July 5, 2011

Is There A “Gay Agenda” In The Classroom? College Students Say Yes

A new study of undergraduate students' evaluations of Human Sexuality professors suggests that lesbian/gay professors are assumed to be politically biased.

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The roles of sexuality and sexual orientation in the classroom have been hotly contested throughout history.  In recent decades, in addition to debates of whether to offer sexuality education in middle and high schools, there have been battles over whether to ban any discussion of homosexuality and even whether to allow lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to teach.  Colleges and universities have also been sites of debate over the roles of sexuality and sexual orientation.

Do Lesbian And Gay Teachers Promote A “Gay Agenda”?

In a new study published in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, psychologists Kristin J. Anderson and Melinda Kanner explored undergraduate students’ evaluations of lesbian, gay, and heterosexual professors of a hypothetical course, Psychology of Human Sexuality.  They provided students with a syllabus of the course, providing biographical information about the hypothetical professor including political ideology, gender, and sexual identity.  The researchers also varied whether the syllabus had typographical errors.  They examined whether students would differ in their evaluations of the lesbian/gay and heterosexual professors, especially in terms of whether the professor was politically biased.

The researchers found that lesbian and gay professors were viewed as politically biased, while heterosexual professors with the exact same syllabus were viewed as objective.  On average, lesbian/gay professors were rated more harshly, and students pointed to political bias and typographical errors (typos) on the syllabus as their main reason for the negative evaluation.  However, heterosexual professors were not negatively evaluated for political bias and typographical errors.

Are There Any Consequences?

The findings of this study are similar to past research that has already indicated that professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities are rated more harshly by students and often presumed to be biased.  White heterosexual men, on the other hand, are presumed to be objective and unbiased, and they are less likely to be challenged by students.  Whereas students’ evaluations of professors are used to make hiring and promotion decisions for professors, students’ relatively harsh evaluations of minority professors (including women, people of color, and sexual minorities) can unfairly hurt the careers of these groups of professors.

For non-white, female, and non-heterosexual professors, awareness of students’ bias means having to employ strategies in the classroom (e.g., dress, behavior, interactions with students) to counteract the assumption of political bias and other challenges from students.  In light of these findings, many lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) professors decide to conceal their sexual identity to avoid their students’ negative evaluations, even when the courses they teach are about sexuality.  The authors of the study point out that this also harms students because they miss out on having an out LGB – a loss that is especially harmful for LGB students who could otherwise benefit from having an LGB role model at school.