~ By Lis Maurer
How do lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students make the transition to college? What are the steps along the way? What obstacles unique to LGBT students may prevent them from reaching their goals and educational aspirations? And what resources are available for students and for parents?
One of the most significant issues for LGBT young people and their successful transition to higher education occurs long before the excitement and anticipation of campus visits, college applications, thinking about dorm life, and choosing a major. That key issue is the success with which LGBT youth are able to make their way through K-12 education. Experiences in high school, middle school, or even elementary school can significantly affect which colleges a student applies or is accepted to—and even whether they decide college is an option at all.
Potential Obstacles and Challenges for LGBT Students
Research describes the considerable negative experiences of LGBT K-12 students nationwide. The results clearly define links between students’ sexual orientation and identity, their safety in school, and the way these can impact their access to education and have lifelong effects on learning, educational and career goals. One of the most compelling findings—that LGBT students were twice as likely not to plan to pursue any type of post-secondary education than a national sample of students—comes from The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s biennial survey of thousands of middle and high school students throughout the country. Results from the most recent survey, the 2007 National School Climate Survey, found:
- nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year
- of those who were harassed, 44.1% experienced physical harassment and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted (e.g. punched, kicked or injured with a weapon) at school
- three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, more than a third felt unsafe because of their gender identity
- about a third skipped an entire day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe (as compared to only 4.5% of students in a national sampling)
- students who experienced higher frequencies of physical harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender expression were less likely to say they would go on to college
Companion documents paint an even more bleak picture for transgender youth and LGBT students of color. Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools is the first comprehensive study on transgender students. It found that almost half of all transgender students reported having skipped an entire day of school in the last month, and more than half experienced physical harassment.
Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools found that more than four out of five students (within each racial/ethnic group) reported verbal harassment in school because of sexual orientation and about two-thirds because of gender expression, and at least a third of each group reported physical violence in school because of sexual orientation.
As a result, some LGBT young people may set their sights too low—they may not be interested in yet more time in the educational system if they have felt unsupported or even threatened. Other students may not look like “higher education material” on paper because of the unique coping strategies they employed to minimize physical or emotional harassment to get through their school careers, including:
- skipping a particular class,
- avoiding areas known or thought to be unsafe (i.e. study hall, gym or locker rooms, the bus),
- skipping school entirely, in an effort to minimize harassment or abuse.
These coping strategies may have significantly impacted their grade point average or their course of study.
The implications are clear. Significant numbers of LGBT students view school as an unsafe place, skip classes, and have lower grades. It is no surprise then that these same students plan to leave the educational system as soon as possible, thus impacting (perhaps permanently) their potential success and future earning power. Students who do aspire to college may find their options limited by their lower high school grades.
Trends for the Future
At the same time, the situation is complex, as some students may exhibit superior skills in negotiating this terrain, or receive more school or familial support. Many of these students can and do excel, and there are more resources than ever for them, and for their parents, as they consider their options.
Several recent trends may increase support and resources for the needs of LGBT students. Continued growth of Gay Straight Alliance student clubs in high schools will keep the conversation about the needs of these youth in the spotlight. As increasing numbers of students feel free to come out earlier—in high school or middle school—the role of supportive teachers and safe schools will also be crucial. Emerging resources, including movements toward a more inclusive curriculum, safe schools legislation, and role models and mentors for educators who want to be allies for LGBT students, will all impact the current educational environment. Changes in ways young people themselves think about sexual orientation and gender identity will also play a role.
These trends will also serve both LGBT teens and their parents—who are increasingly in the know about their children’s orientation and concerned about their educational experience and safety—as they consider future career goals and higher education. Parents can find support more easily than ever before, in their communities and online through PFLAG chapters, from the growing list of faith communities that are exploring ways to be more welcoming and to encourage conversation on LGBT issues, and through local LGBT community centers in many larger cities that offer programming and events.
An increase in books and tools for evaluating colleges’ climates for LGBT students, and the new interactive website, www.campusclimateindex.org, will support teens and their families in making the best choice possible for their future schooling. College fairs held throughout the country specifically aimed at LGBT high school students and their families—most recently facilitated by the national organization Campus Pride—also make gathering information about colleges and all their possibilities easier than ever before.
• LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index: http://www.campusclimateindex.org/
• Finding an LGBT-Friendly Campus: A Guide for LGBT Students Pursuing Higher Education: http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/914.html
• PlanetOut.com’s Ten Tips for the Queer College-Seeker: http://www.planetout.com/people/features/2001/01/colleges/tips.html
• The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students
Profiles the best 100 schools in the nation for LGBT students, based on interviews with thousands of LGBT college students.
• The Princeton Review Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life
Provides practical advice to LGBT students and their families on how to not just survive, but thrive on campus. It includes tips for parents and prospective students on a wide range of topics.
Lis Maurer is the coordinator of the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services at Ithaca College, and is on the Editorial Board of The Prevention Researcher.