LGBTQ College Life
A 2016 survey of more than 30,000 college students found that more than 10% identified as LGBTQ. Given that there are more than 20 million college students in the US, extrapolating these findings out, this means there are roughly 2 million LGBTQ students attending colleges and universities across the country. So if you’re an LGBTQ student nervous that you may not fit in or find other LGBTQ students at school, know that you are far from alone.
And this applies to every level of higher education, from community college to PhD programs. Whether you’re studying for the LSAT to go to law school or preparing for the MCAT to go to medical school, there really shouldn’t be a need to worry.
Not only are there millions of other LGBTQ students out there with the same anxieties and feelings, there are also plenty of resources for LGBTQ individuals attending college. With gay marriage acceptance rates at all-time highs, and support for pride groups never stronger, there are more resources than ever to help make your transition from living at home easy and enjoyable. But before we dive into the resources available to students, as well as the tips we’ve aggregated from experts with deep understanding of LGBTQ life on campus, let’s first address the common difficulties and challenges faced by LGBTQ students in college.
Common Challenges Faced By LGBTQ Students
Loneliness and Isolation
One of the most common issues faced by LGBTQ students is feelings of loneliness and isolation. After years of close family support and the love of childhood friends, many LGBTQ individuals often find themselves alone for the first time upon arriving on campus. Or perhaps after bravely coming out to their families, LGBTQ students have been disowned or rejected by their family, leaving them without a support system back home. No matter the case, it not unusual for LGBTQ students to feel intense feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially in the first few weeks of school. This is why it is critical that students seek out a school that has a strong LGBTQ program and support system. There is no need to make only LGBTQ-identifying friends at your new school, but these groups and programs will often help ease your transition into your social circles at school.
After enduring relentless bullying and teasing throughout middle school and high school, harassment often doesn’t magically cease in college. Although far less common than it used to be, LGBTQ students are still frequently harassed on university campuses due to their sexual preferences and identities. In fact, surveys have shown that a majority of LGBTQ students are sexually harassed at least once at some point during college.
Many young people wait until college to come out. Whether because they were scared to tell their family while still living at home, are still exploring their sexuality and gender identity, or perhaps just didn’t fully understand until experiencing the freedom of college life, many LGBTQ come out during their college years. For some students this can be an extremely difficult crossroad in their life, and for others it is easier. There is no formula for coming out, but for many, it is a challenging moment during college.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression are very real issues faced by LGBTQ students. Gay and bisexual men are 3x more likely to suffer from depression that their straight counterparts, and lesbian and bisexual women are 4x more likely to suffer from anxiety than straight woman. There are several causes of this increased risk of feelings of anxiety and depression, including social stigmas that LGBTQ students face, harassment, loneliness, and having no support.
These feelings can also be compounded by intense course workloads if you’re studying in a difficult degree program like engineering or accounting. This is especially true if you are feeling the pressure of preparing for a post-graduation credential and using a prep course to study for a test like the CPA exam. Campus LGBTQ support programs are crucial to fighting off these feelings.
While many campuses are more open and welcoming than ever, some remain cold to LGBTQ students. On campuses that do not have welcoming arms, LGBTQ students risk being labeled and persecuted for being who they are. Students may be stigmatized by others, leading to feeling of stress, depression and loneliness. Being labeled makes connecting with others and building trust a difficult task.
Family and Financial Issues
Some LGBTQ students that have already come out have complicated and difficult family relationships. For this subset of LGBTQ students, going to college may further complicate these relationships and pose unique difficulties. Some families may cut off financial resources to these students, or even condition money on certain demands being met. This financial uncertainty and lack of familial support can induce stress and other issues that many non-LGBTQ do not have to face. If an LGBTQ student lacks a strong family support system, they should turn to campus LGBTQ programs and organizations for their strength and support.
Tips For Choosing A LGBTQ-Friendly College
Whether you’ve been out for years or just exploring your sexuality and gender identity, it is important to find a university that is LGBTQ friendly, has an active LGBTQ student body and makes diversity and safety a top priority. This will help foster your sexual exploration, self-growth, and sense of identity. However, finding the right school isn’t necessarily the easiest task.
Every school claims to be LGBTQ-friendly, but how do you really know? Don’t be afraid to ask counselors, admissions officers, professors and current students any questions on your mind. This will offer the clearest picture of what life on that campus would be like. Take a campus tour, ask to meet with students in the school’s LGBTQ on-campus organizations, and explore the housing setup.
And if you’re looking for a place to start before you even starting taking tours and asking questions, Campus Pride, the leading national nonprofit organization serving LGBTQ students, every year posts their rankings of the best college campuses for LGBTQ students. You can find that ranking here.
As you begin exploring these campuses, here are 10 key things to keep in mind and look for:
1. LGBTQ Student Organizations. Explore the college’s website, social media and activity calendar for LGBTQ student events. Look for activities sponsored by on-campus LGBTQ student groups, as well as events put on by the university that offer rich gender diverse experiences and gatherings.
2. Campus Culture. Jump into some forums and different reviews to make sure the campus has a progressive and open-minded culture. You want a college experience that is welcoming, warm and fun. Seek out other LGBTQ students’ experiences, and jump into campus tours where possible.
3. Out Students and Faculty. How many students and faculty at the school are out? None, few or many? Having a diverse campus with an inclusive student and faculty body can make the transition to life much easier. Ensure there are high rates of LGBTQ staff and students, indicating a campus that is open and welcoming.
4. Inclusive Housing (Gender Neutral). Housing can be an extremely sensitive topic for LGBTQ students. If you think you may need special gender neutral housing needs, make sure to confirm such accommodations exist at your desired campus before enrolling. Most campuses today have inclusive housing opportunities, but this is a critical element to look for.
5. Campus Safety and Security. As many LGBTQ students face harassment, physical violence and even sexual assault, it is imperative the school you go has a strong stance on safety and security. Check to see whether the college has dedicated campus police, emergency beacons and secure facilities.
6. Academics. One ‘no duh’ factor in assessing potential schools, but that can’t be easily forgotten, is academics. Don’t go to a college just because they are the most LGBTQ-friendly campus on Earth. There are plenty of colleges today that will fit the bill, so make sure the strength of their academics is part of the equation.
7. Campus Health Resources. Certain LGBTQ students face unique medical obstacles, with special needs and prescriptions. Make sure your university has a strong health center, with excellent medical coverage. In addition, not every college today offers free mental health and counseling services. Given the higher risk LGBTQ individuals face of dealing with anxiety, depression and loneliness in college, ensure you will have access to such mental health services if needed.
8. Local Vibe. As you move through college, there is a good chance you will spending more and more time off campus. You will be frequenting coffee shops, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, art galleries and more. Make sure the city where you school is located fits your needs and passions. Identify cities and towns where you most want to be based on the abundance of these extracurriculars.
9. Degree Programs. As you matriculate from high school to college, you may already have a major in mind. Make sure your desired school has this program. And as a bonus, ask around to see whether other LGBTQ students are majoring in this discipline as well. Though your ideas may change about what you want to do post-graduation as you experience university life and take classes in new subjects, a college’s degree offerings are an important piece of the puzzle.
10. LGBTQ Peer Mentoring and Support. One nice feature that many LGBTQ-friendly campuses offer is peer counseling and support. This usually involves an older LGBTQ student serving as a mentor for an incoming student. These programs can often be crucial to new a LGBTQ student’s success at a school. Having a dedicated mentor can pay huge dividends for introducing you to student groups, showing you where your classes are, and even helping you to explore off-campus activities.
Helpful Resources For LGBTQ Students
In addition to any on campus resources and LGBTQ organizations that may be available you, there are numerous national, off campus groups and resources that may be helpful. These range from groups that provide counselling, to excellent editorial content and data, to advocacy. Here are a few of our experts’ top picks for useful resources:
- Campus Pride. Campus Pride is a leading national organization that works to enhance the lives of LGBTQ students on campus. They work with LGBTQ student organizations to establish campuses that are warm, welcoming and free of hate for LGBTQ students. They also post annual rankings of the most LGBTQ-friendly campus in the US.
- Out For Work. This group helps LGBTQ students who are still in school or graduating find jobs and internships. Their goal is to help LGBTQ individuals find work to support themselves during the earliest stages of their career.
- The Trevor Project. This non-profit organization provides a crisis and suicide hotline for LGBTQ students who need help. Individuals can also seek help with this group through text or online chat.
- The Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). GSA is a unique non-profit group that brings together LGBTQ and straight students with the common interest of creating a campus that is safe, open minded and free of bigotry. GSA trains student leaders to create on campus organizations where LGBTQ and straight students alike can meet to socialize, work on gender diversity initiatives and offer support.
- Safety Net. Safety Net offers a niche function – helping LGBTQ students navigate attending religious colleges and universities. Safety Net works with the student leaders, faculty and administrators of religious colleges and seminaries to foster an environment that is safe and welcoming for LGBTQ students.
- Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). GLSEN is a group that works with students, teachers and administrators to create campus environments where LGBTQ students feel safe. GLSEN also works with local community groups to establish GSAs and promote special projects and days of observance.
- Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER). A non-profit organization that is run by students, this group puts it effort into making more school environments trans-friendly.
Resources For Family And Friends To Support LGBTQ Students
Whether you are just finding out that your child, sibling or friend identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer and you want to get more information, or you’re diving in to volunteer in support of your loved one, there are all sorts of resources for family and friends of LGBTQ students. Here are a few of the biggest organizations and resources out there:
- PFLAG. This organization is dedicated to promoting equality, inclusion and diversity. Open to LGBTQ family members, friends and advocates, PFLAG has local chapters, as well as tons of information and great resources on the website.
- Campus Pride. As mentioned above, Camus Pride is one of the biggest support organizations for college-based LGBTQ individuals. They have an excellent section of their website for friends and family of LGBTQ students, offering in-depth information on ways to support your LGBTQ loved one. It is about the best educational resource for all things LGBTQ-related.
- Out Proud Families. As the name suggests, this group provides editorial content and helpful information on how families can be more supportive of their LGBTQ youth. Their blog posts and video posts offer excellent insights into how to best support your LGBTQ loved one.
- Human Rights Campaign. The Human Rights Campaign is about the largest civil rights organization in the US. In addition to their work on all sorts of human rights initiatives, they have a special chapter dedicated to furthering LGBTQ rights. They offer ample information on coming out for LGBTQ individuals and their families.
- Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life. For those really seeking detailed information on LGBTQ campus life, this book published by The Princeton Review offers an in-depth survey of close to 100 campuses around the country. The book discusses which campuses are LGBTQ-friendly, with coverage of their on campus organizations, discrimination policies, local communities, and more.
Expert Guidance For LGBTQ College Relationships
Navigating romantic relationships in college can be hard for anyone. You are constantly surrounded by smart and beautiful people, there is generally a fair amount of partying, and there is never any shortage of social events. With all of this temptation and distraction, it can make it hard to foster and grow any budding relationship.
These challenges are not unique to straight students. In fact, these difficulties apply the same to LGBTQ students, and perhaps even more so. College is often the first time an LGBTQ youth has had the freedom to explore their gender identity or sexuality, unhindered by trying to hide their relations or feelings from family and friends. Life on campus is often also the first time LGBTQ individuals start their first serious romantic relationship, and that first real romance can have its highs and its lows. In addition, LGBTQ students in an open relationship may be subject to many of the challenges noted above in this article – namely, harassment, bullying, public scorn, and a host of other acts.
As such, LGBTQ students often feel the need to seek out support and advice in navigating their college relationships, but don’t know where to turn. To help answer questions and provide some helpful guidance, we’ve gathered advice from four relationship experts on how LGBTQ students can navigate and improve their college relationships.
Sarah McKeon, Ph.D.
“Remember to focus on yourself. In my work with gay and lesbian college students, so often they lose themselves in their first relationship. This is often a time of unbridled happiness and freedom, and it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole. You need to remember that college is a time for introspective reflection and growth. It is good to foster heathy relationships, but don’t lose yourself in another. Explore your sexuality, but remember to work on yourself above all others.”
Ruth Dumore, LPC
“Never think you’re alone. While many laypeople think of college as a Woodstock-like environment for recently out LGBTQ individuals, full of sexual exploration and freedom, the reality is that college can actually be isolating and terrifying for many LGBTQ students. Bullying and harassment from frat guys, having your dignity stripped away through labels, and losing any family support that may have propped you up at home, are just a few of the difficulties. Just remember, you’re never alone. There has never been more resources and support for LGBTQ students on campus as there is today. And if you are struggling, know that there are others struggling on campus as well. Seek out other LGBTQ students through on campus organizations and activities, and foster those relationships.”
Karen Shelton, LCPC
“Though many people may not realize it, domestic violence is a significant problem in LGBTQ relationships, especially during college years. Alcohol-fueled college parties combined with jealousy and possessiveness often lead to outbursts and acts of violence between LGBTQ partners. Fights between partners in dorm rooms or at parties is not uncommon at all, with some tiffs escalating to physical violence. Many victims of this interpersonal violence are scared to report this abuse to police as they are nervous to reveal their sexuality or gender identity. This often leads them to stay in the toxic relationship and continue the repeated pattern of abuse and reconcile. Don’t fall into this trap. If you have suffered physical abuse at the hands of your partner, report them to the police and get out of the relationship.”
Leslie Hunter, MD, Ph.D.
“One of the biggest issues I see when meeting with LGBTQ individuals in their early- to mid-20’s is that they fall head over heels for their first college love. They let this relationship consume them and pass up experiences and activities that may be once in a lifetime in order to spend evenings in with their newfound partner. I have met with numerous LGBTQ patients who are filled with regret over missing some of the best years of their life over a relationship that didn’t last. I am not implying college relationships are “puppy love.” In fact, many of these first relationships are extremely beneficial, allowing for sexual exploration and self-actualization. And some of these relationships do last through college and beyond. However, my advice is to not let life pass you by. Your college years are a time you will never get back, and it always pains me to see patients filled with such regret.”
Understanding Your Legal Rights
As it is not uncommon for LGBTQ students to suffer some form of discrimination, harassment or mistreatment while attending college, it is critical that that you know your legal rights. By having a firm grasp of the protections afforded to you and knowing how to seek out legal remedies, you will feel more confident in protecting yourself when you are wronged.
By far, the most influential college-related law is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This federal law protects individuals attending public universities and colleges which get federal funding from discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion and other protected bases. This federal law holds that if a college receiving federal funds has systemic problems with ignoring or knowingly accepting discrimination or harassment based on one of the protected bases above – whether those acts are done by students, faculty or staff – the school may be held liable for damages. The law forbids sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault and other forms of physical, as well as non-physical discrimination. If you are a victim of any form of discrimination or harassment based on your LGBTQ status, you should report such acts to the U.S. Department of Education by filing a complaint.
Although Title IX goes to great lengths to protect college LGBTQ students, there are certain loopholes for religious organizations. A number of higher education religious universities and organizations have received exemptions from Title IX by claiming the law conflicts with their religious moral codes. This creates invisible opportunity for LGBTQ students to be discriminated against at such universities, and this risk has been highlighted by the Human Rights Campaign in their report, Hidden Discrimination: Title IX Religious Exemptions Putting LGBT Students at Risk. If you are thinking about attending at a religious university, read this guide to see whether your desired institution falls within this exemption.
Beyond Title IX, a number of state laws have evolved over the years around LGBTQ discrimination. Some of these laws are very protective of your status as a member of the LGBTQ community, such as California’s Equity in Higher Education Act, while others actually impede on your rights to freely express yourself, such as certain Alabama state laws. Lambda Legal offers a detailed and extremely helpful guide that breaks down every states’ anti-discrimination and other protective laws available to LGBTQ students. Their website provides authoritative guidance and is about the best resource for state law on the internet.
Finally, if you ever feel like have been wronged and cannot seem to get traction in making your voice heard, almost every campus today has some form of legal aid society, with some even having LGBTQ-specific legal aid organizations. These legal aid groups serve to help fight injustice and bring equality to those that are discriminated against or marginalized. If you have been harmed and cannot get attention through the normal channels, seek out help from your local legal aid society.
➡ Read Next: College Student Mental Health Guide