Frequently Asked Questions
What is sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation is one of the four components of sexuality and is distinguished by an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectionate attraction to individuals of a particular gender. The three other components of sexuality are biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female) and social sex role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior). Three sexual orientations are commonly recognized: homosexual, attraction to individuals of one’s own gender; heterosexual, attraction to individuals of the other gender; or bisexual, attractions to members of either gender. Persons with a homosexual orientation are sometimes referred to as gay (both men and women) or as lesbian (women only).
Sexual orientation is different from sexual behavior because it refers to feelings and self-concept. Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors.
What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?
How a particular sexual orientation develops in any individual is not well understood by scientists. Various theories have proposed differing sources for sexual orientation, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors and life experiences during early childhood. However, many scientists share the view that sexual orientation is shaped for most people at an early age through complex interactions of biological, psychological and social factors.
Is sexual orientation a choice?
No. Sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. And some people report trying very hard over many years to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual with no success.
For these reasons, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation for most people to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.
Is homosexuality a mental illness or emotional problem?
No. Psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals agree that homosexuality is not an illness, mental disorder or emotional problem. Much objective scientific research over the past 35 years shows us that homosexual orientation, in and of itself, is not associated with emotional of social problems.
Homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness in the past because mental health professionals and society had biased information about homosexuality since most studies only involved lesbians and gay men in therapy. When researchers examined data about gay people who were not in therapy, the idea that homosexuality was a mental illness was found to be untrue.
In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association confirmed the importance of the new research by removing the term ‘homosexuality’ from the official manual that list all mental and emotional disorders. In 1975 the American Psychological
Association passed a resolution supporting this action. Both associations urge all mental health professionals to help dispel the stigma of mental illness that some people still associate with homosexual orientation. Since original declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, additional research findings and both associations have subsequently reaffirmed this decision.
Can lesbians and gay men be good parents?
Yes. Studies comparing groups of children raised by homosexual and by heterosexual parents find no developmental differences between the two groups of children in their intelligence, psychological adjustment, social adjustment, popularity with friends, development of social sex role identity or development of sexual orientation.
Another stereotype about homosexuality is the mistaken belief that gay men have more of a tendency than heterosexual men to sexually molest children. There is no evidence indicating that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children.
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Why do some gay men and lesbians tell people about their sexual orientation?
Because sharing that aspect of themselves with others is important to their mental health. In fact, the process of identity development for lesbians and gay men, usually called ‘coming out’, has been found to be strongly related to psychological adjustment – the more positive the gay male or lesbian identity, the better one’s mental health and the higher one’s self-esteem.
Why is the ‘coming out’ process difficult for some gays and lesbians?
Because of false stereotypes and unwarranted prejudice towards them, the process of ‘coming out’ for lesbians and gay men can be a very challenging process which may cause emotional pain. Lesbian and gay people often feel ‘different’ and alone when they first become aware of same-sex attractions. They may also fear being rejected by family, friends, coworkers and religious institutions if they do ‘come out’.
In addition, homosexuals are frequently the targets of discrimination and violence. This threat of violence and discrimination is an obstacle to lesbian and gay people’s development. In a 1989 national survey, 5% of the gay men and 10% of the lesbians reported physical abuse or assault related to being lesbian or gay in the last year; 47% reported some form of discrimination over their lifetime. Other research has shown similarly high rates of discrimination or violence.
What can be done to help lesbians and gay men overcome prejudice and discrimination against them?
The people who have the most positive attitudes toward gay men and lesbians are those who say they know one or more gay person well. For this reason, psychologists believe negative attitudes toward gays as a group are prejudices that are not grounded in actual experience with lesbians or gay men but on stereotypes and prejudice.
Furthermore, protection against violence and discrimination are very important, just as they are for other minority groups. Some states include violence against an individual on the basis of her or his sexual orientation as a ‘hate crime’ and eight US states have laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Can therapy change sexual orientation?
No. Even though homosexual orientation is not a mental illness and there is no scientific reason to attempt conversion of lesbians or gays to heterosexual orientation, some individuals may seek to change their own sexual orientation or that of another individual (for example, parents seeking therapy for their child). Some therapists who undertake this kind of therapy report that they have changed their client’s sexual orientation (from homosexual to heterosexual) in treatment. Close scrutiny of their reports indicates several factors that cast doubt: many of the claims come from organizations with an ideological perspective on sexual orientation, rather than from mental health researchers; the treatments and their outcomes are poorly documented; and the length of time that clients are followed up after the treatment is too short.
In 1990, the American Psychological Association stated that scientific evidence does not show that conversion therapy works and that it can do more harm than good. Changing one’s sexual orientation is not simply a matter of changing one’s sexual behavior. It would require altering one’s emotional, romantic and sexual feelings and restructuring one’s self-concept and social identity. Although some mental health providers do attempt sexual orientation conversion, others question the ethics of trying to alter through therapy a trait that is not a disorder and that is extremely important to an individual’s identity.
Not all gays and lesbians who seek therapy want to change their sexual orientation. Gays and lesbians may seek counseling for any of the same reasons as anyone else. In addition, they may seed psychological help to ‘come out’ or to deal with prejudice, discrimination and violence.
Why is it important for society to be better educated about homosexuality?
Educating all people about sexual orientation and homosexuality is likely to diminish antigay prejudice. Accurate information about homosexuality is especially important to young people struggling with their own sexual identity. Fears that access to such information will affect one’s sexual orientation are not valid.
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Sexual Orientation Development
From The American Psychological Association
Sexual orientation is one component of a person’s identity, which is made up of many other components, such as culture, ethnicity, gender, and personality traits. Sexual Orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, and/or affectional attraction that a person feels towards another person. Sexual orientation falls along a continuum. In other words, someone does not have to be exclusively homosexual or heterosexual, but can feel varying degrees of attraction for both genders. Sexual orientation develops across a person’s lifetime-different people realize at different points in their lives that they are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Sexual behavior does not necessarily equate to sexual orientation. Many adolescents-as well as many adults-may identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual without having had any sexual experiences with a person of the same gender, but do not consider themselves to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. This is particularly relevant during adolescence because it is a time for experimentation-a hallmark of this developmental period.
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Commonly Used Terms Associated with LGBT's
This list is a work in progress of terms that are frequently associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. While there are some words that may seem offensive to some viewers, it is important that we understand the meanings of these terms and how some of them have become descriptive of the lgbt communities.
Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, whose attitude and behavior is anti-heterosexist and who works toward combating homophobia and heterosexism, both on a personal and institutional level.
Androgyny (also androgynous, bi-gendered, no-gendered)
A person [a] who identifies as both or neither of the two culturally defined genders; and/or [b] who expresses and/or presents merged culturally/stereotypically feminine and masculine characteristics, or mainly neutral characteristics.
A person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to both men and women.
Used to identify a person who expresses and/or presents culturally/stereotypically masculine characteristics; often a person who self-identifies to a great degree with the stereotypically masculine end of a gender characteristic spectrum. Can be used either as a positive or negative term.
To “come out” or to publicly declare and affirm one’s homosexual identity, sometimes to one person in conversation, sometimes by an act that places one in the public eye. It is not a single event but instead a life-long process. In each new situation, a lesbian or gay man must decide whether or not to come out; accepting and/or disclosing to others that one is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Drag (also Drag King, Drag Queen, Female/Male Impersonator)
Wearing the clothing of another gender, often with exaggerated cultural/stereotypical gender characteristics. Individuals may identify as Drag Kings (female in drag) or Drag Queens (male in drag). Drag often refers to dressing for functional purposes such as entertainment/performance or social gatherings. Drag has held a significant place in GLBT history and community.
Derived from the term “dyke-loupers” from old Scotland. They had “louped” or jumped over the “dyke” or low wall that divided the fields and had gone over to the other side. The word dyke represents the wall itself – hard, strong, rigid – and the concept of crossing over, of partaking of both the masculine and feminine worlds, is lost altogether. Recent history has abused lesbians with the use of the term in a hateful manner. Within the community, some have grasped the term as a pride word.
Used to identify a person (usually male) who expresses and/or presents culturally/ stereotypically feminine characteristics. This is often viewed as a culturally negative term.
F2M/FTM (Female to Male)
Used to identify a person who was female-bodied at birth and who identifies as male, lives as a man, or identifies as masculine.
According to Webster’s, “a bundle of sticks or twigs.” Historically, gay men were gathered, tied together and used for “kindling” when burning someone at the stake who was worthy of a “real” execution (like a witch or a heretic). Within the community, some have grasped the term “fag” from its painful past and use it as a pride word.
Family of Choice
Persons forming an individual’s social, emotional, and practical support network and often fulfilling the functions of blood relations. Many GLBT people are rejected when their families learn of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or they may remain “closeted” to their biological relatives. In such cases, it is their partner/significant other and close friends who will be called on in time of illness or personal crisis.
Family of Origin
Biological family, or the family in which one was raised. These individuals may or may not be part of a GLBT person’s support system.
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A person who identifies with being a woman, who understands the power and seduction of the feminine spirit and one who is willing to be powerful as a woman. Can be used to identify a person who expresses and/or presents culturally/stereotypically feminine characteristics. Can be used either as a positive or negative term.
A homosexual person, usually used to describe males but may be used to describe females as well.
An intense continuous discomfort resulting from an individual’s belief in the inappropriateness of their assigned gender at birth and resulting gender role expectations. Also, clinical psychological diagnosis, which many in transgender communities are offended by, but is often required to receive hormones and/or surgery.
One’s psychological sense of oneself as a male or female.
Gender Reassignment Surgery – GRS (also Sex Reassignment Surgery-SRS)
Permanent surgical refashioning of genitalia to resemble the genitalia of the desired gender. Sought to attain congruence between one’s body and one’s gender identity.
The socially constructed and culturally specific behavior and appearance expectations imposed on women (femininity) and men (masculinity).
A person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted or committed to members of the other sex.
The assumption or belief that everyone is heterosexual, and if not, they should be. The systematic oppression of lesbian, gay and bisexual persons is directly linked to sexism, including prejudiced attitudes or discriminatory practices against homosexuals.
A fear of homosexuals, homosexuality, or any behavior, belief, or, attitude of self or others which does not conform to rigid sex-role stereotypes. It is the fear that enforces sexism and heterosexism. The extreme behavior of homophobia is violence against homosexuals; disapproval and unreasoning fear towards gays, lesbians, and bisexuals based on myths and cultural heterosexism.
A person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted or committed to members of the same sex. A clinical term that originated in the late 1800’s. Some avoid using the word because it contains the base word “sex.” The orientation has more to do with the issue of love than of sex, and it is believed that the use of “homosexual” devalues the orientation of individuals. The terms “gay, lesbian, and bi” are preferred by the majority of the community.
Hormone Therapy (also Hormone Replacement Therapy, Hormonal Sex Reassignment)
Administration of hormones to affect the development of secondary sex characteristics of the opposite assigned gender; HRT is a process, possibly lifelong, of using hormones to change the internal body chemistry. Androgens (testosterone) are used for female to males, and Estrogens are used for male to females.
The process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate myths and stereotypes applied to the group.
Intersexed (also Hermaphrodite)
An individual born with full or partial genitalia of both genders, or with underdeveloped or ambiguous genitalia. Surgery is common in infancy, when a singular gender is assigned. Many who have surgery develop feeling a sense of loss of an essential part of themselves.
In the Closet
To be “in the closet” means to hide one’s homosexual identity in order to keep a job, a housing situation, friends, or in some other way to survive. Many homosexuals are “out” in some situations and “closeted” in others.
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A common and acceptable word for female homosexuals only; a name taken from the island of Lesbos where Sappho, the great women-loving poet of 600 BC lived. Most women-loving women adopt this name with pride.
M2F/MTF (Male to Female)
Used to identify a person who was male bodied at birth and who identifies as a female, lives as a woman, or identifies as feminine.
Men who have Sex with Men (MSM)
The term is often used when discussing sexual behavior. It is inclusive of all men who participate in this behavior regardless of how they identify their sexual orientation. The acronym MSM is conventionally used in professional literature.
Disclosing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity to another person without permission.
Partner or Significant Other
Primary domestic partner or spousal relationship(s). May also be referred to as “girlfriend/boyfriend,” “lover,” “roommate,” “life partner,” “wife/husband,” or other terms.
Pre-Op (also Pre-Operative)
Transsexual individuals who have not attained gender reassignment surgery, but who desire to and are seeking that as an option. They may or may not “cross-live” full time and may or may not take hormone therapy. They may also seek surgery to change secondary sex characteristics.
Post-Op (also Post-Operative)
Transsexual individuals who have attained gender reassignment surgery, and/or other surgeries to change secondary sex characteristics.
A pejorative term for gay people, although many LGBT people have reclaimed this term as one that describes inclusive, non-heterosexual people.
The inclination or capacity to develop intimate emotional and sexual relationships with people of the same gender (lesbian or gay), the other gender (heterosexual), or either gender (bisexual).
A term originating in the gay community describing heterosexuals and meaning “to enter the mainstream,” or “to go straight.”
Transgender (also Trans)
Those who transgress societal gender norms; often used as an umbrella term to mean those who defy rigid, bipolar gender constructions, and who express or present a breaking and/or blurring of cultural/stereotypical gender roles. Includes: androgynes, cross-dressers, gender-benders, intersexed individuals, shape shifters, transvestites, and transsexuals.
Transsexual (also Female to Male (FTM/F2M), Male to Female (MTF/M2F), Pre-Operative, Post-Operative, Non-Operative)
A person who, through experiencing an intense long-term discomfort resulting from feeling the inappropriateness of their assigned gender at birth and discomfort of their body, adapts their gender role and body in order to reflect and be congruent with their gender identity. Includes: cross-living, synthesized sex hormones, surgery and other body modification which may or may not lead to the feeling of harmony between a person’s body and gender identity.
Transvestite (also Cross-dresser)
A man or woman who enjoys wearing the clothes of and appearing as the other gender. Reasons for cross-dressing can range from a need to express a feminine or masculine side to attainment of erotic/sexual/fetish gratification. While many are heterosexual, the use of transvestism in the gay “drag” culture is well documented.
Women who have Sex with Women (WSW)
The term often used when discussing sexual behavior. It is inclusive of all women who participate in this behavior regardless of how they identify their sexual orientation. The acronym WSW is conventionally used in professional literature.
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Symbols of Pride
The Double Women’s Sign
Also known as “the mirror of Venus,” this symbol represents the planet Venus, metal, copper and femininity. It also represents women loving women.
The Double Men’s Sign
Derived from the astrological symbol of Mars who was the Greek God of War and patron of warriors. The arrow is a phallic symbol. A double man’s symbol represents men loving men.
The Rainbow Flag
The Rainbow Flag was adopted by the LGBT community as its own design. It depicts not the shape of the rainbow but its colors in horizontal stripes. Created in 1978 for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Celebration by local artist, Gilbert Baker, it was inspired by the “Flag of the Races,” which had five stripes-one each for the colors of humankind’s skin, flown at the 1960’s college demonstrations. Major gay and lesbian parades in New York, Houston, Vancouver and Toronto began to fly the six-stripe Rainbow Flag. It is prominently displayed at most gay and lesbian events. In New York, the flag drapes coffins of people who have died of AIDS, and is frequently displayed on hospital doors. The AIDS ward of a Sidney, Australia hospital flew the flag as a symbol of hope. A gay yacht club in the Netherlands uses a burgee based on the Rainbow Flag. In a few short years, the flag has spread world wide to represent a movement. Its success is not due to any official recognition, although it has been recognized by the International Flag makers Association as the LGBT Freedom Flag, but to the widespread spontaneous adoption by members of the community it represents.
The double-bladed ax comes from myth as the scepter of the goddess Demeter (Artemis). It may have originally been used in battle by female Sythian warriors. The Labrys appears in ancient Cretan art and has become a symbol of lesbianism.
Chosen by the Gay Activist Alliance in 1970 as the symbol of the gay movement, the lambda is the Greek letter “L.” A battle flag with the lambda was carried by a regiment of ancient Greek warriors who were accompanied in battle by their young male lovers and noted for their fierceness and willingness to fight to the death. It is also the symbol for justice.
Designed by David Spada with the Rainbow Flag in mind, these six colored aluminum rings have come to symbolize independence and tolerance. The rings are frequently displayed or worn as jewelry and may be found as necklaces, bracelets, rings and key chains.
The Pink Triangle
The pink triangle is easily one of the more popular and widely-recognized symbols for the LGBT community. The pink triangle is rooted in World War II times, and reminds us of the tragedies of that era. Although homosexuals were only one of the many groups targeted for extermination by the Nazi regime, it is unfortunately the group that history often excludes. The pink triangle challenges that notion, and defies anyone to deny history.
The history of the pink triangle begins before W.W.II, during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Paragraph 175, a clause in German law prohibiting homosexual relations, was revised by Hitler in 1935 to include kissing, embracing, and gay fantasies as well as sexual acts. Convicted offenders – an estimated 25,000 just from 1937 to 1939 – were sent to prison and then later to concentration camps. Their sentence was to be sterilized, and this was most often accomplished by castration. In 1942 Hitler’s punishment for homosexuality was extended to death.
Each prisoner in the concentration camps wore a colored inverted triangle to designate their reason for incarceration, and hence the designation also served to form a sort of social hierarchy among the prisoners. A green triangle marked its wearer as a regular criminal; a red triangle denoted a political prisoner. Two yellow triangles overlapping to form a Star of David designated a Jewish prisoner. The pink triangle was for homosexuals. A yellow Star of David under a superimposed pink triangle marked the lowest of all prisoners – a homosexual Jew.
Stories of the camps depict homosexual prisoners being given the worst tasks and labors. Pink triangle prisoners were also a proportionally large focus of attacks from the guards and even other inmates. Although the total number of the homosexual prisoners is not known, official Nazi estimates were an underwhelming 10,000.
Estimates of the number of gay men killed during the Nazi regime range from 50,000 to twice that figure. When the war was finally over, countless many homosexuals remained prisoners in the camps, because Paragraph 175 remained law in West Germany until its repeal in 1969.
In the 1970’s, gay liberation groups resurrected the pink triangle as a popular symbol for the gay rights movement. Not only is the symbol easily recognized, but it draws attention to oppression and persecution — then and now. In the 1980’s, ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) began using the pink triangle for their cause. They inverted the symbol, making it point up, to signify an active fight back rather than a passive resignation to fate. Today, for many the pink triangle represents pride, solidarity, and a promise to never allow another Holocaust to happen again.
The Black Triangle
Like the pink triangle, the black triangle is also rooted in Nazi Germany. Although lesbians were not included in the Paragraph 175 prohibition of homosexuality, there is evidence to indicate that the black triangle was used to designate prisoners with antisocial behavior. Considering that the Nazi idea of womanhood focused on children, kitchen, and church, black triangle prisoners may have included lesbians, prostitutes, women who refused to bear children, and women with other “antisocial” traits. As the pink triangle is historically a male symbol, the black triangle has similarly been reclaimed by lesbians and feminists as a symbol of pride and solidarity.
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U.S. History of Homosexuality
Despite the fact that humans have never limited their sexual pleasure to what we now call heterosexual intercourse, the history of homosexuality is relatively short. The genital anatomy of one’s partners – or what Freud calls one’s “object choice”- didn’t become the definitive criterion for distinguishing homosexual and heterosexual selves until the last third of the nineteenth century. During the 1860’s and 70’s European public administrators began noticing that some people were organizing their lives not around family, household, and reproduction but around various forms of sexual pleasure. This was probably a recent phenomenon made possible by the forces of capitalism, which tended to draw people off the land into cities away from their parishes and families and to reduce the importance of arranged marriage. Alarmed, officials began studying these populations, whom they characterized as sexual deviants and grouped according to the particular practices they engaged in. One such class of deviant came to be called “homosexuals.”
Homosexuals quickly became the target of medical, psychiatric, and legal intervention, and as early as the 1870’s they came together in such places as Bavaria to fight criminalization of sodomy. Until the Nazis destroyed Magnus Hirschfeld’s homosexual archives in Berlin and hundreds of thousands of homosexual people were sent to die in concentration camps, the homosexual movement in Germany was widespread and influential.
In the US the history of homosexual culture and politics is even shorter than it is in Europe. The largest and best known communities are in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and there are reasons for that. First, because of economic dislocations and farm crises in the first half of the 20th century, people migrated to large cities to find work. Once there, they were often forced to live outside traditional family structures, many in same sex settings such as military and industrial barracks, for prolonged periods. Those with homosexual inclinations found one another at the same time that they found the freedom to express themselves without ever-present familial and religious disapproval. For women in particular this was a new experience.
But in addition to economics changes, another extremely significant factor in the development of coastal gay and lesbian enclaves was the ban on gays in the military. After W.W.II thousands of gay and lesbian people were dishonorably discharged from the armed services, and many were simply dumped in port cities. At times several hundred ex-service people were deposited in San Francisco per day. They couldn’t go home in disgrace, so they stayed.
The first known homosexual political organization in the US was the Mattachine Society, founded in November of 1950 in Los Angeles. This underground emancipation movement was the brainchild of Harry Hay, a young musicologist who had honed his organizing skills in the ranks of one of the most underground political movements in America in this century, the Communist Party. As Hay well knew, persecution of homosexuals was rampant. Police constantly entrapped and brutalized gay people. Public disclosure of homosexuality was enough to get most people fired from their jobs and ostracized from families and communities. By early 1953 under President Eisenhower homosexuality became by executive order a necessary and sufficient reason in itself to fire any federal employee from his or her job. Most defense industries and others with government contracts followed suit, and the US Postal Service aided these industries by putting tracers on suspected homosexuals’ mail in order to gather enough evidence for dismissal and possibly arrest.
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The Mattachine Society drew tremendous support after one of its founders, Dale Jennings, was arrested for “lewd and dissolute behavior” in February 1952. Jennings took the unheard course of acknowledging his homosexuality in court while pleading innocent to the charges against him, thus forcing authorities to draw a distinction between being homosexual and being guilty of illegal activity. The jury was deadlocked and a retrial ordered, but the DA’s office dropped all charges. Publicizing this victory wasn’t easy, however. There was a news blackout on all the information regarding homosexuality; no press releases were accepted by any newspapers, magazines, or radio stations. The Mattachine Society was forced to circulate information solely through postings and flyers distributed in areas where homosexuals were believed to congregate. Nevertheless, the event drew tremendous, if quiet, support, and membership in the Mattachine Society grew by several thousand in succeeding weeks.
Fears generated by Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to rid America of Communists eventually led to the neutralization of the Mattachine Society. By late 1954 it was the weak, fully public, assimilationist organization whose main purpose was to convince heterosexuals that homosexuals presented no threat whatsoever to any of their values and were in fact exactly like them but for sexual preference. The lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, founded in San Francisco in 1955, didn’t fare much better, although both groups managed to sustain publications with national circulation through the 1950’s and 60’s. By 1969 there were about fifty “homophile” organizations in the US, all fairly small.
The main reason for the lack of visibility in postwar America was persecution – religious persecution, discrimination in employment, violence, and police brutality. Non-celibate gay people were condemned by and unwelcome in most mainstream religious organizations not only as leaders but even simply as members. This led the Reverend Troy Perry, a Baptist, to found the Metropolitan Community Church in 1968. Today the MCC is the largest gay and lesbian religious organization in this country and by far the largest in the South.
Discrimination in employment probably ranked as the most threatening type of persecution gay people faced and still face-second only to physical assault in its violence but affecting far more people. Eisenhower’s executive order stood from 1953 until 1993. There has never been any employment protection for gay people as there is now for straight white women and straight men and women who belong to racial and ethnic minorities. Employers routinely refuse to hire gay people regardless of their qualifications and fire any who manage to get hired while closeted.
Still, the ugliest of all forms of discrimination was and is undoubtedly gay bashing, especially when carried out by public officials. Police harassment and brutality have been constant features of gay and lesbian life for decades. Indefinite detainment’s, beatings, and public humiliations are only the tip of the iceberg. Lesbian and male drag queens through the 1950s and 1960s suffered frequent rapes and sexual assaults committed by police officers, sometimes inside police precincts. And police were certainly no help when beatings, rapes, and lesser indignities were visited upon gay and lesbian people by civilians.
It was in this atmosphere of terror and brutality that patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village resisted a police raid in 1969. The Stonewall Inn was a working class gay and lesbian bar frequented by cross-dressers of both sexes. Police raids were common then and ugly. On the night of June 29, 1969, police attempted to raid the bar as usual, but the regulars were fed up. As the officers entered the building, patrons barricaded them inside and held them there. Thus began three days of rioting. At one point it was estimated that the gays held eight square blocks of the city. Word of the riots spread quickly through homophile organizations around the country. It was at that point that what had been since 1954 a rather quiet assimilationist movement became militant.
In December 1973, this movement achieved a major victory when pressure groups succeeded in forcing the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. This change eliminated one of the reasons employers so often fire non-heterosexuals and one of the reason judges so often awarded custody to heterosexual over homosexual parents – but only one.
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Through the early 1970s gay and lesbian communities pushed for anti- discrimination laws, and they were successful in a few cities. By 1977 California even had its first openly gay elected official; Harvey Milk was elected San Francisco City Supervisor from District 5. But it was also in 1977 that Anita Bryant began her antigay campaign in Dade County, Florida, which was calculated to repeal Miami’s legal protections for gay citizens. Throughout 1977 there were successful referenda to repeal gay rights laws across the country-in St. Paul, Wichita, and Eugene.
In 1978 California state senator John Briggs introduced a move to prohibit homosexuals from teaching in California public schools. The initiative was defeated in November after a series of statewide debates between Briggs and Harvey Milk. It looked like gay rights would hold firm in California, but less than three weeks later Harvey Milk and pro-gay San Francisco mayor George Mascone lay dead, assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White. An all-straight jury subsequently gave White the lightest possible sentence on a charge of manslaughter. San Francisco’s gay population rioted; but the heyday of pro-gay politics was over in that city, and antigay violence skyrocketed.
Not long after, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control began to notice a number of immune-deficiency-related illnesses in the gay male populations of major cities. Public officials (who didn’t know what caused the illnesses or exactly how they were spread) began closing down establishments where gay people gathered. Not surprisingly, gay people resisted these moves, seeing them as just another ploy on the part of politicians and police to destroy gay communities and to oppress individuals. Tensions between gay communities and various branches of government increased.
In 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick the US Supreme Court held that states have a right to criminalize even private and consensual sexual behavior. Specifically the court said Georgia had a right to punish Michael Hardwick for sodomy even though his act occurred in private. The police officer who overheard and then witnessed Hardwick’s act had entered the house in order to speak to one of Hardwick’s house mates about a traffic violation. Officer Bowers placed Hardwick under arrest in his own bedroom.
The following year, 1987, the second March on Washington was held. It was one of the largest civil right demonstrations in this country’s history, drawing more than 650,000. The next day 5,000 demonstrators converged on the Supreme Court steps, and an organization new even to most lesbian and gay Americans, ACT-UP, made its first national appearance. Gay politics, like gay lives, had changed dramatically since Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society only thirty-seven years before.
Things have changed. But in many respects life has not gotten any easier. The FBI tells us violence against gay people and destruction of gay property and establishments is on the rise, and the crimes committed against us are getting uglier and deadlier. There are efforts in dozens of states and localities to repeal anti- discrimination laws where they exist and to prohibit them where they don’t yet exist so that non-heterosexual people will have no avenue for changing the laws that affect them. More and more people are out of the closet, but while that may relieve and liberate in some ways, it also makes people easy targets for discrimination and hatred.
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Sex, Gender, & Bipolarity
In order to understand the difference between someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and someone who is transgender, you need to know the difference between sex and gender. Simply put, sex is polarity of anatomy, gender is polarity of appearance and behavior. As one gains familiarity with transgenderism, these definitions quickly break down, but they serve as a good starting point.
Most people think there are just two sexes, male and female. Such is not the case. People who are intersexed and people who are transsexual constitute sexes which are neither exactly male nor exactly female.
Likewise, gender is not a simple case of “either/or.” Gender is exhibited by countless signals, from articles of clothing to cosmetics, hairstyles, conversational styles, body language and much more.
Notice, however, that our gender “norms” are not symmetric. Women have won for themselves the right to a wide range of gender expression. Men have not made a corresponding effort. Most men live within a much narrower range of “acceptable” gender.
Though our culture tends to group characteristics into “masculine” and “feminine,” many people find some amount of gender transgression exciting, so there is some crossover between the two categories. Ultimately, gender is a “mix and match” mode of self-expression, and people within our culture are ever finding new ways to express their gender, with exciting subtleties and intriguing implications.
In general, it works best to think of all effects – sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual identity, and any others – as varying along a continuous spectrum of self-expression, rather than in just one of two or three ways.
Sexual Orientation vs. Gender Identity vs. Sexual Identity
Sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual identity are independent of each other. A person may express any variation of each of these in any combination. To discourage the free expression of identity and orientation by an individual is to impose a damaging burden of conformity.
Sexual Orientation is which sex you find romantically/erotically attractive: opposite (hetero), same (homo), or both (bi).
Gender Identity is how you see yourself socially: man, woman, or a combination of both. One may have a penis but prefer to relate socially as a woman, or one may have a vagina but prefer to relate as a man. One might prefer to be fluid, relating sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman. Or one might not identify as either one, relating androgynously.
Sexual Identity is how you see yourself physically: male, female, or in between. If someone is born female, but wishes to see their body as male in all respects, their sexual identity is male. It is generally rude to speak of such a person as female, since it denies their right to inhabit the social and physical role of their choosing. We call such a person a transsexual, whether or not they have had any surgery.
Many FTM transsexuals do not undergo genital surgery, often because of disappointing results or extreme cost. As surgical technique improves, this may change. Since it is healthier for these people to live in accord with their wishes and heartfelt need, we call them men, though they may have a vagina where one would expect to find a penis.
The situation for MTF transsexuals is equivalent, except that the surgery produces a much more satisfying result, both cosmetically and functionally. Nonetheless, many MTF transsexuals elect to not have the surgery, most often because of risk, pain, or cost. Those who retain male sexual functioning may refer to themselves as transgenderists, since it is only their gender which is changed. Those that disown all male sexual function (surgery or no) tend to identify as transsexuals, since they change their sexual function, and therefore their sexual identity.
People tend to categorize themselves. This identification can be helpful in finding like-minded others with whom to make friends, but it can be hurtful if imposed on an individual by others, well-intentioned or not. In relating to transgender folk, it is best to avoid pushing an individual to choose a category for themselves. Some folks prefer to explore the fringes of category, and such push for identification works against personal exploration and fulfillment.
Transgender folk have self-identified as:
- Drag Queen: Female-emulating male, usually campy, often (not always) gay.
- Butch: Masculine-appearing person.
- Femme: Feminine-appearing person.
- Drag King: Male-emulating woman.
- Intersex: Person born with mixed sexual physiology. Often ‘assigned’ at birth, such practice is coming under well-founded attack as a hurtful violation of a person’s well-being.
- Transvestite: Person who enjoys wearing clothes identified with the opposite gender, often but not always straight.
- Crossdresser: Polite term for transvestite.
- Transgenderist: Person who lives as gender opposite to anatomical sex, i.e. person with penis living as woman. Sexual orientation varies.
- Androgyne: Person appearing and identifying as neither man nor woman, presenting a gender either mixed or neutral.
- Transsexual: Person whose sexual identity is opposite to their assignment at birth. Not all TS folk undergo ‘sex reassignment surgery’ (SRS), for various reasons, including personal preference. Sexual orientation varies.
- FTM (female to male): born female but see themselves as partly to fully masculine.
- MTF (male to female): born male but see themselves as partly to fully feminine
- Transgender Community: A loose association of people who transgress gender norms in a wide variety of ways. Celebrating a recently born self-awareness, this community is growing fast across all lines, including social, economic, political, and philosophical divisions. The central ethic of this community is unconditional acceptance of individual exercise of freedoms including gender and sexual, identity and orientation.
The university years are years of extreme change. Students are confronted with a variety of issues. Each issue is dealt with differently based on the student’s maturity and the experiences that he or she has had. As a result, the student who may be struggling with his or her sexual identity may have a more difficult task as these issues appear.
Many activities during the undergraduate years encourage students to develop self-esteem and a distinct identity. For the gay, lesbian and bisexual student, answering the question “Who am I?” can be very difficult. Because homosexuality and bisexuality are not widely accepted or even seen as healthy or acceptable by many people, LGBT students begin the self-esteem battle a few steps back.
LGBT students may question their self worth and wonder where they fit into society and the university community. Also, the majority of the activities during the undergraduate years are heterosexual based. Whether the social functions or dating, the LGBT student can experience extreme anxiety as he or she decides to “play the game.” Coupled with this issue is the fact that most gays, lesbians and bisexuals do not find a community with which to connect initially. As a result, LGBT students may feel even more isolated than heterosexual students.
During college years, students also begin to make decisions about what role religion will play in their lives. For LGBT students, coming to terms with their religious beliefs can be a difficult task in light of the fact that homosexuality and bisexuality are not accepted in most religious environments. Other issues that will challenge LGBT students will be coming to terms with their career goals and health-related issues such as coping with HIV/AIDS and the fear that goes with it.
In addition, there are some unique issues that face LGBT students that heterosexual students do not have to face. There are differences between gay men and lesbians in identifying oneself as lesbian or gay. Men seem to be more anxious and concerned about the possibility that they might be gay than women. Once the identification has been made, men tend to view it as a discovery in that they have finally acknowledged their homosexuality. Women, however, reconstruct the past by examining and emphasizing their significant friendships/relationships with other women. In addition, there are issues concerning:
- Grieving the loss of membership in the dominant culture and entry into a permanently stigmatized group.
- The experience of being a minority, especially an invisible minority and its impact on one’s life.
- Lack of family support or strong role models to help them deal with their found status and identity.
- Potential lack of peer support and isolation.
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The Culture of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Students
By Kerry Poynter
(Parts taken from the Report and Recommendations of The Governor’s Commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth. Boston, MA, July 1993 and John D’Emilio.)
Although there may be some differences among the LGBT student subcultures depending on what college or university you look at there is a general national history. This history includes LGBT student organizations, which make up most of what describes the LGBT student subculture, and stories of harassment or discrimination.
Since the start of the modern day LGBT equal rights movement in the United States, which took place at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969, LGBT students have been organizing student groups at colleges and universities around the country. The Stonewall Inn, a relatively small gay bar located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village is heralded as the spark that re-ignited the modern day LGBT rights movement. Police raided the bar supposedly looking for illegal sale of alcohol, which was a usual occurrence in the city’s gay bars. “the Police raided and attempted to shut down the Stonewall, which was frequented by gay street people, drag queens, students, and others. While patrons usually accommodated the officials, this evening was different: fed up with their ongoing mistreatment, the patrons fought back. Neighborhood residents quickly joined the fray, flinging bottles and rocks at police in riots lasting for three nights.”
Out of these riots organizations started springing up all across the country. This included LGBT student organizations. “The first LGBT student group was chartered at Columbia University in New York City in 1969. Named the Student Homophile League, it created quite a stir on campus and received a great deal of media coverage. This publicity spurred the formation of similar groups at Cornell University, New York University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and elsewhere. Relatively few active members were initially involved, and groups were politically weak, but the seeds had been planted, and a fledgling LGBT student movement was underway.”
The first “out” student government president, Jack Baker, was elected in 1970 at the University of Minnesota. The University of Michigan was the first to hire counselors, Cynthia Gair and Jim Toy, to specifically address counseling needs of LGBT students. The University of Massachusetts was the first to hire a director, Felice Yeskel, for their new LGBT student service office in 1985.
Many stories that have been passed down over the years or are documented are about harassment and discrimination against LGBT students and people.
“Stories like these are the substance of an oral tradition by which gay academics who came of age before the 1970’s warned one another of the dangers they faced and socialized their younger peers into necessary habits of caution and discretion.”
“In 1959, at a small Midwestern college, a student told her faculty advisor that one of her friends was a homosexual. The advisor informed the dean, who called in the student in question and pressured him into naming others. Within twenty-four hours, three students had been expelled; a week later, one of them hung himself.
“About the same time, a faculty member at a Big Ten school was arrested in mid-semester on a morals charge (at that time, all homosexual expression was subject to criminal penalties). The police alerted the administration, and the professor was summarily told to leave the campus. He never appeared before his classes again.”
“At an elite college in the northeast, male student in the 1960’s were in he habit of training a telescope on the windows of the women’s dormitories. In one instance, they spied two female students erotically engaged. The women, not the men, were disciplined.”
“At a women’s college in New England, where accusations of lesbianism were periodically leveled against roommates in the 1960’s, the standard solution was to separate the accused by housing them in different rooms.”
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Making Campuses Safe
Making Colleges and Universities Safe for
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Students and Staff
Contributed by Warren J. Blumenfeld
- Enact non-discrimination policies on the basis of sexual and gender orientation in matters of hiring, tenure, promotion, admissions, and financial aid.
- Have policies and procedures for dealing with homophobic violence and harassment.
- Have a written, inclusive, and affirming definition of “couples” that is nondiscriminatory towards same-sex couples in a way that is appropriate for each institution.
- Ensure equal access and equality of all benefits and privileges granted to all employees and students.
- Have policies of active outreach in hiring openly GLBT and/or GLBT-sensitive faculty, staff, and administrators in all segments of the campus community.
- Actively recruit openly GLBT prospective students.
All of the above policies should be written, clear, consistent, accessible, and well publicized throughout the campus.
II. Training and Development
- Homophobia and other “diversity” workshops should be implemented for the entire campus community to sensitize and educate staff, faculty, and administrators.
- Colleges and universities provide official recognition, support, and funding of campus GLBT student organizations.
- Physically safe, secure, and appropriate space with a welcoming, emotionally safe atmosphere should be available to GLBT organizations for meetings, social events, coffee houses, lectures, fora, workshops, and other events.
- Legal and fundraising support services should be available to GLBT students.
- Campus housing should include GLBT living options.
- University leadership should make strong, clear, public statements on a regular basis that state the college’s commitment to ending discrimination, conviction that violence and harassment are entirely unacceptable, and appreciation of the value of diversity on campus, including diversity of sexual and gender identity.
- Colleges and universities hire openly GLBT or GLBT-sensitive therapists/counselors, faculty, staff, and administrators.
- Peer counselors and/or campus crisis hotline volunteers be adequately trained in sensitivity to sexuality, sexual and gender orientation/identity, and “coming out” issues.
- Effective AIDS education, imperative for all people of all sexual and gender orientations, must be available and widespread.
- Social activities through residence halls, Offices of Student Activities, and other organizations must be not only inclusive of all sexual and gender orientations and identities, without pressures toward heterosexuality, but actively welcoming of GLBT people as well as same-sex couples.
- College and university presidents have a standing advisory committee, panel, or board, appointed or elected in consultation with GLBT students, staff, and faculty members.
- Student opinion should be assessed regularly, by the above mentioned panel or in some other manner, in order to gauge the effectiveness of implemented changes.
- Campus publications should take care to provide adequate and fair coverage of GLBT events and issues, both on and off campus.
- Colleges and universities should aid students in alumni outreach.
- Internship opportunities may also be cultivated among local GLBT-owned businesses and GLBT activist and community service organizations.
- The diversity within the GLBT community should be recognized and affirmed.
- The location and availability of resources of value to GLBT people should be published in materials distributed to all students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
- Personnel at the Career Planning/Placement Center, like personnel in every college area, should be sensitive to GLBT issues and be aware of employment opportunities in GLBT owned or GLBT friendly businesses and community service organizations.
- While needs differ greatly at each of the hundreds of institutions of higher education, it seems clear that for many, if not most, the most critically important and invaluable resource is a GLBT campus resource center with a paid administrator, staff, and resources.
- In institutions where financial resources do not allow for centers and/or administrative support for any “minorities,” there should at least be a clearly recognized, identified, and publicized as an official liaison to the campus GLBT community.
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IV. Curriculum / Educational Materials / Academic Affairs
- Issues relating to GLBT people should be formally and permanently integrated into existing courses across the curriculum.
- Speakers on GLBT topics, and particularly those who present scholarly research on GLBT topics, should be brought to campus regularly.
- Courses dealing specifically with GLBT issues in the humanities, natural sciences, education, social sciences, and other disciplines should be established.
- A visiting scholar position in GLBT studies should be created and supported on a continuing basis.
- College and university libraries should increase their holdings of GLBT books, periodicals, and computer networking systems.
- Campus facilities should be available for regional GLBT studies conferences, with administrative support provided.
- Fellowship opportunities should be created and funded for teaching and research of GLBT topics.
- Scholarship and research into GLBT history, culture, and theory should be encouraged and supported in faculty and students.
- All multicultural education should be inclusive of the issues, history, culture, and experiences of GLBT people in the United States and worldwide. Multicultural awareness (social diversity)courses should be mandatory for all students at some point during the undergraduate years.
- An archive and history of GLBT organizations on campus should be created.
V. Employee Concerns
- Policies regarding equal benefits and nondiscrimination should be made clear in recruiting brochures, informational materials, campus publications, and orientation sessions.
- The university should aid, support, and fund the creation of GLBT faculty and staff discussion, support, and networking groups.
- Trade unions and professional organizations should have inclusive policies and supportive services available to their members.
- There should be equality in all benefits, including, for example: bereavement leave, insurance coverage, library privileges, access to gym and other recreational facilities, listings in directories if spouses are customarily listed, housing for GLBT couples where the qualifications are analogous to the qualifying basis for heterosexuals, “couple” rates must be made available to GLBT couples, access to any and all other privileges and benefits by GLBT partners if access is available to heterosexual spouses.
- There should be ongoing sensitivity training and staff development on GLBT issues for all employees.
- Colleges and universities should cover the expenses of employees attending conferences on GLBT issues.
VI. Community / Off-Campus Concerns
- Community GLBT groups should be invited to attend campus events as participants, guests, and event leaders and facilitators.
- Information regarding social, religious, and other community resources should be made easily accessible to all students, staff, faculty, and administrators.
- Counselors, administrators, and faculty should be available to parents or other community members to alleviate any concern that may arise out of the implementation of any of the above recommendations, as well as any concerns arising during their child’s coming out process, if that is the case.
- Representatives of GLBT student groups from different schools should meet regularly to keep each other appraised of upcoming events, plan events together, and strengthen the GLBT community.
- Publications, fundraising materials, and all other publications distributed to parents and alumni should include relevant and appropriate stories, essays, and news regarding GLBT issues, organizations, and events.
- Corporations, public agencies, and government, religious, and community agencies and institutions that do not have official written policies against discrimination based on sexual and gender orientation should be strongly discouraged or prohibited from on-campus employment or enlistment recruiting.
— Warren J. Blumenfeld is founder and first director of the National Gay Student Center. (This organization exists today as the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Student Caucus of the United States Student Association.) He is co-author of the book LOOKING AT GAY AND LESBIAN LIFE, editor of the book HOMOPHOBIA: HOW WE ALL PAY THE PRICE, author of AIDS AND YOUR RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY, and editor of the JOURNAL OF GAY, LESBIAN AND BISEXUAL IDENTITY. He is also co-producer of the documentary film “Pink Triangles,” on the topic of homophobia.
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Suggestions for Creating a Non-Homophobic Campus Environment
(Adapted by Buhrke & Douce, 1991)
- Object to and eliminate jokes and humor that put down or portray LGBT people in stereotypical ways.
- Counter statements about sexual orientation or gender identity that are not relevant to decisions or evaluations being made about faculty, staff, or students.
- Invite “out” professionals to conduct seminars and provide guest lectures in your classes and offices. Invite them for both LGBT topics and other topics of their expertise.
- Do not force LGBT people out of the closet nor come out for them to others. The process of coming out is one of enlarging a series of concentric circles of those who know. Initially the process should be in control of the individual until (and if) they consider it public knowledge.
- Don’t include sexual orientation information in letters of reference or answer specific or implied questions without first clarifying how “out” the person chooses to be in the specific process in question. Because your environment may be safe does not mean that all environments are safe.
- Recruit and hire “out’ LGBT staff and faculty. View sexual orientation as a positive form of diversity that is desired in a multicultural setting. Always question job applicants about their ability to work with LGBT faculty, staff, and students.
- Do not refer all LGBT issues to LGBT staff/faculty. Do not assume their only expertise is LGBT issues. Check with staff about their willingness to consult on LGBT issues with other staff members.
- Be sensitive to issues of oppression and appreciate the strength and struggle it takes to establish a positive LGBT identity. Provide nurturing support to colleagues and students in phases of that process.
- Be prepared. If you truly establish a safe and supportive environment, people that you never thought of will begin to share their personal lives and come out in varying degrees. Secretaries, maintenance personnel, former students, and professional colleagues will respond to the new atmosphere. Ten percent is a lot of people.
- View the creation of this environment as a departmental or agency responsibility, not the responsibility of individual persons who happen to be LGBT. Always waiting for them to speak, challenge, or act, adds an extra level of responsibility to someone who is already dealing with oppression on many levels.
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Suggestions for Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students From PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)
- Don’t be surprised when someone comes out to you.
- Respect confidentiality. It is imperative that you can be trusted.
- Be informed. Most of us are products of a homophobic society. It is important that you are aware of the needs of LGBT students.
- Examine your own biases. If you are uncomfortable with dealing with the issue, and know that you are unable to be open and accepting, you need to refer the student to someone else.
- Know when and where to seek help. Know all available resources.
- Maintain a balanced perspective. Sexual thoughts and feelings are only a small (but important) part of a person’s self.
- Understand the meaning of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Each person’s sexual orientation is natural to that person.
- Deal with feelings first. You can be helpful by just listening and allowing LGBT students the opportunity to vent feelings.
- Help, but don’t force. LGBT people need to move at the pace they feel most comfortable with.
- Be supportive. Share with them that this is an issue that others must deal with, too.
- Don’t try to guess who’s LGBT.
- Challenge bigoted remarks and jokes. This shows support.
- Make sure a copy of Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender College Students: A Handbook for Faculty and Administrators (Sanlo, 1998) is available for reference in your workplace.