College is a huge transition period for everybody, and choosing the right one for you is as thrilling as it is nerve racking. You’re picking the subject you want to study, and will on many levels determine the path your life will take, as well as choosing a place which you will call home for four or more years. In short, choosing the right college is not a small thing!
The transition to college is daunting for everybody, but it can be especially intimidating for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). Although LGBTQ issues have had more visibility over the past few decades, and research shows that average levels of acceptance for LGBTQ people and rights have increased globally since 1980, ignorance and intolerance haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth, and you might unfortunately encounter them at some point during your college years.
That’s one of the reasons why leaving the safety of your childhood and high school friends, your family, and your support network and starting over at college can be a little scary. But college is also different from high school in many positive ways: The LGBTQ community is usually very visible and active on campus, and there are lots of LGBTQ students groups, activities, and services specifically for the community.
You’ll likely find more opportunities to engage in advocacy and activism, or to simply engage in your passions—art, theatre, music, sports, science—with the support of like-minded people. And if you are interested in gender, sexuality, or queer studies, there are lots of colleges that offer majors or minors in those areas.
And because of the greater visibility and acceptance, many questioning students find it the right environment to explore their sexuality or gender identity. And if you are not yet out, there are usually people who you can talk to at college—fellow students who know what you are going through, trained counselors, and supportive staff.
But when it comes to the LGBTQ community, not all colleges are created equal. While general acceptance has increased across the board, some colleges are far more LGBTQ friendly than others.
What Are Your Rights as an LGBTQ Student?
Before you embark on this important stage of your life, you should be aware of all of your legal rights, so that you are also quick to recognize when they are being infringed upon. Some protections have been in place for decades, but others have only recently been passed:
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bans sex and gender-based discrimination in educational programs that are federally funded, including public universities, colleges, vocational training programs organized by anyone that receives federal funding. Unfortunately, this law does not cover privately funded organizations (although some of these usually have their own protections in place).
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed in 2009 and named after the victims of two separate heinous crimes: Matthew Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming, and James Byrd, Jr. was an African-American man. Both were killed in 1998, the former for his sexuality, the latter for his race. The act gives more freedom to federal law enforcement to investigate crimes that local authorities have dismissed, and allocate funds to prosecute hate crimes.
What Are Some Issues Affecting LGBTQ College Students?
LGBTQ students face the same challenges everyone else does when starting college: making new friends, keeping up with coursework, being self-reliant, and not going over budget are all part of the package. But for LGBTQ students, this period comes with a whole lot of different challenges and obstacles.
While college is generally more diverse and open than high school, students do still report cases of homophobia, transphobia, and other types of discrimination. There are federal laws that deal directly with on-campus bullying, and each state has its own anti-bullying and anti-discrimination legislation, but they tend to be inconsistent and not strong enough.
Some states, for example, encourage rather than require public schools to have anti-bullying specialists on campus. That’s why it’s important to not assume that your school will automatically protect you from harassment, and why it’s fundamental that you choose a college that goes that extra mile to look after its students.
Another very serious issues facing LGBTQ students is that of sexual assault. Sadly, students of any gender identity or sexual orientation can become victims of sexual assault, and this continues to be an urgent problem on campus’ across the country.
But research shows that LGBTQ students are even more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact: in this 2015 survey by The Association of American Universities, three in four LGBTQ students reported experiencing sexual harassment. While all universities are supposed to have systems in place to prevent this and to support victims, this isn’t always the case in reality.
Trans students too will find a big difference between different universities or colleges. Some schools are very accommodating when it comes to changing your name on class or dorm registers, and school IDs, while others make it a bureaucratic nightmare.
Similarly, trans students might find that campus isn’t set up for them, for example by making them feel unwelcome in certain spaces. While the number of schools offering gender-neutral bathrooms, for example, is increasing every year, there are still too many that do not offer such facilities. It’s the same story with gender-neutral or gender-inclusive accommodation.
So with so many differences across the board, how do you know which school will offer the most? Choosing the perfect college is not easy, and it requires research and time. But don’t be intimidated! The payoff is huge—finding a college that feels like home, where the community will welcome you and support you, and where you will find friends for life.
What Makes a Good College for LGBTQ Students?
Unfortunately there is no ‘one-size-fits’ all solution to finding the best school. What might seem perfect to you might be someone else’s nightmare (a small, quiet university versus a big city one for example), so the ‘perfect college’ is a very subjective matter. That being said, in addition to focusing on schools that offer solid academic courses in your chosen subject, there are a few specific things to look out for as an LGBTQ student.
Some people start off by looking at the geographic location of the school, and whether it is located in a traditionally more progressive or more conservative part of the country. Having researched hundreds of colleges in all parts of the United States, we’d recommend trying not to get too caught up on that, as we’ve found that colleges in the most unlikely places can have a vibrant LGBTQ scene, and a supportive and welcoming campus environment. Here are some of the things you should keep in mind when researching your future school.
Gender Inclusive and Gender Neutral Housing and Facilities
Traditionally, in colleges and universities across the country housing is assigned to students based on their legal sex, and people are housed with others of the same legal sex. This, of course, is problematic for transgender, binary, or gender-nonconforming students, who are too often put in uncomfortable positions and left to fight for their right to be housed with students of their chosen gender.
In this U.S.Transgender Survey, 23% of respondents reported that they had experienced housing discrimination because of their identification as transgender. Thankfully, the tide is turning on this too, and a growing number of universities and colleges are offering different housing options.
Some colleges give the option of sharing a dorm or flat with fellow LGBTQ students, living in gender-neutral or gender-inclusive (meaning everyone is welcome) apartments, or choosing to live with the gender you identify as. Gender-neutral or inclusive housing isn’t specifically or solely for LGBTQ students, and is an option for the wider student population too.
Campus Pride (we’ll tell you more about them later!) has a very helpful list of colleges and universities that offer gender-inclusive housing, so this is a great place to start looking for colleges if housing is a concern for you.
Another possible difficulty transgender or gender-nonconforming students can face on campus is that of simply using the bathroom, as most bathrooms are divided by male and female, therefore excluding a whole lot of people. Being forced to use the wrong bathrooms can make people feel understandably uncomfortable, or even unsafe.
Thankfully, there has been a push in recent years to have gender-neutral bathrooms on college campuses, and most have stepped up to the place. Some however are still lagging behind, and it’s thanks to the tireless work of their LGBTQ centers that things are slowly changing. If you are accepted into your dream college, but it does not have gender-neutral bathrooms, don’t let this be the reason to give up on your dream. Instead, you could take up the cause when you are there, and make a positive change for generations of students to come.
Most colleges have non-discrimination policies, and issuing some sort non-discrimination policy or statement is standard practice. Most of these, regardless of the institution, are written in similar language and formats, and identify various protected social categories.
Standard policies state that discrimination based on race, religion, nationality, disability, age, and sex, among others, will not be tolerated and will, in fact, be punished, either by the institution or by law. Non-discrimination policies also provide necessary accommodations for people who might need them (for example people who need to do things differently because of religious reasons or because of a disability).
Although it is likely that the college you are interested in does have a non-discrimination policy, it’s important that you go through it and read it thoroughly, because not all policies include explicit reference to the LGBTQ community, and some are left too vague to actually be enforced.
At the very least the policy should include ‘sex’, ‘sexual orientation’, ‘gender identity’, and/or ‘gender expression’ as protected groups and categories. But even if these categories are in there? How does the college or university ensure that people are not discriminated against, and that people who do discriminate are suitably investigated and penalized?
It’s important that the policy outlines steps for students, faculty, or staff to take in case they are discriminated against, or witness cases of discrimination. A strong non-discrimination policy will:
- Outline provisions for preventative measures
- Clearly explain how employees can report discrimination
- Explicitly state that students and/or staff will not be punished for reporting discrimination or participating in an investigation, and that their confidentiality will be protected as much as possible
- Explain that there are specific people designated to deal with complaints about discrimination, and indicate who people should go to with their complaints
- Outline provisions for prompt investigations into complaints
- State consequences of violating the policy and describe possible corrective actions
The non-discrimination policy is also where universities and colleges will usually outline the process for students to change their name and gender identity/expression on university documents. If this isn’t in the policy, it might still be possible, but you need to make sure it is stated somewhere. The best place to find out what the institution’s stance is on the matter is to get in touch with their LGBTQ Center.
An Active LGBTQ Center
The University of Michigan was the first to create an LGBTQ Center on campus, all the way back in 1971. LGBTQ Centers are now present in lots of campuses across the country, and they provide various resources for LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty. Not all centers are the same, of course: some simply function as admin offices assisting LGBTQ people to change their name or gender identity, or to file a discrimination complaint, for example.
According to the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, the office’s primary mission should be to offer LGBTQ or gender and sexuality services, as well as visible LGBTQ programming. The consortium also states that centers must also be staffed by at least one halftime (50% or 20 hours per week) professional staff or graduate assistant whose job description is solely dedicated to serving the LGBTQ Center.
But many centers across the country are the very life and soul of campus, and they offer more than just admin assistance or academic resources. The best centers actually offer support, counseling, occasions for socializing and partying, and a safe space to relax, read, work, and meet people. Some centers even sponsor educational events, talks, and workshops, and all are open to allies of the community, and of course to those questioning their sexuality or gender identity too.
LGBTQ Centers often offer special orientation events for incoming students, or even extended orientation trips: Q-mmunity for example is an extended orientation and leadership development retreat at Rutgers University, while MIT’s LGBTQ Center welcomes new students with Samosas and Smoothies in their cozy Rainbow Lounge. We cannot recommend attending these events enough, as they are not only an opportunity to get to know staff and volunteers, but also where you will start meeting people who might well become friends for life.
One fundamentally important function of LGBTQ centers is to offer support and counseling. Each center does it in different way—many have weekly or biweekly support groups, either for specific groups or around specific themes (for example there are groups especially for questioning students or people struggling to come out, groups for people who identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, or gender fluid, and more), or general groups for people to come together and talk about their concerns, whether about academic struggles, personal relationships, or the political climate.
Some offer drop-in consultations with trained counselors. Some centers collaborate with the university’s wider counseling and psychological services to ensure that there are staff trained to deal with different issues around sexuality and/or gender, while some also offer crisis counseling by phone 24/7.
Some LGBTQ centers are also a place for activism and advocacy, where students, staff, and faculty can work together to change university policies and practices for the better, or even to organize and engage with national politics. And centers are often home to stimulating talk series, educational events, guest lectures, thematic exhibitions, and more. Tufts University’s center, for example, is one of the institutions that hosts talks and events that aim to educate people on themes of cis-supremacy, queerphobia, and other types of discrimination.
Last but not least: LGBTQ Centers are fun! Many have a cool common area where you can sit and study, or meet and chat with your friends. They also run regular social events, parties, and happy hours such as Queer Prom or Queer Hollywood at Ohio State University, or the Quench (Queer + Lunch) discussion groups and the CU OUT on the Town LGBTQ-focused outings run by Columbia University’s ‘LGBTQ @ Columbia’.
The staff and volunteers are also the ones who will be organizing events for national events such as Pride Week or even your Lavender Graduation, the annual graduation ceremony that honors LGBTQ students and celebrates their accomplishments.
So to sum it all up: Make sure you get in touch with colleges’ LGBTQ Centers when you’re choosing where you want to go, and ask about what they do. And once you’re on campus, make sure to visit and get involved!
A Word on Questioning Students and Allies
Although LGBTQ Centers are specifically for the LGBTQ community, they are also very open and inclusive places, not exclusive. This means that although you may not identify as an LGBTQ student, you are still welcome to frequent the space as long as you are engaged and respectful.
Students who are questioning, investigating, or struggling with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity for example will find a welcoming and supportive environment at their college’s LGBTQ center. Some centers even have support groups specifically for people who are just in the process of discovering their sexuality and/or gender identity, or for people who are not ‘out’ yet.
Allies—heterosexual and/or cisgender people who support LGBT social movements and gender equality, and who fight homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression—are also welcome in LGBTQ centers, and can actually play a central role there if they wish. Some centers run education talks specifically to teach allies to examine their own attitudes and behaviors, and on how to support LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ Student Groups
When you get to college we highly recommend joining a student group, club, or association. You’ll find all kinds of organizations: some are tied to the subject you are studying (for example geography club, law club, french club, or history club), others are tied to hobbies or activities you might be passionate about (music, drama, hiking), while others are for sports lovers and athletes.
But there are also many identity-based student groups, tied to nationality, race, religion, culture, sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and many others that are intersectional and include more than one social or political identity. These groups are both an outlet for socializing and having fun, as well as a place where people who have gone through similar experiences and struggles can support and encourage each other.
Each university or college will have its own long list of LGBTQ organizations. The University of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Center, for example, hosts over 30 student organizations, while Princeton University’s LGBT Center is home to dozens of student-led groups, many of them intersectional: BlaQT+, for example, is a group of undergraduate LGBTQ students, while LGBTQ✡J is a Jewish LGBTQ social group, and PULPO LGBT+ is part of the Latinx Perspectives Organization (PULPO).
There are also LGBTQ organizations tied to the various majors, sports, or hobbies. You’ll also find groups open to people who identify as asexuals, groups for allies, political LGBTQ organizations, and much more.
LGBTQ Fraternities and Sororities
The list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning LGBTQ fraternities and sororities. Greek life can be such a huge part of the college experience, but they are not traditionally known for their openness. Although that is changing in general, a great way for you to enjoy Greek life without fear of homophobia or other discriminatory behaviors is to join an LGBTQ group.
LGBTQ Sororities and fraternities have existed since the 1980s (Delta Phi Upsilon was founded in 1985, and Delta Lambda Phi only one year later), and dozens have flourished since. Here is a quick, non-exhaustive list of some of the most LGBTQ friendly fraternities and sororities:
- Alpha Lambda Zeta (ΑΛΖ) is a fraternity for women who identify as masculine lesbians.
- Alpha Pi Delta (ΑΠΔ) is a sorority for lesbians.
- Delta Lambda Phi (ΔΛΦ) is a fraternity for gay, bisexual, transgender and progressive men.
- Gamma Rho Lambda (ΓΡΛ) is an LGBTQ sorority for women, trans women, trans men, and non-binary students of any race or sexual orientation.
- Omicron Epsilon Pi (ΟΕΠ) is another sorority for lesbians, but especially for lesbian women of color.
- Sigma Kappa (ΣΚ) is a sorority for all those who live and identify as women.
- Kappa Psi Kappa (ΚΨΚ) is a fraternity for progressive men of all ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and sexual orientations.
- Chi Upsilon Omega (ΧΥΩ) is a sorority for transgender women.
- Phi Sigma Sigma (ΦΣΣ) is the first collegiate nonsectarian sorority to allow membership of women of all faiths and backgrounds, and although not exclusively for LGBTQ+ women, its welcoming and inclusive attitude attracts many queer women.
- Sigma Phi Beta (ΣΦΒ) is a fraternity for gay, straight, bisexual, and transgender men.
By the way, this doesn’t mean that LGBTQ students are not welcomed in other fraternities or sororities, it’s just that you may prefer to be in an explicitly LGBTQ group. If not, you can always go and meet people from various sororities and fraternities and get a feel for them. Some fraternities that are not specifically for the LGBTQ community actually have specific provisions for LGBTQ people in their non-discrimination policies, while some are explicitly inclusive.
LGBTQ Health Services and Counseling
We already briefly mentioned health services and counseling above, when talking about the LGBTQ centers, as they are often the ones offering LGBTQ-specific health services. But it’s worth looking at in more depth, as these services are a lifeline for so many people. The transition from high school to college can be difficult for anyone, but it presents some very distinct challenges for LGBTQ students.
During difficult moments like this, it’s good to know how to find the right help and support. Although most colleges offer health and mental health services to their students, it’s important that they also meet the needs of the LGBTQ community, which in some cases can be very different to those of the wider student body.
The first place to go to learn about the services on offer is the LGBTQ center, which often runs its own services—sexual health clinics, drop-in centers, counseling, mentoring, and support groups are all quite common.
Some centers collaborate with the college’s health center, or their counseling and psychological services offices to ensure that staff there are trained to work with LGBTQ students, and are familiar with the issues affecting individuals from the community.
Queer, Trans, and Gender Studies Programs
Being LGBTQ doesn’t mean you have to have an academic interest in LGBTQ issues or queer theory, of course, but many people do want to have a theoretical and historical understanding of what they have lived and are living through. Lots of universities and colleges now offer different versions of women’s studies, sexuality studies, queer studies, and more.
In different ways, these courses look at the social and cultural constructs of gender, the social production and regulation of sexuality, systems of oppression and privilege, and how sexual normativity shapes diverse institutions. If you choose a course in these fields, it is likely that you will also examine the intersections of sexuality and other social categories such as gender, race, age, disability, nationality, etc.
Some interesting courses include:
- Women’s Studies
- Feminist Studies
- Queer Studies
- LGBTQ Studies
- Gender and Sexuality Studies
Remember that it is also possible to take a more traditional course, but with a queer or LGBT lense. For example, if you are interested in psychology, there are lots of psychology courses that focus on LGBTQ issues.
So you’ve found your perfect college and been accepted into the program you wanted. Congratulations! But what if you can’t afford it? Unfortunately, this is a problem for students all over the world, and even more so for LGBTQ students.
Although this is becoming less of an issue, some people are unfortunately still rejected and disowned by their families when they come out as gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex, gender non-conforming, or bi.
This is, of course, a huge obstacle in the life of many young LGBTQ students—not only will they not receive financial support from their family, but they might also struggle to find financial assistance, as many applications require a parent’s signature or documentation.
According to this research by Point Foundation, 41% of LGBTQ students reported that they delayed their educational pursuits because the costs were too high, and they did not have their family’s support. Out of the people who responded to the survey, 32% said that their gender identity or sexual orientation was a factor when being denied financial services.
If you are in a difficult financial situation, don’t panic: there are lots of scholarships for LGBTQ students. Some are national, others are tied to specific states, cities, or counties. Others scholarships are offered directly by the school, while some are for students wanting to study in a specific field. There are scholarships just for gay men, just for lesbians, just for trans students… you get the picture!
Allies of the LGBTQ community can also apply to lots of these scholarships. Something to keep in mind is that many of these scholarships don’t only look at academic record or financial need, they look for an active participation in the LGBTQ community, in the form of activism, advocacy, or any form of work that advances the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people.
There really are lots of scholarships, and you should check out our other post with a list of scholarships specifically for LGBTQ folks.
In addition to that, here are a few other places you can look for financial assistance:
- The LGBTQ center of your chosen school. They often have scholarships for students, or can at least point you in the right direction.
- The department of your chosen program.
- LGBTQ professional associations. LGBTQ lawyers’, pilots’, teachers’, scientists’, or doctors’ (we could go on and on) organizations sometimes have scholarships for LGBTQ students wanting to study in that field.
- Major organizations such as Point Foundation, PFLAG, Pride Foundation, Gamma Mu Foundation and more.
Other LGBTQ Organizations and Resources for Students
While we hope that our guide to college is giving you lots of helpful tips, we also know that we cannot fit everything in here! Thankfully, there are lots of organizations that cater to LGBTQ students in different ways, either by providing information or offering services. As well as your college LGBTQ centers, there are lots of alliances and organizations across the country. Here are some of the best:
Founded almost 20 years ago with the intent of building safer campus communities for LGBTQ people, Campus Pride is now one of the most important LGBTQ organizations in the context of higher education, and they have done incredible work. According to their mission statement, “Campus Pride serves LGBTQ and ally student leaders and campus organizations in the areas of leadership development, support programs and services to create safer, more inclusive LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities. It exists to develop, support and give ‘voice and action’ in building future LGBTQ and ally student leaders.”
Campus Pride has carried out tons of important research, which has then been used to support a change in policies to make colleges and universities more inclusive. They also have lots of helpful lists (for example the one that includes all the universities that offer gender-neutral housing that we mentioned above) for you to look through when you’re choosing your college. Campus Pride works closely with student organizations, and has helped develop networks or organizations that now work together for the good of all.
The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization founded in 1998, and its main purpose is to prevent suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth. The Trevor Lifeline is a toll-free telephone number that puts you in touch with trained crisis counselors who will talk to you and help you get through a difficult moment.
You can also use Trevor Chat and Trevor Text, which will also put you in touch with highly trained counselors and volunteers. This excellent organization has put together a long list of suicide prevention trainings and resources which are really helpful if you are involved in the community on campus and want to help.
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) National Help Center was founded in in 1996, and has been providing vital support, resources, infomation, and community connections for people who may be going through a transition period, or who are questioning their sexual and/or gender identity.
The help center runs thanks to the work of hundreds of volunteers who run three separate hotlines (the LGBT National Hotline, the LGBT National Youth Talkline, and the LGBT National Senior Hotline), as well as one-to-one chats. The help center exists to help you work through all kinds of issues, from worries about coming out, to safe sex, relationship problems, or anxiety about starting college.
GLSEN was founded in 1990 by a group of teachers who recognized the important role educators play in the lives of all young people, but particulary LGBTQ youth. Educators have the power to create positive and affirming learning environments, and can also empower students to create their own movements (that is where GLSEN’s initiatives such as Ally Week, Day of Silence, and No Name Calling Week come from).
Over the past 30 years GLSEN has researched and designed policies to protect and include LGBTQ students, and has successfully fought discriminatory legislation across the country.
Since 1978, GLAD has been working for full legal equality for LGBTQ people and those living with HIV. Through litigation, policy advocacy, and education, they have achieved innumerable precedent-setting victories. They work in the fields of discrimination, employment, aging, parenting, HIV-AIDS, healthcare, immigration and more, and can refer you to a laywer who is sensitive to the needs of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and people with HIV.
This is a really helpful search tool to direct you to the closest LGBTQ healthcare providers. Hopefully your own college will have one, either at the LGBTQ center or a trained member of staff at the campus’s health center, but if they do not you can search GLMA’s directory. And it’s not only for primary healthcare providers either: you can search for dentists, physiotherapists, dermatologists, and most other kinds of specialists. Best of all—the service is completely free.
This youth-led organization works to transform the educational environment for trans and gender-nonconforming students. Through advocacy and lots of hard work, the folks at TSER are creating an increasingly trans-friendly education system, and part of their mission is to “educate the public and teach trans activists how to be effective organizers.”
You can get in touch with them if you need support in creating a trans-inclusive policy at your school, or if you want the TSER representative to come and give a talk or workshop. They also publish lots of helpful resources for trans students, about trans/queer organizing, and about education by and for queer and trans people.
We absolutely love this project, and so do thousands of LGBTQ youth! This nonprofit aims to empower and connect young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth around the globe, who are encouraged to share their stories of resilience and courage. The message is clear: life isn’t easy as a young LGBTQ person, there are lots of challenges to overcome, but… it gets better.
The Bottom Line
Going to college is a huge transition for anyone, but LGBTQ students will have their own list of questions and concerns. Will you be comfortable in traditional single gender housing? Will you be able to use the bathrooms you want to use? Do healthcare providers on campus understand LGBTQ issues? Will you be able to change your name to reflect your identity?
And all of this is on top of the usual worries about meeting new people and coping with course work. The truth is, LGBTQ students do have to face a unique set of challenges, but college also presents an exciting new beginning. Colleges usually have an active LGBTQ community, and you’ll have the opportunity to attend many social and educational events. There are also lots of student organizations where you’ll be able to meet people who share your interests, and who may well become friends for life.
So there is no reason to be worried when you’re starting college. The next four years might just be the best of your life! But, as we hope this guide has shown, not all colleges are the same. That’s why it’s important to be prepared, and know what to look out for when you’re deciding which college to attend. A strong nondiscrimination policy, an active LGBTQ center, access to healthcare and mental health services, and the option of gender-inclusive housing are all good boxes to tick.
But one more point: even the best colleges can still improve, so why not become part of the solution? Getting involved with the LGBTQ center will ensure you have four memorable years, and that you will have a positive impact on the lives of others.