Heterosexism occurs on campuses nationwide and creates a negative and hostile environment for students (Champagne, 2002; Herek, 1993; Rankin, 2002; Waldo, 1998). Considerable research has been conducted concerning heterosexism among college students; however, little is empirically known about heterosexism's relationship with student wellbeing (exceptions: Silverschanz et al., 2008; Waldo, 1998; Waldo et al., 1998). Most of the existing outcome studies engage only non-heterosexual students (exception: Silverschanz et al., 2008). Further, little is known about how witnessing heterosexism affects students, both heterosexual and non-heterosexual. Using minority stress theory (Meyer, 1995) and bystander harassment (Hitlan et al., 2006) we examine the academic and psychological correlates of personally experiencing and witnessing heterosexism among heterosexual and non-heterosexual students.
Utilizing an online survey a cross-sectional study examined institutional climate at a large public university. We conducted a census of juniors and sophomores and randomly sampled graduate students. Two scales were created to assess the frequency of personally experienced heterosexism (14 items) and witnessed heterosexism (15 items). Multiple regression models included controls for pessimism and academic stress, and assessed the effects of both types of heterosexism on measures of academic wellbeing (school avoidance, academic integration, feelings of safety and acceptance on campus) and psychological well-being (anxiety and depression; BSI). All academic wellbeing measures were previously used (Cortina et al., 1998).
3,851 students participated (RR = 20%; age M = 23; SD = 6; 59% female; 31% non-white; 18% sexual minorities). Multiple regression models with personally experienced heterosexism as a predictor were significant for all academic and psychological outcomes for both groups (all models p <.001). The variance accounted for in outcomes for non-heterosexuals ranged from 8% to 26%; for heterosexuals, from 11% to 24%. Among non-heterosexuals the only significant association was with feelings of safety (p <.000), suggesting that being personally targeted with hostile behaviors is related to feeling unsafe on campus. For heterosexuals, however, a decreased sense of safety (p = .05), more school avoidance (p <.000), less academic integration (p = .001), and increased anxiety (p = .001) were significantly predicted by personally experiencing heterosexism.
For witnessing heterosexism, overall models were again significant for both groups for all outcomes (all models p <.001). Variance accounted for among non-heterosexuals was 13% to 32% and 15% to 34% among heterosexuals. Among non-heterosexual students, there was again a negative association with feelings of safety (p = .05). No other associations were significant. However, among heterosexual students, more school avoidance (p < .001), lowered academic integration (p <.01), and increased anxiety (p <.01) were all significantly predicted by witnessing acts of heterosexism.
Understanding that heterosexual students are negatively influenced by heterosexism, as are non-heterosexuals, suggests the broader power that a negative campus climate toward LGBT persons can carry. Although many variables contribute to academic and psychological wellbeing, the fact that heterosexism showed significant associations with student outcomes is cause for heightened concern. Research findings like these reinforce the need for universities to seriously consider the developing and strengthening interventions meant to improve campus climate.