Throwing the boomerang

I developed my Psychology of Sexual Orientation course six and a half years ago, back in 2007. The first time I taught it, only ten students were enrolled – and I had to beg my dean not to cancel the class. He didn’t. All ten students stayed. And the next semester, I had a full roster with a full waiting list. It’s been that way ever since, and this semester is no exception. Obviously, sexual orientation is a hot topic these days, and enrollment for this class is bursting at the seams.

Despite its popularity, not every college offers courses that focus on sexual and gender minorities. In fact, when I started teaching my course in 2007, only one other community college in California (City College of San Francisco) offered coursework on LGBTQ issues. Now, a few more community colleges have jumped on board – but only a few. And four-year colleges and universities offer these classes only if they have a faculty member who has expertise in that area. In my college district, my school is the only one that offers this course – and I know that students from other colleges come here to take it.

I feel such a strong sense of responsibility around this course – more than I do about the other courses I teach. Every semester, I get to watch LGBTQ students experience a sense of validation and find community. I also get to witness students shift away from their feelings of discomfort, disgust, or hatred (yes, sometimes they bring that to the table) towards a place of understanding, connection, and allyhood. Some students end the semester with a lingering sense of discomfort and dissonance, but I’m always impressed when they can continue to keep an open mind and be receptive to a new point of view. I know full well that my professorial duties don’t just involve presenting information. I set the tone for the class, and hold the space for them to fumble around and move through their own psychological process. It’s a delicate dance between academic learning and a therapeutic experience, and I take it very seriously.

I know how powerful LGBTQ college courses can be – and it’s not just my gut telling me so. Scores of studies have documented the effectiveness of LGBTQ courses in changing students’ attitudes, increasing awareness, and developing an ally identity. For example, Julie Gedro, a professor of Business, Management, and Economics at Empire State College, teaches a course that helps business students gain awareness about LGBTQ issues in the workplace. Markus Bidell of Hunter College teaches an LGBT graduate psychotherapy class that helps counseling students gain cultural competency in working with sexual and gender minorities. Peter Ji and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago teach a class that teaches heterosexual students how to be allies with LGBTQ communities.  And Victoria Kintner-Duffy, an Early Childhood Education professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro teaches a course designed to help future educators work with LGBTQ families and their young children. All of these individuals have published research articles documenting the effectiveness of these courses in shifting attitudes in a positive direction – and, for the most part, my experience has been exactly the same.

Except for last semester. In one of my classes, something entirely different happened.

In many ways, that class consisted of the typical mix of students. Some were out, loud, and proud. Others were in the early stages of the coming-out process. Several were straight allies, right from the beginning. Some had little knowledge of LGBTQ issues, but were open-minded and willing to learn. The usual suspects, in many ways.

But in this class, there was also a group of male students who seemed very uncomfortable by the topic – and who weren’t particularly open-minded. They sat in the back, huddled together. They whispered and snickered during class discussions. And every attempt I made to curb their behavior and defuse the situation only seemed to make it worse. By the end of the semester, several of them had dropped the course, but the damage had already been done – and quite a few students did poorly in the class as a result. So much for that delicate dance.

Clearly, my class had the exact opposite effect on these students. Instead of changing their attitudes, shifting more towards a position of acceptance and understanding, these students dug their heels in deeper and stuck even more strongly to their original negative attitudes. It’s not a rare phenomenon at all – in fact, as early as 1953, Carl Hovland, Irving Janis, and Harold Kelley of Yale University described this as the “boomerang effect,” where the opposite of the intended effect occurs. An attempt at persuasion is made, and instead of getting the person to agree with you (or, at the very least, inviting them to open their minds to hear a new perspective), the message boomerangs, veering even more strongly into the opposite direction.

The boomerang effect can have devastating consequences. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate TA for a women’s studies class, a few of the female students vehemently opposed the idea that systematic oppression of women exists – and that firmly cemented opposition created a schism in the class. More recently, I attended a diversity training that focused on racism and privilege, and the boomerang effect took hold with such a vengeance that the possibility of any further conversations about racism and oppression was completely shut off. It’s a phenomenon with toxic effects.

So now I’m hyper-aware of the possibility of the boomerang effect. In fact, without exaggeration, I think I have a little PTSD after last semester’s experience. But I’ve had some time to reflect – and what I’m reminded of is the immensely destructive power of fear. When we feel threatened, two things can happen: We can flee (and in this case, the students initially fled into a “hive mind” mentality, and then fled by dropping the class). Or we can put up our dukes and fight – which, essentially, is what’s involved in the boomerang effect. It’s a classic fight-or-flight fear response.

So what to do about it? I’ll do what I’ve done for the last six and a half years. I’ll set a positive tone. I’ll present information. I’ll hold the space for students to go through their process, and own that process, whatever it may be. And through it all, I’ll continue to stay true to my own convictions.

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Filed under homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, racism

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