change from participants
While 52 people had many different ideas for changing the systemic barriers within the university, the most important message participants communicated was to “educate, educate, educate” community members so that the dialogue could be more open and inclusive. Committee members believed that education of community members could result in enhanced safety, understanding, less stereotyping, opportunities for GLBTTQ scholarship, and the celebration of gay culture and history. Here are their suggestions for how to make the university a different place for GLBTTQ members and others engaged in the issues of sexual minorities.

All these suggestions are best summed up in the words of the report,

The primary need for change was the need to understand that GLBTTQ are around us, among us and part of us. If this were understood, the problems that started through ignorance might begin to dissolve. (Committee on the Status of Sexual Minorities, 2000, p. 72)

Our personal growth in coming to terms with not knowing what we did not know about GLBTTQ experiences prompted the writing of this article. The lessons from the research demand that we break the silence and address the invisibility of GLBTTQ issues in all institutions within our culture. This would be especially true for education, social service, and health organizations that work with children, youth, young adults, and families as these institutions are socializing the next generation. Socialization occurs from our experiences in this network of institutions. To the extent that we continue to condone the silencing of these issues, we continue to create the isolating circumstances that both heterosexual and GLBTTQ people experience.

Two levels of the institution must be transformed: those who work in any institution and those who are served by the institution. This is no small task since it includes everyone within a particular institution. In essence we are talking about changing the culture of the institution, one that is embedded within a larger culture.

Our own initial report identified transformational objectives: create a safe and welcoming environment; invest in the use of language that helps to educate (gay, lesbian, bisexual, Two Spirited, transgendered, and queer); ensure equal access and opportunity for all members of the culture; and foster support and belonging, to mention a few.

While these are noble and enabling objectives, they result in putting the cart before the horse. Our understanding from the change process is that what needs to happen first is a deeper personal understanding of how we are embedded in the culture of silence and discrimination. We suggest that it is the lack of understanding of this phenomenon that prevents the discovery of new ways of being together.

Be bold; break the silence
No doubt the first action to take is one of simply acknowledging that there are sexual minority members within our systems. As our participants noted in their responses, they simply want to be acknowledged as existing and then want to fit in like anyone else. Many organizations are beginning to make explicit that there are sexual minority members within their ranks and welcome them. Others are less sure what to do, so they acknowledge GLBTTQ people by separating them and making them special. An example of this would be the special radio shows for sexual minority members that are currently offered by most stations. While specific supports are important, they are only necessary because society as a whole is a problem; the whole picture needs to change.

Members of organizations need to be able to mention and speak about the differences within the sexual minority culture. For example, there are gays, lesbians, bisexuals, Two Spirited, transgendered, and queers. These are meaningful terms that indicate specific cultures, and the use of the words communicates an understanding beyond “weirdness.” Naming gives space and credibility. Conversations with sexual minority members need to include invitations to be included (“Please bring your partner to the party”). It is important to make the most mundane and typical comments as you do with others (“Where are you taking your partner for her birthday, your anniversary, or on your vacation?”). Likewise when there are meaningful events with a partner they deserve comment (“Sorry to hear that your partner is so ill”).

For organizations that deal with health, social, and educational matters there must be tolerance, acceptance, and recognition for special issues that can arise for members of this culture. In social services, for example, youth with special needs regarding gender identification need not be confused with youth who have made explicit their sexual preference. Staff may need assistance in dealing with their own issues of gender and sexual identity in order to work with youth with equanimity and grace.

Dealing with diversity
While we seemingly have come to terms with the fact that men and women are different but equal, we are not at the same place with variations on sexual orientation identity. Acknowledging sexual minority members within our culture, using explicit language, and making distinctions of what is healthy and not healthy forces us to deal with diversity of sexual orientation, sexual behaviour, and the interaction of sexuality and gender identity. Sexual orientation identity springs from sex but is not only about sex. We collectively seem to define alternate sexual orientation as “other,” as in “not heterosexual,” precisely because we are trying so hard not to notice the difference. Our perspective makes the point that opposition to heterosexual sex is not about sex but is about relationships. Sexual variation is typical and natural within human behaviour regardless of sexual orientation.

Our dominant culture does not do a good job of talking about relationship as opposed to sex. Therefore, the relationships that gay people have, and that their families and communities are built on, are obscured by the focus on sexuality rather than on the sustaining features of relationship. Our blindness from this sexual bias gets in the way of recognizing the diverse relationship structures of the family: divorce, separation, blended family, extended family, adoptive family, single-parent family, and emergent family are only some of the kin formulations used in our culture. Yet we hold steadfastly to the belief that we are mostly two-parent, intact, nuclear families. No doubt sexual minority relationships are bold reminders of variety in family forms that are pervasive even though they are not acknowledged and made explicit.

Addressing issues of relationship
The need to acknowledge the diversity of sexual preferences, to understand that gayness is about relationships more than about sex and that diversity of relationships is our utmost challenge opens up new opportunities for change in all our relationships, including those at work. It means acknowledging what we know, speaking about the unspeakable, and forging new ways of talking and being together. No doubt heterosexuals and GLBTTQ will come to discover new things about themselves and each other. Mostly they will discover that they are not as liberal, aware, or informed as they think they are. This always offers promise!

Our promise was found through research as change. Our inquiry process fostered mutual learning and created the opportunity to redress GLBTTQ issues. It was the experience of vulnerability, exploring a taboo subject, that eventually resulted in a discovery of support, an expanding network, and hilarious laughter, the best medicine of all. It was the committee’s commitment to inquiry that fostered new understanding and initiated systemic change.

1 The terms sexual minority, non-heterosexual, GLBTTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, Two Spirited, transgendered, and queer), gay, and queer are used in this article at different points. Sexual minority was chosen to emphasize the investigation of equality for a minority status group in society. It is not a term used by GLBTTQ people when identifying themselves.
2 Some First Nations people have adopted the traditional term “Two-Spirited,” which indicates a spiritual status as well as being of a gender and attracted to that gender (i.e., having “two spirits”.


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This feature: Ricks, F. and Vilches, S. (2001). Journal of Child and Youth Care. 15 (3). pp. 33-42