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Microaggressions, Dilley, and Non-Heterosexual Identity: Reflections of a Scholar-Practitioner

project_by_carried_out_by_the_dihr_tracing_and_tackling_hate_crime_against_lgbt_persons_largeSeveral weeks ago, I attended the 2015 ACPA – College Student Educators International Conference in Tampa, Florida. I attended a session reporting findings from the National Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer (LGBTQ) Student Success.

During the session, the topic of “advocacy” and “activism” was broached. The researchers discussed some student perceptions of the “need” for or desire to participate in continued advocacy/activism work. I’ve had this conversation before. Broadly, there is tension around student perceptions of “progress” regarding GLBTQ “rights,” campus and national climate issues, and our perceptions as scholars and practitioners regarding how to deal with these attitudes and reactions to shifting national climate regarding GLBTQ equality – “Things aren’t great, but they are better than they could be.” Many of us feel angst – knowing that while, indeed, progress has been made, there is still much work to do.

Are we microaggressors? 

Yet there was a new question in this discussion: When we insist GLBTQ or minority students participate in advocacy/activism, is it a microaggression on our part?

According to Wikipedia, a microaggression is “a form of unintended discrimination. . .depicted by the use of known social norms of behavior.”  Hold on to this – I’ll be returning to this discussion.

Non-Heterosexual Identity Models

It so happened that last week in our Student Development Theory course we read Dr. Kristen A. Renn’s (2007) article on LGBT Student Leaders and Queer Activists: Identities of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Identified College Student Leaders and Activists. In this article, Renn asserts that students who participate in leadership roles within LGBT Student Organizations often have a more public LGBT identity, and a merging of gender/sexual orientation and leadership identity appears to occur, at least for the participants in this study.

Renn (2007) also cites a study I had not read before by Patrick Dilley (2005).  Dilley interviewed 57 gay men who attended college in the latter half of the twentieth century (essentially since 1950).  This qualitative study sought to examine many issues regarding non-heterosexual identity in college men, and Dilley seeks to capture what I might term an eco-psycho-social-historical lens in the analysis and findings.

What I found most intriguing was Dilley’s (2005) discussion of current “normative presumptions” (p. 57) regarding non-heterosexual identity, largely influenced by sexual identity development models: “one is either heterosexual or one is gay” (p. 57).

Dilley (2005) goes on to articulate a taxonomy of non-heterosexual identities, developed from his interviews with these 57 men who participated in the study.  This “multiplicity of non-heterosexual identities” (p. 57) include: homosexual, gay, queer, closeted, normal, and parallel.  Men’s non-heterosexual identity was fluid and shifting; dependent on historical context, environmental factors, sense of self, experiences, and meaning ascribed to sense of self and experience.  For Dilley, there is “no singular, monolithic ‘gay’ identity” presently or historically.  [I really encourage readers of this blog to go read the full study and not make their own assumptions about Dilley’s taxonomic categorical labels – they are much more complex than their labels suggest].

Dilley (2005) goes on to articulate that while current models of sexual identity development should not be discarded, our current models are “limited in their ability to reflect fully non-heterosexual male collegiate identity” (p. 84). More importantly, Dilley asserts that as practitioners we must be careful about our normative presumptions regarding sexual identity – namely, that non-heterosexual identity “need [not] have ‘coming out’ as an objective” (p. 84).

Professional Experience

I am an out gay man.  I came out in college; wrote research papers in graduate school on topics related to GLBT student identity and issues in postsecondary education; and have throughout my professional career been an advocate for GLB(T)Q students – advising student groups, building GLBTQ awareness into training programs for student leaders, starting Safe Zone programs, seeking to conduct campus climate assessments on some fairly conservative campuses, and actively supporting the implementation of GLBT studies minors on two campuses here in Louisiana.

I often reflect back on moments in my professional career of advocacy and activism where I felt frustrated with the work.  I still feel viscerally frustrated thinking back to conversations with students who would confide to me in private conversations their struggles with sexual identity, only to turn around and publicly distance themselves from me, if not outright cut me down in public.

I feel shame and frustration over my own understanding and knowledge. Notice the (T) in the paragraph above? I often reflect on times where my awareness of and advocacy regarding transgender issues failed. When I was called out by a colleague for not advocating hard enough that our campus’ student organization be more inclusive of transgender students.  When my friends and colleagues feel that a professional organization I care deeply about is failing to live up to its mission regarding inclusivity of people who are transgender.  These moments leave me feeling debilitated.

Return to Microaggressions

I wonder if my own “normative presumptions” (Dilley, 2005, p. 57) regarding sexual identity have been unintentionally harmful. Have I been/am I a microaggressor in relation to sexual identity issues?

Here I speak specifically of two issues.  First, in addressing personal frustration I often felt/feel as a professional regarding mentoring and friendships that often failed to materialize since someone would not come “out.”  In those moments where I felt/feel that things would just be better for someone if they come “out,” am I imposing the normative Dilley (2005) talks about – you are heterosexual or you are gay – onto people’s life experiences?  Does my own life experience, largely positive in relation to coming “out,” cloud my ability to see the very real struggles that others might experience in this process? Am I too far removed, too integrated in my own gay identity, to remember what it was like to come “out?” Is my understanding of equality related to GLBT issues predicated too much on a dualism?  Does my desire for community and social networks impact these thoughts/feelings?

Secondly, has my operating from a normative understanding of sexual identity erased, diminished, shamed, or shaded my ability to embrace a person’s full humanity? Their right to “name” or “not name” who they are?  Dilley’s (2005) taxonomy suggests, and I often advocate for in my current scholarship, non-essentializing identity.  I embrace the concept of “becoming” – seeing identity as fluid, shifting, environmentally contingent, self-eco-organizing, and never reaching a developmental apex.

So – I reflect back on years of professional practice in the field where this was not the case – where I often advocated and believed that being “out” meant that somehow there would be greater equality. That navigating the coming out process, intra- and interpersonally was part of the “natural” process students had to/should go through.  This was informed by my understanding of student development theory at the time – a view that has shifted in the ten years since I graduated from my master’s program, and that has certainly shifted during my time as a researcher-becoming in my doctoral program.

So I sit with the questions, the uncomfortable ambiguities, and the silences.  Was I/Am I, an “out” gay man, a microaggressor in relation to sexual identity issues? Was I/Am I limited by my own understanding(s) to see beyond binary distinctions – out or not out; gay or not gay – in relation to sexual identity?  How do I reconcile these issues in my scholarship and professional practice?

Angst, concern, nervousness, and myriad other feelings cycle in relation to these thoughts and my continued “becoming” in understanding the true complexities of the human experience regarding sexuality; our responsibility as college student educators (and human becomings) to these issues; and how our continued becoming in these arenas impacts issues of social equality and social justice.


Dilley, P. (2005). Which way out? A typology of non-heterosexual male collegiate identities. Journal of Higher Education76, 56-88.

Renn, K. A. (2007). LGBT student leaders and queer activists: Identities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identified college student leaders and activists. Journal of College Student Development48(3), 311-328.

1 Comment

  1. Brandi Roberts says:

    Paul! This was awesome! As an undergraduate business major I learned NO student development theory and growing up in a rural community and a predominantly Black high school I lived in as much of a one dimensional space as do the 1%!! So my “becoming” has shifted my thought process and understanding so much in the most recent few years of my life. After reading a few articles and taking a few courses, I felt like I, being a Black woman, could relate to all “others” living in the margins. But after reading Dilley in conjunction with this blog, I’m left to reflect on my own microaggressions once again! You are an awesomely prolific writer and provoker of thought. I’m so glad we’ve crossed paths!!

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