For prospective college students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ), it is extremely important to find a college that will provide a supportive environment where they can thrive. In 2015 the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals joined with 25 other organizations to request that optional questions related to gender identity and sexual orientation be added to the Common Application used for admission at more than 500 colleges in the US and internationally. The data would facilitate more accurate statistics pertaining to LGBT students and could help administrators better track their admissions, retention, and graduation rates.
A survey of 90,000 students by the American College Health Association found that 8.1% identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or questioning. Fortunately, the growing acceptance of homosexuality in America is encouraging more students to come out before or during college. In a 2015 Pew Research poll, 55% of Americans supported same-sex-marriage with 39% opposing it — a large increase in recent decades. Additionally, 70% of Millennials and 59% of Generation Xers approve of same-sex marriage.
While the terms gay and lesbian have long been used in the gay rights movement and later expanded to LGBT, adding bisexual and transgender, the acronym has grown to become LGBTQIA. The longer version is used by an increasing number of college campuses, resource centers and social media sites. Recognizing that the continuum is evolving beyond prior definitions of male/female, and that identity can be different from sexual orientation, we are using the abbreviation LGBTQ for the purposes of this guide. The chart below defines what each letter means, keeping in mind that different organizations may use “Q” for queer or questioning, and “A” for asexual or ally.
|A woman who is emotionally, romantically, and/or physically attracted to other women. People who are lesbians need not have had any sexual experience; it is the attraction that helps determine orientation.|
|The adjective used to describe people who are emotionally, romantically, or physically attracted to people of the same gender (e.g., gay man, gay people). People who are gay need not have had any sexual experience; it is the attraction that helps determine orientation.|
|An individual who is emotionally, romantically, and/or physically attracted to the same gender and different genders. It is the attraction that helps determine orientation.|
|A term describing a person's gender identity that does not necessarily match their assigned sex at birth. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically to match their gender identity.|
|Reappropriated from its earlier negative use, the term can be inclusive of the entire community, and by others who find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid identities.|
|A term used to describe those who are in a process of discovery and exploration about their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or a combination thereof.|
|Individuals born with ambiguous genitalia or bodies that appear neither typically male nor female, often arising from chromosomal anomalies or ambiguous genitalia.|
|An individual who does not experience sexual attraction. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.|
|A term used to describe someone who does not identify as LGBTQ but who is supportive of LGBTQ individuals and the community, either personally or as an advocate.|
Source: PFLAG National Glossary of Terms
Common Difficulties Faced by LGBTQ Students
Moving from high school to college is a difficult transition for all students, but LGBTQ students are particularly vulnerable. Before you arrive on campus, read up on anti-discrimination laws and become familiar with campus ordinances. Many larger colleges and universities have LGBTQ resource centers or student organizations on campus. If not, national and regional organizations can provide important information and resources. Check with the Dean of Students office, the student services center, or the on-campus counseling center for guidance.
Harassment – Many LGBTQ students endure teasing or bullying in high school, and they may also encounter harassment in college. A recent survey by the Association of American Universities revealed that three in four LGBTQ and non-heterosexual students reported experiencing sexual harassment at least once.
Nine percent of LGBTQ respondents were victims of sexual assault, compared to seven percent of women.
Isolation – Loneliness is a real problem for LGBTQ students away from home for the first time, particularly those disowned by their families, or those who have not yet made new friends. Enrolling at a college with a strong LGBTQ support system, including an LGBTQ Resource Center and an LGBTQ Program Director, can help combat loneliness. Networking with out LGBTQ students and faculty, participating in LGBTQ activities and events, and seeking out LGBTQ-friendly venues in the community are a few ways to initiate new friendships. If feelings of isolation or depression become overwhelming, the student health center or LGBT Resource Center can offer psychological counseling services.
Labels and Loss of Personal Identity – Depending on how they are accepted on campus, LGBTQ students may feel persecuted by labels that other students place on them. Many students feel pressured to shroud their sexual orientation due to verbal threats, graffiti, or casual derogatory remarks. For many students, deciding whom to trust can be very stressful. Getting involved in LGBTQ associations and activities on campus can help you become more comfortable and provide connections to others who share your concerns.
Lack of Community and Financial Resources – Some LGBTQ students who bravely came out have been disowned by their families.Qualifying for financial aid becomes a challenge for them, since many college applications ask questions regarding their parents’ financial history or require a parent’s signature. LGBTQ students unable to find a part-time job to support themselves while in college often struggle financially, and may even become homeless. Contact the Dean of Students or an LGBTQ program director for help locating scholarships, housing, and employment.
Housing Discrimination – In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, one-fifth of transgender students reported they were denied gender-appropriate housing, and five percent said they were denied campus housing altogether. However, as more colleges and universities boost their efforts to become LGBTQ-friendly, housing opportunities are rising commensurately. Housing directors on some campuses offer students a choice of sharing dorm space with LGBTQ roommates, living in gender-neutral housing, or settling into a nearby campus apartment.
Despite the hardships that LGBTQ students face on campus, the number of organizations offering positive support and access to valuable resources grows every year. Many universities have LGBTQ directors to help LGBTQ students qualify for financial aid, housing and other programs that can make college possible even if their families or local community offer no help.
Finding the Right School for You
Increasingly, colleges are valuing the presence of LGBTQ students on their campus, and prioritize making their campuses safe and inclusive. As you compare colleges, do not hesitate to ask administrators, counselors, or students about the resources available to LGBTQ students on campus. You want to find a campus that can feel like home, and the work to become comfortable at school starts before submitting your first application.
If you are not out or are questioning, an LGBTQ-friendly college could be a healthy environment for you to reflect in. Search for colleges with websites demonstrating that the LGBTQ community is active and supported on campus. Signing up for a course in LGBTQ studies or attending a seminar at the LGBTQ Resource Center could help you on your journey of self-discovery and allow you to connect with others struggling with similar issues.
10 Things To Look For When Searching For LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges
- 1. Campus Vibe
One of the best ways to evaluate a college is to visit in person. Walk around the campus and surrounding area to get a feel for the vibe and decide whether you feel safe. Sit in on a couple of classes and talk to current students about LGBTQ life on campus.
- 2. LGBTQ Student Organizations
Explore the websites of colleges you are considering and check for student-sponsored LGBTQ organizations on campus and activities targeted for gender diversity. Take the time to browse social media accounts and research what issues and campaigns they are engaged in. If a college has a calendar brimming with appealing gender diverse activities, it’s a solid indicator that the environment will be friendly and inclusive.
- 3. Out LGBTQ Students
Evaluate whether there is a strong community of out LGBTQ students at your prospective schools. It may help to keep a few questions in mind: Does the school’s website feature photos of students engaged in officially chartered LGBTQ organizations and activities? Are there LGBTQ courses or majors? Does the college offer LGBTQ annual programs like Rainbow Graduation, Purple Prom, or year-round initiatives like the Safe Space Program? How about LGBTQ housing? On-campus LGBTQ organizations can provide information on whether the number of out LGBTQ students on campus is large or small. Ask the Dean of Students or the director of the local LGBTQ Resource Center if the LGBTQ population on campus is growing and if additional services are being added.
- 4. Out LGBTQ Faculty
Colleges and universities with openly out faculty or staff members tend to foster a more positive and inclusive atmosphere for LGBTQ students. Some universities are making it easier for students to locate out LGBTQ faculty members. The Out List at UC Davis was created so that faculty and staff who identify as LGBTQ can connect with each other and students for academic support and mentorship. Emory University, the University of Maryland, the University of California, San Diego, and UC Berkeley are just a few colleges with out lists posted online. LGBTQ Resource Centers on many college campuses also provide students with lists of out faculty members who offer counseling or mentoring assistance to LGBTQ students.
- 5. Inclusion Statements and Anti-Discriminations Policies
Before applying to a school, it is important to review their student code of conduct policy. More progressive colleges are rewriting their policies to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students. You can also study the university’s hiring practices. If the school would not hire someone identified as LGBTQ, you may not feel comfortable there.
- 6. LGBTQ Resource Centers
According to the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, there are a growing number of LGBT student centers across the country. The LGBT Resource Center map features links to more than 200 centers nationwide. Designed to be a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, the centers provide invaluable support and education while working to make campuses and communities more LGBTQ-friendly.
- 7. Gender Neutral Restrooms and Housing
Check the college’s website for information on gender-neutral restrooms and housing. College admissions officers may be able to provide additional information or check with the school’s housing director. While you may not need LGBTQ specific housing now, it is important to have that as an option in the future.
- 8. Off Campus LGBTQ Groups
Research off-campus local, state and national LGBTQ groups that you might be able to use as a resource. Some national organizations have regional groups that can provide valuable information and contacts. Try to connect with a local group that offers opportunities to socialize.
- 9. Campus Security Offices
Developing a friendly relationship with the campus security team may help you feel safe. Ask for information on crimes against LGBTQ students, reports of discrimination, and what campus ordinances are in place to prohibit harassment.
- 10. Local Law Enforcement
Check with the local police department for information on crime rates and how they handle discrimination and harassment against LGBTQ students. Do they work closely with the college security team? Do they work with the community to help foster public safety awareness?
Generally, LGBTQ students steer clear of conservative religious colleges and universities, fearing discrimination against their sexual orientation. Still, some deeply religious LGBTQ students, or those who have not come out to their families, may feel pressured to attend a religious college, or want to pursue an area of study available only at a particular school. Others may want to continue their education in a setting affiliated with the religion they practice.
Some religious-affiliated colleges officially ban homosexual behavior, but they may permit gender diverse student groups. Safety Net, founded in 2011, is a nonprofit organization that helps foster communication between LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and alumni at more than 75 evangelical Christian colleges. They help students find information on unofficial GSAs affiliated with their schools, and can provide assistance if you want to start a new group.
If you are still unsure about attending a religious college, research the student code of conduct policy at your target school. As you do, evaluate whether you would be comfortable signing a contract signifying your agreement with the statements it contains. Also review the university’s hiring practices: If the school would not hire someone who identifies as LGBTQ, would you still want to attend classes there?
Other Things To Consider
As an LGBTQ student, you need to evaluate not just the campus climate but the city and region surrounding the college. Will you be able to enjoy your leisure time? Is the town a place you might want to live after you graduate?
Arts and Recreation
Are there opportunities to enjoy art galleries, museums, concerts and theater? Does the town have a movie theater, shopping mall or recreational venues like bowling alleys, arcades or amusement parks? Are there public facilities like golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, hiking trails, lakes or state/national parks nearby?
Check on the availability of health care facilities both on and off campus including hospitals, medical offices, dentists, chiropractors, and urgent care clinics. Some universities and medical facilities offer programs specifically designed for LGBTQ patients. Many offer confidential counseling, HIV/STI screenings and other health services. The Mazzoni Center, in the Philadelphia area, has been providing health and wellness services to the LGBTQ community since 1979. GLMA (Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality) offers an online provider directory.
Events and Festivals
Research whether the town or city has annual Pride Alliance events and if there are other festivals that promote gender diversity or welcome participation from LGBTQ participants and volunteers.
Does the town have bars or restaurants that are popular with gay and lesbian patrons? Having a conversation with current students can help you find LGBTQ-friendly venues.
Local Economy and Lifestyle
Would you feel comfortable attending community events, or is the environment too conservative? The local Chamber of Commerce can provide information on job growth prospects, top employers, housing, regional resources, and more.
Applying to College as an LGBTQ Student
A growing number of colleges are asking about sexual orientation on their applications. Whether you choose to be out during the application process is something that only you can decide. You may decide to be out when applying to schools that are LGBT-friendly but not disclose your LGBT identity to schools where you fear it might reduce your chances of acceptance. In some cases, identifying yourself as LGBTQ could open doors to scholarships or diversity grants that you might not qualify for otherwise. The situation is a bit trickier for LGBT students who have not come out to their families. In that case, the Human Rights Campaign advises students to avoid putting their LGBT status in writing and come out to an admissions officer on the phone or in person.
Life on Campus
Transitioning from high school to college is difficult for anyone, and could be particularly stressful for LGBTQ students. Several schools have departments specifically established to help with that transition. American University’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, for example, offers a peer advising and conversations program open to current and prospective LGBTQ students. Through the program, students can discuss LGBTQ issues and ask other students questions. The LGBTQA Student Resource Center at Penn State has published a number of testimonials from students about how the center helped them adjust to college and cope with difficult situations.
Depending on the housing options at your college, your roommate may or may not be LGBTQ. Most students receive contact information for their new roommate before move-in-day, so you might want to reach out through e-mail or have a phone conversation before you move in together. You will have to decide, based on your personality and theirs, if you want to discuss sexual orientation before or after you meet. The key to a good relationship with any roommate is communication. Be respectful of each other’s boundaries and try to explore common interests.
The athletic department at many colleges can be one of the most homophobic places on campus. Thanks to the efforts of national LGBTQ organizations and new policies implemented at more progressive schools, an increasing number of collegiate athletic departments have become accepting and inclusive of gender diversity. Athlete Ally is a nonprofit organization that promotes public awareness and presents educational programming and workshops at colleges and high schools. The organization also works with major sports organizations like the NFL, NBA, and NCAA to enhance player awareness and sensitivity. The Gender Equity Resource Center at Berkeley offers a comprehensive list of LGBTQ Resources in Athletics.
Organizations and Resources for LGBTQ Students
If there is no LGBTQ Resource Center at your college, you may be able to find one locally or online. Getting involved in their network can help you learn about your rights and how to combat discriminatory behavior on campus or in your community.
- Campus Pride
Campus Pride supports LGBTQ student organizations as they develop a society free of bigotry and hate. It creates change by developing student networks and offering useful online resources, including a ranking of LGBTQ-friendly colleges.
- Gay Straight Alliance
The GSA Network trains LGBTQ students and youth leaders to create safe schools and healthy communities. These student-run clubs provide a place where LGBTQ and straight students can support each other, socialize, and enhance gender diversity.
Since 1978, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders has fought for legal equality for the LGBTQ community and those living with AIDS. The organization strives to build a society free of discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, HIV status, and sexual orientation.
- Trevor Project
Founded in 1988 by the creators of the Academy Award winning film Trevor, the Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people from ages 13-24. Education, resources, and supportive counseling are available to kids and young adults who need help.
- Safety Net
Safety Net fosters conversation between LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff at religious colleges, universities, and seminaries and helps students find unofficial GSAs near their schools. If no GSA exists, the organization can help start a new group.
An organization for students, parents, and teachers alike, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) helps create safe school environments for LGBTQ students. The group promotes projects like Day of Silence and Ally Week, and helps develop Gay-Straight Alliances in local communities.
- Out for Work
Assisting LGBTQ college students in their transition from academia to the workplace, this organization helps collegiates find work and internships while they are still in school and after graduation.
Trans Student Educational Resources is a youth-run organization that wants to build a more trans-friendly environment in schools.
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) helps students who identify as asexual. It is the world’s largest online asexual community and it features an impressive collection of resources on the topic.
- Bi-Net USA
America’s largest national organization devoted to bisexual awareness oversees a network of independent bisexual and bi-friendly communities. Beyond promoting anti-discrimination and anti-discriminatory policy, the organization distributes educational information on sexual orientation.
- Human Rights Campaign
HRC is the largest civil rights organization in the United States, and part of the HRC’s mission is to achieve LGBTQ equality. Boasting more than 1.5 million members and supporters, HRC strives to end discrimination, secure equal rights, and protect the health and safety of LGBTQ Americans.
- Point Foundation
Point provides scholarship funding, mentorship, leadership training, and community service opportunities. It is the nation’s largest scholarship-granting organization for LGBTQ students.
- Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals
This organization seeks to make college campuses a safer and more welcoming place for LGBTQ students.
How to Start Your Own LGBTQ Organization
Starting a new GSA or LGBT resource center is a significant project that requires intensive research and support from others. The first step is to recruit other LGBTQ students, allies, and faculty members to create a committee or task force. One of the biggest challenges is enlisting the cooperation of a university official who will support your group.
Prepare a presentation on why the college needs an LGBTQ Center. Campus Pride Index is a good resource of information on campus assessments. Your presentation might include statistics on the growing number of LGBTQ students on campus, testimonials from students who have experienced harassment, and input from victims of discrimination. Providing examples of other colleges with successful LGBTQ Resource Centers and the services they offer will give university officials a better idea of what you are trying to accomplish.
The National Consortium of LGBT Directors in Higher Education offers advice on starting an LGBTQ Resource Center, including information on staffing and funding programs. LGBTQ Architect, a project created at Pennsylvania State University, has sample documents, presentations and resources that students can access and modify as they start their own resource center. If you cannot gain the support of the university, another option is forming an unofficial Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) off campus. GSA and Safety Net are good resources for starting an off-campus group.
Friends and Family
PFLAG, Outproud Families, and Campus Pride are three organizations that offer educational resources to help families support LGBTQ students. When a friend or family member comes out to you, it is important to let the person know that you admire their courage and that you respect their privacy. LGBTQ youth often fear rejection; it’s crucial to reassure your friend that coming out will not harm your relationship. Be available to listen and discuss sensitive issues, but don’t be judgmental or treat the person who has come out any differently. Encourage any out LGBTQ friends to reach out to others at an LGBTQ Resource Center, or to help them find relevant resources online.
Organizations and Resources for Friends and Family of LGBTQ People
PFLAG is the organization for parents, families, allies, and LGBTQ people united for equality, and has resources for both parents and students. In addition to information on local chapters and upcoming events, the site features free downloadable pamphlets on relevant topics. The website includes links to LGBTQ-friendly faith communities, scholarship resources, and more.
- Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life
Published by the Princeton Review, is a comprehensive guide featuring listings of LGBT-friendly campuses, plus profiles on the surrounding communities. Gathered from surveys of students and administrators at more than 70 colleges, the guide offers tips on everything from researching school policies to responding to discrimination.
- Outproud Families
Out Proud provides education and counseling to help families become more supportive of LGBTQ youth. The website features a blog, information on workshops, links to reports, guides, and other resources. Laurin Mayeno also shares narratives from her journey with her gay son in her “Proud Mom” videos.
- Campus Pride Index
This site has a ranking of LGBTQ-friendly colleges and includes a searchable map by state. As one of the top educational resources for LGBTQ students, the Campus Pride website features lists of programs and services including college fairs, workshops, and events.
- Human Rights Campaign
The nation’s largest civil rights organization, the HRC works on a variety of initiatives to promote equality for the LGBTQ community. The website features articles relevant to LGBTQ youth and their parents, plus information on resources by state.
The American Civil Liberties Union has handled more LGBTQ cases than any other national organization. ACLU leaders fight for advocacy initiatives and keep the public and media informed about timely issues. The website is a good resource for LGBTQ students seeking help with discrimination complaints.
- Gay Straight Alliance
The Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) urges students facing discrimination to call the network for assistance. GSA also offers guidance on how to talk to school administrators and how to file a complaint at your college or university.
- Lambda Legal
Lambda Legal specializes in legal issues for transgender students. The website provides information on transgender rights, along with resources to help students handle campus challenges and advocate for more gender-inclusive policies. An online legal help desk answers questions at no charge.
Legal Rights for LGBTQ Students
Before beginning classes, it is important for LGBTQ students to know their legal rights. In the event that you become a victim of discrimination or harassment, you will be armed with the knowledge there are laws and protections on your side. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard Act expanded the definition of hate crimes to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that forbids discrimination, including sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. Under the provisions of Title IX, a college receiving federal funds can be held legally responsible for monetary damages if the institution knew about and ignored sexual harassment or discrimination, whether it was the act of a student, staff, or faculty member.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has identified 56 colleges in 26 states that requested exemptions from Title IX, claiming it is in conflict with their religious doctrines or religious-based moral codes. With its report Hidden Discrimination: Title IX Religious Exemptions Putting LGBT Students at Risk, HRC seeks to increase the accountability of schools requesting exemptions and to make sure LGBTQ students do not enroll in a university that would discriminate against them.
A growing number of states also have laws that protect LGBTQ individuals from sexual discrimination and bullying. Lambda Legal offers a guide with information on legal protections available to LGBTQ people in each state. The Equality Federation’s Movement Advancement Project (MAP) also provides data on state LGBTQ laws and listings of cities and counties with non-discrimination ordinances.
Students experiencing discrimination at college may file an internal appeal. It is advisable to seek help from a lawyer, the local legal aid society, or a national organization specializing in LGBTQ legal issues. Students also have the right to file a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Title IX protects students from sex discrimination at colleges and universities including admissions, housing, recruitment, athletics, financial assistance, and counseling services. The following national organizations specialize in LGBTQ discrimination cases.
Scholarships established for LGBTQ college students are available from several organizations. Some welcome all LGBTQ applicants, while others may focus on specific subgroups.
- Point Foundation Scholarships
Who Can Apply: LGBTQ undergraduate or graduate students enrolled full time at a four-year accredited college or university in the United States are encouraged to apply.
Amount: Varies each year
- Pride Foundation Scholarships
Who Can Apply: The Pride Foundation awards several scholarships annually and offers online workshops for potential applicants. Scholarships are awarded to LGBTQ and allied students in specific geographic areas, those in financial need, and to LGBTQ youth lacking community support resources.
Amount: Ranges from $3250 to $10,000.
- Queer Foundation Scholarships
Who Can Apply: High school students compete for scholarships through a themed essay contest on queer studies or other designated topics. In addition to scholarships, winners receive mentoring, counseling, and tutoring services.
- Trans Student Educational Resources Scholarships
Who Can Apply: Openly trans students who have contributed to the transgender community, or who may have suffered oppression, are encouraged to apply. Scholarships are awarded on a need-basis: your GPA, year in college, major, and documentation status are not considered.
Amount: $500 to $2,000
- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or “PFLAG,
Who Can Apply: Scholarships are awarded on a local and national level to graduating seniors who demonstrate a desire to serve the LGBTQ community. The program is open to LGBTQ individuals and allies.
Amount: $1,000 to $5,000
- Colin Higgins Courage Award
Who Can Apply: Designed to honor LGBTQ students who have overcome hardships or discrimination, this annual award goes to LGBTQ youth activists.
- Traub-Dicker Rainbow Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This annual scholarship is awarded to LGBTQ high school seniors, undergraduates, and graduates who identify as women. The program supports students who have demonstrated academic excellence and to make a difference through community service.
Amount: $1,500 to $3,000
- Gene and John Athletic Fund Scholarship
Who Can Apply: First awarded at the Gay Games VI in Australia, this scholarship fund supports LGBTQ athletes pursuing a professional sports career, as well as LGBTQ students who want to continue their education while participating in sports recreationally.
Amount: $2,500 or $5,000
- League Foundation Scholarships
Who Can Apply: These scholarships are awarded annually to LGBTQ students with GPAS above 3.0 who have made community service contributions and have been accepted to an accredited US college or university.
Amount: Changes annually depending on funding
- National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals Scholarships
Who Can Apply: Intended for LGBTQ students pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, this scholarship is available to applicants with a commitment to the LGBTQ community and those who have finished two years of college with a 3.0 GPA or higher.
More LGBTQ scholarships may be found in the Human Rights Campaign’s scholarship database. Remember to consult high schools and colleges in your state for more regional opportunities.