Starting undergraduate studies can be a rapid and difficult transition for incoming students. On top of the other challenges these first-years face, many LGBTQ college and university students are just starting to come to terms with their gender identity or sexuality.
Campus Pride research shows that LGBTQ individuals in higher education — especially transgender students — face high rates of harassment. As a result, the need for a strong support system, both inside and outside the classroom, is even more crucial for these members of campus communities.
Here are 10 tips to help incoming college and university LGBTQ students thrive during their first year on campus.
1. Understand that you are not alone.
Coming out as LGBTQ is hard. Even if you don’t immediately see other LGBTQ students around you, rest assured that they are there. The challenge is even more difficult as an LGBTQ person of color or a transgender college student. Experiencing isolation because of your identity is very challenging. Remember that every day you live proudly and openly is a day someone struggling with their identity may see you and feel inspired. Your identity is valuable, and your presence is absolutely necessary.
2. Explore your campus or community’s LGBTQ resources, or create your own!
A strong network of like-minded peers can be absolutely vital during any major change in a person’s life. Some campuses have structures in place, like an LGBTQ center or student organization to assist with these transitions. If your school does not offer these resources, looking into what is available in the larger off-campus community is another means of finding this network. You could then work together to create an on-campus resource!
Follow this link to read Shane's tips on how to start a GSA or LGBTQ student group at your college.
3. Join an LGBTQ housing community.
More and more campuses across the country are creating specific housing communities for LGBTQ students. These are sometimes academically-based “living-learning communities,” theme floors, or other community spaces specifically for LGBTQ students and allies. In addition, some campuses are creating gender-neutral housing options. Even if you feel safe and comfortable in your current housing, consider opting into these programs to better support others in your LGBTQ community who may not feel as affirmed.
4. Ensure you have LGBTQ-affirming health care.
Mental and physical health are important factors for having a successful experience at college. The LGBTQ community has specific needs, and finding an LGBTQ-affirming doctor or therapist can be vital to your well-being. Students who rely on university insurance should check that its policies cover treatments necessary for maintaining mental health as an LGBTQ student, or medically transitioning as transgender individuals.
5. Look for campus and community allies through Safe Zone.
Look around your campus. Do you notice any signs, stickers, or name tags that mention “Safe Zone”? If so, the people associated with these signs are your allies. Safe Zone is a program developed to teach people how to be effective allies to LGBTQ people. Offices, classrooms, or residence halls that display this phrase are considered a “safe zone,” or a place an LGBTQ student can discuss or present as the gender identity or sexuality they are without fear.
6. Take a class in gender and sexualities studies.
The reason most students pursue an undergraduate degree is to learn, so why not take some time to gain new understanding about your identities? Many schools offer classes that discuss LGBTQ identities, either in sexualities or LGBTQ studies degree programs, or as a supplement to other minority studies programs. Taking a class or attending lectures or extracurricular activities offered by these programs can help to contextualize your identity in ways you may not have explored.
7. Don’t limit yourself only to LGBTQ spaces.
While your sexuality or gender identity is a significant part of your life, it is not the only part. Don’t be afraid to check our your campus’s other activities, such as student organizations, Greek life, or sports. You may find an unlikely ally or friend in these communities, as well as a place to express yourself freely.
8. Know your rights on and off campus.
Sadly, there is still work to be done when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Be sure you know the nondiscrimination policy for your college, as well as the criteria for reporting hate crimes, bias incidents, or any other forms of harassment. You’ll also want to learn this information for the community surrounding your campus, including city-, county- and state-specific laws. Knowing your rights as an LGBTQ student is important if you are ever faced with challenges against your identity.
9. If you need something, advocate for it!
When you look around your school, are all your needs provided for? Are on-campus housing, university insurance policies, and on-campus bathrooms inclusive of LGBTQ identities and needs? If not, utilize your networks and resources to advocate for them. If you see a problem in your community, fixing it will help not only you, but every other current or prospective student on campus.
10. If the campus isn’t right for you, you are allowed to transfer.
Your health and safety should always come first in life, including in the period you spend as a student. If your experience on campus is affecting your ability to learn, you are not required to act as a representative of your community. Choosing to transfer schools, dropping some credit hours to become a part-time student, or taking time off to regroup is perfectly fine to do. Sometimes, it is exactly what is needed so that you can return stronger and able to accomplish great things.
Allison Marie Turner, a 2015 Communications and Programs Fellow for Campus Pride, contributed to this article. Follow her on Twitter @amturner1993.