How to Choose a College as an LGBTQ+ Student
Published on May 27, 2021
Reviewed by Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
- LGBTQ+ students face a disproportionate amount of harassment and discrimination.
- LGBTQ+-friendly campuses offer student groups, ally-focused training, and special facilities.
- Inclusive campus environments are critical to LGBTQ+ students' sense of belonging.
Pride Month, which takes place every year in June, is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people (LGBTQ+). The event both recognizes the spectrum of gender and sexual identities and commemorates the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.
Just as LGBTQ+ visibility and civil rights have expanded throughout the U.S. in the last decade, colleges and universities are increasingly instituting support programs and policies to mirror these changes. For prospective LGBTQ+ students, asking about such endeavors can help them choose a college that's right for them.
Campus Challenges and Experiences of LGBTQ+ Students
For many LGBTQ+ students, college is the first time they can safely and privately explore their identities and sense of self. This newfound independence can give them the confidence to come out and embrace their sexuality and/or gender identity.
That said, LGBTQ+ students face a disproportionate amount of hate speech, harassment, and discrimination. According to the Department of Education, around one-fourth of all reported hate crimes are related to sexual orientation. This statistic is even higher among LGBTQ+ people of color.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also often unprotected in campus discrimination policies and conduct guidelines. Campus Pride lists around 1,100 colleges — just a quarter of all degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S. — as having nondiscrimination policies focusing on gender identity and expression.
According to the Department of Education, around one-fourth of all reported hate crimes are related to sexual orientation.
One factor affecting students' sense of belonging is the lack of LGBTQ+ resources and campus facilities. Colleges have been slow to introduce gender-inclusive facilities, such as restrooms, leaving many LGBTQ+ students feeling marginalized, unsafe, and subject to discrimination and harassment.
But gender-inclusive facilities are becoming increasingly common on college campuses. Pacific University in Oregon, Ithaca College in New York, and Stanford University all offer gender-inclusive restrooms for students.
When it comes to housing, colleges have relied on conventional gender identities for roommate matching in residence halls. This type of housing severely affects feelings of safety and security among LGBTQ+ students, with transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming students reporting some of the highest rates of sexual assault and harassment.
Gender-inclusive housing is still fairly new. Wesleyan College was the first school to introduce it in 2003, but it wasn't until the last several years that universities have begun to recognize the importance of offering these types of accommodations.
5 Features LGBTQ+ Students Should Look For in a College
The college you pick should be your home away from home that allows you to feel safe, respected, and valued. Here are five factors to consider when searching for an LGBTQ+-friendly college.
LGBTQ+ Student Clubs and Organizations
Student clubs and organizations are critical to the success and identity development of college students. They provide meaningful peer relationships, an opportunity to build self-confidence, and a chance to participate in advocacy efforts for various social issues.
LGBTQ+ clubs can help queer students build safe and supportive spaces outside the confines of the larger campus environment. Similarly, affinity- and identity-based clubs can help students from underrepresented groups acknowledge and celebrate their identities. These clubs usually encourage advocacy and promote both visibility and social change.
Inclusive Campus Facilities
Inclusive campus facilities ensure you have the physical space and resources you need to thrive, build community, and succeed in college. Examples include gender-inclusive restrooms, gender-inclusive housing, and LGBTQ+ centers and departments.
If you're planning to live in campus housing, find out how roommates are matched. Does the campus housing office ask about gender and sexual identity in its questionnaire? Does the institution try to ensure LGBTQ+ students are matched together?
You should also figure out whether the campus offers gender-inclusive housing and what your options are if it doesn't.
It's equally important to know whether a school maintains an LGBTQ+ or pride resource center on campus. These centers provide LGBTQ+ students a safe place to gather, meet people, and learn about resources available to them both on and off campus.
Safe Zone and Other Ally-Focused Training Programs
In recent years, there's been an increase in ally-focused training programs focusing on campus acknowledgment and acceptance of LGTBQ+ students. Ask whether there are any programs centered on LGBTQ+ students and whether these are mandatory for faculty, staff, and students.
Safe Zone, one such program commonly found on college campuses, aims to build a network of advocates and allies who can support LGBTQ+ students in need. Some schools have opted to make Safe Zone training mandatory for all staff and faculty; it can also be instituted during student orientations.
Schools that require Safe Zone or other ally-based training programs are committed to ensuring LGBTQ+ students have safe spaces, in addition to awareness and acceptance among students, staff, and faculty. Institutions currently offering Safe Zone training include the University of South Carolina, Purdue University, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Inclusive Student Code of Conduct
A student code of conduct spells out an institution's guidelines for appropriate and respectful behavior. Many address alcohol and drug use on campus, but these codes should also address hate speech, discrimination, and harassment.
For LGBTQ+ students, these codes of conduct should encompass discriminatory behavior against queer students. Call the student conduct or student life office to ask whether protections are in place for LGBTQ+ students who experience hate speech, discrimination, or harassment.
LGBTQ+ Advisory Groups
If you like participating in activism efforts or shaping campus policies and culture, you may want to look into whether your preferred school has an LGBTQ+ student advisory group.
These advisory groups are usually composed of students, staff, and faculty who have a direct connection to executive leaders on campus. Their primary responsibility is to provide insight into how the campus can more effectively support LGBTQ+ students.
Student advisory groups can also help shape LGBTQ+ campus initiatives and play a role in improving the campus culture for queer students. Western Washington University is just one example of an institution with an LGBTQ+ advisory group.
Choosing the Right College as an LGBTQ+ Student
For LGBTQ+ students, choosing the right college can be daunting. Campus safety protocols for LGBTQ+ students, as well as support from campus staff, faculty, and administrators, are critical factors to keep in mind as you weigh your options.
Remember that it's about more than just finding an academically prestigious institution — you deserve a place where you feel valued, respected, and affirmed. Consider the five factors above as you research colleges, and check out the best colleges for LGBTQ+ students to learn more.
Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D., is the senior editor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at BestColleges. He is a scholar, writer, and editor working at the intersection of education, culture, and politics. Cobretti's research focuses on the experiences of minoritized student and faculty populations in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal of Negro Education, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Black Youth Project, and the National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs. Cobretti received his Ph.D. in higher education from Loyola University Chicago.
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