Professor expands LGBT research into practice and policy

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Stephen Russell

Stephen Russell, a UT sociology and human development and family sciences professor, is bringing together research, practice and policy to improve the lives of LGBT youth in K-12 schools.

Russell, whose research focuses on understanding how sexual orientation interacts in the context of childhood development, recently compiled a book of research about LBGT youth. The book, titled “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Schooling,” was published Sept. 15. 

Russell said the project began when he collaborated with Stacey S. Horn, an expert in moral development of homophobic ideas in children.  

“We had been talking with each other for years … about putting together all the research on LGBTQ youth in schools and publishing a book,” Russell said. “We thought it would be cool to get a really smart group of people together to not only see what the research tells us, but also see what the compelling questions about making change in schooling [are].”

The pair achieved this by bringing in experts from fields including psychology, sociology and public health to compare LGBT schooling across the world and analyze what steps can be taken toward improving current conditions. 

According to Russell, it was a risky move to do LGBT research due to minimal funding and sparse support — even discouragement — from peers in the research community as recently as 2000. This has changed.

“The focus on sexual orientation and gender identity has grown in my work just because there is more attention and support for it culturally,” Russell said. “In the last five years, there has also been larger-scale scientific attention from places like the National Institutes of Health.”

Another problem involved a lack of data on LGBT research, Russell said. 

“There is no health disparity if you don’t ever ask the question,” Russell said. 

Russell has successfully advocated for LGBT inclusion in federal surveys on behavior and health risks.  

The first section of the book analyzes what researchers know about LGBT youth in America and the differences in other countries.

“I think we needed to challenge American exceptionalism because often people think that our policies and programs are [implicitly] more advanced and inclusive,” Russell said. “That is simply not true.”

In the book, Russell analyzes different school systems around the world that begin teaching LGBT education and history as early as the first grade. 

“In Brazil, there are federally sponsored initiatives battling homophobia from early ages, which is unheard of in the United States,” Russell said. “Researchers in Spain are actually very surprised that we don’t start this education earlier despite all the literature pointing towards the importance of doing so.”

Austin Marzan, a UT anthropology junior and member of the LGBT community, said he believes early teaching is essential to increasing sensitivity and equality toward LGBT youth. 

“If somehow schools implemented LGBTQ history or education segments into their curriculum, people would be more accepting of the community,” Marzan said. “We need infrastructure for LGBTQ youth to be understood and represented.”

The book addresses many other issues including the portrayal of LGBT youth as victimized and weak in schools and policy, which Russell said causes the focus to be on safety rather than achievement. The book also discusses the experience of transgender youth who don’t transition to stereotypically male or female. 

“There’s more to equality than making sure gay and transgender kids aren’t bullied in school,” Russell said. “We need to focus on their grades, their achievement, because the research shows it is tougher for them overall.”

According to Russell, the cutting-edge research presented in this book, along with work being done around the nation, serves to reduce the inequality LGBT youth face in schools, even today. 

“We wanted to challenge the idea that research, practice and policy are separate things,” Russell said. “[Our education] could be the best for LGBTQ youth, we just need to be more thoughtful, creative and informed to achieve it.”