Back in the early 1990s, Stephen Russell was among the first researchers to publish population-based studies focusing on health risks among LGBTQ youth. As the years progressed, the call for more research in this burgeoning field set him down an unexpected career path that would lead him to become one of the nation’s leading scholars of LGBTQ adolescent development.
For more than 25 years, Russell’s research has made and impact on public policy and laws for school safety. In addition to his teaching and research, he serves as co-chair for the president’s LGBTQ Advisory Council and the provost’s Advisory Council on LGBTQ+ Faculty Access, Equity and Inclusion. He is also the principal Investigator of the SOGI Lab—home to a team of faculty and student researchers who are advancing awareness and knowledge about the role of sexual orientation and identity on health, development and rights.
Closing the research gap…“In the mid-to late-1990s, we started to see the first waves of teenagers coming out. Teachers didn’t know what to do because this was so new and not a part of everyday life. People started calling me because I published papers on LGBTQ youths, but I really wanted to focus my career on family science. Things started shifting when I was asked to do this research in schools with a lot of focus on bullying and stigmatization. That work led me back to my original research in family sociology with a focus on family acceptance. I look at how families understand and support their kids when they come out as well as other systems that support youth such as foster care and shelter systems.”
Possibilities and vulnerabilities…“One of the things I’ve always been interested in is studying the ways young people have access to resources that can help them understand themselves and their identities. Now, I study how these big generational changes have shaped young people today. There is a lot more societal awareness and acceptance, but we cannot assume that everything is getting better. Now, for trans youth, we’re seeing this weird paradox. There’s more visibility than ever, so you get to know you exist, but the world is debating whether you deserve to exist.”
Steps in the right direction…”The university has made huge progress thanks to the president and the provost. The gender inclusive bathrooms are a great example. It was a signification commitment to double the numbers of inclusive restrooms on campus—making them accessible to all families and abilities. Gender inclusive housing has also been a success. Overall, I think the general culture and climate in certain parts of campus are improving; it’s the social spaces and some academic spaces that have been reported to be less affirming. There are policies and practices to think about, but a culture change is needed to ensure everyone feels welcome and safe.”
How to make a change…“A big part of cultural change is education. Take advantage of opportunities for professional development that raise your levels of awareness and consciousness. For faculty and staff, think about UT’s ‘You Belong Here’ campaign and ask yourself, ‘How can we communicate that? How can we make that explicit so we can signal to people that they truly belong?’”
One size does not fit all…“A legal scholar named Mari Matsuda once said, ‘If you see racism, look for sexism. If you see sexism, look for homophobia.’ Inequalities are intersectional, so there is no one community. When we think of inclusive spaces, we need to also be mindful of people of different abilities, backgrounds and identities.”
A time for reflection…“Pride Month is so meaningful and so important. A lot of people now think everything is getting better, but we have to remember that a lot of LGBT students still feel they don’t belong. That is why we need Pride Month, so we can stop and think about their struggles and imagine a better future.”