About Yachao Li, Ph.D.: Yachao Li is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and the Department of Public Health at The College of New Jersey. Dr. Li’s award-winning research in interpersonal and health communication focuses on communication processes unique to the LGBTQ+ community, as in his book, Navigating Remarkable Communication Experiences of Sexual Minorities, coauthored with Jennifer Samp, which received the Gerald R. Miller Book Award from the Interpersonal Communication Division of the National Communication Association. Another key line of his research attends to the role of relational communication in reducing health disparities for LGBTQ+ people, People of Color, and other minoritized groups.

Dr. Li’s articles have appeared in leading journals, including Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Health Education Research, and Health Communication, and have been recognized with the Garrison Award for Applied Interpersonal Communication Research from the International Communication Association and the Communication Studies Article of the Year Award from the Central States Communication Association.

In addition to his research, Dr. Li is Chair of the NCA Caucus on LGBTQ Concerns, Editor for the Atlantic Journal Communication, Associate Editor of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and Media Review Editor for LGBTQ+ Family. He also facilitates Safe Space training, sexuality education, and substance abuse prevention workshops at his university and in the community. Prior to joining the faculty at The College of New Jersey, Dr. Li held a postdoctoral appointment with the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.

Dr. Li earned his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in Interpersonal and Health Communication, his M.A. from Rutgers University in Communication Studies, and his undergraduate degree from Communication University of China, where he specialized in journalism and radio, television, and film production.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in interpersonal communication and health communication and, in particular, begin to study communication issues relevant to the LGBTQ+ community and communication factors impacting health disparities among marginalized groups?

[Dr. Yachao Li] I took a class in college on interpersonal communication that I found very interesting. But the more I studied interpersonal communication, the more I began to realize how heteronormative the discipline was.

Think about the social penetration theory, for example, which locates our self-information on three different layers. The outside often includes the demographic information, then the middle is our attitudes (such as our personal likes and dislikes), and the center is our self-concept and self-esteem. In this model, where is sexual orientation and gender identity for different people? Some people may put that information on the very outside. Some people will put that information in the middle layer or in the core. That information is missing from the original theory.

Another example is [Mark L.] Knapp’s relational stage model, which describes how we go through different stages in different romantic relationships. The final stage of coming together is bonding, which is when people get married, but for same-sex couples this may not even be an option. The theory does not at all address these different dynamics. As a queer scholar myself, I feel obligated to use my research and voice for this underserved population.

My interest in health communications comes from my personal background as well. Many of my family members are public health professionals, and they get so frustrated about the fact we have all this information, all this data, but still people do not take the health actions they need to. That motivated me to think about how we can use communication as a tool to make people care about important health information.

What surprised me was that very few public health communication campaigns were specifically designed for queer communities, which we know are facing unique challenges and difficulties. These communities are missing from many public health campaigns. Further, from the interpersonal communication perspective, many health behaviors actually happen in relational contexts and have relational consequences.

Think about HIV/AIDS, which impacts the LGBTQ+ community very heavily. Condom use is one of the best methods to prevent HIV, but it is a relational health behavior and involves interpersonal communication. It is not just about whether one person wants to use a condom. It matters what your sexual partner thinks about condom use, and these communications have relational consequences for same-sex couples. This has motivated me to study how we can use communication, and especially relational communication, to address the health disparities affecting queer communities.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book, Navigating Remarkable Communication Experiences of Sexual Minorities, authored with Jennifer Samp, received the Gerald R. Miller Book Award from the National Communication Association. Could you provide us with some background on this book and its exploration of communication experiences particular to the queer community, including coming out and “relationship revelation decisions?”

[Dr. Yachao Li] This book comes from my dissertation project and my observation as a queer person that we still live in this society which assumes everyone is heterosexual and favors heterosexuality. There are so many unique communication experiences that we, as queer people, have to go through. For me, communication studies is about the messages (what people say and how we say it) and also the message processes (the psychological processes we go through in communicating different messages and making messaging decisions). In this book, I examined a variety of unique, but very important communication experiences for queer people.

The first one is the first time when people reveal their sexual orientation to other people. Sexual identity development theories often argue that the first sexual orientation self-disclosure is a milestone for many people. This raises the question of how we make that decision and create those messages. Another important communication experience occurs when queer people, for instance bisexual people, are in heterosexual relationships, so their partners do not necessarily know they have a minority sexual orientation. For those people, disclosing their sexual orientation to their heterosexual partners is another significant communication experience that has personal and relational outcomes.

Another communication experience we investigate is how same-sex couples make decisions to reveal their relationships to other people. This may be easier if both partners are already out, but when there is an outness discrepancy — one person may be out to everyone, but another person may only be out to their friends — it gets more complex because when you disclose your same-sex relationship you also disclose your sexual orientation. That can be a difficult decision for these couples. Lastly, we focus on the friendship context, and explore how people strategically hide their sexual orientation from their friends. We ask: What are the verbal and nonverbal communication strategies they use to pretend that they are straight, and what are the reasons behind that?

Those are the four communicating experiences we examine in that book. At the end, we proposed our theory, which aims to understand the underlying mechanisms accounting for how people create coming-out messages.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The theory you just mentioned is the “Theory of Coming Out Message Production.” Could you introduce us to this theory and what it helps capture about the different variables that impact how people disclose their sexual orientation?

[Dr. Yachao Li] The theory is based on the observation that people create very different coming out messages. For instance, some people may say, “Hey, I’m gay,” and that is it. Others may say, “Oh, I think I’m gay. This is how I’ve found out about my sexual orientation. I’ve felt very nervous about this.” The objective of the theory is to help us understand why people create these different coming-out messages.

We identify three important variables. The first one is what we call the salience of disclosure goals. In other words, to what degree do we realize the different objectives we want to achieve by revealing our sexual orientation to other people. For example, I may want to come out because I want to be true to myself, or I may come out because I want to make other people happy. I may also want to come out so that I can maintain my relationship with my partner. There are many motivating reasons, so the first variable focuses on to what degree people realize the different reasons behind their coming out.

The second important variable is relational power — how I think I can influence another person. If I think I have more control over the other person’s communication and outcomes, I will think I have more relational power over them. The third variable is about internalized sexual stigma. This refers to the negative thoughts and feelings people have about their own sexual orientation, which is a crucial factor when it comes to our coming-out decisions and messages.

The major argument here is that when people realize the different objectives that they want to achieve by revealing their sexual orientation, when they think they have more power or control over the person they are communicating with, and when they have less internalized sexual stigma, they would be more likely to produce a higher degree of coming out messages. This means they will share more intimate information, discuss more subjects, have longer coming-out conversations, and share their emotions. This theory is very different from other self-disclosure theories because we actually think about internalized sexual stigma, which is a hugely important variable for queer people. Other theorists do not actually think about these queer-specific variables. That is why we think this is an important theoretical contribution.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What are some of the important ways that communication about sexual orientation impacts mental and physical health that you identify in the book?

[Dr. Yachao Li] Across all these different contexts, we have found that higher degrees of sexual orientation self-disclosure often predict more positive physical and mental health outcomes. By a higher degree, I mean that people disclose more topics with higher levels of intimacy. For instance, in addition to simply talking about our sexual orientation, we may also talk about how we realized our sexual orientation, how we met our first partner, or how we think about our sexual orientation. As the topics and intimacy levels increase (the degree of sexual orientation self-disclosure), so do physical and mental health outcomes.

Another factor here is how long we talk. Generally, the longer you talk, the more likely you will invite questions from the other person, which helps promote mutual understanding and helps with the disclosure outcomes. Lastly, expressing emotions during coming out seems beneficial. For instance, when people say, “I’m very happy that I’m gay,” or “I am nervous to let you know,” their disclosure receivers tend to react more positively to their coming out. In sum, what we have found is that, when people discuss more topics, reveal more intimate information, talk for longer, and express more emotions, they are more likely to have positive mental and physical health outcomes from coming-out conversations.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Another important concern of your recent work has been on the impact of COVID-19 and its unique implications for same-sex couples, which you explore in publications like “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Same-Sex Couples’ Conflict Avoidance, Relational Quality, and Mental Health,” and “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Sexual Orientation Disclosure and Post-Disclosure Depression Among U.S. LGBQ Individuals.” Would you discuss some of the key findings of these publications?

[Dr. Yachao Li] The first study you mentioned [“The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Same-Sex Couples’ Conflict Avoidance, Relational Quality, and Mental Health,”] focuses on how the pandemic has changed or impacted people’s relational functioning. We focused on how we talk about relational issues with our partners, because conflict management is an important part of relational maintenance.

This study found that greater perceived impact and higher perceived threat of COVID-19 predicted more conflict avoidance. In other words, when the couple thought that the COVID pandemic had more negative impacts on their everyday life and when the couple believed that COVID is a threat, they were more likely to avoid talking about relational issues with their same sex-partners. This conflict avoidance led to lower relational satisfaction and higher anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. The greater perceived impact of COVID, then, motivated more conflict avoidance, which then had negative relational and personal outcomes. We also found that being a Person of Color and having higher internalized sexual stigma make the negative impact even worse. The pandemic more adversely affected their relational functioning and presented more challenges for those relational outcomes.

The second study [“The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Sexual Orientation Disclosure and Post-Disclosure Depression Among U.S. LGBQ Individuals”] looked at how the pandemic affected queer people’s coming-out communication. Most interpersonal self-disclosure theories are cognitive theories. For example, my Theory of Coming Out Message Production identifies three cognitive variables: salience of disclosure goals (how people realize their disclosure goals), relational power (how people perceive their relationships), and internalized sexual stigma (how people think about their minority sexual orientation). However, we live in a society. Coming out does not occur in a vacuum. Social factors and cultural factors should also influence our communication behaviors and decisions.

Thus, this article examined how the pandemic affected the entire cognitive process of coming-out message production. What we found is that, as the adverse impacts of the pandemic increased, the positive relationship between disclosure goals and sexual orientation disclosure decreased, while the negative association between internalized sexual stigma and sexual orientation disclosure increased. Put differently, the pandemic made the positive factors work less well and the negative factors even worse.

Further, in the book [Navigating Remarkable Communication Experiences of Sexual Minorities], we found that higher degrees of sexual orientation disclosure have positive mental health outcomes, but in this study, we found this is not the case for people who experienced more negative impact from the pandemic. The positive impact of coming out seemed to disappear when the pandemic was negatively affecting queer people’s daily lives.

The conclusion is that, in addition to thinking about cognitive factors, we also need to think about cultural factors. This extends the Theory of Coming Out Message Production we discuss in our book. In addition to the interpersonal factors, we also need to think about the social environment and cultural factors that influence coming-out messages and decisions. When there are positive things happening in society, the cognitive facilitators we identify may work better, but when bad things like COVID are happening in society, the positive impact of all these facilitators were decreased, while negative factors like internalized sexual stigma had more of an impact on people’s decisions to come out.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Another thread of your research explores how relational communication impacts health disparities among People of Color, women, and other marginalized groups, which you have explored, for example, in your work on communication surrounding condom use and tobacco and e-cigarette use. Could you discuss some of the ways your research has identified relational communication as mediating health behaviors for minoritized groups?

[Dr. Yachao Li] In many of my studies I have found that relational communication about health issues is a very important underlying mechanism mediating the impact of public health communication campaigns and programs on people’s health behaviors. For example, when people attend a safer sex education program, they will not just automatically begin to use condoms or practice safer sex. Often the reason they do is that they talk about condom use and sexual risk with their partner and then begin to use condoms. Interpersonal communication is the mechanism, or the bridge, between education programs and actual behavior.

Another example is anti-tobacco campaigns. People do not just change their behaviors after looking at the campaign. They talk about the campaign and the content of the campaign, and then they begin to change their attitudes and behaviors. So, on the one hand, we see interpersonal communication serve as an underlying mechanism or a bridge that connects public health programs with positive attitude and behavior changes.

On the other hand, interpersonal communication can be a threat for health behaviors. Right now, I am conducting a study on “chem sex” [doing drugs before having sex] and how people get exposed to content related to chem sex on Grindr, the gay dating app, and that influences people’s risky sexual behaviors. Again, we find relational communication is an important part of this process. People talked about it with their sexual partners, but those conversations also motivated people to use drugs before sex. In this context, relational communication linked to social media consumption and mass media exposure negatively impacted health behaviors.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research on health communication has increasingly probed the importance of social media platforms like TikTok in mediating health behaviors, and you just mentioned Grindr as an important place where health behaviors are mediated. Could you discuss some of the important ways you see social media changing the landscape of how we communicate about health?

[Dr. Yachao Li] I feel like social media has both positive impacts and negative impacts. For public health agencies, I think social media affords unique opportunities for us to engage the audience and to reduce what we call message fatigue. In the context of COVID-19 information, we receive so much information about how to protect ourselves and engage in social distancing. People get tired of public health messaging.

In response to this problem, in one of my studies we are looking at how we can use TikTok as a new way to inform people about health behaviors. That study found, which is perhaps not surprising, that TikTok dance videos are the most engaging ways to communicate information. The study tells us that social media is a creative way for us to engage our audience, especially in young people, and to help us reduce message fatigue.

On the other hand, everyone has access to social media, so anyone can share information on TikTok and Instagram, and this leads to misinformation. I can use social media in positive ways to talk about the COVID vaccine, for example, but I can also easily spread misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine. I think the challenging question is how we are going to combat all this misinformation on social media while communicating accurate information in a very engaging way.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You currently serve as Chair for the NCA Caucus on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. Could you tell us a little bit more about this caucus and what your goals are for your tenure as chair?

[Dr. Yachao Li] Everyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ or an ally in the National Communication Association can be part of this caucus. As a caucus, we are trying to make sure that the policies and actions of the NCA are equitable and considerate of all its queer members. This includes setting up gender inclusive restrooms at all conference sites. It also includes using pronouns in conference situations. We also want to have a voice when it comes to the conference location, so we can make sure it is safe for our members. This is some of what we are doing.

As Chair for the caucus, my goal is to queer research, teaching, and service in communication studies. At a past conference in New Orleans, we organized a session called “Queering Pedagogy.” The idea here is that we talk about how we can queer our programs to be more inclusive in a consistent way. Think of the two examples I gave earlier: social penetration theory and Knapp’s relational stage model. How can we show our students the limitations of theories like these and introduce them to theories and practices that are queer inclusive?

That is the teaching part. With respect to research, I want to create these opportunities for more collaboration between queer scholars across communication studies, not just in interpersonal and health communication, but also, for example, in mass communication, cultural studies, and performance studies. I want to create platforms for people to collaborate with each other.

This connects to service. We had a queer mentorship section at NCA in New Orleans. The idea is to create a social platform for everyone, where queer scholars and students can help each other navigate their academic careers and support each other. Additionally, I have been exploring ways to work with local nonprofit organizations and communities to translate our research into practice. These are the three main areas I am focused on as Chair: queering teaching, research, and service.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You have also been dedicated to bringing the concerns of your work to your engagements with your campus and community, facilitating initiatives including Safe Space Training and substance abuse prevention and sexual health workshops. Would you discuss your public engagement as a scholar, and how your research informs your approach to these initiatives?

[Dr. Yachao Li] I think the philosophy here is that we are doing research for a reason. We do not do this just to write papers. I think the practical side is also very important, especially for the work I do. I want to transform all this information I have in my research into practice, and my approach to practice is theoretically grounded in my research. For example, for condom use, in one study we found that changing the pronouns we use in condom use negotiation can be more effective. When I say, “You need to wear a condom,” it is more effective than when I say, “I want to use condoms.” Changing the pronouns we use is actually a very simple practice. These are the things that I talk about in these workshops.

On the other hand, I think by talking with the community members, I am able to identify issues that are very important to the community members which I do not have answers to. Then I can do research on it. The research and the initiatives inform each other.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in interpersonal communication, health communication, and their application to improving the lives of marginalized groups, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Yachao Li] I have three suggestions when it comes to selecting a graduate program. First, think about the local communities of that institution, how you can relate to them, how they can support your research ideas, and how you can give back to the community. If you want, for instance, to study queer people, I suggest you pick a program where they have an active queer community, so you can work with them and use that as a platform to translate your research into practice. When I did my Ph.D. program, I went to Georgia where we have a large group of queer People of Color. This made it easier for me to recruit research participants and then apply what I learned in my research to the community.

Another suggestion I have is to think about all the collaboration opportunities that you have within that institution. I don’t think we can just do communication studies by ourselves. When it comes to interpersonal communication, we want to work with people from human development, for example, or from family studies. For LGBTQ+ studies, we want to work with scholars from gender studies and women’s studies departments. For health communication, we work closely with people from public health departments. Think about what other departments you can work with outside your own department.

Lastly, think about your career goals after graduation. I know that, especially for master’s programs, there are more applied programs which can help students find a corporate job. Other programs are more geared toward academic positions. You need to think about what you want to do after graduation and then apply for more professional or academic programs depending on your interests. Some programs even offer multiple tracks, so if you do not know what to do, apply for those programs, and use them as a resource to figure out what you want to do next.

Thank you, Dr. Li, for your insights on interpersonal and health communication, their unique importance for the LGBTQ+ community, and more!

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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.