Aspiring college students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) face a unique set of challenges when looking at schools. Recent studies indicate that 3.5% of adults in the U.S. identify as LGBT. This small but important subset of the population, roughly equivalent to the population of New Jersey, must consider a school’s inclusion efforts, as well as their safety and support provisions for LGBT students.
Among this 3.5% are college-aged young people who may identify across a fluid spectrum of sexual identities. LGBT is often expanded to LGBTQIA to include four additional self-identifying terms — queer, intersex, asexual and ally. There are a number of additional identities including genderqueer and various identities within the asexuality spectrum. Since LGBT remains the most common parlance of gender equality groups on U.S. campuses, we’ll use the four-letter original in this guide.
Fortunately, many schools have adopted a culture of awareness and respect for the LGBT community. Many others have active, vocal LGBT advocacy programs on campus, and some even offer LGBT studies and housing. The following guide should get you started on your search for a comfortable school environment.
Identifying LGBT-Friendly Schools
It’s important to thoroughly research any potential colleges you may attend; there is much more to the educational experience than the classes you take. From an LGBT standpoint, consider variables like the research a university’s professors conduct, the presence of campus advocacy groups, or the school’s proximity to other LGBT-friendly communities. The admissions office at any reputable school should be happy to discuss options for LGBT students.
A nonprofit called Campus Pride has been the most prominent advocacy organization for LGBT students since its launch in 2002. Staffed by students, Campus Pride chapters are devoted to maintaining a safe, inclusive environment for all LGBT students. Leadership camps, awareness training and webinars on LGBT issues are available to students, and alumni networks can lead to job opportunities after college. LGBT educators are also encouraged to get in on the action, serving as mentors and establishing local student-run advocacy groups.
Among the many other services sponsored by Campus Pride is its index of LGBT-friendly schools. Schools that are listed in the Campus Pride Index have each been judged to have a proactive approach to improving the quality of life for LGBT students. These schools are measured by competence in eight key areas:
- Policies of Inclusion
- Institutional Support and Commitment
- Academic Life
- Student Life
- Campus Safety
- Counseling and Healthcare Options
- LGBT Recruitment and Retention
Each school is given a rating of one to five stars, indicating its alignment with these eight segments of LGBT life. Individual Campus Report Cards measure each school’s course offerings, presence of gender-neutral restrooms, and faculty training on gender identity. These cards also document student life solutions like LGBT Resource Centers, student and ally organizations, Safe Spaces, LGBT social events, campus police training, LGBT and gender-identified housing placements, and a complete range of counseling options. LGBT students are encouraged to take advantage of the Campus Pride Index.
Another way to scope out a campus’s LGBT-friendliness is to take your own, unofficial college tour. Walking around campus on a typical weekday could give you a feel for the level of LGBT awareness on campus. Find out when a local advocacy group meets and show up unannounced. Consider whether the school newspaper gives coverage to LGBT issues or events, and maybe schedule a meeting with faculty members who interest you.
Finally, consider the political climate in the area where potential schools are located. Regardless of what a school’s website or promotional literature says about its LGBT friendliness, it’s important to remember that the acceptance level found off campus can influence perceptions on campus. It’s a good idea to consider how surrounding community politics might impact your life as a student.
Fortunately for LGBT students, there is considerable funding available to cover educational expenses. Scholarships, grants and fellowships are available in many circumstances. Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBT advocacy group, maintains a state-by-state database of such awards. Like most private scholarships, these have specific requirements; students must identify as LGBT and sometimes provide an essay or recommendation.
Examples of these scholarships include the following, though this is by no means an exhaustive list:
Point Foundation maintains a national scholarship fund that awards financial aid to undergraduate and graduate students who identify as LGBT. These scholarships are also based on financial need, as the Foundation recognizes that these students experience exceptional benefits when they are supported and encouraged. All Point scholarships are named after the donor who established the fund.
- Award Amount: Varies
- Due Date: Varies, but many awards are due in November of each year
- Eligibility Requirements: Proven leadership, involvement in the LGBT community, academic achievement and personal goals
The Queer Foundation supports writing on LGBT issues by LGBT students. To that end, qualifying applicants can receive an annual cash award to go towards queer theory or related fields. Scholarships are funded by Foundation donors.
- Award Amount: $1,000
- Due Date: February 14th
- Eligibility Requirements: High school senior, an essay written in response to a prompt
The Gamma Nu Foundation serves gay men in the LGBT community, particularly those in rural areas unlikely to contain many LGBT support resources. This nonprofit is funded through member donations. Scholarships are available for undergraduate and advanced degree programs in traditional brick-and-mortar settings.
- Award Amount: Varies
- Due Date: March 31st
- Eligibility Requirements: Financial need, under age 35, living in rural area, demonstrated leadership ability
The League Foundation is a nonprofit organization that awards financial aid to graduating seniors who have identified as LGBT. Once a provision for employees of AT&T Corp., this program is now a nationally funded scholarship reaching all 50 states.
- Award Amount: Varies
- Deadline: April 30th
- Eligibility Requirements: Graduating senior in high school, LGBT identified, a GPA of 3.0 or better, two personal essays and two professional recommendations
The National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) also awards scholarships to qualifying applicants. The Lesbian Caucus Award grants $500 each to four graduate students working on dissertations and research that benefit the LGBT community.
- Award Amount: $500
- Due Date: May 15th
- Eligibility Requirements: Ongoing master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation in LGBT studies
The Pride Foundation is a large LGBT advocacy group that serves the Northwestern states. Among its many offerings are 50 separate scholarships awarded to students across a broad range of academic majors. To date, the Pride Foundation has awarded $3 million in scholarship dollars. One application will suffice for all awards.
- Award Amount: Varies
- Due Date: January 15th
- Eligibility Requirements: LGBT or questioning students, straight allies, and children of LGBT parents
The Association of LGBT Journalists supports the journalistic effort to produce unbiased news to the public, both about LGBT issues and by LGBT journalists. The Leroy F. Aarons Scholarship, established in 1990 and named for a pioneering LGBT reporter, is awarded annually to an undergraduate major in journalism.
- Award Amount: Up to $3,000
- Due Date: June 15th
- Eligibility Requirements: Demonstrated journalistic ability and a written tumblr post in response to a prompt
The Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was one of the first grassroots support organization for straight allies. Founded in 1972, PFLAG supports LGBT acceptance and equality at over 350 chapters nationwide. The PFLAG National Scholarship Program offers need-based financial aid to qualified applicants. Local chapters may have other scholarship offerings as well.
- Award Amount: Varies
- Due Date: April 30th
- Eligibility Requirements: Graduating senior who is an LGBT or allied student, a demonstrated interested in serving the needs of the LGBT community.
Live Out Loud is a nonprofit organization devoted to helping LGBT youth receive mentoring from professionals in their community. Live Out Loud’s Educational Scholarship is targeted toward LGBT undergraduate students; five scholarships of $5,000 each are awarded each year.
- Award Amount: $5,000
- Due Date: Varies
- Eligibility Requirements: An LGBT student attending an accredited college, university or technical/vocational program
Additional Support Resources
Most colleges, regardless of enrollment size, have either an LGBT Resource Center or a student-run campus support group. A well-organized LGBT resource will offer diversity and acceptance training to students and faculty, provide a safe non-judgmental space, and promote an environment where LGBT students can effectively address discriminatory behavior. Some of the better-funded campus resources may include:
- Safe Zone training for allies
- Guidance around coming out
- Peer discussion groups
- Awareness activities on campus
- A Lavender Graduation
- A harassment hotline
- Partner support
To find the resources available to you, start with your Student Services department, who should direct you to available resources without much difficulty. Other on-campus groups may also be of interest to LGBT students. Gay-straight alliance clubs like PFLAG, for example, can bring you into contact with students who share the same interests you do. Smaller special-interest clubs might focus on awareness, healing, or peer mentoring.
Subject-specific clubs for LGBT students, like Northwestern’s renowned Gay & Lesbian Management Association, can be popular and useful resources. This active club has brought Northwestern’s MBA program visibility as a leading resource for all LGBT students earning an MBA. Membership is open to all MBA candidates, and straight ally participation is encouraged.
Community and National Organizations
Off-campus, there are also a wealth of support options for LGBT students and their allies. One such organization, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), is very active in current and pending governmental legislation important to the LGBT community. This extremely active and influential group focuses on the LGBT student and the unique needs of that student in a campus environment. GLSEN has arguably done more to combat LGBT bullying in schools than any other single organization.
Freedom to Marry has been a driving force in much of the U.S.’s recent legislative reform. Begun in New York City in 2003, this nonprofit pursues legal recognition of marriage among same-sex couples in every state. The historic repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2012 was due in no small part to this organization.
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is devoted to addressing legal needs germane to the LGBT community. This group fights for the civil rights of LGBT and HIV-positive patients, driving public policy where possible. Also a major player in legislative reform of marriage law, Lambda Legal has its roots in early 1970s advocacy for AIDS patients. Lambda Legal operates entirely on donations and does not charge for its services.
The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association is comprised of LGBT medical professionals, including physicians, dentists, pharmacists, veterinarians and allied health professionals. Now known as GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality, this organization supports the development of public health policy for the LGBT community.
BiNet USA is a non-profit advocating for bisexual communities across the United States. Founded in 1987, BiNet USA is a great resource for bisexual students who want to participate in national conferences, open chapters at their own schools, or organize a Pride event.
National Center for Transgender Equality is an organization specifically dedicated to advancing the equality of transgendered people. Both transgendered students and allies can find valuable resources through NCTE’s website, including updates on the latest trans movements and legislative milestones and support resources.
Queer People of Color student groups like this one at USC are springing up all over the country in order to provide support for students with the unique struggles of living and identifying as both a minority and a queer student. If you are interested in starting a group like this at your school or would just like to access a related support network, reach out to an existing QPOC campus group.
Athlete Ally is a nonprofit membership composed of athletes and professionals in the sporting world who are supporters of LGBT equality. Aiming for full inclusion in all sports, the organization fights the homophobia commonly found in the language and the humor of professional sports. Notable figures from all branches of sports serve as Ally Ambassadors via speaking engagements about LGBT awareness.