Guide to Understanding LGBTQ+ Students for Parents and Families
Key Concepts of LGBTQ+ Identity | The Coming Out Process | Stereotypes and Assumptions of LGBTQ+ Identity | What Parents and Families Must Know | Additional Resources for Education and Allyship | Frequently Asked Questions
Navigating college as an LGBTQ+ person is a unique and momentous experience. Some LGBTQ+ college students benefit from specialized support systems — both on campus and at home. Parents and families of LGBTQ+ students can bolster their ability to support students by learning more about commonly used language, understanding the plights and power of coming out, and being connected to resources that can be used to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ learners.
This guide provides tips and insight into how parents and families of LGBTQ+ students can be the best support system possible.
Key Concepts of LGBTQ+ Identity
Language is a vital tool for effectively communicating about and with members of LGBTQ+ communities. The following are commonly used terms for discussing LGBTQ+ identities:
Describes one's attractions to others, including physical, emotional, romantic, and/or sexual. Examples include bisexuality, homoromantic, straight, or queer.
Differs from gender. Describes an assignment recorded at birth based on physical anatomy, chromosomes, and/or hormones. Examples include intersex, male, or female.
Describes one's personal interpretation of their gender. This may or may not correspond with to one's gender expression or assigned sex. Examples include bigender, woman, nonbinary, or transgender.
Describes how one externally expresses their gender, including but not limited to their dress, mannerisms, and behaviors. Examples include androgynous, feminine, or masculine.
Gender Fluidity/Gender Nonconformity
Describes genders or gendered experiences that exist beyond a gender binary or that move along a gender spectrum. These terms can describe someone's gender, gender identity, or gender expression.
The Coming Out Process for LGBTQ+ Students
Coming out is not a one-time event, and it is not always characterized by a grand announcement. LGBTQ+ people decide how and who they share details about their lives with everyday. And many people opt to not come. This could be due to safety concerns or because they choose to live privately according to their attractions, desires, and interests without labels.
Additionally, the idea of "coming out" presumes that everyone is heterosexual or cisgender until they state otherwise. The general assumption that everyone is straight impacts policies and spaces in ways that prioritize or center heterosexual or cisgender experiences. This is also known as heterosexual or cisgender privilege.
Heterosexual and cisgender privilege contributes to the pressure of coming out by placing the responsibility on individuals to proclaim they are LGBTQ+. Instead, assumptions about people's sexuality and gender should not default to believing someone is straight or cisgender until they come out as LGBTQ+.
LGBTQ+ students may encounter a spectrum of responses when they do share their stories with others. Many LGBTQ+ people receive affirmation when coming out to loved ones.
Unfortunately, it's still common for LGBTQ+ youth to be kicked out of their homes or cut off by friends and family. The prospect of a negative reaction can cause immense stress for LGBTQ+ students, as well as impact their social interactions and family dynamics.
Navigating coming out while also dealing with the complexities of college life is a specific circumstance for LGBTQ+ students that non-LGBTQ+ students do not face. Home and campus environments that acknowledge a student's desire to be validated can help ease the burden of being uncertain about sharing their stories.
Four Key Misunderstandings of LGBTQ+ Identity
LGBTQ+ communities have witnessed progress in upending long-standing misconceptions and stereotypes. However, there are still many false assumptions about LGBTQ+ people that impact how they interact with others and how they perceive themselves.
1. Being LGBTQ+ Is a Trend, Choice, or "Phase"
Reality: These assumptions imply that LGBTQ+ people can undo, opt out, or will eventually change their mind about their sexuality or gender.
2. Talking About Sexuality and Gender Isn't Okay for Children
Reality: LGBTQ+ people are making realizations about their attractions, genders, and bodies at young ages. Keeping discussions open can teach young people it's appropriate to talk about themselves and explore their thoughts.
3. LGBTQ+ People Are Just Like Everyone Else
Reality: This is a well-intentioned assumption, but can actually negatively affect LGBTQ+ people because it erases an important part of who they are.
4. Being LGBTQ+ Is About Who Someone Has Sex With
Reality: That's a small piece of a much bigger picture. LGBTQ+ communities share many experiences, such as the impacts of homophobia and transphobia, which can censor LGBTQ+ people's behaviors and limit their opportunities.
What Parents and Family Must Know to Support LGBTQ+ Students
Some things to consider when supporting LGBTQ+ students:
Prepare for Changes: Whether they came out before college or not, going away to school can spark many self-discoveries. LGBTQ+ students will learn new things about themselves over time.
Celebrate Their Growth: College is a period where students expand their worldview and better understand how they fit into society. They will learn hard lessons but also gain tools for overcoming hardships. Make sure to show them how much you care.
Let Them Take the Lead: When they're deciding which college to attend, help aspiring students think through what factors are most important. Regard them as an expert on their own needs.
Don't Force It: Assure your student that you're there for them but don't exhaust them with questions about how they're doing. Check in with them and make room for them to share when they're ready.
Be Ready to Activate: Homophobia and transphobia are realities at colleges and in surrounding areas. Learn what tactics may be useful in response to instances of harm or discrimination that could take place against your student on campus.
Additional Resources for Education and Allyship
Formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, this organization is committed to creating safer schools for all students.
This group advocates for the rights of intersex youth.
This organization highlights authors, books, and other writing that promote LGBTQ+ stories.
This organization centers the success of LGBTQ+ students studying science, technology, engineering, and math.
With more than 400 chapters across the United States, PFLAG provides resources and information to support LGBTQ+ communities.
This organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services that focus on giving life-saving support for LGBTQ+ youth.
This youth-led organization creates educational tools and advocates for more inclusive educational spaces.
Frequently Asked Questions
On-campus resources for LGBTQ+ students vary depending on the college. Many offer student organizations, physical spaces and centers, and staff members dedicated to serving LGBTQ+ college students. Schools may also oversee academic programs (majors and minors) or individual classes on LGBTQ+ culture.
Many schools offer scholarships that specifically target LGBTQ+ students, while others have broader programs that award "diversity" or "multicultural" student scholarships. There are also national organizations that provide info about LGBTQ+ student scholarships.
Families can advocate for policies at the campus, local, or state level that protect LGBTQ+ college students; promote fundraising efforts by student orgs; or coordinate donations that directly benefit LGBTQ+ college students, such as providing clothing, food, and school supplies.
By R.B. Brooks
R.B. Brooks (they/them) is an educator and writer with a radical imagination. Their work focuses on queer and trans college students, Midwest culture, conference planning, and social change. R.B. received their master’s in higher education administration from the University of Kansas and bachelor’s in creative writing and journalism at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. They are Director of Programs for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality & Gender Diversity and program coordinator for the Sexuality and Gender Equity Initiatives at the University of Minnesota - Duluth.