Queer Med Students of Color Feel Less Successful

Genevieve Labe, MEd, and Aaminah Long, MSEd, both have firsthand experience when it comes to facing barriers because of who they are.

Genevieve Labe, MEd

Both currently work at Indiana University and are heavily involved in student affairs. Labe, a nonbinary person, works as the assistant director of health and wellness at the student health center. Long is a woman of color who works as a professor in the education department.

Aaminah Long, MSEd

The two, along with assistance from Heather Eastman-Mueller, PhD, conducted a study using quantitative data from the 2019 American College Health Assessment-National College Assessment (ACHA-NCHA), focusing on the 38,129 participants who self-identified as queer students of color and who attend predominately White institutions.

The study focused on queer students of color’s mental health and perceptions about their futures in comparison to their White peers at colleges or universities where White students account for more than half of the institution’s racial demography. The results were discussed at the recent Indiana University LGBT+ Virtual Health Care Conference. The findings suggest that in primarily White institutions, queer students of color report feeling more lonely and less equipped to succeed in comparison with their White, cisgender-heterosexual peers.

“The first [finding] is that queer students of color are generally likelier to have negative navigational experiences at predominantly White institutions,” Long explained. “One of the primary reasons listed were racially motivated bias incidents and microaggressions within academic and social spaces.”

Personal attacks led to overall feelings of isolation, insecurity, and invalidation about their experiences. Additionally, students cited that feelings of invalidation came specifically from the university’s responses to these incidents.

“When students would report these incidents, the university didn’t take much direct action, and so of course this adds yet another layer of problematic experiences while navigating institutions,” Long said.

Another difficulty queer students of color face on campus, according to the data analysis, is susceptibility to food and housing insecurity, particularly among low-income students and students who are first-generation Americans.

The instruments of data measurement used in the study included the Diener Flourishing Scale, the Kessler Scale, the Loneliness Scale, and a self-assessment of passive and active suicidal ideation tendencies. Long noted that the scales are based on self-perception.

The preliminary findings, which Labe said the group will continue to work with, suggest that queer students of color disproportionately (71% of the 38,129) experience psychological distress compared to their White peers. Over 51% of queer students of color experience loneliness, according to the self-assessments; 22% experience suicidal behaviors, and overall, queer students of color perceive themselves as having fewer strengths and psychological resources than their White peers.

“These experiences of loneliness [are] subjective,” Labe said. “But the feelings that people are having are really important, and these [numbers] are not surprising to us based on the literature that we’ve read through and that has been published previously, and with other national surveys that exist within this field of study.”

Creating “Counterspaces”

With these data, the conversation becomes about what resources exist on medical school campuses for queer students of color and about understanding exactly what barriers these students are facing. According to Labe, college campuses must make an intentional effort to shift the culture in support of queer students of color.

The idea of “counterspaces” is particularly important, Long also said. The term is relatively new; it denotes physical, mental, or emotional space that allows underrepresented individuals to “critique the dominant narrative and find comfort and security with one another.” It’s critical to the health and wellness of queer students of color to have room to find and curate these counterspaces on campus, said Long.

Institutions that are primarily White have to be intentional about the development of identity-specific resources, Labe and Long recommended in their presentation. These resources include counseling and cultural centers, LGBTQ+ centers, and academic centers. It’s also important for institutions to invest in the sustainability of these resources so that queer students of color can continue to benefit from them and receive the support and affirmation that they need.

“Specifically, we are recommending that these spaces make room for racial programming and separate spaces,” Long said. “Of course, we have seen a lot of controversy with creating caucus spaces for racial groups, but research shows that these types of spaces are absolutely essential. If you have, for example, an LGBTQ+ center or space that is predominantly White, like the institution, it may be helpful that they make that room to provide funding for students who do not identify as White to create their own programming or create their own spaces.”

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