Researchers look beyond bullying for LGBTQ stories

A screen shot from shows a composite of some of the faces behind the stories.

SF State project gathers testimonials to paint a broader picture of the LGBTQ experience

Many high schools in the U.S. have instituted programs to help prevent the bullying of LGBTQ students. Yet two San Francisco State University professors and their colleagues at other universities wanted to broaden the conversation around LGBTQ issues and bring more stories — not necessarily focused on bullying — to light.

“There’s sometimes this idea that the only thing that needs to be done is to prevent bullying — that if we’re not subjected to violence, everything is OK,” said San Francisco State Professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies Jessica Fields.

With a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, Fields, SF State Professor of Health Education Laura Mamo and student researchers from the University along with Jen Gilbert (York University) and Nancy Lesko (Teachers College, Columbia University) have produced, a website where over 350 LGBTQ stories are shared through transcripts, videos, audio clips and a blog. The testimonials include unique and touching coming-out stories, descriptions of friends, relatives and teachers who’ve been supportive (or not) and reflections on what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community.

To record the stories, the researchers traveled to three high schools — in Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco — to compile stories from students, faculty and administrators. People were invited to step into a private “booth” built especially for the project and tell their LGBTQ story, whatever it was, with the choice of being recorded on either video or audio.

Fields says the warm, quiet, private booth made people comfortable and allowed them to open up. “You can speak without interruption and no one’s asking you questions to take you down a different path with your story,” she said. “What does it mean for people to just talk without interruption and know that whatever story they tell someone’s going to listen to later?”

Mamo says the project has shown them how important it is to listen to students more carefully. “As adults, we need to learn how to listen to students’ stories differently because we don’t know how those stories are going to end,” she said.

Fields and Mamo hope can become a classroom resource for teachers, including sex ed instructors looking to expand their lessons beyond disease prevention. Mamo and Fields are spreading the word about the project at teacher conferences around the country. Along with their colleagues from Columbia and York Universities, they are now working with colleagues in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico to bring the booth to other countries.

One challenge the researchers have run into is that so many teachers are focused on lesson plans and testing. “That can make it hard for them to be innovative, especially with a risky subject like sexuality — and not just sexuality but LGBTQ sexuality and gender,” said Fields. “So part of [the challenge] is, how do we support teachers in institutions that often work against their innovation?”

That question is one Fields, Mamo and the other researchers continue to ponder. In the meantime, the powerful stories are online for anyone to hear or view.