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A Conversation with Will Beischel
Will Beischel is a doctoral candidate in the Personality and Social Contexts program. They received their B.S. in Psychology from Loyola University Chicago with minors in Biology and Neuroscience. They are studying sexual and gender identity from a biopsychosocial perspective, with particular attention to sexual and gender minorities.
Interviewed by Elizabeth Cole
EC: I wanted to start by asking you about how you got interested in teaching about DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] related topics.
WB: I didn't really set out to teach a DEI course. I came to grad school to study gender and sexual diversity, and I work with Sari van Anders, who has a very social justice and diversity oriented research program and perspective and I've just absorbed a lot through being in her lab....I went to Loyola University Chicago [for undergrad], which also has a very social justice oriented pedagogical goal and so I took courses like queer theory and other courses that really got me thinking about DEI issues. So as I was creating a course for prelims, it just was kind of the distillation of all the things I'm interested in, trying to use the science of psychology to forward better and more inclusive understandings of gender and sexuality and other intersecting identities.
That's a convenient segue into talking more specifically about your course. You were one of the winners of our Diversity Teaching Award [in 2021] for a course that you designed and taught about queer psychology. Could you give us an overview of the course?
I designed the course in three parts. The first part I call “LGBT psychology” and we hit some of the big topics in the psychology of gender and sexuality. Things like minority stress and identity development, and the etiology of sexual orientations, what's the cause of different sexual orientations. We kind of get our feet wet in thinking about these topics.
Then we switch to queer theory, so it's a very abrupt shift to the humanities, to philosophy, and we're reading articles back from the 1980s when queer theory was just starting, through modern day, setting the foundations of how queer theorists have conceptualized gender and sexuality. It's quite different from how psychologists operationalize and think about gender and sexuality in these discrete categories.
And in the final third I tried to bring them together and I call that third “queer psychology,” which is psychological research that tries to think about gender and sexuality and other intersecting identities, not just as categorical social identities, but rather systems of power, and dynamic and fluid and forever evolving, and socially constructed. There's some research that I really really value in that section that we read...because we have a lot of that work from the humanities and it just has not transferred over as much into our field.
...One of the things that I have them do is, we were reading one of Judith Butler's articles on the performance of gender, and how the way that we embody gender actually creates the illusion of gender as a unique characteristic of ourselves. And so I had them walk around the room and I asked them to walk normally, and then to embody and try to walk around as the most feminine person you can imagine. And then I said, okay walk around as the most masculine person you can imagine, and then walk around sort of as you would normally. And then we debriefed about what that felt like for them. And I think it was a really interesting way of getting them to see that we all have similar ideas of what femininity and masculinity are and how they are embodied which shows how powerful our gender socialization is and how ubiquitous. They brought up emotions [they felt] when they were trying to embody these things, like discomfort and awkwardness. And they felt like people were watching them. We used that as a jumping off point and thinking about when we are forced to embody a gender expression that is not authentic to ourselves, how bad that can feel as a way to extend Butler to think about the stakes of forcing gender on to people, that is not authentic. Um, yeah so I found that anytime I could try to come up with ways to get them up and moving or to present something or just be active in that process was really helpful.
EC: So I want to ask you a parting question: for instructors who are interested in getting started teaching courses related to DEI or infusing their existing courses with concepts from the DEI Do you have any tips or advice?
WB: Yeah, I think the best advice I have is to not do it alone. Teaching to me, you know it's not a competitive sport. It's a collaborative endeavor. So I got feedback from a lot of people on my syllabus. When I began, my first [draft] syllabus was just half queer theory and then half queer psychology. And [a faculty member] recommended, that for your average undergrads that really complex queer theory is going to be a lot for them. So I added that first bit to make sure we're all on the same page with the basics of what even are these identities? what do they mean? what are some community examples of these different identities and the kinds of research that people are doing? And that I think really was such a great piece of advice.
Another piece of advice I would have is to not underestimate the power of being in the classroom talking about these issues, having students come to these revelations, which is both really inspiring and very humbling because it's higher stakes and so I want to do it well and be comprehensive. That's, that's something that I didn't quite anticipate and I feel so blessed to have been a part of that.
EC: With an awareness that more and more people are trying to self educate [about DEI], are there readings from your course that you think somebody who's new to these topics would really benefit from?
In the first section of my course we're talking about LGBT psychology that isn't necessarily challenging or questioning the categories themselves but I think it's still very progressive and awesome. Kristina Olson and her group are studying gender development and trans kids who have socially transitioned. They showed that a trans girl is indistinguishable from her cis sister on all measures, both explicit and implicit.
Gülgöz, S., Glazier, J. J., Enright, E. A., Alonso, D. J., Durwood, L. J., Fast, A. A., Lowe, R., Ji, C., Heer, J., Martin, C. L., & Olson, K. R. (2019). Similarity in transgender and cisgender children's gender development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(49), 24480–24485. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1909367116
Another paper that I recommend to basically everyone is by Cathy Cohen. It's such a great application and concrete example of intersectionality and how if we are trying to work towards gender liberation and sexual liberation, that we cannot fully do that without thinking about other systems of power in that.
Cathy J. Cohen; Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?. GLQ 1 May 1997; 3 (4): 437–465. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-3-4-437
And then, in queer psychology, I'm probably biased but I we read Sari van Anders’ sexual configurations theory paper, which is literally, probably the number one reason I came to Michigan to to work with her. It brings together so many different ways of thinking about sexuality and gender into one theory more cohesively and more comprehensively.
Van Anders S. M. (2015). Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities in Sexual Configurations Theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 1177-1213. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1909367116