The term “LGBT+” seeks to encompass all sexual identities, including, but not limited to: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, and questioning. Although as many as 19% of college students identify as LGBT+, this group faces unique challenges in attending college, often related to bullying, harassment, or assault by other students on campus. This may result in some students wishing to keep their identity and orientation a secret from their peers in an attempt to protect themselves. Unfortunately, living a double life can be exceptionally challenging. While change is slow, there are specialized resources for this student population.
Who are LGBT+ students?
The term LGBT+ refers not only to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, but those of all nonheterosexual identities. Some individuals may identify as questioning, intersex, asexual, or another nonbinary orientation; correspondingly LGBT+ aims to be inclusive of all individuals.
A 2016 study by the American College Health Association found that of the more than 33,000 students surveyed, nearly 19% reported identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, queer, questioning, or another identity. If you are an LGBT+ student who plans to attend college, you’re certainly not alone.
What challenges do LGBT+ students face in going to college?
Bullying and harassment are undoubtedly the biggest struggles facing LGBT+ students. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the CDC, over 50% of LGBT+ high school students reported being bullied either electronically or on school property. The Campus Pride 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People Report found the same; more than half of openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual college students reported feeling harassed on campus due to their sexual identity, gender identity, or expression.
It seems likely that bullying and harassment affect LGBT+ students in negative ways, and may even cause them to drop out of school. However, in this article published in April 2016, the founder and executive director of Campus Pride examines the lack of data on LGBT+ retention rates. Until recently, schools did not ask questions about sexuality and identity and therefore had no way to track data on LGBT+ students. In the last few years, schools have begun to add optional questions aimed at identifying LGBT+ students in order to gather data on this group. Further information should become available with time.
How do I find a school that is a good match for my identity?
While it’s important that you find a school that will allow you to thrive academically, you should pay particular attention to campus culture and whether you’ll feel comfortable being yourself on campus. You can use Campus Pride Index to search for schools you’re considering and read about their rating; higher ratings are “overall indicator[s] of institutional commitment to LGBTQ-inclusive policy, program and practice.”
To narrow down your list, try to visit the schools that you’re interested in. It’s much easier to get a feel for the atmosphere on campus when you’re actually on campus and not reading about it on the school’s website (which will always paint the school in the best possible light). While there, look for pride flags, advertisements or posters for on-campus groups for LGBT+ students, and Women’s and Gender Studies programs. These are often good signals that a campus is open and accepting of all gender identities.
Note that the number of students who identify as LGBT+ will vary greatly between schools because some schools simply attract more LGBT+ students than others. Crunching the numbers is unlikely to give you a wholly accurate idea of inclusivity and tolerance.
If I’m a transgender student, what should I keep in mind when looking at colleges?
Transgender students face unique challenges on campus, as discrimination and harassment can be particularly intense. In fact, it’s not just students who have to fight an uphill battle. An NPR Education survey found that of the transgender teachers interviewed, 20% were verbally harassed, 17% were asked to change their appearance, and 2% were fired; 40% stated that their students were more accepting of their identities than other adults in the school. A 2015 survey of K–12 students found similarly disheartening results: 54% of transgender students experienced verbal harassment, 24% were attacked, and 17% left school because of bullying. The same study found that nearly 1 in 4 transgender college or vocational students experienced verbal, physical, or sexual harassment.
It’s important for transgender students to consider the campus climate toward all LGBT+ students, but there are more specific things to keep in mind too. Transgender students should consider whether the campus has gender-neutral housing and bathrooms, and whether there are any state laws regarding the use of bathrooms. From March 2016 to March 2017, North Carolina law dictated that transgender individuals had to use the bathroom that correlated to the sex listed on their birth certificate. Many other states have had similar laws proposed, but none passed. Currently, no states have laws banning transgender individuals from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with, but this could change in the future. On a more tolerant note, a handful of states have created laws that require that single-stall bathrooms be unisex in order to reduce discrimination.
The Obama Administration extended Title IX protections against sex-based discrimination to apply to discrimination based on gender identity, but these protections were rescinded in early 2017 by the Trump Administration. Luckily, many institutions of higher education have elected to continue to enforce rules that protect transgender students and their rights. Reach out to your prospective schools or search online for a student handbook to learn more about campus-specific policies.
If I’m an LGBT+ student considering a religiously-affiliated college, is there anything specific I should consider?
First, note that not all religiously-affiliated colleges are intensely religious. Some institutions were founded by a religious leader some time ago and merely hold onto their religious affiliation because of the school’s history. Centre College, for instance, is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, but has campus groups affiliated with the Baptist, Jewish, and Muslim religions. Some students identify as Catholic, Buddhist, Lutheran, or Hindu. Attending a religiously-affiliated college does not require that you identify with a particular religion or necessarily practice religion at all. Keep in mind, too, that some religions and branches of religion are more tolerant of nonheterosexual identities than others. Do your research before eliminating institutions solely on the basis on their religious affiliation.
Being an LGBT+ student at a less-tolerant religious institution certainly has its own set of challenges, and might make deciding whether to be open about your identity, determining your level of safety on campus, and determining whether you will be discriminated against more complicated. However, for students who choose this route, know that you are not alone. Safety Net offers support and resources for LGBT+ students attending Christian colleges. Should you choose not to attend a religiously-affiliated college, but want to express both your religiousness and your LGBT+ identity, campus-specific groups, like Queers of Faith @ Claremont Colleges may be available.
Should I be open about my identity when I’m applying to colleges?
The answer to this is really a personal one: How comfortable do you feel sharing this information?
Some LGBT+ students may feel comfortable writing an essay about overcoming adversity, thereby sharing their identity. At most schools, this information will have no bearing on your chances of being accepted. It’s against federal law for colleges to discriminate against applicants based on gender or sexuality, as long as the school is not Title IX exempt.
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.”
- Private schools controlled by religious organizations can submit a request to be exempt from provisions of Title IX that conflict with a religious tenet of the organization.
- A 2016 article from the Washington Post gives additional information about Title IX exemptions, and references this Campus Pride "Shame List" of schools known to discriminate against LGBT+ students.
On a different note, some institutions are starting to offer optional questions on application or enrollment materials in order to track the retention and graduation rates of openly LGBT+ students. Consider whether you feel comfortable answering these questions, and what value such data could have for colleges and future students.
If you are not comfortable being open about your identity with your college, know that it’s a personal choice. However, if you are open and comfortable with your identity and are considering schools that are inclusive, don’t feel that you have to keep this information private. Alternatively, you may feel that you can be open about your identity with some schools but not others. Consider why you’re uncomfortable disclosing your identity to a particular school and whether you will be happy for four years in that environment. Regardless of your circumstances, make the choice that is most comfortable for you.
Should I be open about my identity on campus?
Again, the decision to disclose your sexual orientation and identity to your friends, advisors, and professors is entirely your choice. There are no rules defining who you should and shouldn’t tell about your sexual identity, though you should consider the situation and the person before disclosing anything (e.g., when you’re talking to a professor about an assignment, it may not be the best time to disclose personal details). How open you choose to be may largely depend on how you feel about the campus culture and climate toward LGBT+ students. If your school is more open and accepting, you may feel more comfortable expressing yourself. If your classmates or professors aren’t as tolerant, you may prefer to keep your gender identity to yourself.
What should an LGBT+ student do in the event of harassment or assault?
Members of the LGBT+ community experience sexual assault at higher rates than heterosexuals. While the fact that 35% of heterosexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner is appalling, 44% of homosexual women and 61% of bisexual women experience the same thing. This type of assault isn’t limited to women; 26% of homosexual men and 37% of bisexual men have also experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 29% of heterosexual men.
Furthermore, results from the same study show that 46% of bisexual women have been raped in their lifetime, compared to 13% of homosexual women and 17% of hetersosexual women. Over 40% of both homosexual and bisexual men have experienced any sexual violence, compared to only 21% of heterosexual men. Nearly 50% of transgender individuals have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. These statistics show that the LGBT+ community is disproportionately affected by sexual assault and sexual violence.
There is no way to prevent all sexual harassment or assaults from occurring. Saying “no” to unwanted contact firmly expresses that your partner or assailant does not have your consent to continue, and that should be respected. Unfortunately, in these types of situations, respect isn’t always a given. Your first step if you feel unsafe should be to remove yourself from the situation. If you cannot, or if you are being physically threatened, you are within your rights to do whatever you deem necessary to protect yourself, from fighting, to yelling, to submitting. After you’ve said “no,” nothing that happens to you is your fault.
LGBT+ students are also at heightened risk of experiencing verbal harassment than their heterosexual peers. Results of the 2015 National School Climate Survey show that nearly 50% of LGBT+ students between ages 13 and 21 experienced cyberbullying and over 80% experienced in-person verbal harassment at school (over 70% reported harassment as a result of their sexual orientation and over 50% reported harassment as a result of their gender expression). If you are being bullied, you don’t have to face it alone.
If you’ve been physically or sexually assaulted and want to report it to the authorities, call 9-1-1 or campus security. Do not clean up, as your body is now evidence of a crime. Law enforcement officers can meet you at the local hospital to take your statement, and medical professionals can take care of your physical wounds. If you’ve been raped, ask for a rape kit. Don’t stop after you’re physically treated, though. It may be helpful to talk to a professional about your mental and emotional well-being and recovery. You are not alone. Learn more about sexual assault here.
If you want to pursue your assault or harassment at the federal level and believe that your assault or harassment was driven by discrimination, file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. You will be required to describe what happened and why you believe it was the result of discrimination (typically, on the basis of sex or sex stereotypes), as well as submit your personal and contact information. If you choose to file a complaint, you must do so within 180 days of the incident. You can do so here.
If you want to pursue your assault or harassment at the school level and/or believe that your assault or harassment was driven by discrimination, find out who the Title IX coordinator is at your school and set up a meeting. This person should be your first point of contact for dealing with the school (pressing charges with local police is a separate matter). A Title IX coordinator should understand your college’s procedures around sexual discrimination and assault and will be able to conduct an investigation into the charges. He or she will also determine how to punish your attacker and can set you up with resources to help you heal. At your request, the Title IX coordinator can make arrangements to change your class schedule so that you don’t have to see your attacker or issue a no-contact order to your attacker.
If you want the support of your peers, visit your school’s Gender and Sexuality Center or sit in on an LGBT+ student group meeting. You don’t have to disclose that you were attacked to benefit from the support of like-minded individuals.
What on-campus resources are available for LGBT+ students?
Many schools have on-campus support groups, like Gay-Straight Alliances, for LGBT+ students. These groups allow openly LGBT+ students to connect with and offer support to each other. They foster community and allow students to express themselves, their ideas, and their identities without fear of backlash. Many host speakers, movie nights, and other social events.
Gender and Sexuality Centers also aim to advocate for women and the LGBT+ community on-campus by offering resources and support, as well as organizing campus initiatives to promote inclusion. Not all college campuses are going to have a Gender and Sexuality Center, but a quick search of your prospective schools’ websites should show you if one is available. The following campuses have such centers, but the list is not all inclusive:
- Carleton College
- Oakland University
- Roger Williams University
- University of Colorado Boulder
- University of Illinois at Chicago
- University of Rhode Island
- University of San Francisco
- University of Texas at Austin
If neither support groups nor a Gender and Sexuality Center operate at your school, the Campus Pride website has online resources available. Additionally, this College Guide for LGBTQ Students has information and resources that you may find helpful. If you think your campus would benefit from a support group, talk to the campus life (or similar) office about creating and registering a club.
Are there scholarships specifically available to LGBT+ students?
Yes, but many scholarships for LGBT+ students are regional in nature. A small sample of the scholarships available is as follows:
- American Atheists Chinn Scholarship: These $500 scholarships “recognize atheist activism in the area of LGBT equality.” You do not have to be a member of the LGBT+ community to receive this scholarship.
- Better Brothers LA Book Scholarship: Ranging from $500 to $1,500, these scholarships are offered to black LGBT+ youth from Los Angeles County who have been admitted to or are attending an accredited program. The scholarships are meant to help offset the cost of books and other materials.
- Chely Wright LIKEME Scholarship: These $500 scholarships are awarded to students who are involved in LGBT advocacy or those who have been affected by bullying or the suicide of an LGBT+ youth.
- Gay Asian Pacific Alliance Scholarship: This $1,000 to $5,000 scholarship seeks out those who have participated in activism for the LGBT+ and/or Asian Pacific Islander communities. Students do not need to identify as part of either community to be eligible.
- Iowa's Matthew Shepard Scholarship: Part scholarship, part mentorship program, this award is worth $1,000 per semester for up to eight semesters. It is awarded to openly LGBT+ youth from Iowa who have a history of activism and community service.
- Jonathan Lax Scholarship for Gay Men: These $5,000 to $10,000 scholarships are available to openly gay men from the Philadelphia region attending any postsecondary institution or those from other areas who are attending a postsecondary institution in or near Philadelphia.
This list of scholarships is clearly not comprehensive; a well-worded internet search will likely uncover other scholarships for LGBT+ students, as will checking this blog post to determine if you’re eligible for any of the scholarships listed. Remember to also apply for non-LGBT+ specific scholarships (you can find scholarships that reward just about anything) and federal financial aid.
I am not an LGBT+ student, but I want to be a good ally. How can I support my friends?
Being a good ally is as simple as treating your LGBT+ friends the same way that you treat other friends. GLAAD has published a list of ”10 Ways to Be an Ally & a Friend,” which includes simple things like being a good listener, being open-minded, and being willing to talk. Stand up for your friends if they are being discriminated against and make it clear that you won’t tolerate anti-LGBT+ jokes or those made at the expense of your friends. Understand the viewpoints of politicians running for office and learn how their policies will affect the LGBT+ community before voting. Try to make the community a better place for LGBT+ individuals by being there and getting involved. It doesn’t take much effort to be a good friend and ally, but it can make a huge difference in others’ lives.
Page last updated: 07/2018