Intersections of disability, gender, and sexuality in higher education : exploring students’ social identities and campus experiences



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Diversity of social identities among college students has received increasing attention in higher education research, with a particular focus on singular dimensions of identity. However, scholars have often neglected the intersectional experiences of multiple social identities. While research has begun to address the experiences of students with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students as distinct populations, few researchers have addressed the identities and experiences of LGBTQ students with disabilities in higher education. Thus, this study begins to address a need for empirical research on the social identities and higher education experiences of this population. Two primary research questions guided this study: (1) How do LGBTQ students with disabilities conceptualize their multiple, intersecting social identities, specifically the intersections of disability, gender, and sexuality? (2) How do LGBTQ students with disabilities perceive the influence of context at a predominantly White, research-intensive university in the southern United States in shaping their identity development journeys? This study utilized a qualitative methodology situated within critical and postmodern epistemologies. Specifically, concepts from queer theory, disability studies, and queer disability theory/crip theory guided this research. Situational analysis, a postmodern extension of grounded theory that calls for the making of three types of situational maps, guided the study’s design and analysis. Purposive sampling techniques were used to identify: (1) the institution of higher education under study, and (2) 25 undergraduate and graduate students who self-identify as LGBTQ and with a disability to participate in one to two semi-structured interviews. Students constructed positive, salient queer identities and utilized a variety of contextual labels for gender and sexuality. Most participants understood disability primarily as a medical phenomenon, but some participants also began to attach relational and political meanings to disability. Though participants acknowledged the presence of multiple identities, they viewed connections among their identities in distinctive ways: intersectional, interactive, overlapping, parallel, and/or oppositional. Students described complex processes for disclosing identities, forming community, and navigating normative temporal and spatial expectations of the university. Finally, students spoke of their journeys finding campus resources, encountering able-bodied/heteronormative assumptions in the classroom, and joining with others to create social change.