LGBTQ Issues in Education: An Interview with Joseph Robinson Cimpian

Joseph Robinson Cimpian is an associate professor of economics and education policy at NYU Steinhardt and affiliated associate professor of public service at NYU Wagner. Cimpian‘s multi-disciplinary research focuses on the use and development of novel and rigorous methods to study equity and policy, particularly concerning language minorities, women, and sexual minorities. His work has been funded by the Spencer Foundation, the AERA Grants Board, the National Science Foundation, and the Institute of Education Sciences.

We spoke with him about a new special issue of Educational Researcher, which he co-edited, on LGBTQ issues in education.

What prompted you to take up the topic of LGBTQ issues in education?

I proposed this special issue of Educational Researcher a few years ago after noticing that many sessions at AERA on LGBTQ issues either took a queer theoretic perspective, used qualitative methods, or used quantitative methods, but that very few sessions on the topic blended presentations across theories and methods. In essence, it appeared as if the LGBTQ sessions represented silos of thinking, but didn’t really draw on knowledge across those silos. Of course, this is a critique that can be levied against almost any research topic and is not specific to LGBTQ research, it’s just that I happen to study LGBTQ youth and so I wanted to do something about the silo effect in this area. Being the most widely distributed journal of AERA, I thought Educational Researcher would be a prominent and appropriate outlet for a collection of articles that focused simultaneously on pressing issues for LGBTQ youth and how those pressing issues could be addressed from a variety of methodological perspectives. So, this special issue not only raises awareness about the paucity of research on, say, the state of education and social services for homeless LGBTQ youth, but it also discusses the different lenses that researchers have used to study LGBTQ youth and the strengths and limitations of those perspectives. In a sense, I thought Educational Researcher and this collection of articles were a perfect fit for each other because the prominence of the outlet brings pressing issues for LGBTQ youth to the foreground of education research, and at the same time, the collection of articles can serve as a model for valuing a diversity of methodological perspectives and learning across these different approaches in other areas of education research.

Categorization and space are two topics that your authors address in their essays.  How do we understand these two topics as they influence the lives of LGBTQ students on campus?

A lecture by Joseph Cimpian

All of the authors for this special issue were asked to write about pressing issues for LGBTQ youth and methodology, but two additional themes emerged organically across the articles. The first organic theme was “space,” which appeared in different forms throughout the issue. For example, one article discusses the importance of schools as a space for stability in the lives of homeless LGBTQ youth, while another article talks about how LGBTQ youth lead student groups known as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and how these groups create a community space for queer youth within schools. In both of those articles, the authors reflect on what the schools are to LGBTQ youth and invite the reader to think about what they could be for LGBTQ youth. The second organically arising theme was “categorization,” where the papers addressed how difficult it can be to categorize LGBTQ youth, and also raised questions about whether youth should be categorized at all and the politics around preferred methods for studying LGBTQ youth. This theme of categorization is particularly rich from a methodological perspective because it touches on so many ideas that are central to social science research, such as context, bias, and intersectionality. Both themes—space and categorization—really highlight the nuances and diversity in LGBTQ youth experiences.

Your own research studies the mischievous responder.  What led you to your study? Have you come across a few in your research?  

Much of my research on LGBTQ youth is focused on data validity, and on assessing whether the results from self-administered questionnaires are accurate. You mentioned “mischievous responders,” which are a big part of my research on data validity. Mischievous responders are youth who intentionally provide inaccurate and extreme responses to a multitude of survey items, many likely because they think it’s funny to provide these extreme responses. For instance, a heterosexual-identified youth might think it’s funny to report on a survey that he’s gay and skips school almost every day and uses lots of drugs. Because the actual gay-identified population is so small by comparison to the actual heterosexual-identified population, it doesn’t take too many heterosexual-identified youth to falsely report that they are gay and extremely deviant to dramatically alter our perceptions of gay-identified youth. One really big problem, though, is that it can be very challenging to determine whether a respondent is telling the truth on an anonymous survey. My current work is exploring how we can assess the robustness of LGBTQ–non-LGBTQ disparities to the presence of potentially mischievous responders. That is, once we identify and remove the responses of youth who seem to have falsified their data, do we see that LGBTQ youth continue to exhibit higher levels of risk and deviance? This work has important implications for developing effective policies and programs to reduce disparities and improve general wellbeing.

Taking an overarching glance, do you think campus life is harder or more difficult for LGBTQ students these days?  How might your journal influence current policy?

It’s hard to say whether campus life is more difficult these days than in the past. While we can point to supportive factors for LGBTQ youth such as Gay-Straight Alliances in schools across the country and to progressive policies in many states and municipalities, it is clear that not all LGBTQ youth are thriving and that new challenges arise regularly. Thinking about the specific articles in this special issue, we learn that homelessness—and unaccepting attitudes that can lead to it—remains a pressing issue for many LGBTQ youth, and we also learn that Gay-Straight Alliances vary in their effectiveness and their inclusivity. In many of the papers, we are reminded that there is a tremendous amount of diversity among LGBTQ youth, and their experiences cannot be neatly described. Regarding policy, the emerging evidence suggests that LGBTQ-inclusive school policies and curricula are related to better outcomes for LGBTQ youth, and oftentimes for youth generally, regardless of sexual or gender identity. Some other work suggests that anti-discrimination policies aimed at adults (e.g., marriage equality) have beneficial effects for queer youth, which suggests that the broader climate for LGBTQ individuals affects future generations and that policies intended for adults send signals to youth. Thus, we need to be thinking holistically about the climate we create for youth and how discriminatory policies and practices can affect them directly and indirectly.

Read Educational ResearcherLGBTQ Issues in Education: A Multi-Method Research Collection.