College Experience Guide for LGBTQ+ Students
Common Challenges for LGBTQ+ Students | 5 Important Questions LGBTQ+ Students Should Consider | National LGBTQ+ Organization and Conferences | Frequently Asked Questions
- LGBTQ+ students face personal, social, and societal challenges navigating college.
- Choosing an inclusive campus requires doing some homework, but it's worth it.
- Conferences and events hosted by LGBTQ+ orgs offer additional support and education.
- LGBTQ+ college students are deeply impacted by the pandemic and fights for racial justice.
The latest Gallup poll indicates that 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community — a notable increase from 2017 data (4.5%). Furthermore, millennials and Gen Zers are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than previous age groups, meaning incoming college classes will likely include more LGBTQ+ students than ever before. Where an LGBTQ+ student chooses to attend college can have lifelong implications on their future. As a result, campus culture and resources are integral to the college experience for LGBTQ+ students.
Schools that aren't committed to gender justice and sexual liberation may expose LGBTQ+ students to additional stress and academic disruptions, which can impact the mental health and wellbeing of learners. LGBTQ+ students deserve to study in educational environments that empower them, support their personal growth, and invest in change that improves their lives.
The following guide offers a brief overview of the varying experiences and challenges LGBTQ+ may face on campus, important issues LGBTQ+ students should consider when navigating college life, and resources for additional education, awareness, and support.
Common Challenges for LGBTQ+ College Students
Impacts of the Pandemic
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has amplified preexisting challenges for LGBTQ+ college students, such as financial hardship, health disparities, housing insecurity, home/family conditions that aren't fully supportive, and a sense of isolation and disconnection from communities and support systems. Understanding this context is essential to recognizing the hurdles these students were already experiencing prior to the pandemic, and it informs the unique support LGBTQ+ college students need moving forward.
Fighting for Racial Justice
Efforts to combat racism and anti-blackness are playing out on college campuses and deeply affect student life. Students who activate in response to injustices against Black and Brown communities are faced with choices about balancing school work with fighting for justice. LGBTQ+ students of color are also concurrently impacted by the dynamics of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Programs and support services that follow intersectional approaches and honor the identities and experiences of all students simultaneously are needed.
Surge of Anti-Trans Legislation
Policy proposals intended to restrict trans people's lives are not new, but recently there's been a significant increase in anti-trans legislation. This legislation reduces access to healthcare, participation in sports, and safety in public spaces on and off campus. Colleges that comply with transphobic laws damage the mental health of trans, nonbinary, and intersex students, which also creates more work for support staff. These policies are harmful and negatively impact how trans people are perceived and treated, even if they aren't voted into law.
Not Feeling [Insert Identity] Enough
Sharing space with other LGBTQ+ people can be empowering, but it can also cause students to compare themselves to others in ways that impact their self-worth and confidence. This can spur feelings of not being queer/trans enough. This is a valid experience and can be aided by supportive community-centered spaces that assure students of their progress and honor the worth of their journey.
Finding Community and Relationships
Establishing a sense of community and meaningful relationships are important aspects of LGBTQ+ students' college experience and overall well-being. This can be difficult if LGBTQ+ students cannot find spaces where there are shared interests beyond having similar identities, such as hobbies or academic programs. Both in-person and online spaces can provide opportunities for LGBTQ+ students to make connections. Digital spaces can allow students to self-explore identities in ways that they are not comfortable or safe doing in person.
I think that many college campuses are more aware and inclusive of LGBTQ+ students these days, but there are still quite a few challenges. A lot of these challenges are similar to those in our society generally, but they manifest in specific ways on college campuses.
For example, many colleges still don't have gender-neutral bathroom and locker room facilities. Or if they do, they are few and far between. At most colleges, it can still be very difficult to update one's sex marker with the registrar's office.
Another challenge has to do with professors and administrators educating themselves about the letters in LGBTQ+ and what they mean. Why have some letters been dropped, and others added? What does the "+" mean? We often hear references to the LGBTQ+ community or LGBTQ+ people, but it's really important to understand that this umbrella covers a very wide range of identities, experiences, and expressions.
5 Important Questions LGBTQ+ Students Should Consider
Do you see yourself represented at the university?
While skimming websites and brochures, if there aren't signs that a university is thinking about LGBTQ+ students, that could be a red flag. The same goes for campus tours and college visits. The buildings may not be plastered with rainbows, but there should be some cues that LGBTQ+ people exist on campus.
What types of programs and initiatives are taking place on campus?
While Pride Month campaigns and National Coming Out Day luncheons are celebratory events that can bring visibility to LGBTQ+ communities, it's also important for campuses to have ongoing initiatives that aim to improve LGBTQ+ students' lives. For example, schools should have gender-inclusive housing and restrooms, educational workshops, and anti-discrimination policies.
Is there a center or designated staff member providing LGBTQ+ student support?
Many campuses have physical spaces for LGBTQ+ students to gather, study, or access resources and staff whose primary job is supporting LGBTQ+ students. Space and designated staff can indicate that a school is intentionally focusing on meeting LGBTQ+ student needs.
Is there an LGBTQ+ student organization or other student-led space?
Getting involved in a student organization can connect LGBTQ+ students to new friends, provide education opportunities not available in a classroom, and give an outlet for expressing oneself. Spaces run by students may also teach valuable skills related to program planning, budgeting, fundraising, and leadership.
Have many anti-LGBTQ+ incidents occurred at the university?
If yes, this doesn't necessarily have to be a deal breaker. Researching how university administrators have responded to anti-LGBTQ+ incidents impacting campus can be informative. Quick action, policy change, and collaboration with LGBTQ+ students and staff are promising signs that the university is responsive and committed to combating anti-LGBTQ+ behavior.
I think it's important to do your homework on campus culture to get a sense of whether and to what extent a campus is welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ+ students and their allies. You can get some sense of this by looking at college websites and seeing where, if at all, they mention LGBTQ+ identities.
I recommend taking a look at a college's mission statement, as well as seeing whether LGBTQ+ identities are mentioned in the college's diversity, equity, and inclusion statement. That will give you a sense of where a college's leadership stands on issues impacting LGBTQ+ students.
Also, check to see if there's a gender, sexuality, and women's studies program. You might not make it your major or minor, but it will give you a sense of whether LGBTQ+ courses and research is valued. Typically, these programs also hold events and meetups that may be of interest to you.
National LGBTQ+ Organizations and Conferences You Should Know
This volunteer-driven nonprofit develops student leaders and offers resources to create positive change on college campuses.
This member-based organization works to support LGBTQ+ people in higher education through a racial justice framework.
Members of this movement work to achieve the collective liberation of trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming Latinxs through local and national organizing.
This group aims to end racism and homophobia through policy changes, coalition building, and racial justice.
This organization provides scholarship, mentoring, and leadership opportunities as a way to help LGBTQ+ students overcome barriers to accessing college.
There are many national, regional, and state-based conferences for LGBTQ+ college students. Here is a short list of annual events:
- Big 12 LGBTQIA and Allies Summit hosted by Texas Tech University
- Creating Change hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force
- Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Asexual College Conference hosted by the Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity
- National Conference on Race and Ethnicity hosted by the University of Oklahoma
- Northeast LGBT Conference hosted by alternating universities throughout the region
- Queer Asian Conference hosted by UC Berkeley
Frequently Asked Questions About LGBTQ+ College Life
Share what's most comfortable and safe. Be aware that what's submitted through an application, such as your preferred name or pronouns, isn't guaranteed to reach other offices on campus. LGBTQ+ students might end up having to re-share this information later.
A staff member in an LGBTQ+ center should keep discussions about your identity and personal life confidential, and they are not required to provide that information to anyone else. However, it's a good habit to ask staff (including student staff) if they're a "mandated reporter" before disclosing certain information — these indivuals are required to report certain crimes, such as sexual assault or harrassment.
Student involvement or campus life offices usually oversee all student organizations and would have info about LGBTQ+ student groups. These orgs may also be housed in diversity and inclusion offices.
Contact your student/campus life office and ask about the process. Typically, you'll need to find 3-4 other students willing to help start the group. You'll also need to find an advisor and register your organization.
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 their bachelor's in creative writing and journalism from 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. R.B. also serves on the executive board for the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals.
Heath Fogg Davis is a Professor of Political Science and the Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Temple University. His book "Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?" questions our need for gender policies, and offers practical strategies to help organizations design and implement policies that are both trans-inclusive and better for all of us.
He consults on diversity and inclusion with businesses, schools, and nonprofits, and was an appointed member of the Mayor's Commission on LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia. His commentary on transgender and gender nonconforming political and legal issues has appeared in BuzzFeed, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Women's Health Magazine, Glassdoor, Aeon Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as on CNN.com, MSNBC, NPR, and Sex Out Loud.