5 ways anti-diversity laws affect LGBTQ+ people and research in higher ed

Over the past year, nine states have banned diversity, equity and inclusion policies and programs in higher education. More than 20 others have similar legislation in the works.

News accounts often focus on job cuts that follow the enactment of these measures in places such as Texas and Florida. But that doesn’t scratch the surface of the many ways these laws are changing academia.

My new study with the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law examines one segment of academia, LGBTQ+ faculty, and finds many are distressed, discouraged and scared by the anti-DEI campaign.

From 2023 to 2024, as a researcher who specializes in LGBTQ+ issues in higher education, I surveyed 84 LGBTQ+ faculty, most of whom work at public universities. All teach about or do research on LGBTQ+-related topics as well as other topics that are also targeted by these anti-DEI measures, such as sexuality, gender identity and racism. Two-thirds live in states that have introduced or passed one of these laws.

My key finding: Although anti-DEI legislation is still in its early days, it is already having a chilling impact both on academic freedom and life in academia for LGBTQ+ people. Here are five ways:

1. LGBTQ+ faculty less likely to be ‘out’

Many of the educators I surveyed voiced fear about visibility, backlash and censure related to their sexual orientation and gender identity. Two-thirds reported changes in their own openness about their LGBTQ+ identities, including becoming less “out” in the classroom and decreasing the amount of personal information shared with students. Some have removed their pronouns from their email signatures, now dress “less flamboyantly” and feel “on guard all the time.”

A typical remark came from a faculty member who said, “I am more careful in how I discuss LGBTQ issues in the classroom, and I feel more fear that I am being filmed or something I say will be used against me.”

Seventeen percent of those surveyed are less active in advocacy and activism on campus than before the laws passed. Their heightened vigilance and concerns for privacy will also make them less available to students as LGBTQ+ role models.

2. Fewer LGBTQ+ resources available on campus

One outcome of the new laws, according to survey respondents, is a change to or the closure of DEI-related training, programs, offices and other spaces on campus. Such resources are important sources of visibility, inclusion and support for LGBTQ+ students.

In some cases, schools have changed the names and descriptions of existing DEI programs and activities. One faculty member in Texas said, “S.B. 17 disappeared the LGBTQ center on campus, the effects of which I am researching.” Another told me: “They do not want the words diversity, equity or inclusion or racism or sexism or anything like that in any public-facing document or website.”

As a consequence, marginalized students now or will soon lack spaces and resources that explicitly reflect and support their identities.

3. Less research on LGBTQ+ topics may be conducted

Sixteen percent of respondents said their LGBTQ+-focused research has already been disrupted. This includes a reduction in members of those groups participating in the research, students backing out of working on these projects and challenges in recruiting LGBTQ+ graduate students to collaborate.

One faculty member said: “My research is on LGBTQ+ mental health with a focus on youth and families. It has been incredibly difficult to recruit youth and families into research in my state since the passage of restrictive legislation. There has been a huge chilling effect.” Another said, “Trans and nonbinary youth are less willing to participate; they are tired of attacks and concerned about exposure.”

Some faculty, in turn, had altered their research or conducted it with less visibility by, for instance, changing the name of their research labs or not presenting work at conferences.

4. LGBTQ+ people may face increased hostility

Many participants said the passage of anti-DEI laws coincided with what they saw as a rise in hostility toward faculty and students of sexual, gender or racial minorities. “There is a strong feeling among university community members that we are being implicitly targeted for removal from the campus community,” one respondent said.

One-fifth of participants reported being “scared of being harassed or bothered by co-workers or supervisors because of my sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, my political affiliation, or being perceived as ‘woke.’”

Notably, some faculty who reported these fears are employed in states without, as yet, anti-DEI legislation related to higher education.

5. LGBTQ+ people may flock to friendlier schools

These laws may also prompt a migration of LGBTQ+ scholars and students to more welcoming states. In my study, LGBTQ+ faculty in anti-DEI states were more than four times more likely to want to move out of state than those in states without such legislation.

The result is an inevitable spiral. If LGBTQ+ faculty leave because of these laws, LGBTQ+ students may follow or suffer a diminished quality of education. That will lead to fewer LGBTQ+ faculty members who are willing to come out, fewer courses on LGBTQ+ topics and less research into LGBTQ+ issues.

These outcomes are alarming for people who believe diverse voices and people add to both good scholarship and a good campus environment. DEI policies exist to expand opportunity and make colleges comfortable places for marginalized groups.

I believe thwarting those goals may further polarize the nation into welcoming and unwelcoming regions. One casualty is likely to be rigorous, meaningful LGBTQ+-related scholarship in parts of the country where it is needed most.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

It was written by: Abbie E. Goldberg, Clark University.

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Abbie E. Goldberg is affiliated with the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.