Re-Dis-Covering Identity: A Phenomenological Study Exploring the Ontological Complexities of Being Gay

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This phenomenological study explored the lived experience of gay men. The study of identity in student affairs and higher education is grounded in student and human development theory. Does theory explain identity for gay men? How do gay men make meaning of their experience? This study is conducted in the tradition of hermeneutic phenomenology. This methodology is based in the work of Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Derrida, Levinas, and Sartre as key philosophers in phenomenological inquiry. Although these philosophers ground the methodology, van Manen offers the set of research activities that come together and offer ways to organize the exploration of this phenomenon.

Through exploration of existential sources, the themes of being an imposter in majority culture, living a double life, the power of words to hurt or connect, and the notion of "the closet" emerged. Once these themes from the existential sources were uncovered, participants who live the phenomenon under investigation were sought.

Working with six college students, I looked deeper into how the phenomenon manifests itself and how gay men make meaning of their lived experience. The theme of identity emerged as paramount. Specifically, the gay men participating in this study describe their identity as both complicated and, at times, ineffable; they knew who they were, but found theoretical descriptions of them limited and limiting. Gay men also find that their identity plays a pivotal role in the connections they are able or are not able to make with others - sometimes being gay hinders, and at other times it helps make connections.

From my work with these men, I suggest to educators that we need to stay attuned to the pedagogical environment, allow gay role models to be available, and educate future teachers about the potential crises and anxieties faced by gay men in middle and high school due to bullying. Finally, I suggest to those who teach developmental theory that it be underscored that theory is not a panacea and can never fully describe human beings. The concern I have is with the over application of theory in place of listening to and engaging with students.