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LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Exploring the Need for and Benefits of LGBTQA Faculty and Staff Groups in Higher Education


            Although many colleges and universities have LGBTQA faculty and staff affinity groups or employee resource groups, these groups lack a consistent definition or strategic structure to best serve their members. In this paper, the history of these groups will be detailed, and recommendations will be given based on a review of the current literature and six semi-structured anonymous interviews with LGBTQA university employees. Recommendations are given for creating LGBTQA faculty and staff affinity groups or employee resource groups that can provide a home base for LGBTQA staff, inform trainings and workshops, work to prevent homophobic and transphobic prejudice, and ensure the enactment and enforcement of nondiscrimination/inclusivity policies of the institution. The groups should also serve as a social and networking outlet for the community, one that offers leadership and mentorship opportunities for LGBTQA students and other staff.

Discussion of Identities and Terminology 

There are many terms used in research literature and in everyday practice to describe the diverse range of gender and sexual identities expressed and internalized by people in their personal and professional lives. Because of this, when citing scholars, the terms used in their work will be adopted, and when describing or quoting individual participants, they will be referred to by the terms with which they self-identify.[i]

Literature Review

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation found that in 2018, 46 percent of LGBTQ workers say they are closeted at work, and the top reason LGBQ workers don’t report negative comments they hear about LGBTQ people to a supervisor or Human Resources is that they “don’t want to hurt their relationships with coworkers.”[ii]LGBT employees might attempt to “pass” as straight, presenting themselves as having a different social identity than that they privately hold.[iii] Others may instead deploy their marginalized identities in intentional ways, “coming out of the closet” to both claim membership in the social category and work to educate people about their LGBTQA experiences.[iv] Creed and Scully found that even coming out in a “mundane” way, such as inserting one’s identity discreetly in a conversation, can have political significance.[v] This often leads to discussions of homophobic and transphobic prejudice and workplace discrimination in an effort to advocate for specific policy changes and foster a more welcoming workplace. 

            In response to those environments, LGBTQA employee groups have formed to provide social support and networking opportunities to workers. This structure provides a platform from which LGBTQA people can work toward organizational development and change from within their workplaces.[vi] These groups can take a variety of forms: formally organized, informally organized, recognized by the employing organization, and even existing outside the organization (e.g., in unions).[vii] This is just one example of what are commonly termed employee resource groups (ERGs), which are groups formed around a shared identity to organize programs, encourage discussion, seek organizational changes, advise their employers, and increase organizational effectiveness in the workplace.[viii]According to Raeburn, the first LGBT ERG formed in 1978, but it took many years of activism before most companies started adopting nondiscriminatory policies.[ix] By the 1990s, over two-thirds of Fortune 1000 companies adopted domestic partner benefits after facing pressure from ERGs and other forms of mobilized LGBT groups, though many companies still do not have inclusive policies on the books.[x] LGBT ERGs have historically joined forces with other ERGs with shared values, including domestic partner benefits for all unmarried couples (regardless of gender) and enhanced benefits for working parents. Githens’s research found that the effects of ERGs lead to more inclusive, less individualistic, and more community-oriented companies and society on the whole. Many colleges and universities borrow the concept of ERGs from the corporate world for their faculty and staff employees. 

            ERGs have also learned from student organizing. By the mid-20th century, social issues and civil rights played out in colleges and universities, with student activists having a significant impact on the advancement of college and university policies, practices, and programs in support of minoritized college students.[xi] Predating the 1969 Stonewall Riots by two years, the Student Homophile League was founded at Columbia University as the first-known LGBT student group in the United States.[xii] In 1978, just five years after the American Psychiatric Association reversed its stance on homosexuality as a psychological disorder, New York Times Magazine reported that there were more than 200 campus gay and lesbian groups.[xiii] It is perhaps unsurprising that universities are among the earliest sites of activism as colleges are perceived as centers of knowledge acquisition and knowledge transfer and sites known for free speech and free expression.[xiv] There is also a pervasive narrative of colleges providing a safe space in which students leaving home for the first time could feel able to explore and/or come to terms with their sexual orientation and expressions of gender. Historically, institutional changes related to improving the campus for LGBTQA communities have been the result of active student initiatives, responses to campus incidents, or through the effort of campus leaders, despite resistance from other institutional actors.[xv] More than 2,000 campuses have LGBT student groups, and more than 150 campuses have professionally staffed LGBT Resource Centers.[xvi]

            In addition to LGBT student support, higher education institutions are expanding their protections for LGBT faculty and staff. The HRC, using self-reported data, identifies 567 of 4,391 US colleges and universities that offer protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and 309 institutions that provide health care benefits to same-sex domestic partners.[xvii] The Transgender Law and Policy Institute identifies 387 institutions that protect against discrimination based on gender identity or expression.[xviii] As an important note, this data predates the US Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which protects marriage equality for all 50 states. Higher education institutions also offer nondiscrimination in admissions and university-sponsored housing and protection from harassment, as well as “soft benefits,” such as library and exercise facility use, ID cards, health insurance covered, and reduced tuition for domestic partners.[xix] Many colleges have adopted LGBT-inclusive tenure clock stoppage and family leave policies, LGBT-specific programming, name and gender change processes for student and staff records, and gender-neutral housing and bathrooms.[xx]

            It is important to recognize the unique paradox of higher education. While academia is the location of much development of Queer Theory, Renn argues that universities themselves are not particularly queer.[xxi] Even schools like Yale University, the intellectual home of queer theorizing, turned down playwright and activist Larry Kramer’s generous gift to establish a gay studies program, supposedly to avoid “balkanizing” the campus with another theory-based area studies track.[xxii] Instead of merely celebrating universities as spaces that exhibit their LGBTQA acceptance through their academic contributions, LGBTQA faculty and staff groups are still crucial for advocacy in higher education. 

LGBTQA Faculty and Staff Interviews

            The second source of data, after the review of current literature, is six anonymous interviews with LGBTQA faculty and staff members at four higher education institutions in the Boston, Massachusetts, area. Because the need for a wide range of LGBTQA representation, as well as a range of representation of institutions and roles within those institutions, purposive sampling was used.[xxiii] The participants in the interviews self-identified as: a gay archivist; a gay instructor of psychology; a bi, queer, and femme administrative director for international affairs; a bisexual and queer program assistant in the Office of the Provost; a queer, bisexual, lesbian executive assistant in the Office of the Provost; and a queer, transgender, lesbian, bisexual user experience librarian. The purpose of these interviews was two-fold: to amplify the voices of the underrepresented as the “wisdom of the people” and to provide a contemporary take on some of the same research and interview questions encountered in published qualitative research, including Croteau, Seidman et al., Creed and Scully, Messinger, Vaccaro, Orlov and Allen, Speice, and Mattheis et al.[xxiv],[xxv],[xxvi],[xxvii],[xxviii],[xxix],[xxx],[xxxi],[xxxii]

            All interviews were conducted remotely using a teleconferencing tool, Zoom. After receiving the consent of each participant, the audio and video of the interviews were recorded. The interview transcripts were coded into six codes: openness at work, workplace issues, the role of Human Resources (HR), LGBTQA group membership, LGBTQA group purpose, and campus culture.[xxxiii] These codes were then distilled into main themes and connected to the recommendations for best practice alongside the extant literature.[xxxiv]


            Based on an analysis of existing research and six personal interviews, LGBTQA faculty and staff groups in higher education can fulfill the following roles and functions: LGBTQA identity recognition; LGBTQA community building; LGBTQA initiatives, trainings, workshops, and professional development; social networking to build a workplace sense of belonging; enacting non-discrimination policies; LGBTQA leadership; mentorship for students and staff; and countering homophobia and transphobia. As evidenced by both the professional literature and interview data, these actions lead to positive changes in a campus workplace environment.

LGBTQA Identity Recognition

            All individuals are engaged in ongoing identity construction, but it is particularly resonant for LGBTQA students, faculty, and staff who may be altering their personal understanding of their sexuality and gender. Alvesson et al. explore the impact of organizations embracing the personal identities of their staff as a way to encourage them to see themselves as members of “we” in their organization.[xxxv] This idea was echoed by a recommendation by an interviewee, who suggested that organizational onboarding should include the accessible presentation of available affinity groups, including LGBTQA employee groups, as she thought “people will stay longer and develop better relationships at an institution where they feel welcome as people too as individuals.” Recognizing, affirming, and embracing employees’ individual and intersectional identities leads to increased buy-in from them as empowered members of the group. In addition, for all academic institutions, the reputation of a school as inclusive is appealing for both staff and student recruitment.

LGBTQA Community Building

LGBTQA employee resource groups (ERGs) provide employees with a network to reach out to other members of their LGBTQA community, while they are working at an institution but also when they are seeking employment. LGBTQA workers can advance social change by being out at work, in a concept referred to as “micromobilization” by Creed and Scully.[xxxvi] One interviewee engages in micromobilization every time she places her work water bottle with a bi pride sticker prominently on the conference table “as kind of a power move but also because visibility matters.” Not only does this employee proudly carry an institutionally branded water bottle, but she has adorned it with a prominent display of her sexual orientation, demonstrating the positive effects of feeling included within one’s place of work. The simple form of claiming one’s identity in everyday conversations and scenarios is a political moment, and repeated advocacy encounters may be pivotal moments in a larger process whereby beliefs and attitudes towards an identity are altered.[xxxvii] In an interview with a university instructor, she said that her sexual orientation is “well known” within her department by both faculty and students because she is intentional about bringing it into her teaching from the beginning and will incorporate that in subsequent discussions. 

Another moment of micromobilization can be found by challenging institutional norms of professionalism, most notably through expectations of gender-based dress codes as a mode of queer leadership to create demonstrable change.[xxxviii] One gay woman interviewed said that she relies on people assuming her sexual orientation as she wears “button down and blazers” most days. This university staff member not only feels comfortable expressing herself through transgressive clothing going against prescribed feminine gender roles and presentation, but she also utilizes it as a tool to consistently “come out” on her behalf. 

In an interview, one university employee said that a prospective colleague checked in with her before accepting a job offer, joking that the colleague asked if the institution was “down with the gays,” and she confirmed that it was, using an LGBTQA slogan, “I’m here and I’m queer,” so she would recommend the school as an inclusive employer. It is unlikely that the university fully grasps the value of LGBTQA employees recommending their institutions as accepting to other members within their community. Hastings and Mansell argue that when LGBT Staff Networks work well, they function as a two-way channel for collegial and transparent communication that delivers mutual benefits to senior management and rank-and-file staff alike.[xxxix]

LGBTQA Initiatives, Trainings, Workshops, and Professional Development 

Higher education institutions are no longer in a position to pay “lip service” to diversity, particularly when negative student or staff experiences can turn out to be massively costly in terms of reputational damage, or the ability to attract, recruit, and retain the very best and most talented undergraduates, postgraduates, career academics, or administrators.[xl] In establishing a valuable and mutually beneficial relationship with their LGBTQA groups, universities can work to expand institutional diversity initiatives, keeping in mind the intersectional identities that the entire campus community might share. If members of these groups provide essential trainings and workshops, however, it is essential that those staff be compensated, either monetarily or through recognition for their service and contributions in annual work performance reviews. An example of this is given by the Association of University Administrators (AUA), whose professional behavior framework provides staff with a route to identifying how staff networks are allowing them to continue their professional development.[xli]

One interviewee was acutely aware of the ways in which LGBTQA groups can be taken advantage of while not getting proper recognition, saying that the groups should be a space for advocates and activists, but it should not be their sole purpose “because at some point, that labor needs to be compensated,” especially while institutions brag about their ERGs to demonstrate how “woke” and “progressive” they are. In order for these groups to benefit both the university and its employees, it cannot be entirely the responsibility of volunteer positions. LGBTQA groups should have some sort of funding, whether through shared budgets to be distributed the way the group’s members see fit or directly through salaried leaders of the group. Campus stakeholders must improve their understanding of the factors shaping activism to work towards removing institutional barriers to activism and enhance personal and institutional supports for staff activists, in hopes of minimizing the negative consequences of LGBT campus advocacy.[xlii]

Social Networking to Build a Workplace Sense of Belonging

            Wright et al. affirm a key purpose of LGBTQ staff networks is in validating LGBTQ employees’ ability to refer to their sexual orientation while at work without ambiguity, dissembling, or equivocation, which is fundamental to their relationships with their peers and their ability to perform at their very best.[xliii] It is, in short, essential to their morale and well-being. When discussing her opinion of the ideal purposes of an LGBTQ staff network, one interviewee described the importance of queer socializing:

There is power in being in a community where certain cultural references are just understood [. . .] the cultural exchanges or reference points are going to be similar, in a way, to how it feels so good to be in a gay bar. 

For this gay employee, she received the same comfort from her LGBTQ staff network as she does in other shared queer spaces. Another interviewee referred to a previous position at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), where she could “dress how she wanted.” She reflected that this was “so nice and relaxing,” in contrast to her current position in a non-LGBTQA-specific higher education role, where she feels she must adopt a more conservative dress code. The LGBTQA faculty and staff affinity group is the one space where she can “feel [her] stress levels going down just to [. . .] talk like a normal person.” This employee’s workplace sense of belonging is affirmed through time spent with other LGBTQA colleagues and the use of a shared vernacular.

Non-Discrimination Policies

Institutions of higher education are more likely than other companies and organizations to have non-discrimination clauses that include sexual orientation and gender expression as protected categories. In an interview with a trans academic librarian, the interviewee said her intent was to become a public librarian, but most public libraries do not specify trans people in their non-discrimination statements. She said, in no uncertain terms, that “the sole reason that [she] became an academic librarian was because most colleges do have trans people in their non-discrimination statements.” These non-discrimination clauses are critically meaningful for current and prospective members of the university community. The enactment and enforcement of these policies was also cited by Mattheis et al. as a core inclusive policy that helped build a welcoming workplace.[xliv] For the interviewee who came to higher education due to their non-discrimination statements, her institution did not yet have an LGBTQA faculty and staff group established. She said that she hopes to help create a group with a social support component alongside an advocacy component that would “hold specifically HR’s feet to the fire on LGBT equity and inclusion.”

LGBTQA Leadership

LGBTQA faculty and staff groups provide an important and visible site of leadership for queer university staff. For Pryor, Queer leadership is defined as the intentional process to advance equity for sexual and gender minoritized communities through grassroots leadership strategies—specifically championing social change through institutional policy and practice.[xlv] If an LGBTQA faculty and staff group does not include members of upper administration and C-suite positions, this should raise an immediate red flag regarding the severe lack of LGBTQA representation in an institution’s highest positions. Although a school cannot mandate membership or participation in a group defined by personal social identities, the fact that there exist no, or few, out staff members should be seen as the fault of the institution and something used by the group as evidence to advocate for more explicit recruitment of LGBTQA job candidates for top leadership roles.

Mentorship for Students and Staff

            Colleges and universities also have a unique advantage in enabling positive workplace experiences for LGBTQA employees, due to the built-in educational relationship between staff and students. Mentorship opportunities can be facilitated and maintained through an LGBTQA faculty and staff affinity group. For mentoring students, Vaccaro recommends the use of existing student affairs professionals, including career services and academic advising, to work in collaboration with faculty to create campus programs that institutionalize this type of intra-Queer community support.[xlvi] For faculty, this could be considered a type of “service,” which is a requirement for many faculty positions. In a review of the literature, Orlov and Allen found that visible role models and support for non-heterosexual students can serve as academically motivating.[xlvii] Rankin et al. also found that validating practices inside and outside of the classroom, such as introducing inclusive language and creating community standards, also contribute to student involvement and, ultimately, student persistence.[xlviii] These groups can also provide an invaluable presence for other LGBT staff, which has been proven to support the progression, retention, and success of university staff.[xlix] One research participant in a study by Mattheis et al. highlighted a “public out list” used at their university for mentoring other employees.[l] If universities recognize participation and leadership within these mentorship programs as adherent to their service requirements, it tangibly deepens their commitment to their LGBTQA employees and students alike.

Countering Homophobia and Transphobia 

            Along with the inherently positive qualities that make higher education institutions inclusive for LGBTQA employees, there are also specific challenges. In Vaccaro’s research, many LGBT faculty voiced concerns that students might give them lower course evaluations based on their beliefs and prejudices towards LGBT people, which could, in turn, influence tenure and promotion decisions.[li] This fear was realized for one gay course instructor interviewed, who mentioned a course evaluation remark that, despite her insistence on appreciation of diversity, she also “seems to hate men” and talks “about women’s issues disproportionately.” There is no way to discern if that student would have made the same comment to any female instructor, or if their comments were also influenced by knowledge of that instructor’s sexual orientation. Orlov and Allen expand on some of the other professional and personal risks of coming out as an LGBQ faculty member, including: reduced student enrollments, heightened responsibility, scrutiny, critique associated with being a token out LGBQ faculty member, and emotional tolls such as discomfort, shame, and vulnerability.[lii] Dolan points out that disclosure of one’s non-heterosexual identity has been equated with advocating for unconventional sexual behavior, so these instructors risk not only stereotyping and discrimination but also further risk being labeled as an inappropriate and unprofessional educator.[liii] Despite those significant risks, Magee reminds us that teaching from “within the closet” may cause a gay faculty member to expend extra energy trying to pass, or present themselves as heterosexual, which can lead to damaged self-confidence and, ultimately, impaired teaching effectiveness.[liv] University employees, such as student affairs professionals, have to balance their support of student activism and manage student concerns to avoid disrupting the campus environment.[lv] Linder writes that educators are placed in a position of supporting the needs of the institution, creating a tension between supporting social justice initiatives and student development or maintaining institutional complacency.[lvi] It is therefore imperative that LGBTQA faculty and staff affinity groups exist as a space to explicitly support against homophobic and transphobic prejudice. 


Despite the increasing number of LGBTQA faculty and staff affinity groups in higher education, there was a lack of consistency in terms of their organizational missions and goals. This paper addresses that gap, providing recommendations based on a review of published literature and six semi-structured anonymous interviews with LGBTQA university employees. LGBTQA faculty and staff affinity groups should serve as a home base for LGBTQA employees, inform trainings and workshops, and ensure the enactment and enforcement of nondiscrimination/inclusivity policies of the institution. In addition, these groups should be a community social and networking hub that offer leadership and mentorship opportunities for LGBTQA students and other staff and provide support against homophobic and transphobic bias and discrimination. Future research should aim to address meeting the needs of LGBTQA staff outside of academia.

Abstract and references attached.