LGBTQ College Culture Guide

An increasingly visible minority, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students make up around 10% of undergraduate learners. Offering diverse perspectives and experiences, LGBTQ students enrich college culture and life. Cultivating an LGBTQ-friendly college culture often helps schools attract and retain LGBTQ enrollees.

This guide discusses some of the most common challenges that LGBTQ college students face, both in school and elsewhere. These challenges include coming out, mental health issues, family issues, and interpersonal violence. This guide also highlights LGBTQ learners’ rights, introduces resources for LGBTQ college students, and summarizes the key features of LGBTQ-friendly college cultures.

Common Challenges for LGBTQ Students

The LGBTQ community faces many unique challenges, which can include coming-out stress, family rejection, anxiety and depression, and verbal and physical abuse. Schools should work to protect and support LGBTQ learners facing these challenges.

Coming Out

Some college students come out during their college years while exploring their identity and sexuality outside of the constraints of their family or community. Often a difficult process, coming out can require courage. LGBTQ college students may expend much emotional energy anticipating this decision and dealing with reactions from family and friends. This intense process can take time, energy, and focus away from college studies.

Anxiety and Depression

According to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey, LGBTQ learners aged 13-21 suffer disproportionately from low self-esteem and depression. Many learners also report skipping school out of fear of harassment, which clearly indicates heightened anxiety. Many LGBTQ young people feel different from the straight majority, which can contribute to social anxiety, isolation, and depression. Since learning under stress, anxiety, and depression proves difficult, these mental health issues can negatively affect learners’ studies.

Family Issues

Unlike people of marginalized races, religions, or social classes, LGBTQ individuals do not often grow up in families that share their identity. Many LGBTQ youth face misunderstanding and rejection from their families. This lack of support often contributes to LGBTQ students’ depression and isolation. Family stress and lack of support can make earning a college degree more difficult to achieve. Finding a supportive college culture and peer group often proves very important for LGBTQ youth who cannot rely on family support.

Interpersonal Violence

Many LGBTQ students experience physical harassment or assault. According to the GLSEN School Climate Survey, nearly 60% of students 13-21 years old report feeling unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation. Approximately 37% and 43% of LGBTQ learners feel afraid due to gender identity and gender expression, respectively. LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities provide various policies, programs, and campus safety systems that can help protect LGBTQ enrollees.

Things to Consider When Looking for an LGBTQ+ Community on Campus

Attending an LGBTQ-friendly school can promote feelings of belonging and satisfaction. Colleges and universities often provide policies, programs, resource centers, and activities that support LGBTQ students. See below for more information on various potential resources for LGBTQ college students.Campus CultureInstitutional best practices for cultivating a campus culture that supports LGBTQ students, include supporting LGBTQ student leadership and tracking LGBTQ retention. Campuses can also create LGBTQ resource centers, programs, clubs, and events. Resource centers often provide educational services, counseling, and programming that promote an LGBTQ-friendly campus culture.Mental HealthExperiencing LGBTQ discrimination and prejudice often takes a toll on students’ mental health. The unique stressors and pressures that LGBTQ college students experience often contribute to anxiety and depression. LGBTQ college enrollees without adequate support systems may also experience loneliness. Fortunately, many college campuses offer free or low-cost mental health counseling services.Community SupportSome schools and communities offer LGBTQ mentoring programs that foster supportive, confidential, mentor-mentee relationships. These relationships function as a safe space for mentees to discuss gender identity and sexual orientation issues, thoughts, and feelings. Some colleges also offer roommate-matching or gender-inclusive housing options that offer LGBTQ students an aware, supportive community. Schools can also connect LGBTQ learners with supportive off-campus LGBTQ centers, events, and groups.Clubs and ExtracurricularsLGBTQ-friendly college campuses typically offer LGBTQ clubs and various extracurricular events, programs, and activities that support community and camaraderie. Students should look for school calendars indicating gender-diverse activities such as LGBTQ performances, trips, dances, or comedy shows.Policies and SafetyWhen choosing where to apply, prospective LGBTQ college students should consider school safety. GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey highlights incredibly high rates of verbal harassment, sexual harassment, and cyberbullying of LGBTQ students ages 13-21. The report indicates that this hostile climate lowers self-esteem, GPA, and college aspirations. Schools can help combat these problems by creating and enforcing policies and programs that protect LGBTQ learners.Academics and FacultyMany schools offer LGBTQ-related majors and minors, such as gender studies, LGBTQ studies, and human sexuality. Sociology and psychology programs may also feature curriculum concentrations in these fields. Colleges and universities can support their LGBTQ populations further by hiring LGBTQ faculty and training non-LGBTQ professors on how to create a safe learning environment for LGBTQ students. Additionally, schools can attract and support marginalized learners by offering identity-based scholarships.Recruitment and RetentionFostering diverse student and faculty populations typically increases the scope, richness, and complexity of the learning environment. Colleges can attract LGBTQ applicants by sending out recruiting materials that highlight relevant campus programs, events, and activities. Schools often identify LGBTQ students by inviting learners to self-disclose their LGBTQ status on their applications.

Know Your Rights

LGBTQ college students should know the rights they hold in a higher education environment. Some federal and state laws protect LGBTQ learners, and many schools feature inclusion statements and policies that offer additional protection and support. Learn more about these resources below.Title IXTitle IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. This regulation specifies that federally supported schools and programs cannot treat people differently, refuse them services or housing, impose sanctions or behavioral rules, or discriminate based on sex or appearance.Inclusion of StatementsInclusion statements demonstrate organizations’ commitments to equality and diversity values, principles, and practices. They can help protect marginalized people by establishing an accepting, supportive organizational culture. LGBTQ students or employees can encourage organizations to substantiate their inclusion statement in various ways. Advocates can also challenge organizations for falling short of their stated values.State LawMany states have laws that protect LGBTQ students against discrimination and harassment in schools. States such as California, New York, Vermont, and Iowa offer detailed safeguards requiring local school boards to create and implement anti-harassment policies. These policies may ensure greater awareness of and consequences for LGBTQ harrassment.School PolicyMany colleges and universities feature diversity, inclusion, and anti-harrassment policies that protect LGBTQ individuals and communities. LGBTQ students who experience discrimination can file internal complaints or appeals. The Campus Pride Index serves as a free benchmarking tool that schools can use to create LGBTQ-inclusive campus cultures. This online tool also helps learners and their families identify LGBTQ-friendly campuses.

By Sage Mauldin, PhD
Sage Mauldin, PhD