According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning* (LGBTQ+) make up an estimated 10% of the college population. While LGBTQ+ students enjoy greater visibility, acceptance, and inclusion than ever before, there are still many policy issues and risk factors that directly impact LGBTQ+ college students’ educational experiences.
At the start of the 2018 fall semester, we spoke with best-selling author, LGBTQ+ rights pioneer, and executive director of Campus Pride, Shane Windmeyer. Campus Pride is based out of Charlotte, NC and has offices in California and Washington, DC. Through its partnerships with over 1,400 U.S. campuses, Campus Pride works directly with students and college communities to confront discrimination and create learning environments that are safe and inclusive. Windmeyer says part of Campus Pride’s mission is to ensure that college is
a place where every student feels welcome and supported. Regardless of who you are, you deserve a safe space to learn and live and grow.
Still, each college, campus and community are different. Levels of cultural acceptance can vary widely, which makes the college or university you choose to attend extremely important. It is our goal to help you seize this opportunity and make the best choice. If you are already interested in online college, then check out the following:
Otherwise, read on to find out which issues are front-and-center for LGBTQ+ students attending college, living on campus, or pursuing a higher education.
A Note on Terminology
LGBTQ+ refers explicitly to individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, but the term also acknowledges and includes individuals who identify as intergender, intersexual, pansexual, asexual, gender binary, questioning, and otherwise. The LGBT terminology remains a popular shorthand term, but increasingly, LGBTQ is gaining ground as the preferred term. Some groups or organizations may prefer the LGBTQIA terminology, which explicitly includes individuals who identify as intersex or asexual. (The
A may also refer to allies.)
Based on our deference to Campus Pride and other like-minded organizations, we have selected what our research shows is the most widely accepted terminology among allies, activists, and LGBTQ+ community members. LGBTQ+ is the terminology that we use throughout this guide, but this is not to the exclusion of any groups or individuals. To the contrary, the use of the
+ suffix indicates inclusion even if additional groups or communities are identified in the future. The intention of this selected terminology, this guide, and TBS in general, is total inclusion.
Risk Factors Impacting LGBTQ+ College Students
Finding the right school—whether you plan to attend an online college or a traditional college campus — can make a big difference in your educational, social, and emotional experience. At the ideal college or university, you would feel comfortable, accepted, and connected to a network of others who share your priorities and interests. How a campus and community address certain LGBTQ+ risk factors may tell you a lot about the school’s environment. To prepare yourself, learn more about how your intended campus addresses the following risk factors.
LGBTQ+ Students Face Varying Degrees of Cultural Acceptance
The number of college students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning is higher than ever. This fact owes less to growth in these demographics than to greater social acceptance, inclusion, and visibility of LGBTQ+ people. Communities and campuses alike have become more welcoming. Likewise, many Americans are more understanding and accepting of policy issues impacting LGBTQ+ people.
However, acceptance levels can vary widely by region, generational cohort, and campus makeup. If you are interested in a college, then find out as much as you can about the following:
- Its diversity demographics
- The policy orientation of local political leaders in the school’s area
- The community’s general attitude toward LGBTQ+ rights
- How local law enforcement approaches issues impacting LGBTQ+ individuals, such as discrimination and harassment
Attitudes toward policy issues like same-sex marriage are a good indicator of a community or region’s LGBTQ+ acceptance.
According to a 2001 Pew Research study, Americans were opposed to same-sex marriage by a margin of 57% to 35%. The Pew Research Center reports that support for same-sex marriage has grown steadily since that time; it reached it is highest point ever in 2017 when 62% of Americans supported same-sex marriage (only 32% opposed).
Older Americans—the so-called Silent Generation — remained least likely to support same-sex marriage (with a rate of 41% acceptance). However, for the first time ever, the majority of Baby Boomer respondents supported same-sex marriage (with a rate of 56%).
In general, younger generations have consistently expressed support for same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ+ rights. This support and acceptance are reflected in many student communities and on culturally inclusive college campuses. Visible and active LGBTQ+ communities on college campuses can provide a positive atmosphere for those who seek support, question their sexual or gender orientation, or struggle with coming out to family and friends.
Therefore, finding an inclusive college can mean more than just seeking a positive educational experience. It can represent the first opportunity for many young people to access the kind of support, advocacy, education, and community they need to affirm their identity. For some, it may even present the first opportunity to feel truly at home.
Choosing a community where cultural acceptance is high and attitudes on LGBTQ+ policy issues are progressive is one of the very best steps you can take to reduce the unique LGBTQ+ risk factors that could affect your educational experience.
LGBTQ+ Students Face Higher Risk of Housing Discrimination
Finding an environment with high cultural acceptance is more than just finding a place where you can feel comfortable and included. As an LGBTQ+ student, you could face some very tangible differences in your rights and legal protections. LGBTQ+ individuals are at an elevated risk for housing discrimination, particularly in contexts with lower cultural acceptance.
Housing discrimination refers to any housing practice that involves exclusion, intimidation, unfair pricing, or other measures used to disadvantage a specific group. At the time of writing, there are no federal protections against housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender orientation.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the current efforts to address this protection gap would ultimately cede authority over the matter to state and local governments. In other words, even the best-case scenario places you at the mercy of your college’s region and community.
The HRC claims,
On January 24, 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) published a proposed rule that would require grantees and participants of HUD programs to comply with local and state non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity. This proposed rule would also prohibit inquiries regarding the sexual orientation or gender identity of a prospective tenant or applicant for assisted housing. The public comment period on this rule has concluded and a final rule implementing these changes is expected.
Presuming the final rule includes these terms, your college campus and surrounding community would likely be at the mercy of state and local non-discrimination laws. If those laws do not include protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, your college campus would have greater latitude in limiting your housing access. It could make it exceedingly difficult for you to successfully file a grievance or prove housing discrimination, even if it has clearly occurred.
These legal matters underscore just how important it is to choose a school in a community with real and meaningful non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. The laws that apply to your state and locality are very likely the same laws that your college or university will rely on to shape their housing policies.
LGBTQ+ Students Face a Greater Risk of Harassment, Bullying, and Discrimination
In addition to housing discrimination, LGBTQ+ students experience an elevated risk of harassment, bullying, and various forms of social discrimination. While cultural acceptance for LGBTQ+ individuals has grown considerably, this progress is far from universal. LGBTQ+ individuals still face a higher risk of hostility, intrusive behavior, fear-based discomfort, taunting, verbal abuse, unwanted physical contact, and even violence.
The Postsecondary National Policy Institute reports the following from a 2015 Association of American Universities (AAU) survey:
- Three in four LGBTQ+ students reported experiencing sexual harassment at least once
- One in five LGBTQ+ college students feared for their safety due to sexual orientation or gender identity
- LGBTQ+ students of color are at an even greater risk of
exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, or hostile conduct,with 31% of those surveyed reporting having experienced these racially motivated behaviors
These statistics underscore the importance of selecting a campus that seriously and comprehensively deals with sexual assault, bullying, and discrimination that occurs because of gender identity, sexual orientation, or race.
Learn More About Student Health
Policy Issues Impacting LGBTQ+ College Students
The Trump Administration, specifically Secretary Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, has been generally hostile toward the goals and interests of the LGBTQ+ community and particularly hostile toward trans individuals. DeVos has a decidedly poor record where the priorities of the LGBTQ+ community are concerned.
In our interview with Shane Windmeyer of Campus Pride, he noted that the DeVos tenure has been marked by
No support or visibility for LGBTQ+ safety or inclusion on college campuses. Windmeyer argues that
DeVos has done everything she can to tear apart anything that was inclusive that the Obama administration was doing, because of her explicit discrimination against trans students and her prioritization of
religious freedom as a license for schools to discriminate against and exclude members of the LGBTQ+ community.
At the federal level, LGBTQ+ protections are being eroded. This makes it even more important to choose a campus and community where you can feel safe and welcome. Read on to learn about the federal policy issues that affect LGBTQ+ students.
DeVos Rolls Back Title IX Protections
According to the HRC, Title IX not only prohibits sex discrimination among educational programs that receive federal funding, but
Title IX protects students from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, as evidenced by continuing case law.
However, as we reported in September of 2017, DeVos announced that the Department of Education would be rescinding 2011 Title IX guidelines advising college campuses on handling sexual assault. The intent of those guidelines was to shine a brighter light on the widespread occurrence of campus rape and sexual assault, to hold colleges to a higher standard of accountability, and to lower the victim’s onerous threshold for proof in assault cases.
The HRC reports that DeVos’s Title IX rollbacks would
permit religiously-affiliated schools the ability to decline to submit a request or notice for a Title IX exemption to the Department of Education on their institutional policies, keeping students and their parents in the dark on whether the school intends to discriminate.
This is consistent with the DeVos Department’s ongoing efforts to prioritize
religious freedom, even to the extent that schools can use it as an excuse for discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
HRC’s Legal Director Sarah Warbelow calls the rollbacks a
disregard for the justice of survivors of sexual violence by letting schools off the hook for Title IX obligations and denying survivors, including LGBTQ+ survivors, their civil right to equal access to education.
Bathroom Bills Erode Trans Rights
LGBTQ+ students need to know their prospective school’s stance on
bathroom bills. The phrase
bathroom bill refers to any state or locally proposed legislation that aims to explicitly force people to use bathrooms that correspond with their biological birth-sex. The intended effect of such legislation is to limit both the freedom of choice for transgender individuals and to preemptively undermine the ability of trans students to file grievances for discrimination or exclusion.
Even without such legislation, transgender individuals may face discrimination if they attempt to use bathrooms, locker rooms, or other facilities that align with their gender identity instead of their biological birth-sex. Progressive and inclusive campuses may therefore offer multi-user bathrooms or gender-neutral facilities. Campuses may also provide explicit policies that protect the rights of students to use the facilities consistent with their gender identity.
However, other college campuses may offer no explicit gender-facilities policy, or they may even take steps—whether formal or informal — to prevent transgender students from using their chosen facilities. How a campus and its student body address the bathroom issue may be a strong indication of the inclusiveness of the community and how likely the college is to protect its LGBTQ+ students from bullying and discrimination.
This is yet another area in which the region or community where you choose to attend college could make a big impact on your experience. States vary in the way they address the bathroom issue; a state’s attitude toward bathroom bills is often based on its attitudes toward LGBTQ+ individuals. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), North Carolina is the only state to have instituted a bathroom bill; it passed legislation
restricting access to multi-user restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities on the basis of a definition of sex or gender consistent with sex assigned at birth or ’biological sex’.
North Carolina faced tremendous public backlash for its bill; many major corporations and commercial entities threatened to cease their state operations due to North Carolina’s discriminatory trans policies. As a result, North Carolina repealed the bill. However, more than a dozen states have proposed a variety of different laws aimed at preventing the use of multi-user restrooms. None of these laws have yet passed at the state level, but this could soon change. Since the federal government will likely defer to state’s authority in such instances, it is possible that a state could effectively pass a bathroom bill restricting multi-user bathroom access.
This would give college campuses in such a state the legal authority to restrict bathroom usage as they see fit. The threat for on-campus discrimination would be higher in such a setting. As you seek colleges and universities, you should be aware of the state’s bathroom policy orientation. It could tell you a lot about your intended school and community.
The Department of Education’s Shrinking Office of Civil Rights
The Trump administration and Secretary DeVos are actively curtailing LGBTQ+ students’ ability to file discrimination grievances. This is occurring on two fronts: (1) the systematic erosion of the rights accorded to members of the trans population, and (2) the bureaucratic shrinking of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) as well as its ability to handle grievances related to discrimination.
According to Inside Higher Ed,
The Trump administration has drafted policies for the Education Department and other agencies that enforce civil rights that eliminate the concept of a student being transgender, and potentially make it next to impossible for transgender students to raise complaints about treatment based on their gender identities.
This hostility toward the trans community led the Trump administration to shrink the caseload facing the Department of Education’s OCR. Under Betsy DeVos, the Department has aggressively slashed personnel, funding, and operational capacity for the OCR, with the intent of hearing fewer cases and reducing the capacity of the OCR to address issues of discrimination. Cases impacting members of the trans community have specifically been targeted for dismissal.
According to an article in Politico, the DeVos’s Department of Education has largely thrown out discrimination complaints filed by transgender students.
In their investigation, Politico reporters found five distinct cases where transgender students cases were discarded by the OCR without investigation or resolution. Each case involved the students’ rights to use the bathroom of their choosing. Politico notes that
The Education Department’s dismissals are just a slice of what advocates see as a broader assault on LGBT[+] rights across the federal government in the Trump administration, including in education, health care, the military and housing. The administration, for example, has sought to protect health care workers who don’t want to treat transgender or LGBT[+] patients seeking to transition and ban transgender individuals from serving in the military.
This troubling trend underscores the importance of choosing the right college for your needs. The unfortunate reality is that, for now, you likely cannot rely on the Department of Education to defend, protect, or even consider your rights. The best way to protect yourself is to choose a setting where the likelihood of discrimination is low, where the community shares your values, and where these shared values translate to greater cultural acceptance.