Expressing LGBT Identities in Psychologically Safe Environments

We all have multiple identities and express them at different times and in different ways. We can think of identities as hats that we wear or parts of our personhood that are important to us. For example, on Twitter, I describe myself as "partner, dad, diversity scholar, cyclist, Episcopalian, and change advocate." Those are identities important to me. Some are more relevant at given times than others. At home, while coaching soccer, or while spending time with family, the partner and dad identities might be primed, while that of Episcopalian is more salient in church, when around other Episcopalians, and so on. 

In sport, some identities are more privileged than others. In fact, on some teams or in some workplaces, people are even encouraged--either implicitly or explicitly--to suppress identities that might be important to them. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals frequently report this is the case, as they feel compelled to not disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity in the sport domain. 

There are exceptions, though. We have found that in some cases, people feel they should keep their LGBT identity hidden, while in others, that is not the case. There are a number of other scholars--like Eric Anderson and Janet Fink, among others--who have observed that, in some instances, coaches and players feel free to express their identities, just as a heterosexual or cisgender person would. 

In a recent study, Drew Pickett, Nicole Melton, Woojun Lee, Kathi Miner, and I examined the role of psychologically safe environments in allowing for the expression of identities.* We can think of psychological safety as the degree to which people feel they are able to fully express themselves in groups, without fear of reprisal or negative consequences.

We collected data from women participating on NCAA Division I teams and asked them to complete a questionnaire measuring various factors. In our analyses, we statistically controlled for their race, some psychological characteristics (negative affect) and their level of team identity. By doing so, we can focus solely on the effects of the main study variables. Our results showed that  sexual orientation and psychological interacted to predict the importance of the players' sexual orientation identity. Heterosexual players generally were not affected either way. But, for lesbians and bisexual players, the more psychological safety they felt, the more likely they were to express their LGBT identity. Absent that safety, they were unlikely to express their sexual orientation identity. 

In discussing the results, we suggested:

When athletes feel safe, that they can openly and freely express themselves to others, and that their individual differences will not be held against them--all elements of psychological safety--they are likely to consider their sexual orientation as an important part of who they are as a person. However, absent such an environment, the salience of their sexual orientation identity diminishes (p. 412).

These findings highlight the importance of feeling psychologically safe and being able to freely express identities important to you. While we focused on LGBT identity, the findings are applicable for other identities, too. Absent that, people will not be able to bring their whole selves to work, and as a result, their participation will suffer.



* Cunningham, G. B., Pickett, A., Melton, E. N., Lee, W., & Miner, K. (2014). Free to be me: Psychological safety and the expression of sexual orientation and personal identity. In J. Hargreaves and E. Anderson (Eds.), Routledge handbook of sport gender and sexualities (pp. 406-415). London: Routledge.