Policy lab builds research opportunities around sex and gender

When it comes to homeless youth, those who identify as LGBTQ are vastly overrepresented—often facing a distinct set of challenges. More than 70 percent of LGBTQ youth in Philadelphia recently surveyed by the SexGen Policy Lab and Attic Youth Center say their housing insecurity is due to their sexual orientation or their gender identity.

These youth—between 16 and 24 years old—couch surf, stay in emergency shelters, and sometimes find themselves sleeping in their cars or on the streets.

“Public health teaches us that there are social determinants of health that are guided by where you live,” explains Amy Castro Baker, a School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) assistant professor. “So when I look across the landscape to see the one thing I can put my efforts toward that will create upward mobility for large populations of people that are at risk, it comes down to housing and market access.”

Castro Baker, who joined Penn’s SP2 faculty two years ago, has led the formation of the SexGen Policy Lab, which officially launched this past September. Its focus is on building research opportunities for Penn students and the local community around gender and sexuality, with a distinct applied policy, economic, and housing lens. It’s the type of work Castro Baker has been involved in for years—dating back to her time as a master of social work student at Penn and later at the City University of New York.

Amy Hillier, an associate professor in the School of Design and at SP2, got involved with the SexGen Policy Lab early on for more of a personal reason. She entered the space as a mom, fighting for her child’s rights.

“I have an 8-year-old daughter who is transgender,” Hillier says. “I worked with the School District of Philadelphia on LGBTQ policy as a mom, and am now connecting the dots and making it my professional work.”

Both Castro Baker and Hillier are building an ambitious agenda for the unique Lab, which has no real rulebook or guidelines. The only one of its kind, the SexGen Policy Lab is garnering its footing by spearheading projects, publishing research, developing curricula, participating in conferences, and partnering with other initiatives on campus, such as the LGBT Center and the Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies Program. The hope, Castro Baker says, is to establish a model that can be replicated in and linked to other places.

The Lab, an intellectual space housed within SP2, is backed by an alumni gift and a $15,000 Penn Futures grant for its first year. Penn Futures, by design, is meant to support interdisciplinary work between SP2, the Graduate School of Education, and the School of Nursing.

“The students need scaffolding to do this type of research well, and we didn’t have that,” Castro Baker says. “One thing that’s so exciting is since the Lab launched we’ve been contacted by students all over campus who want to get involved.”

In addition to being a lab for collaborative work within the University, it’s persistent in maintaining strong ties with communities outside of Penn—a relationship Castro Baker says is the “crux of everything we are doing.”

The Attic, for instance, is a Center City-based LGBTQ youth center. Early on, The Attic partnered with Hillier and the Philadelphia School District to establish Policy 252, for transgender and gender nonconforming youth.

Hazel Edwards, a 20-year-old transgender woman, started going to The Attic when she was 14. Now, as an Attic staff member and intern at Penn, she’s become a major asset to several projects, including the formation of Policy 252 and the subsequent, related trainings this past fall for the school district teachers.

Most recently, Edwards has been interviewing high school trans youth, learning about their experiences in the public school district for a new study through the SexGen Policy Lab.

“One of the things I like to say is: ‘Nothing about us without us is for us,’” Edwards says. “It’s really important to collaborate with the community because we should be in the room if you’re having conversations or discussions, or want to do studies, about us.”

Early findings in the study of high school youth is that students who consider themselves transgender, gender nonconforming, or gender fluid, as opposed to binary trans female or male, are dominating the sample.

“With these students, it’s impossible to anticipate and govern with a fixed policy,” says Hillier. “It’s challenged us in how we think about how to teach their teachers about gender and sexuality when it’s not fixed. It’s exciting.”

Emma Stone, a master of social work (MSW) student at SP2, who’s also working on the project, adds, “It’s more about thinking about [gender] as a zone instead of a point on a spectrum.”

Henisha Patel, also an MSW, who’s been involved with the Lab since its start, says the methodology for doing this type of research is thrilling.

“It really shakes up assumptions,” she says. “You can’t use regular, old research methodology to study this. It really has to be driven by the population we’re studying. We can’t tell them to ‘check this box’ or ‘answer this question we made for you,’ it really has to be them telling us what’s up.”

Patel adds that the Lab has another important focus: on intersectionality.

“We can’t look at a person as L, G, B, T, or Q and that’s their only identity,” she explains. “It intersects with so many aspects of who you are. There’s no one way to be LGBTQ, just as there’s no one way to be the race you are.”

SexGen Policy Lab