Finding a Welcoming Learning Community for LGBTQ Students
College is a time of exploration for all students, but for members of the LGBTQ community, this period of discovery can be more challenging than that of their peers. In order to find themselves and have a positive experience on campus, LGBTQ students need a welcoming learning community that addresses the following issues:
In order for LGBTQ students to feel like they can thrive on campus, they need to be confident that the school they enroll in is committed to creating an inclusive environment and meeting the needs of the community. From events to LGBTQ academic programs and campus centers, students should look for schools that have made efforts to create a comfortable experience for its students.
And many colleges are meeting this challenge. According to the American Council on Education, over the last 15 years, LGBTQ students have reported improvements in college campus climates that have made schools feel more welcoming and inclusive. In addition, students generally feel their colleges are much more accepting of the LGBTQ community than their high schools were.
While college students over the years have reported they feel campuses are more inclusive, there are still concerns about safety inside and outside of the classroom. In fact, according to the Association of American Universities, 20 percent of college LGBTQ students fear for their safety on campus; 75 percent have experienced sexual harassment; and 31 percent of LGBTQ students of color have been the victim of intimidation, hostility, exclusion and offensive conduct because of their racial identity.
Unfortunately, for many students, this kind of behavior is nothing new. According to the 2017 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, more than 8 out of 10 LGBTQ students say they have already experienced harassment or assault before graduating high school. In addition, these behaviors can be so traumatizing for the students who experience them that they can dissuade LGBTQ students from attending college at all. In fact, GLSEN reports that 14.2 percent of LGBTQ students have opted out of furthering their education because of these negative experiences.
In order to feel safe, it’s important for students to find colleges that have strong policies designed to protect LGBTQ students, and not just rely on the state and federal laws to deal with issues related to harassment and assault on campus.
Colleges have increasingly recognized the academic interest of marginalized groups to learn more about the issues that affect them by offering academic programs about their specific demographic. Like African Americans, women and Latinos, LGBTQ students may be interested in enrolling in a major that allows them to focus their studies on their community. In order to address this need, some schools have developed LGBTQ majors or minors. However, schools that don’t have a full major or minor in LGBTQ studies may still offer courses that address the issues important to the community, which are offered in other departments like women’s studies.
Students spend a lot of time in their dorms, so LGBTQ students may want to live among other members of the community in order to connect with each other and feel more comfortable. Many colleges offer LGBTQ dormitories where students of any gender can live and select a roommate who is the gender they prefer. In order to find out if the colleges they’re interested in have LGBTQ-friendly housing options, students should check the schools’ website for information. In addition, a list of colleges with LGBTQ housing can be found on the Campus Pride and College Equality Index websites.
Campus Resource Center
LGBTQ resource centers on campus can provide a number of student services, based on the needs at a particular school. Resource centers may have a library to help students learn more about LGBTQ history and experiences of the community, events to help students come together and support each other, mentor programs and scholarships.
According to The Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, there are an increasing number of schools creating LGBTQ resource centers to serve their students. In fact, over 200 schools around the country offer these types of services on their campuses. Although each center is different depending on the LGBTQ population at a school, they are generally open at least 20 hours per week and are staffed with professionals or graduate assistants who are trained to help visitors with their needs.
Counseling and Health
All college students have pressures that can affect their mental health, however, LGBTQ students have added stresses that are unique to their experience. Factors like coming out, dealing with harassment and hate crimes, and concerns about HIV and AIDS can cause problems and concerns that students outside of the community may not understand. As a result, in order to be friendly to the LGBTQ community, it's important for colleges to offer counseling services that are tailored to these students. Additionally, transgender students have specific medical needs that require assistance from health care professionals who have been specifically trained in this area.
Campus Events and Clubs/Organizations
Like other students, LGBTQ college students all have different interests and social needs. Some schools have responded to the desire of LGBTQ students to explore their interests among members of their community by creating groups and events that cater to them. Colleges may have various organizations — such as religious groups, fraternities and sororities, activist organizations and film and literary clubs — that are designed specifically for LGBTQ students on campus.
LGBTQ Peer Mentoring
It can be difficult for many students to transition into college life, especially if they are dealing with coming out, exploring their sexuality or expressing their gender in a way that makes them feel comfortable. In some cases, people may want to connect with other LGBTQ students on campus who have successfully navigated their way through these issues, so some schools offer peer counseling. This allows some students to get the advice they need in a confidential and caring environment, while other students can give back to the community by volunteering to help those experiencing the same challenges they have been through themselves.
Faculty and Staff Education Programs
In order for LGBTQ students to have a safe learning environment, it’s important for them to have professors who understand the community and can relate to students in an empathetic manner. To ensure that LGBTQ students have a welcoming classroom experience, colleges may make an effort to hire instructors who are members of the community. Also, training may be provided to non-LGBTQ professors so they can gain an understanding of the LGBTQ students in their classrooms.
Recruitment and Retention
Some schools have made efforts to ensure their campus is inclusive by introducing initiatives to attract LGBTQ students and ensure their school is welcoming so that they can retain them. For example, schools like Elmhurst College, the University of Iowa, Northeast Illinois University and Ohio State University have begun including an optional question about sexual orientation and gender identity on their applications in order to identify prospective LGBTQ students. Another example of a school that is working to recruit and retain LGBTQ students is Oregon State University, which launched a mentoring program for undergraduate students and opened an LGBTQ student center and gender-neutral housing options.
Inclusion Statements and Anti-Discrimination Policies
Many schools have developed inclusion statements and anti-discrimination policies that outline their commitment to fairness and openness to hiring workers from the LGBTQ community. When looking for schools, LGBTQ students can find out how receptive colleges are by reviewing their hiring and discrimination policies when it comes to getting LGBTQ people to work for them.
Just as it’s important for a school itself to have a welcoming atmosphere, LGBTQ students are also concerned about how accepting the local community is. Students can research what the LGBTQ scene is like in the city where the college is located by looking for things like off-campus groups and activities.
Challenges Faced by Some LGBTQ Students
The members of the LGBTQ community face several unique challenges while in college. This section explores some of the issues, challenges and concerns that LGBTQ students may have.
Many students don’t come out until their college years. In some cases, students have been exploring their sexuality and gender identity during college and didn’t previously feel the need to come out. In other cases, students have been aware of their gender identity or sexuality and may have put off revealing it to other people. In either case, coming out during college can be a difficult experience because students fear rejection from their family, friends and acquaintances. It's important for them to remember that there is no blueprint for how to come out, and in some cases, students may refrain from doing so altogether.
Being part of the LGBTQ community can often add to the stress of college life because students may deal with issues including social stigma and oppression that other students don’t face, as well as a lack of social support to help them cope with these issues. As a result, LGBTQ students may struggle with anxiety and depression during their college years. In fact, according to Campus Pride, gay and bisexual men may be three times more likely to suffer from depression than straight men, and lesbian and bisexual women are four times more likely to have an anxiety disorder than their heterosexual counterparts.
Students who attend a school that doesn’t have a strong LGBTQ presence and support for the community may feel left out of social circles on campus. For those who don’t have a strong support system already, this isolation can lead to intense feelings of loneliness.
While heterosexual college students may deal with issues of interpersonal violence, for LGBTQ students, it can be particularly complicated — especially if they haven’t come out yet. Some victims don’t report the abuse they suffer because they don’t want to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to the police. As a result, they may suffer in silence or even continue in the toxic and violent relationship.
Part of the reason why many LGBTQ students are reluctant to come out is because of the reaction they may get from their families — especially if they grew up in a conservative or religious household. Coming out may cause family issues that can lead students to not feel accepted by their loved ones and, in extreme cases, they may actually be thrown out of their homes and cut off financially.
Know Your Rights
Since many LGBTQ students are concerned about their safety, it’s imperative that they know what their rights are. The following are some policies in place designed to protect them.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal law that protects people at schools receiving federal funding, including those on the college level, from discrimination based on gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, race and religion. This law allows students who have been through any form of discrimination or mistreatment on campus — including sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape — to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
Some schools have demonstrated their inclusiveness by drafting specific statements that outline their anti-discrimination policies protecting LGBTQ students. As a result, students may let their schools know about their gender identity or sexual orientation during the college application process without fear of being denied admission. Schools that have inclusion statements may also make the process of changing name and gender easier so students don’t get wrapped up in red tape when updating school records.
Some states have laws specifically passed to protect the LGBTQ community. For example, California’s Equity in Higher Education Act requires that public colleges and universities around the state update their anti-discrimination policies to include gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression. On the other side of the spectrum, Alabama law prohibits schools that receive public funds from supporting activities or organizations that promote an LGBTQ lifestyle. Since there is such a discrepancy of laws from state to state, students should do research to find out what LGBTQ-related laws are on the books in their specific location. More information about these state laws can be found on Lambda Legal’s website.
Just as states may have different LGBTQ-related laws, specific colleges and universities may have different policies to protect their LGBTQ students. As students consider colleges, they can find information about the LGBTQ anti-discrimination rules on the College Equality Index website.
LGBTQ Students And Online Education
Probably the single biggest trend in postsecondary education over the last decade has been the explosion of online degrees offered by well-established and accredited colleges and universities throughout the U.S. These schools are quickly recognizing the tremendous demand for quality online learning options among an ever-busier and employed student population. What has yet to be fully explored is the influence of online colleges on the LGBTQ student community. Many experts believe the factors considered most important by prospective LGBTQ students in choosing an online program over a more traditional, on-campus program are the same as the general student population, but there may be additional, more unique motivating factors. The following section discusses the current online education environment and how it affects — and is affected by — the needs and preferences of LGBTQ students.
As an online LGBTQ student, how can I meet other LGBTQ students?
Enrolling in an online program can contribute to the isolation LGBTQ students feel because they aren’t on campus with their peers every day. In order to combat this, students who can travel to campus may consider joining LGBTQ groups so they can meet other members of the community at their school and connect with them. In some cases, schools may have virtual clubs that students can join, as well as virtual events where they can socialize with each other. Additionally, LGBTQ centers can offer advice on how to connect with other students in the community.
LGBTQ students who attend school on campus have the opportunity for counseling and support, but how can an LGBTQ online student find this support?
Students can generally obtain information on how to get counseling and support from their school’s health center or the LGBTQ student center. They can also get in touch with The Trevor Project, which is an organization that provides a crisis and suicide hotline to LGBTQ people who need help, as well as offers support via text or online chat.
Are there scholarships or financial aid available specific to LGBTQ students regardless of whether they attend college online or on campus?
LGBTQ students looking for scholarships and grants may be able to find funding in numerous places. In some cases, scholarships are established by colleges specifically for their LGBTQ population. Additionally, LGBTQ organizations like the Pride Foundation, the Queer Foundation and the Point Foundation also offer scholarship opportunities.
Is there anything in particular I should look for in a school as an LGBTQ student if I’m attending college online?
The Campus Pride Index is designed to help LGBTQ students find colleges and universities where they will feel welcome. Some of the factors the index considers are whether schools have policies to protect LGBTQ students, gender-neutral housing and LGBTQ campus centers.
Advice for LGBTQ College Students
Kryss Shane (she/her) is a leading LGBT expert with more than 22 years of experience. She has two master’s degrees and two licenses to practice mental health care. Kryss travels across the U.S. working as a consultant, educator and corporate trainer, as well as appearing at events and conferences as a keynote speaker, author and writer, all of which focus on making schools, businesses and community leaders more LGBT-inclusive. She is also currently a teaching associate at Columbia University.
Kryss is well-versed in the areas of sexual and gender minorities, including historical and current research. She has significant experience working with transgender youth, transgender military service members and other transgender groups. She also works with individuals whose minority statuses occur in multiple sexual, gender, racial and other categories. Her website is ThisIsKryss.com.
In your work as a consultant, what areas have you noticed can be improved to make college campuses more inclusive for LGBTQ students? What can schools do to effectively make these improvements?
It really depends on the area where the college is located and whether there are religious affiliations. Some have a mission that focuses on supporting a specific religion's beliefs, which can result in a lack of acceptance for the LGBT+ community. Others have a mission that focuses on being accepting and using their religion's beliefs to show kindness and love toward everyone and these schools often create spaces, groups, clubs, etc., for those interested in networking and discussing LGBT+ issues and experiences.
The best way schools can effectively make these improvements is to offer an anonymous survey for the students, staff and faculty. This allows the school to truly find out the feelings and experiences of minority populations of all kinds on the campus. Often, the understanding or image of an LGBT+ person is a white person, so it’s especially important to include survey questions that allow for acknowledgement of race, disabilities and other aspects of intersectionality that deserve to be included in the conversation and in the planning for improvement. This type of a survey can be a great place to start, then move toward utilizing research and speaking with experts to draft ideas for improvements. In some cases, some students may offer to be in a focus group to run these ideas past. Take the opportunity to learn from them and make sure the space is safe for honest feedback to be shared.
When you work with LGBTQ college students, what are the things they are most concerned about? What advice do you give to help them navigate their college experience?
Safety is always a huge concern — both overall safety and in recognizing how the community and local organizations (police, fire, hospitals, etc.) react to and interact with the LGBT+ community. Many also seek out information about Pride events to gauge how open they can be if they attend that school. Others ask about events that don’t occur in June (typically considered "Pride Month") because they want to know if a campus is a safe place for them all year. Social media is also a great tool for potential students to talk with current students to address specific concerns.
Navigating the college experience is the topic of so many books because it’s so multifaceted. I always recommend attending events that give new students the opportunity to find out about the clubs, groups and organizations on and around campus. Even if you're not a "joiner," it’s good to know where to find folks with similar interests as making new friends is so vital to the success of many students as they acclimate into their collegiate community. In addition, keep an eye on the local news. You'll find out how the local community reacts to policy changes, to hate crimes, to updating traditions and to so many aspects of life that can shed light on the safety and support that is available for the LGBT+ community.
What resources are available at schools and in local communities to help LGBTQ college students?
This really varies by school and by community and the variations can be huge! Some schools have large groups of LGBT+ people and allies who gather regularly and socialize. Other schools have policies that anyone who comes out is expelled. Most schools are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. A great community resource is the national and local chapter of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. This has branches throughout the nation and is a membership opportunity to find people who are or who support the success of LGBT+ people and their businesses. Making connections here can lead to a sense of belonging and to a support base. The one guaranteed resource for all college students is the access to help online. The National Suicide Prevention Helpline is offered to anyone in need 24/7. For LGBT+ individuals, The Trevor Project offers its own dedicated 24/7 support. By maintaining safety first, there is space to seek out additional resources.
What are the most important things that LGBTQ college students should know?
No matter what others’ opinions, you are valued, you are worthy and you matter. I know this often sounds trite or cliched, but too often, young adults go into a brand-new collegiate world alone and they may feel alone if they don’t happen to make friends immediately. Knowing how to seek out help for mental health care is a crucial part of adulthood and one best learned early, for the safety of everyone. It’s also good to know that, in the first year or even first two years, most college credits transfer, so if your first choice was not the right fit, it’s okay to consider finding a better fit. College is meant to be a time for exploration of self and sometimes this takes a few tries to figure out what's right for each person.
Ebony Jackson is the assistant director of the Office for Social Justice and Diversity at Montclair State University and oversees the institution’s LGBTQ Center. She has been working in higher education for more than three years. Prior to coming to Montclair State University in February 2018, she served as the Coordinator of the Women’s Center at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She is dedicated to social justice programming, education and advocacy. She shapes her approach from an intersectional lens with influence from Audre Lorde’s quote: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Ebony is a two-time alumna of Montclair State University, who received her B.A. in linguistics in 2014 and her M.A. in counseling in 2016 with a concentration in higher education and student affairs.
In what ways do you think the campus experience for LGBTQ students has improved in recent years? What trends have you observed?
Over the years, there have been efforts on college campuses to create more inclusive and affirming spaces on campus for LGBTQ students. For example, some trends I’ve observed are the incorporation of “LGBTQ studies” majors and minors, gender-inclusive restrooms, name change policies, training for the campus community and LGBTQ-themed housing options. This, I believe, has shown institutions’ dedication to creating a more inclusive campus climate.
What areas do you feel still need improvement?
While there have been positive strides made, some areas for improvement I feel are interpersonal, institutional and systemic. Interpersonally, LGBTQ students still deal with their name and pronouns not being respected and everyday microaggressions about their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. While some colleges have name change policies, gender-inclusive restrooms and LGBTQ-themed housing, others don’t, rendering it an institutional issue. Systemically, laws surrounding issues such as discrimination, hate crimes, gay panic defense and gay conversion therapy aren’t nationally addressed to protect the lives of LGBTQ community members. Looking at things intersectionally in relation to race, class and immigration status, these issues can also affect LGBTQ students.
Despite the challenges they face on campus, how can LGBTQ students thrive in college?
LGBTQ students thrive on campus similarly to that of straight and cisgender students — with understanding, support, resources and engagement. It’s critical to understand LGBTQ students’ issues, interests and needs in order to better support them. Part of that support is providing various types of resources that address those different needs and issues. Another part of that support is interpersonal, such as friends and community membership including student organizations, student leader positions and Greek membership.
What are some services available on campus to help LGBTQ students?
Some services available specifically at Montclair State University are an LGBTQ Center, gender-inclusive restrooms, an LGBTQ+ and Allied Housing community, trans-inclusive student health insurance, trainings and workshops to educate the campus about the community, mental health resources and a preferred name policy in which the name that students use appears in the university’s record-management system. Other institutions may have similar services as well as LGBTQ-specific scholarships, counseling and other resources.
What are the most important things that LGBTQ students entering college should know?
I think the most important thing LGBTQ students should know is their prospective campus’ report card on LGBTQ-friendliness. It can give them an idea of what LGBTQ-specific resources and services are and aren’t offered. It can also provide a glimpse into what one can expect to experience during their time at that institution.
Ivy Bryan is a New York native currently attending Brooklyn College. At Brooklyn College, she is a double major in gender studies and film studies. Ivy has a background in the music industry and music performance.
As an LGBTQ college student, what has your overall experience been like?
As an LBGTQ college student, my experience has been really good. I'm very lucky that I ended up at Brooklyn College and specifically in the women and gender studies department, which is a loving and amazing community. I hear about the horror stories from some of my friends at different colleges; I turned out very lucky.
What challenges do you face as an LGBTQ student?
The biggest challenge I face as an LGBTQ student is the lack of selection for women and gender studies. It feels like each semester there are fewer and fewer classes available in the women and gender studies department. I think as a person in the LGBTQ community it's important that we have the opportunity to learn about our culture.
Do you feel the college you attend is supportive of the LGBTQ community on campus?
Brooklyn College is very supportive of the LGBTQ community and I appreciate it. There are often LGBTQ gatherings throughout the semester, and we have an LGBTQ space now.
Are there areas where your school can improve in its efforts to support the LGBTQ community?
I wish my school was more public about what they offer for LGBTQ students on their website. For all the accommodations they have at my school, I found out about them through word of mouth. That's something that I feel like would have been useful to know when I was applying to colleges.
What advice would you give to other LGBTQ college students?
The advice I would give to other LGBTQ students is to make sure that you find an LGBTQ space, club or group at your school. Having that kind of a support system helps you feel like yourself, and more comfortable throughout your college experience.