Up until about a year ago, I never anticipated that I would be involved in research focused on LGBTQ+ issues during my time at StFX. As an honours student in psychology, I have more than 60 credits of psychology on my transcript. Despite having taken many psychology courses, it was rare that any of the professors were able to answer questions about how many findings generalize (or not) to LGBTQ+ experiences.
Most times, the answer was usually that there simply isn’t enough research to answer those questions. For Dr. Karen Blair, a professor who joined the Psychology Department at StFX last year, this phrase was also commonplace during her undergraduate experience. Nearly 15 years ago, when Dr. Blair took a “Psychology of Intimate Relationships” course in the last year of her undergraduate degree and was struck by the lack of research that had included same-sex couples, making it nearly impossible to determine whether the existing relationships research applied to same-sex couples or not. It was in this moment that Dr. Blair’s research interests shifted from forensic psychology to relationships with the hopes of helping to fill the gap regarding research on same-sex relationships. Dr. Karen Blair is now filling this gap at StFX, bringing research on sexual prejudice, coming out experiences, LGBTQ+ relationships and health to the psychology department. I began working with Dr. Blair last year as one of her thesis students after hearing from another student that there was a professor in the psychology department conducting LGBTQ+ research. Recently, I started to wonder if there was any other LGBTQ+ related research happening at this small town university with strong catholic roots, and found myself pleasantly surprised. StFX boasts a small, but determined group of faculty with interests in LGBTQ+ related research. Discovering these researchers, spread across the departments of Psychology, Education, Nursing, History and Women and Gender Studies, motivated me to write this article for the Pride Week issue to highlight the work that is being done and to share it with other students here who may be unaware of the possibilities to become involved with LGBTQ+ research on our campus.
Dr. Laura-Lee Kearns, a professor in the Education department, was also motivated to research LGBTQ+ issues by the apparent gap in the literature. While teaching, Dr. Kearns observed that even though diversity and anti-discrimination were common topics of discussion within schools, students of various ethnicities, religions and cultures frequently used homophobic slurs in the hallways without a second thought. As a result, Dr. Kearns began to explore the need for greater LGBTQ+ awareness in schools, with a particular focus on the language used by students and teachers. This lead Dr. Kearns to collaborate with two other professors in the Education Department, Dr. Jennifer Kükner-Mitton and Dr. Joanne Tompkins, to create a focus on bringing social justice to education. Together the professors have four publications examining pre-service teachers’ experiences in recognizing and challenging gender rigidity, transphobia and LGBTQ+ oppression in schools, as well as building LGBTQ+ awareness and allies among pre-service and in-service teachers. The trio have presented at conferences in Canada and the US, such as the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conferences. Within the education department at X, the three professors have integrated multiple positive space training sessions into the Bachelor of Education curriculum, including one in the second year of the program focused on affirming LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum. The research and education of LGBTQ+ issues and awareness within schools is important to the professional practice ofteaching and allows StFX B. Ed. students to create a space within schools where the needs of all youth are considered and positive climates are promoted.
The importance of LGBTQ+ research to professional practice also extends to the profession of nursing.
Wendy Panagopoulos, a nurse educator at StFX’s School of Nursing, also sees the importance of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals and issues in academic research. Wendy is currently pursuing a Masters in Education with a concentration in Nursing/Health Sciences under the advisement of Dr. Kearns, and her research project will focus on the impact of the StFX Positive Spaces Program on nursing students’ perceived cultural competency in caring for LGBTQ+ clients. Wendy has been a Positive Spaces trainer here at X for the past 14 years.
Six years ago, the nursing department began delivering the training to third year nursing students to increase awareness and sensitivity related to health issues and caring for the LGBTQ+ population. Wendy has observed that there is a notion of “closeted curriculum” within the nursing literature, such that nursing has lagged behind other health professions in altering policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity and developing practice guidelines regarding LGBTQ+ health. Nurses must care for all people and Wendy believes that in order to do so nurses require an understanding of how best to provide care for LGBTQ+ individuals. Wendy hopes to learn whether the Positive Space training is effective in helping StFX nursing students feel more competent in meeting the health needs of their LGBTQ+ patients. Not only is Wendy working to fill the gap in health sciences research regarding LGBTQ+ issues, but she is also working to fill this same gap in nursing practice.
My own experience with LGBTQ+ research began in Dr. Karen Blair’s research lab. Dr. Blair’s research interests are varied, but one large area of focus involves the experiences of social support for relationships. While her past research has linked perceptions of approval and disapproval to relationship well-being and health, her current research is examining how individuals in same-sex vs. mixed-sex relationships interpret disapproval of their relationship from important friends and family members.
Beyond relationships, Dr. Blair also studies LGBTQ+ health and the close connection to prejudice. In a recent study, Dr. Blair examined global LGBTQ+ response to the tragic shooting at Pulse Nightclub that took place last June in Orlando, Florida and which took the lives of 49 individuals. The students involved in Dr. Blair’s research lab also have the opportunity to pursue LGBTQ+ research questions of their own. This year, Dr. Blair is supervising two Psychology honours students, of which I am one. For my thesis, Dr. Blair and I are investigating if there is an association between individuals’ reported levels of sexual prejudice and their physiological reactions when witnessing same-sex public displays of affection.
Lana Phemister’s thesis is examining if an individual’s socioeconomic status moderates whether coming out is beneficial or harmful to LGBTQ+ individuals’ mental and physical health.
Other ongoing research projects in the lab include examining facial expressions in response to same-sex public displays of affection, transgender experiences with dating, LGBTQ+ individuals’ and their parents’ memories regarding the coming out process, Femme identities, and LGBTQ+ healthcare experiences.
In addition to the LGBTQ+ work being done in the Psychology, Education and Nursing Departments, Dr. Chris Frazer of the History Department is currently researching the history of drag in Nova Scotia, tracing the history all the way back to the early 1900s, when Ross Hamilton began performing in drag during WWI as a soldier.
Dr. Rachel Hurst also does work regarding LGBTQ+ issues in the Women and Gender Studies Department, however she is currently away on a leave and was not available to comment for this article.
Dr. Frazer and Dr. Hurst have both been active as LGBTQ+ advisors on campus and have offered LGBTQ+ students support, encouragement and guidance to help them be successful socially and academically. Specifically, Dr. Frazer acts as a liaison and advocate for LGBTQ+ students on issues such as harassment, discrimination, academic life and residence life.
While the gap in academic research regarding LGBTQ+ experiences is far from filled, which is evident in that this research has yet to make its way into most university textbooks, it is a growing field, even here at X. In my past four years here at StFX, I had begun to worry that LGBTQ+ issues were simply being overlooked in academic research. To see so many faculty members here at X working to fill this gap within various disciplines has been exciting, and I can only hope that it is the tip of the iceberg for this kind of research happening at X.
If you are interested in being a participant in any of Dr. Blair’s upcoming research projects you can subscribe to notifications regarding participation here: http://www.drkarenblair.com/subscribe. If you have any interest in applying to be a research assistant, lab volunteer and/or a thesis student with Dr. Blair you can find further information here: http://www.drkarenblair.com/teaching-1/.