Working on the Margins of the Marginalized | Teachers College Columbia University

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Working on the Margins of the Marginalized

Melanie Brewster's research focuses on the stigma faced by minorities among minorities
By Siddhartha Mitter

When Melanie Brewster was in college, visiting Italy on a work-study program, a man became so offended by one of her classmates, who openly identified as a lesbian, that he chased after the woman wielding a chair.

“It was eye-opening,” says Brewster, who joined the TC faculty this year as Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education. “I’d witnessed hostility before but not at this level of intensity.”

At the time, Brewster was a double major in psychology and criminology at the University of Florida at Gainesville. She was interested in hate crimes, but dissatisfied with criminology’s emphasis on perpetrator and punishment.

“I took a class on victimology that got into the psychological consequences of hate crime victimization,” Brewster says. “And I realized there’s this whole division of psychology that looks at stressors faced by people who are being marginalized.”

Today Brewster is now an emerging leader in that same field. 

“My main research focus is working with sexual minority people,” Brewster says. “I’ve looked at workplace discrimination, but also at the effects of simply navigating vocations in the face of lots of stigma and barriers for entry. Much of my work looks at how depression, anxiety and other perils can result from that environmental stigma.”

While hardly alone in pursuing that line of inquiry, Brewster focuses on populations that  are typically overlooked or misperceived by other researchers

“People at the margins of marginalized populations—bisexual people, transgender people, people of color who also identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual—these are groups that haven’t really been attended to in psychology,” she says. “We’ve kind of assumed that what we know about white gay men will translate to these other groups.”

Part of Brewster’s work involves adapting research measures of distress and prejudice, and developing new ones when needed, to capture the experiences of these minorities-among-minorities. She has developed, for example, survey methods to measure anti-bisexual prejudice.

“A lot of the questions that you would ask of a bisexual person aren’t necessarily the same questions that you would direct toward  a gay or lesbian sample,” Brewster says. “There are distinct forms of prejudice against bisexual people.”

Transgender people often face especially strong hostilities, she adds, because they cannot fly under the radar even if they want to. “There are visible markers, especially if you’re transitioning from one gender to another, especially at work. There are bathroom issues. Changing your name on documentation.” 

Brewster says she is often pigeon-holed as “the bisexuality researcher.” Her interests are much broader – for example, she recently began a new project looks at stigma faced by non-religious people – but right now she’s glad of the recognition.

“It’s a good moment for advancing research on stresses on overlooked sexual minorities,” she says. “People acknowledge that it’s important.” 

At TC, Brewster hopes soon to institute a permanent class on counseling LGBT clients. And after studying in Gainesville and doing her clinical internship in Utah, she’s excited about the potential for research in New York, with its large out population – particularly given TC’s prestige as a research base.

“Coming here early in my career,” she says, “I feel I have a responsibility to make good use of my time.”

Published Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011


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