Research to aid acceptance of students’ sexual diversity

Published 10 June 2009

UNE Ally Network cardsA research project under way at the University of New England aims at ensuring that the University nurtures all its students in an environment accepting of sexual diversity.

The researchers, funded by a Federal Government grant through the Higher Education Equity Support Program, are talking to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) students about their UNE experience – including any problems they might have experienced because of their sexuality.

They have already conducted a number of interviews and focus groups – including one group interview with external students using Internet-based “Skype” telephone links. They are hoping to speak to many more students in the coming weeks, to explore their perceptions of current and potential strategies supporting sexual diversity at UNE.

“Higher education is about opening young people’s minds to the richness and diversity of human experience,” said Dr Gail Hawkes, one of the principal researchers on the project. “Just as the educational experience teaches students to be respectful of ideas, it should also teach them to be respectful of each other.”

This is the first study of its kind involving students at tertiary level. “It’s often assumed that, after young people get to the ‘liberal’ environment of a university, they won’t be made to feel uneasy about their sexuality,” Dr Hawkes said. “But, unfortunately, the reality can be different.”

She explained that the impetus for the project came from a perception that there was some connection between the attrition (“drop-out”) rate for students and sexual diversity.

“I’d like our project to ensure that UNE is the sort of place where members of sexual minority groups feel just as comfortable about their sexual identity as heterosexual students,” she said.

The other principal investigator on the research team is Professor Adrian Kiernander, and the project manager is Lyn Tucker, former Employment, Equity and Diversity Officer at UNE.

The University introduced its “Ally” support network in 2005, aimed at promoting an inclusive environment at UNE for all students and staff regardless of their sexual orientation. The support that Ally Network members provides is informal, and amounts to being a person to whom GLBTI staff or students can speak safely and freely, and with whom they can mix without fear of negativity.

“We’re finding that all GLBTI students value the Ally program,” Dr Hawkes said, “and we’d like the whole University to feel like that for them.”

The research team is seeking participants in the project, who can be either current or ex-students, on-campus or off-campus. “We understand that the topic may well include areas of intimacy and privacy,” she said, “and the wishes of the participants will be respected at all times. Anonymity will, of course, be fully preserved.”

For more information, or to register an interest in participating, please contact Lyn Tucker on 0417 049 884 or (02) 6657 8110 (e-mail: lyntucker6@bigpond.com).