Of the roughly 20 million students attending American colleges and universities, it is difficult to know how many identify as LGBTQ. Coming out to friends and family is a deeply personal issue, and college is a time when many individuals are still exploring their sense of identity. According to a 2013 Pew Survey, 92% of LGBTQ individuals report that society is more accepting of them than it was 10 years ago. This growing acceptance means that college campuses are becoming more welcoming to LGBTQ students, but prospective students should still investigate what resources are available to them at the schools they are considering. This guide will discuss issues specific to gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, and intersex individuals, along with the challenges they face while enrolled in college. We use the term LGBTQ throughout both for simplicity's sake and because it is the generally accepted term among these communities.
Challenges Faced by LGBTQ College Students
While college can be a difficult time for all students, LGBTQ students must cope with a unique set of challenges. Beyond questions of how to pay for school and how to get good grades, LGBTQ students can face harassment from homophobic peers, social isolation due to their identity, and even physical and sexual violence. These stressors can contribute to anxiety and depression among LGBTQ students, and although social acceptance has generally trended upward, some colleges lag behind in creating safe and welcoming environments for LGBTQ youth and adults.
|Heterosexual||Gay or Lesbian||Bisexual||Asexual, Questioning, Not listed||Decline to state|
|Declined to State||7.9||16.5||25||14.1||9.5|
*TGQN=Transgender woman,Transgender man, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, questioning. Source: The Atlantic
Roughly 80% of LGBTQ youth report feelings of severe social isolation, a problem that is particularly acute among youth in rural areas. Even if a student attends a college where they feel comfortable discussing their sexuality with their peers, they may still struggle to find acceptance within their own families and home communities.
Moreover, LGBTQ students face significant financial hardships in pursuing postsecondary education. One-third of LGBTQ students applying for financial aid indicated that they delayed attending college or graduate school because they didn't have the money to do so. Of those, more than 40% pointed to a lack of financial support from their family as the cause. In the most dire of circumstances, rejection by their family means that LGBTQ youth are not even equipped to meet their most basic financial needs, with a staggering 40% of homeless youth self-identifying as LGBTQ.
Those LGBTQ students who can afford college may still be subjected to harassment, assault, and sexual violence. As seen in the table above, LGBTQ students across the board are more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact. In the same study, 75% of LGBTQ students reported that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their college experience.
When a hostile school climate is coupled with family rejection and social isolation, rates of depression, substance abuse, unsafe sexual behavior, and even suicide increase. But colleges can help reduce these risks through a combination of inclusive policies, trained staff, safe spaces, and anti-bullying and anti-harassment education. If a student chooses a college wisely and is comfortable reaching out for help, various supports for LGBTQ students are available.
HOW TO SUPPORT YOUR COLLEGE-BOUND LGBTQ LOVED ONES
Of course, LGBTQ students need more than just the support of their college or university; parents, family members, and friends play a critical role in helping their loved ones succeed. Parents and guardians should speak openly with their child about sexuality and gender to help counter social stigma. Those close to LGBTQ youth should make clear that their love, affection, and support are in no way contingent upon the young person's sexuality or gender identity. If a young person comes out in high school (or before), family members can help research colleges that are LGBTQ-friendly. If an individual comes out in college, loved ones should realize that expressing feelings of discomfort can amplify the stress and anxiety of being in school. The unconditional love and support of friends and family are instrumental in helping LGBTQ youth navigate this difficult time in their lives.
Choosing an LGBTQ-Friendly College
The resources available to LGBTQ youth can vary a great deal from college to college. Some schools might be well-equipped to support youth who are already open about their sexuality and gender identities, but less prepared to help students who are still debating when and how they should share this information with others. The following list provides guidance on what sort of resources LGBTQ youth should look for in a college.
LGBTQ student organizations
These groups play an integral part in creating inclusive environments. Not only do they help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness by connecting LGBTQ students with their peers, they can also act as a conduit for students to access other resources available on-campus.
Inclusion statements/anti-discrimination policies that include LGBTQ students
Inclusion and anti-discrimination statements with explicit references to LGBTQ students signal the administration and faculty's commitment to supporting and welcoming this segment of the student population. More highly visible statements often indicate a stronger commitment.
LGBTQ resource centers
Resource centers are either staffed by or can facilitate a connection to counselors and advisors trained to handle LGBTQ-specific issues. They also organize awareness and education initiatives, host activities and programs for LGBTQ students, and provide support for student clubs and organizations. In smaller schools, similar resources might be available through the student affairs office.
Gender neutral restrooms and housing
Allowing students to live with anyone of their choosing (as opposed to grouping by sex or gender) is not only a preferred situation for many LGBTQ students, it is a sign that a school is actively trying to cultivate a safer and more inclusive environment.
Prior to enrollment, students should investigate what resources a college makes available to LGBTQ students. While most information will be available online, planning campus visits is the best way to ensure a college provides a safe and comfortable environment. Staff in the admissions or student affairs offices are also a good first point of contact; they can provide more specific information about resources and programming available to LGBTQ students on-campus, and they can also help make connections to current students (to talk about housing options, student life, and campus climate more generally) and faculty (to discuss advising, academics, and school policies).
LGBTQ TRENDS ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
It is important to understand how welcoming a college is to LGBTQ students before applying, and there are a number of ways students can gauge a school's commitment to the success and welfare of this student population. For example, are the school's counselors specifically trained to address LGBTQ-specific issues? Does the school have dedicated housing available to LGBTQ students, or will it make accommodations for incoming students who have concerns about their housing situation? Are the school's health services equipped and willing to help LGBTQ youth in a nonjudgmental manner? Does the school specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in the same way as race and religion? Are staff and faculty trained to investigate this kind of discrimination? Are college police trained to handle LGBTQ-motivated crimes and work collaboratively with the LGBTQ community? Choosing a college is one of the biggest decisions a young person will make, which is why it is important to ask the right questions.
APPLYING TO COLLEGE AS AN LGBTQ STUDENT
LGBTQ students will need to make some decisions about how they present themselves during the application process. For example, should you mention your sexual orientation in your personal essay? Doing so could indicate to admission officers that you have overcome obstacles in life and are therefore better prepared for the rigors of college. Conversely, if the admissions officer is prejudiced against LGBTQ individuals, it might hurt your chances of being admitted.
Some schools have started asking students outright about their gender identity and sexual orientation as part of the application. For the most part, schools ask this question in order to demonstrate that they are welcoming to LGBTQ students and to help connect them with resources like financial aid. It is highly unethical, and in some cases illegal, for schools to share information about a prospective student's orientation or identity without the student's approval. While you should be cognizant of the risks in sharing this information, the benefits of being open and honest (to the extent you are comfortable) might outweigh the disadvantages.
CHRISTIAN COLLEGES AND LGBTQ STUDENTS
Some LGBTQ students avoid Christian colleges and universities for fear that they will be judged or persecuted because of their identity. Others feel compelled to attend these same schools because of pressure from their family or communities. Because some in the Christian faith view deviation from heterosexuality as a sin, they may be less likely to provide the kind of support that LGBTQ students need. Some might even encourage or require students to sign codes of conduct that will place them in difficult situations.
The question of whether to attend a Christian college is ultimately a personal one. But even if you attend a Christian school that is unfriendly to LGBTQ individuals, there may be resources available in the broader community that can help you navigate the complexities of your situation. It's also important to note that some Christian colleges can be welcoming to LGBTQ students. Rather than dismissing these options out of hand, students would be better served by asking the right questions to see if a Christian school would be a good fit.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
It is important to know your rights as an LGBTQ college student. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits any school that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. More recent interpretations have expanded Title IX to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, although some religious schools can seek an exemption from this law. No matter where you go to school, however, you have the right to express your identity or orientation, which is considered free speech and protected by the First Amendment. Since other laws vary on a state-by-state basis, your best bet is to consult with an LGBTQ advocacy organization like the American Civil Liberties Union or the Human Rights Campaign if you feel your rights have been violated.
In addition to finding a college environment that is LGBTQ-friendly, some students may wish to study LGBTQ issues from a number of academic perspectives. There are several questions you can ask to find the right program that specializes in this area. In the first place, does the school have a queer studies or gender studies department? Do they offer majors, minors, or even certificates in these areas? What does the LGBTQ-specific coursework look like? Can you take these courses while pursuing another major or area of study? Are there members of the faculty who identify as LGBTQ or who conduct research on LGBTQ issues? These questions will ensure you receive the proper guidance before applying.
A gender studies program explores how the spectrum of gender identities relates to history, social movements, structures of power, sex, arts, culture, economics, and a wide variety of other disciplines.
Careers this degree prepares for: Public health educator, crisis counselor, social services administrator
Careers this degree prepares for: Journalist, public interest lawyer, diversity and inclusion officer
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies
Careers this degree prepares for: College professor, human rights advocate, community relations professional
On-campus and national organizations offer a host of benefits to LGBTQ students, from peer support and counseling to legal advice and financial resources. Joining support networks is recommended for all college students, but particularly those who may face additional challenges because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
On-campus organizations provide easily-accessible connections to the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ-specific resources. Many schools have LGBTQ clubs, student organizations, and/or sororities and fraternities. If a school receives federal funding and has at least one other non-curricular club, it cannot restrict the creation of these kind of groups. In addition to providing a sense of belonging, these organizations will often engage in community service activities and can be a valuable source of information for prospective students.
National organizations, especially at schools where on-campus organizations are lacking, can provide a connection to the broader LGBTQ community for students who are feeling isolated or alone. They can also offer specialized support for LGBTQ students that on-campus organizations are sometimes not equipped to provide, such as legal or financial services.