Parent and Family Guide for LGBTQ+ Students
Over 5% of people in the United States identify as LGBTQ+. Here's how parents can support LGBTQ+ students in educational spaces.
Updated June 25, 2022
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- Coming out to parents isn't usually a decision that LGBTQ+ students make lightly.
- Fortunately, supporting your LGBTQ+ child doesn't have to be difficult — and if it is, a little research can go a long way.
- Learning the language needed to understand gender and sexuality might be easier than you think.
Navigating college as an LGBTQ+ person can be 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 shares some tips and insights into how parents and families of LGBTQ+ students can provide better support.
Key Concepts of LGBTQ+ Identities
For many LGBTQ+ people, their loved ones, and LGBTQ+ allies, the language needed to accurately talk about gender and sexuality may be a new frontier that's potentially intimidating or confusing. However, learning about these terms can be of great value in helping LGBTQ+ folks and their families better understand who they are as a person within their community.
Sexuality and Sexual Orientation
A person's sexuality or sexual orientation encompasses who they are attracted to in a romantic, emotional, and/or sexual manner.
A person's sex is a label assigned to them at birth based on the genitals (and potentially chromosomes) they present with. Most often, people are assigned male or female, though some people are labeled intersex. Sex is often determined by a doctor and inked on a birth certificate.
Gender and Gender Identity
Gender or gender identity is sometimes conflated with a person's sex. However, gender is different from sex and takes social norms and cultural practices into account. A person's gender may be static or fluid. Binary genders include the identities "man" and "woman." People without a gender may call themselves agender, while people with nonbinary genders may use the term "nonbinary" as a label — sometimes along with other gender labels.
Gender Expression and Presentation
Gender expression or gender presentation refers to how someone chooses to express their gender identity. Depending on a person's society or culture, this could include how they style their hair, how they dress, what kind of makeup they wear, their interests and hobbies, how they act and speak, etc.
Gender Fluidity and Gender Nonconformity
Gender fluidity or gender nonconformity describes individuals with an LGBTQ+ identity who don't adhere to gender norms that have been established in their culture or society. They may also move between genders. This can impact their gender expression and presentation.
The Coming Out Process for LGBTQ+ Students
Coming out is not always a one-time event, and it's not always characterized by a grand announcement. LGBTQ+ people should be able to decide how and with whom they share details about their lives with. And many people opt not to come out. 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" as an LGBTQ+ person 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 that anyone is straight or cisgender until they confirm their orientation.
LGBTQ+ students may encounter a spectrum of responses if they do decide to 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. It can also impact their social interactions and family dynamics.
Navigating the process of 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 About LGBTQ+ Identities
Many LGBTQ+ communities have witnessed progress in upending long-standing misconceptions and stereotypes. However, there are still many false assumptions about LGBTQ+ people that can impact how they interact with others and how they perceive themselves.
Being LGBTQ+ Is a Trend, Choice, or "Phase"
These assumptions imply that LGBTQ+ people can undo, opt-out, or will eventually change their minds about their sexuality or gender.
Talking About Sexuality and Gender Isn't Okay for Children
LGBTQ+ people often have realizations about their attractions, genders, and bodies at a young age. Keeping discussions open can teach young people that it's appropriate to talk about themselves and explore their thoughts.
LGBTQ+ People Are Just Like Everyone Else
This is a well-intentioned assumption, but it can actually negatively affect LGBTQ+ people because it erases an important part of who they are.
Being LGBTQ+ Is About Who Someone Has Sex With
This is a small piece of a much bigger picture. LGBTQ+ communities share many experiences, such as the impacts of homophobia and transphobia, which can threaten LGBTQ+ people's lives and safety, cause them to suppress their behaviors, and limit their opportunities.
How Parents and Family Can Support LGBTQ+ Students
LGBTQ+ allies — including parents and family — can support LGBTQ+ students who've decided to come out in several ways. Most importantly, keeping an open mind can allow those with an LGBTQ+ identity to trust you to provide them with a safe space. So instead of telling them you suspected they were going to come out, lead with listening and acceptance as your key characteristics — especially if you're a parent and your child is coming out as LGBTQ+.
Additional things to consider when supporting LGBTQ+ students:
- Let Them Take the Lead: When they're deciding which college to attend, help aspiring students think through what factors are most important. Be ready to give advice, but treat them as experts 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.
- 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 learn to 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.
- Be Ready to Activate: Homophobia and transphobia are realities at colleges and in surrounding areas. Learn what tactics may be useful when responding to instances of harm or discrimination that could take place against your student on campus.
Additional Resources for Education and Allyship
This organization aims to protect intersex children from invasive interventions early in life, including surgeries to promote gender conformity.
Lambda Literary is a nonprofit that seeks to bolster the work of LGBTQ+ writers, editors, and readers. Its goal is to promote and protect queer stories.
Unique in that it is led by youth, this organization aims to make educational institutions safer and more inclusive for transgender and nonconforming students.
This organization centers the success of LGBTQ+ students studying science, technology, engineering, and math.
Formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, this organization is committed to creating safer schools for all students.
With more than 400 chapters across the United States, PFLAG provides resources and information to support LGBTQ+ communities, including the friends, family members, and allies of LGBTQ+ people.
This organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services that focus on giving life-saving support to LGBTQ+ youth.
Explore LGBTQ+ ResourcesDiscover Now
Frequently Asked Questions About LGBTQ+ Resources
Are there scholarships for LGBTQ+ students?
Many schools offer scholarships that specifically cater to 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.
Are there opportunities for parents to get involved with LGBTQ+ initiatives?
Families can advocate for policies at the campus, local, or state level that protect LGBTQ+ college students. They can also promote fundraising efforts made by student organizations or coordinate donations that directly benefit LGBTQ+ college students, such as providing clothing, food, and school supplies.
What resources are available to my LGBTQ+ student on campus?
On-campus resources for LGBTQ+ students vary depending on the college. Many schools have 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 related to LGBTQ+ culture.