College Experience Guide for LGBTQ+ Students

Learn about common experiences and challenges for LGBTQ+ college students. Discover how your campus can support LGBTQ+ learners.
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R.B. Brooks (they/them) is an educator and writer who focuses on queer and trans college students, Midwest culture, conference planning, and social change. They are director of programs for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality & Gender Diversity and p...
Updated on June 12, 2023
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
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  • 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+ organizations offer additional support and education.
  • LGBTQ+ college students are deeply impacted by the pandemic and fights for racial justice.

A February 2023 Gallup poll February 2023 Gallup poll indicates that 7.2% of U.S. adults identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community — a notable increase from 2017 data (4.5%). Furthermore, millennials and Generation Z 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 their mental health and wellbeing. 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+ students may face on campus, important issues LGBTQ+ learners 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 stress, 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. College learners need programs and support services that follow intersectional approaches and honor the identities and experiences of all students.

Surge of Anti-Trans Legislation

Policy proposals intended to restrict transgender and nonbinary people's lives are not new, but recently there's been a significant increase in anti-trans legislation. This legislation reduces trans people's 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 proposed 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, which can be mitigated by supportive community-centered spaces that assure students of their progress and honor the worth of their journeys.

Finding Community and Relationships

Establishing meaningful relationships is an important aspect of LGBTQ+ students' college experiences and overall well-being. However, finding community can be difficult if LGBTQ+ students don't have access to welcoming spaces based on 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 explore their identities in ways that are safer and more comfortable than doing so in person.

From your perspective, what are the challenges facing LGBTQ+ students today?

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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 bathrooms 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. Those spaces and designated staff can indicate that a school is intentionally focusing on meeting LGBTQ+ students' 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 educational opportunities not available in a classroom, and give them an outlet for expressing themselves. 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?

    Your safety at college is paramount. However, even if there have been homophobic incidents on a college's campus it the past, it can be informative to research how university administrators have responded to them. 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.

What factors should students consider when choosing a college that supports LGBTQ+ learners?

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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. While you might not choose to major or minor in the subject, the existence of such a program will can you a sense of whether LGBTQ+ courses and research are 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 Latino/a people 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:

Explore LGBTQ+ Resources

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Frequently Asked Questions About LGBTQ+ College Life

How do I address my LGBTQ+ identity in college applications?

Share what feels 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.

Are there any confidential resources for LGBTQ+ students on campus?

A staff member at a college's LGBTQ+ center should keep discussions about your identity and personal life confidential. They are not required to provide the information you discuss to anyone else. However, it's a good idea 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.

Where should I look to find LGBTQ+ student organizations at my college?

Student involvement or campus life offices usually oversee all student organizations and would have information about LGBTQ+ student groups. An LGBTQ+ student center may also be housed within a school's diversity and inclusion office.

How can I start an LGBTQ+ organization if there are none on my campus?

Contact your student or 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.

Portrait of R.B. Brooks, M.S. Ed.

R.B. Brooks, M.S. Ed.

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.

Portrait of Heath Fogg Davis

Heath Fogg Davis

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, MSNBC, NPR, and Sex Out Loud.