Profiles in Mentoring: Dr. Gary Harper’s research, advocacy, and policy work with LGBTQ+ youth in the U.S. and Africa

Gary W. Harper, PhD, MPH is a Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, as well as a Professor of Global Public Health, at the University of Michigan. Dr. Harper’s research and community work focuses on the mental health and sexual health needs of adolescents and young adults who experience varying degrees of oppression and marginalization, especially Black gay/bisexual young men, transgender and non-binary youth, and youth living with HIV. In Dr. Harper’s research, he utilizes mixed-methods and qualitative approaches to research; especially methods that help us understand the lived experiences and social justice needs of diverse groups of adolescents and young adults.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the field of youth research?

Often people in academia jump to academic training and experiences when asked about their background, but I would like to approach this a bit differently.  When I think of who I am today and the work I do, I have to talk about my life and experiences growing up.  I also feel like the academy creates false hierarchies of importance that serve to separate us as humans into categories and boxes, and that privilege academic experiences and traditional forms of knowledge over lived experiences and knowledge.  I hope that this helps you to see me not as a professor or mentor, but as a person.

I grew up in a working-class community in St. Louis right next to a landfill that was later revealed to be an illegal nuclear waste dump site (featured in the HBO documentary Atomic Homefront).  I don’t think I ever really realized how financially limited my family was until I became the first person in my family to leave home in order to get my undergraduate degree.  As I pulled up to my dormitory in an old ’71 Cutlass Oldsmobile I bought from our neighbor with a garbage bag of clothes and a box of used odds and ends for my room, I soon learned just how different I was.  There were no first generation student programs or services to let me know that my experience would be unique and that I was not alone—in fact I don’t think they even used the term [first generation] back then.  Living away from home, I also began to question my sexuality.  Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I played football and soccer, and was a “rough and tumble” boy who was always breaking things and getting in trouble, so being gay was never even on my radar—although I knew I was different.  My liberal undergraduate university setting with a diverse array of people gave me the opportunity to expand my worldview and future vision beyond the traditional heteronormative Midwestern family framework which was all I knew (keep in mind we didn’t have the internet back then).  I knew that a bachelor’s degree was not enough for me, as I became fascinated with the field of psychology and knew that I wanted to learn more and to do more.  I became the first person in the history of my extended family to receive a doctoral degree, and each time I went back home I was reminded again and again about just how different I was.

So you may have noticed a theme about being different.  I wanted to share this background because it was all of those times during my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood of feeling different, feeling like I didn’t quite fit in anywhere, feeling like I was the only one who___ (fill in the blank), that brought me to the work that I do today.  I now realize that as a White young man in these circumstances I still had the safety net of my White privilege, but back then I often felt alone.  Fast forward to my current life—I now conduct community-engaged research and practice activities that embrace and support LGBTQ+ youth, and that focus on their resilience and strength, because I hope to be part of these young people’s process of self-love and empowerment.  I also love teaching and mentoring both traditional university students and community members whose path may not include time in a university setting.  I do all of this through an intersectional lens, keeping in mind that we all have a diverse array of identities and experiences, and that we are not just a sum of our parts.

Today, as a tenured White male professor I acknowledge that I have a great deal of privilege and power, and that I need to use those advantages to challenge and dismantle structural barriers to human diversity, equity and inclusivity.  I also need to use my privilege and power to open doors (well, sometimes kick them open) and create seats at the table for everyone, including the students who work with me in the academy and the young LGBTQ+ people with whom we work in communities.  I also feel that it is important that I am visible in the world as a gay man so that all people can see yet another way to be a proud LGBTQ+ person.  If my presence and visibility as an openly gay man gives one LGBTQ+ young person in the university or community a sense that they are not alone, that their life has value, that there is more that they can achieve—then I think I am doing something right!

Are there any findings you would like to highlight about working with and supporting sexual and gender minority youth?

Fortunately there has been a dramatic increase in research focused on LGBTQ+ and other sexual and gender minority youth in the past 10 years or so, and a growing trend to not only focus on the increased physical and mental health risks that these youth experience but also on the many strengths they possess.  This increased visibility is a step toward acknowledging the existence and humanity of LGBTQ+ youth.  There is also increasing awareness that we must view the lives and lived experiences of LGBTQ+ youth through an intersectional lens, realizing that we all possess a range of social identities that may be privileged and oppressed in different settings and at different times.  Just because two young people may identify as gay doesn’t mean they will have the same sets of experiences and opportunities—these can vary due to their race, ethnicity, educational level, income, ability status, religion, family, neighborhood, community and a host of other factors.   

With regard to sexual orientation identity and gender identity development, research is now understanding these phenomena in a much more complex and nuanced way.  The initial models proposed by Vivienne C. Cass in 1979 (Homosexual Identity Formation) and Richard R. Troidan in 1988 (Homosexual Identity Development) were linear stage models based on retrospective reports of primarily White gay men and lesbian women.  Subsequent models addressed the experiences of bisexual and transgender individuals.  As societal views of LGBTQ+ people have changed and research methodologies have become more inclusive and participatory, there is a greater understanding today that the development of one’s sexual orientation and gender identity do not necessarily occur in a linear stage-like fashion, and that these process are influenced by a host of socioecological factors and contexts.  Young people are also identifying across the LGBTQ+ spectrum earlier in life, and are creating a new language for how they (and we) communicate about sexuality and gender.  We need to think more contextually and intersectionally when we talk about sexual orientation identity and gender identity development, and also consider whether or not we even need to study these processes.

Another broad area of focus with regard to research with LGBTQ+ youth is that increasing numbers of research projects are turning away from a focus on LGBTQ+ youth specifically, and turning toward a focus on an array of factors within different socioecological systems that influence the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ adolescents.  These studies are attempting to find ways to create and sustain more supportive and affirming families, schools, healthcare systems, and communities.  They originate in an understanding that LGBTQ+ youth often face multiple layers of stigma and discrimination related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, and that these negative experiences negatively influence one’s health and wellbeing.  Instead of teaching LGBTQ+ youth how to accept and adapt to oppression and marginalization, these studies and programs are attempting to make structural and sustainable changes by focusing on those who are promoting and perpetuating anti-LGBTQ+ stigma and discrimination, as well as programs, policies and practices that are discriminatory.

What research are you currently working on?

I am working on a number of community-based research and action projects right now focused on LGBTQ+ youth, both in the U.S. and in Sub-Saharan Africa.  I also have been increasingly more engaged in advocacy and policy work, as I feel that it is our moral imperative to translate our research findings into meaningful policy for social change.

Some of my domestic community-based research and action work is focused on developing and delivering interventions to promote structural change within healthcare settings in an attempt to make them more welcoming environments for LGBTQ+ youth.  We work with entire healthcare clinics to increase the cultural humility of all people who work in those settings, and then provide them with technical assistance to create more inclusive and affirming policies, practices, and physical environments.  My team and I are also working on a participatory action research project focused on improving the mental health and wellbeing of Black transgender young men in Detroit, as well as some exciting participatory intervention development work focused on intimate partner violence among transgender women of color in Detroit.

Domestically, I also am engaged in efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy with LGBTQ+ youth.  Despite overwhelming research demonstrating the lack of effectiveness and actual harm caused by conversion therapy, there are only a minority of states in the US that have laws to ban the use of conversion therapy by licensed mental health professionals.  I have been working with elected officials in the Michigan House and Senate on this legislation, as well as national organizations that are promoting bans across the U.S.  In January I was appointed by the Governor of Michigan to the state’s Board of Psychology, where I will also have the opportunity to assure that mental health issues related to LGBTQ+ youth and adults is addressed.  I am also Chairing the first ever Policy and Advocacy Workgroup within the National Institutes of Health’s Adolescent Trials Network for HIV/AIDS Intervention, where we are working on a number of policy and advocacy projects related to both LGBTQ+ youth and youth living with HIV.

Globally, my team and I have projects in both Zambia and Kenya focused on LGBTQ+ youth.  In these settings, the term “youth” is used to describe young people up to the age of 30.  In Kenya, we have a community-based research project focused on developing and implementing a sexual health promotion intervention for gay and bisexual young men, as well as a community-led initiative (in collaboration with local LGBTQ+ community-based organizations) focused on improving the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth through an array of interventions.  In Zambia, we have a community-based research project focused on understanding intersectional stigma experienced by gay and bisexual young men in healthcare settings, and how this influences HIV risk reduction and other health promotion behaviors.  We also are working in collaboration with local LGBTQ+ community-based organizations in Zambia to develop and implement an array of interventions to promote the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth.

Across all of these projects, I want to highlight that we focus a great deal of time and energy on providing both formal and informal mentoring for students, staff members, and community members; and on supporting their capacity and skills to conduct meaningful community-based research and action projects.  The majority of the people involved in all of these projects are LGBTQ+ identified individuals, with an array of other intersectional identities.  In fact, our one project in Kenya is the first ever NIH-funded research project in Kenya where all of the paid staff members on the ground who conducted qualitative interviews and are now being trained to deliver the intervention are all LGBTQ+ identified.  I believe it is important to support the growth and development of young LGBTQ+ people so they can be the ones who set the agenda for future LGBTQ+ community-based research and action.  Some of the individuals with whom I work have never interacted with an openly gay faculty member before, and have never seen anyone “like them” in a position of power or privilege.  Especially in my global work, I am almost always the only LGBTQ+ person with an advanced degree who has the privilege to be open about my identity.  Although this has resulted in some uncomfortable and difficult situations at times, especially since same-sex behavior is criminalized in both Kenya and Zambia, I still feel that it is critical for me to not hide my sexuality because I have other social identities that provide me with protection.  This type of visibility is so important and can make a huge difference since it gives us the opportunity to write a new story about who LGBTQ+ are and who they can be!