Queering our Advising of LGBTQIA+ Students

In my last post, I suggested how we might better educate ourselves as advisors and support our queer students as they explore and prepare for the world of work after graduation. Many of these strategies focused on helping students navigate the homo- and transphobic contexts of work. In this post, I consider a different angle by highlighting queer theory’s disruptive potential for our students’ academic journeys and vocational discernment. Queering our approach to advisement helps students cultivate critical dispositions and build not only resilience but also resistance to injustice, thus creating the conditions of transformative possibility for flourishing within our institutions and beyond.

To queer our advising, first and foremost, means developing our own abilities to deconstruct the normative structures of both the university and the world of work, while centering our advising philosophies and practices on LGBTQIA+ students—or any students whose sexualities and/or genders fall outside the norm. Christy Carlson’s “Queer Theory and Academic Advising” in Advising Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer College Students (NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising) provides an excellent framework to hone such capacities. In it, she reviews key insights from queer theory, including its focus on disrupting the presumed “unity, coherence, and stability” of identity categories, as well as the generative power of queerness’s conceptual indeterminacy and its focus on becoming rather than being. As she writes,

For queer theory, the aim is not to create a better, more inclusive identity category because categories, by definition, marginalize and exclude. Instead the aim is to denaturalize and destabilize identity categories and practices of categorization by focusing on and challenging mechanisms of normalization.

Christy Carlson, “Queer Theory and Academic Advising,” Advising Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer College Students

Carlson calls on us to be “vigilant about attending to and questioning the ways in which the framing of our help causes harm.” For example, how we frame categories like “smart” or “at-risk” with our advisees can reinforce dehumanizing attitudes toward certain student populations and their academic performance, even as they are meant to help us mobilize resources for their support.

We can also challenge the assumptions of expertise and authority implicit in the advisor and advisee relationship. This is not to diminish or reject what we bring to our students but rather to be attentive to the perspectives, experiences, and knowledge our students bring to our ever-unfolding relationships, especially those students whose identities and forms of embodiment do not reflect our own or who represent minoritized and marginalized perspectives. By attending to these power differentials and cultivating mutuality, we can help dismantle some of the norms that disempower and diminish students’ agency as they navigate their academic journey and discern their vocations.

We can decenter any heteronormative and cisgender expectations that we might have about our students and the institutional structures within which we all live and work. One way to start this decentering is to understand queerness as, in the words of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” As Carlson suggests, balancing our more practical advising with curiosity for the messiness of what queer sexualities and genders might mean helps students “to think critically about the normativity of their education (inside and outside of higher education institutions)” and to “remain open to possibilities that are not intelligible in the present”—possibilities of identity, embodiment, desire, relationships, and forms of community that don’t fit neatly into the given boxes that comprise our worlds.

To queer our advising in this regard is also to be aware of and sensitive to the norms that demonize mental illness and the particular experiences of LGBTQIA+ students that compromise their well-being, and to connect them to queer-friendly mental health support. According to another chapter in Advising Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer College Students, LGBTQIA+ students experience depression, anxiety, and suicidality at greater rates than their non-queer peers. Seventy-eight percent of them report struggling with their mental health, of which approximately 30 percent have experienced “a depressive episode severe enough to inhibit their normal day-to-day activities.” According to the Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health, 45 percent of LGBTQ youth “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year,” with more than half of the transgender and non-binary respondents contemplating such action.

Attending to these needs is paramount, and as advisors, we ought to recognize the signs of such mental health challenges and connect students to counseling resources that affirm their experiences. Further we need to remain vigilant in our resistance to the norms that create their stress in the first place. Rather than view such stigmatizing and suffering as the inevitable consequences of certain queer identities, embodiments, and desires, we can harness the disruptive and deconstructing impulses of queer theory to sustain other viable and worthy ways of living. By responding to such challenges in non-judgmental ways, such as using people-first language and avoiding the labels “normal” and “abnormal,” we can help reduce the stigma and shame that often comes with the mental health challenges our queer students might face.

For those of us working at faith-based institutions, supporting the mental health of these students might also require us to queer our religious norms around sexuality and gender, given research that shows how these norms on Christian campuses in particular can negatively impact LGBTQIA+ mental health. As advisors, we can help mitigate their feelings of isolation and lack of safety, as well as the challenge of reconciling their religious identities with their sexuality and gender, by reflecting critically on our own identities and our assumptions. As Natalie S. Oliver argues, “it is critical that advisors reflect and become self-aware of their own perspectives, religiosity, and spirituality in order to consider how their personal experiences and beliefs influence their practice with LGBTQA+ students.” She provides the following questions to help us all better understand and articulate the religious norms that might have shaped our own professional and personal understanding of sexuality and gender:

  • Do I identify as religious? Spiritual? How might that identity come across to a student who has encountered negative experiences with religion or religious communities?
  • How do my religious or spiritual beliefs align or conflict with the institution’s mission? How might an LGBTQA+ student with a different religious identity perceive the institution’s mission?
  • Whether my faith is accepting or disapproving of LGBTQA+ identities, how can I best support an LGBTQA+ student?
  • How might I react if an LGBTQA+ student discloses a concern about interacting with someone who shares my religious belief?
  • What factors in the advising and institutional environments—past or present—might be affecting an LGBTQA+ student’s experience?

These questions can help us not only clarify how our institutional norms diminish the potential flourishing of our queer students, but also prompt us to imagine how we might resist and transform them to affirm more fully the queerness of students’ identities.

In all these ways, queering our work as advisors enables us to question and rethink the norms that seek to exclude and harm our LGBTQIA+ students, opening up a much greater range of possibilities for their becoming and thriving in all the lived particularity of their queer differences.

Geoffrey W. Bateman is an associate professor in the Department of Peace and Justice Studies at Regis University. In 2017, he participated in NetVUE’s inaugural faculty seminar on “Teaching Vocational Exploration.” His scholarship on vocation includes “Queer Callings: LGBTQ Literature and Vocation” in Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies and a forthcoming essay, “Queer Vocation and the Uncommon Good.” To read more blog posts by Geoffrey, click here.

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