Exploring the History of LGBTQ+ Centers on Campus

Exploring the History of LGBTQ+ Centers on Campus

September 17, 2021

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In 1971, the first campus-based LGBTQ+ center was established at the University of Michigan (U-M). After facing increased pressure from newly recognized student groups, the Gay Liberation Front and the Radical Lesbians, and the student body as a whole, U-M relented and opened the center.

At the time, many student activists advocating for LGBTQ+ centers at U-M and campuses around the country were inspired by the queer and trans movement emerging nationally. Often led by trans women of color, the movement included flashpoints like the Compton Cafeteria (1966) and Stonewall (1969) uprisings and the creation of the Detroit Gay Liberation Front (1970).

Community activists often supported or even led campus protests, including the occupation of a residence hall at New York University (NYU) in 1970. The NYU sit-in was headed by the founders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were also involved in the Stonewall Uprising the year prior.

While schools were initially slow to open on-campus LGBTQ+ spaces, the 1990s and 2000s saw a surge of new centers across the country. According to a 2020 study in Socius, an academic journal of the American Sociological Association, LGBTQ+ student groups can now be found at 62% of U.S. colleges and universities. However, far fewer schools employ at least one paid professional staff member or graduate assistant to direct an official on-campus LGBTQ+ center.

The Functions of an LGBTQ+ Center

LGBTQ+ centers serve various functions depending on the institution type, students' needs, staff size, and access to resources. Often, LGBTQ+ centers support and build community among LGBTQ+ students (and sometimes staff and faculty), advocate for changes in institutional policies and practices, assess the campus climate, and provide social and educational programs. An evolving online directory shares the locations of campus LGBTQ+ centers around the U.S.

College students most often interact with an LGBTQ+ center for support, resources, and programming. These spaces might support learners by helping them navigate the institution, providing appropriate referrals, and validating their full and authentic selves. Identity development can be an important part of the college experience, and LGBTQ+ center staff and volunteers are often equipped with the skills needed to walk alongside students as they make meaning of who they are.

LGBTQ+ centers also offer resources. Many maintain small libraries full of books, documentaries, and media centering LGBTQ+ stories. For students who want to get involved on campus, connect with student organizations, and engage in activism, LGBTQ+ centers can offer opportunities, connections, mentorship, and guidance.

Some LGBTQ+ centers provide access to computers, scholarships, clothing exchanges, and travel funds to attend LGBTQ+ conferences. Their websites are also great places to look for resources. Online, these spaces sometimes provide useful information about navigating campus life, including how to change your name and gender marker on your ID and where to find all-gender restrooms on campus.

The most visible function of LGBTQ+ centers is offering social and educational programming, such as Safezones, keynote speakers, performances, and film screenings. These are sometimes held on various LGBTQ+ awareness days, such as Intersex Awareness Day, Trans Awareness Week, and LGBT History Month.

Challenges for LGBTQ+ Centers

While the growing number of LGBTQ+ centers on college campuses marks a positive shift, historically excluded groups still face challenges, including within these spaces. LGBTQ+ students of color, trans students, and LGBTQ+ students managing disabilities often report feeling excluded and unvalued at LGBTQ+ centers.

Due to a lack of attention to systems of oppression other than heterosexism (such as racism, anti-Blackness, cissexism, and ableism), these spaces often center the experiences and needs of white, cisgender, nondisabled, gay students.

LGBTQ+ centers are also not immune to biphobia or gender gaps in participation and sexism. These biases impact who benefits the most from the resources and programming that these centers offer. For example, a 2014 study in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education showed that trans programming offered by LGBTQ+ centers tends to be about trans students rather than for them. Given the diversity of LGBTQ+ communities, it is important that LGBTQ+ centers operate with an intersectional lens.

LGBTQ+ centers must also grapple with how to support college students facing increasing food and housing insecurity. After surveying 43,000 students at 66 four-year and community colleges, a 2018 report by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab showed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students experienced higher rates of food and housing insecurity and homelessness than heterosexual students.

The same was true for nonbinary students as compared with "male" and "female" students[1]. According to the survey, bisexual students were at the highest risk for basic needs insecurity. LGBTQ+ centers are often not equipped with the resources, skills, or capacity to support students' basic needs.

Recent research examining the experiences of LGBTQ+ center staff shows that many of these spaces are understaffed, under-resourced, and in need of institutional support. Many students seek out LGBTQ+ center staff for support for all their collegiate needs, further stretching staff capacity.

Future Opportunities

Despite these challenges, the 2018 National Study of LGBTQ Student Success highlighted the significance of LGBTQ+ centers in students' sense of belonging, safety, and inclusion, as well as in their identity and leadership development. They are also rich resources for students to learn about LGBTQ+ history and culture.

LGBTQ+ centers also provide opportunities for civic engagement and leadership development. Activism played an important role in the formation of LGBTQ+ centers, and these spaces continue to be sites of empowerment, support, and mentorship for students seeking to advance social justice on campus and beyond.

Additionally, LGBTQ+ centers often offer assistantships, internships, and work-study positions to graduate and undergraduate students, providing financial assistance and professional development in an affirming environment.

​​The opportunities and challenges facing LGBTQ+ centers and staff highlight the need to establish and better support these crucial spaces on more college campuses. Learners are increasingly and unabashedly living their truths and seeking to get involved in social justice activism. The need for affirming spaces for students to develop their identities, leadership skills, and voices continues to grow.


[1] The survey's gender question only provided a single-selection option between male, female (terms that refer to assigned sex), and nonbinary. Thus, it is unclear how many trans students took the survey.


Feature Image: Bill Tompkins / Contributor / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

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