‘Out’ LGBTQ+ Faculty Help Students Feel Seen and Accepted.

Professor and students in lecture hall
LGBTQIA+ health

‘Out’ LGBTQ+ Faculty Help Students Feel Seen and Accepted

A new study examined BU students’ perspectives on LGBTQ+ professors who are open about their identity in the classroom, and found that this openness fostered a welcoming environment for both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ students.

May 4, 2024
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Whether it’s in the media, workplace, academia, or social settings, representation of diverse identities matter. In academic settings, representation can be especially impactful, as many students are still discovering or learning to embrace their own identities, as well as the identities of those around them.

A new study coauthored by a School of Public Health researcher explores the impact of LGBTQ+ faculty representation in the classroom on students studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Studies have shown that undergraduate LGBTQ+ students are less likely than their cisgender peers to pursue majors or careers in this field due to a lack of sense of belonging, but there is limited research on how students of all gender and sexuality identities feel about LGBTQ+ faculty being “out” in this area of higher education.

Sophie Godley, clinical associate professor of community health sciences at SPH and an associate director at BU Kilachand Honors College; Jesse Moreira-Bouchard, clinical assistant professor of human physiology at Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences; and Michele DeBiasse, clinical associate professor of health science at Sargent, sought to close this gap in knowledge by seeking the perspectives of Boston University undergraduate health science students on this subject. 

Published in the journal Advances in Physiology Education, their study found that LGBTQ+ faculty members’ decision and ability to be open and authentic about their identity in their classrooms helped both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ students feel seen, welcomed, and included. The results underscore the need for colleges and universities to create academic environments and policies that enable queer faculty to be supported in presenting their authentic selves. 

The positive feedback from students also holds personal meaning for the researchers, who are all members of the LGBTQ+ community and are open about their identities with their students.

“From the very beginning of this study, we acknowledged that we were going to be upfront about our identities, and that as three out queer faculty members, we wanted to explore what these dynamics mean for students in our classroom,” says Godley, who teaches Introduction to Public Health to BU undergraduates and serves as SPH’s director of undergraduate education, advising students pursing a public health minor and the 4+1 program, SPH’s combined BA/MPH and BS/MPH.

“When faculty are members of disadvantaged communities—such as women, fem-presenting, people of color, queer, immigrant, first-generation—we often take on the role of informal advisor to students who see themselves in us,” she says. “For me, coming out in the classroom is an intentional choice and I do it as a way to welcome and make visible to students that they can be a public health professor, be married to a person of your own gender, and have a child, a career, and a life as a queer person. 

“I want them to know that not only is it okay for them to be out, but that they can thrive as an out person.”

For the study, Godley surveyed a total of 511 BU undergraduate students to gather data on the students’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to their engagement in classes taught by out LGBTQ+ faculty. The students completed questionnaires in the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters.

The vast majority of responses—nearly 83 percent—were positive, followed by 14 percent that were neutral, and 3 percent that were negative.

In addition to feeling included and welcomed, students reported that queer professors’ openness also encouraged them to engage more openly during class, and to initiate discussions with their peers.

The researchers say they were particularly pleased at the positive feedback from non-LGBTQ+ students, who reported that having queer professors created a positive learning environment for them as well as an increased understanding of LGBTQ+ challenges.

“That was an unexpected finding,” Godley says. “We thought the queer students will appreciate that they have out faculty, but so did the non-queer students, and that was really cool.”

“This paper demonstrates that there are multiple layers to the rich benefits of allowing faculty space to be openly queer in college and university classrooms,” says Moreira-Bouchard, lead author of the study. “Queer faculty authenticity is something that, for me, allows me to feel happier and more engaged at work, and it appears the students feel that way about my authentic presentation, too. Workplaces should focus on ways to improve culture that would support queer faculty in being open while maintaining their job security.”

Of the few students who shared negative feedback, one was an LGBTQ+ student who said they felt less likely to engage in class—a reminder that translating a safe space into an environment where all people feel comfortable to be their authentic selves can take a longer time for some and require a variety of approaches, the researchers say. 

The other few negative responses were from non-queer students who felt that the classroom was a place of “liberal bias” and that they did not feel comfortable expressing their opinions to their peers or professor.

While she would never want a student to feel “injured” in her class, it is okay for them to feel uncomfortable, Godley says.

“How we support different members of our community and their journey to acceptance is a conversation that we should have,” she says. “It’s okay for people to be uncomfortable or to feel challenged. We can debate ideas and have passionate disagreements as long as we stay within the bounds of recognizing one another’s humanity and not fall into the trap that public health only consists of liberals. We’ve got to rise above that.”

Although the survey was administered to undergraduate students, the insight from the findings on the importance of inclusive STEM classrooms and institutions’ support for faculty who wish to be open about their identity, the findings can be useful for all academic settings. 

“As an out LGBTQ+ student, having out LGBTQ+ professors is incredibly valuable,” says Kyla Botsian, MPH student and Queer Alliance president, who was not part of the study group. “When queer professors feel comfortable sharing their identity with their students, I believe it allows students to feel empowered to share those parts of their own identity as well. Seeing them in their roles acts as reassurance that I belong in the classroom and that I, too, can find a workplace that fosters inclusivity and accepts my queer identity.”

While noting that there is “always more to learn and room to grow,” Godley says her own experience as a queer faculty member at SPH has been phenomenal. 

“For the first time in a very long time, I have an out gay chair in my department [Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz], and that makes a huge difference for me and my life,” she says. “It makes a difference that Dean Galea publishes regularly about issues that impact the queer community. All of these moments of representation and support matter.”

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‘Out’ LGBTQ+ Faculty Help Students Feel Seen and Accepted

  • Jillian McKoy

    Senior Writer and Editor

    Jillian McKoy is the senior writer and editor at the School of Public Health. Profile

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There is 1 comment on ‘Out’ LGBTQ+ Faculty Help Students Feel Seen and Accepted

  1. Thank you, Professor Godley, for your mentorship while I was a 4+1 Health Sciences and MPH student nearly 10 years ago! Your openness and inclusivity made a big difference in my experience at BU. Having an openly queer professor who was breaking barriers in public health helped me see that future was also possible for me. Thank you!!

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