Harrison Oakes

Harrison Oakes
Faculty of Arts (MA 16)

When he was an undergraduate in Winnipeg, Harrison Oakes (MA ’16) witnessed the difficulty of promoting change for marginalized groups when he sat in on hearings for Manitoba’s proposed Bill 18. People argued that they couldn’t see how the legislation for anti-bullying to protect LGBTQ+ youth applied to all kids.

Seven years later, Oakes’ doctoral research helps to answer that question.

Specializing in social psychology, Oakes studies the effects of social environment on people’s perceptions of others.

“My dissertation demonstrates that homophobic environments create secondary closets where everyone — even the straight kids — are pressured into strictly monitoring themselves to avoid suspicion of not being straight.”

Building on his advocacy for anti-bullying curricula in schools, Oakes’ work is also motivated by his own experiences as a gay student in a homophobic school. His impressive achievements extend from those years in Manitoba to his Waterloo doctoral studies. In 2016, he won a Vanier Scholarship and, this spring, the University named Oakes recipient of the Governor General’s Gold Medal for highest standing in a PhD program across all faculties.

“A hallmark of Harrison’s scholarly work is his strong passion to use research to provide insights to promote more inclusive communities,” Richard Eibach says, professor and PhD thesis supervisor to Oakes. “His work not only enriches psychological theory, but also inspires social change.”

How closets breed suspicion

In his research, Oakes shows that the amount of homophobia in a school predicts how strongly students suspect each other of hiding a stigmatized identity.

“For example, homophobic environments incentivize non-straight folks to hide their sexuality and claim to be straight to avoid being stigmatized. When people recognize this incentive exists, they become suspicious of others' identity claims,” he says.

Oakes research also finds that a straight young man with some stereotypically gay-associated traits may be suspected of being gay. But perhaps the most provocative finding, says Oakes, is that homophobic school settings can mean that a straight young man with straight-associated traits may still be suspected of being gay.

These findings are based on nine experimental studies that Oakes conducted with a total 3,148 participants, including males and females, across diverse sexualities. Eight of the studies focused on homophobic/non-homophobic social environments and their implications for people's perceptions of a straight-identifying, gender-nonconforming young man's sexuality. A ninth experimental study generalized the findings of the first eight by using a historical scenario, the Spanish Inquisition, which provided initial evidence of the broad applicability of identity suspicion theory.

Perhaps the most important outcome of Oakes’ research is that it reveals the tensions and consequences of concealment and suspicion in a homophobic social setting. These findings advocate for everyone: the work suggests that if we can end homophobia in various social settings, individuals, regardless of sexuality, would be free to express all aspects of themselves, whether or not they align with traditional notions of gender identity.

Dedication to his brother’s memory

Harrison Oakes with brother Steve Wall

Harrison Oakes with brother, Steve Wall.

Combining personal and academic challenges has been a constant for Oakes. This includes confronting mental health struggles associated with advanced academics, and, toward the end of his PhD, it also meant persevering in the face of personal tragedy.

“When I arrived at the University of Waterloo, I very quickly realized that academics aren’t necessarily what makes a PhD so gruelling. For many students, myself included, it’s the psychological component of a PhD that is most difficult.”

Many grad students, he adds, struggle with imposter syndrome and question themselves and their abilities.

“We feel incredibly isolated and afraid to let on that we are struggling because we don’t want to be perceived as weak.” Fortunately, he found that Waterloo “has wonderful mental health resources in place, and I was able to make use of them.”

Yet, when Oakes was deep into his dissertation research last summer, tragedy struck when his younger brother was killed in a plane crash. The relationship with his brother, Steve Wall, is also significant to his research focus.

“My brother was straight. My being gay was a point of contention between us for many years. The last time I saw him alive was three weeks before he died, and it was the first time in a long while that we had had a really good time together — probably one of the best we'd had as adult men. We spoke at length about my dissertation, defence and eventual convocation. He was so excited for me to finish my PhD and to see me graduate.

“Returning to grad school to complete my PhD after Steve died is the hardest thing I've done in my life, but I did it for Steve and for my family.”

Harrison Oakes working on his dissertation defence

Harrison Oakes working on his dissertation defense.

On March 31, Oakes defended his dissertation entitled "Closets Breed Suspicion: Environments that Stigmatize Concealable Identities Raise Doubts about Claims to Contrasting Non-Stigmatized Identities." It was bittersweet, he says, as his family had planned to virtually attend his defence, but the pandemic lockdown had introduced news measures that only permitted the dissertation committee to be present. On top of that, convocations across Canada were cancelled along with Oakes’ family’s plans to travel to attend. There would have been much to celebrate together, especially considering Oakes is the first in his family to attend university, let alone earn a doctorate with top standing.

“COVID has, unfortunately, tinged the end of my PhD with tremendous disappointment, largely because I have been unable to share it with my parents and my brother's family,” he says. “Being awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal in the midst of everything has felt like a small kind of vindication. Though the end of my degree has looked nothing like what I had hoped for, this award has provided my family and me with so much joy and that has been a godsend. I dedicated my dissertation and defence to my brother's memory and I'd like to do the same with this award. I know he would've been so proud of me, and that warms my heart.”