Psychology student receives NSF fellowship to study effects of anti-gay harassment

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A doctoral student in Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Psychology has received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study discrimination faced by gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and to determine whether that discrimination leads to greater risk taking.

Michael Trujillo, of VCU's Health Psychology Program in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was awarded the three-year fellowship, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees. Trujillo's study is titled "Anti-Gay Harassment and Risk Taking: The Effects of Distress and Distress Tolerance."

"The study that I've proposed is looking at harassment and risk taking, specific [among] sexual minorities," Trujillo said. "The idea is that sexual minorities — gay, lesbian, bisexual — experience a unique form of harassment. Anti-gay harassment. And that leads to distress — or making people feel anxious and stressed out — and that leads to greater risk taking more broadly."

Several studies have already indicated that people who experience distress are more likely to engage in risky behavior, he said. Additionally, studies have shown that LGBT people who experience anti-gay discrimination are more likely to experience distress and engage in risky behavior such as substance abuse or sexual risk taking.

"What we don't really know if it's this specific, anti-gay harassment [that is causing negative effects] or whether any harassment generally would lead to greater risk taking," he said.

Trujillo plans to also investigate the role of "distress tolerance" — or a person's ability to handle difficult times — in the relationship between distress and risk-taking behavior.

Trujillo said he is "extremely excited and humbled" to receive the fellowship, and credited the support and guidance he has received as a student and researcher.

Paul Perrin, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Trujillo's adviser, said Trujillo is an exceptional student who has "a true passion for using his research and professional career to work against various forms of oppression."

Perrin added that Trujillo's research project has great potential to shed light on some of the most important pathways through which discrimination affects the mental and physical health of members of the LGBT community.

Trujillo plans to begin the institutional review board process over the summer and to begin the research project in the fall or following spring. As part of the project, he is hoping to bring on board a graduate student or undergraduate student to mentor.

"This [fellowship] speaks to this collective support that I've received," he said. "I'm happy to utilize this as a springboard to give back."

"It's especially relevant for me," he added, "as someone who is both an ethnic minority and a sexual minority, because it serves as an opportunity to let other minorities know that you can succeed and do well. I just want to be a model for others, and give back in any way that I can."


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