The Gay Political Scientist

Survey finds reports of both bias and acceptance -- and differing attitudes on including topics related to sexual orientation in the classroom.
September 3, 2008

A national survey of political scientists has found that many gay and lesbian scholars in the profession report that they have faced discrimination of various types, but many more have not or don't know.

The results were presented at the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Political Science Association and were prepared by its committee on the status of gay and lesbian scholars in the profession. Two political scientists at the State University of New York at Albany -- Scott Barclay and Julie Novkov -- analyzed and presented the data.

Of political scientists who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, 13 percent said that they had definitely experienced discrimination as a political scientist because of their identity, 12 percent said that they "probably" had experienced discrimination, 31 percent said that they probably had not, 25 percent said that they definitely had not, and 20 percent said that they weren't sure.

More than 2,200 members of the association responded to the survey, 15 percent of whom identified themselves as not being heterosexual. Organizers of the project said that while the survey explicitly invited participation from gay and straight political scientists alike, such surveys tend to have higher participation rates from those who are gay. So they organizers believe that the 15 percent figure seriously magnifies the actual gay population within the discipline, but that the gay cohort provides a good basis for studying the experiences of non-straight members of the profession.

Reflecting a gender imbalance in the profession, the 15 percent of respondents included twice as many gay men as lesbians. But to the surprise of those conducting the study, there appear to be more bisexual political scientists than lesbian political scientists.

Among the other findings:

  • 16 percent of the gay, lesbian and bisexual political scientists said that department colleagues had discouraged them from coming out.
  • Relatively small percentages of these scholars felt that their jobs would be endangered by their chairs or supervisors knowing their sexual orientation: 2 percent said "definitely," and 6 percent said "probably," while 24 percent said "probably not," 62 percent said "definitely not," and 6 percent said that they didn't know.
  • Among everyone in the survey, 12 percent said that they regularly included topics related to sexual orientation in their work, 40 percent said that they did so on occasion, 32 percent said that they never did, and the rest said that the question was not applicable. Of gay political scientists, 33 percent said that they included such material regularly, and 25 percent of lesbian political scientists said that they did so regularly.
  • Asked if students knew their sexual identities, most political scientists said yes, with 28 percent saying that they gave "clear cues," and 37 percent saying that they believed that the students "make assumptions." Only 5 percent said that they were "purposely ambiguous." The trends for this question were largely the same for gay and straight scholars.

Barclay, one of the professors who prepared and analyzed the survey, said that there was good and bad news to be found there. He cautioned that the large "probably not" answers on some questions related to discrimination should be viewed as a matter of concern. With full equity, he said, more scholars would feel confident that they had not suffered discrimination.


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