Creating Safe Spaces: Strategies for Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in Higher Ed

7 min read

Thaís Roberto

While Pride Month is celebrated in June, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights is an effort that must be maintained throughout the year. Many countries are taking strides towards more inclusive and equitable legislation, but some persist in creating laws that attack LGBTQ+ rights and lead to an increase in hate crimes, particularly within educational institutions.

It falls upon universities, as bastions of progress, to spearhead the campaign for inclusion. They must safeguard their queer students, furnishing them with education and resources essential for their flourishing within a system often predisposed to their detriment.

In this article, we explore the barriers faced by this community and highlight a few strategies universities can implement to support LGBTQ+ students on campus.


Background: Challenges LGBTQ+ Students Still Face

Despite considerable progress in LGBTQ+ rights in the recent years, discrimination and harassment remain pervasive challenges for queer students. In the latest survey by GLSEN, 97% of LGBTQ+ students reported having heard homophobic comments at school, with 58% having heard such remarks from teachers and other school staff. 

In total, 68% of LGBTQ+ students claimed they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Although the survey was conducted at the high school level, students at the university level are no less susceptible to suffering various forms of discrimination on campus, including verbal abuse, social exclusion, and even physical violence.

Research has shown that LGBTQ+ individuals are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation: according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021, LGBQ+ students were nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide when compared to their heterosexual peers.

Importantly, however, universities can help lessen the burden carried by queer students

As research by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health concluded, LGBTQ+ students with access to specialized counseling centers on campus show improvement in factors like general distress, social isolation, and suicidal ideation. 

Myeshia Price, director of research science for the Trevor Project, spoke to Inside Higher Ed about investing in LGBTQ+ services: “It lets colleges know just how important this stuff is. I think sometimes, colleges have this reputation of, ‘Of course we’re open and of course we’re affirming, of course we support LGBTQ+ people,’ but I think it’s important that they do everything they can to show that so that young people are not questioning if that’s the case.”

Certainly, establishing a fully inclusive and affirming campus environment is a multifaceted task that demands collaboration from all students, faculty, and staff across various departments. Yet, the scale of this challenge underscores the importance of the cause at hand.

Read on for some of the most important strategies universities can adopt to support and engage LGBTQ+ students.


1.  Implement Inclusive Policies

The first and most fundamental step in LGBTQ+ inclusion is establishing comprehensive institutional policies. These policies, spanning from admissions to employment, pedagogy, athletics, and beyond, serve to safeguard queer students and provide support throughout their journey to graduation. 

Federal and state laws often lag on the cause, so it’s important to not wait for governmental mandates.

Policies like providing gender-inclusive housing options and restroom facilities and integrating LGBTQ+ perspectives into the curriculum are indispensable in reaffirming queer and transgender students’ identities both in the social and intellectual aspects of their academic life.

Even your university’s career center should not be overlooked. Career center staff members should be trained and equipped to understand the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ students in the job market. It is, after all, the responsibility of the career counselor to offer guidance in these matters. Transgender students requiring assistance navigating the use of their legal names in the job application process is just one such example. 


2.  Provide Specialized Mental Health Support

As the statistics shared at the beginning of this article show, having aware and trained professionals on campus to provide counseling to LGBTQ+ students is indispensable. As a demographic more vulnerable to discrimination, these students must be able to count on the university for support.

mental health

According to research by Pennsylvania State University, experiences of discrimination are directly associated with signs of distress, such as social isolation and suicidal ideation. The report found, moreover, that symptoms like social anxiety and family distress have increased steadily over the past 13 years.

Recognizing the profound effects of discrimination on this community’s mental health is crucial for university administrators.

It is, therefore, imperative that on-campus counselors possess the requisite expertise to assist students facing challenges related to non-cisheteronormative identities. They should also grasp that these identities frequently intersect with other factors such as race, background, religion, and beyond.


3.  Provide Clear Communication About Existing Resources

To ensure the effectiveness of your university's initiatives, reaching out to the intended recipients is crucial. This begins with ensuring that both current and prospective students are informed about the available resources and support systems on campus.

Raising awareness can be accomplished by distributing comprehensive guides that detail LGBTQ+-specific services, support groups, and campus events. These guides can be circulated throughout the entire campus community via email, social media platforms, or by creating a dedicated page on the school's website.

In addition to traditional communication methods, utilizing student ambassadors, influencers, and other peer-to-peer channels can also be highly effective in spreading the message to relevant communities. Working directly with those who would directly benefit not only enhances community support but also enhances the university's credibility. 

The Gender and Sexuality Campus Center at Michigan State University is a great example of a centralized resource: the website contains resources for incoming students, faculty, and staff, promotes events and workshops, and details all forms of support available for queer students at MSU.

Many students are reluctant to seek assistance due to personal reasons like concerns about privacy or feeling uneasy about asking for support. However, alleviating their concerns is possible by offering clear communication about the school's support services. When students understand what to anticipate, they become more assured in accessing the available resources.

Incorporating testimonials from students who have benefited from the school's initiatives can further reassure others. Authentic stories from students facing similar challenges humanize the support network, inspiring others to seek assistance.


4.  Empower LGBTQ+ Voices

Supporting LGBTQ+ students in higher education also involves empowering their voices and advocating for their inclusion in all aspects of campus life. One effective way of achieving this is by including queer perspectives in promotional content.

It’s a matter of showing instead of telling.

Highlight LGBTQ+ students and alumni in campaigns that showcase their academic achievements and research endeavors, regardless of whether these intersect with their identities. Featuring success stories from queer students who have excelled on your campus will have a more significant impact in showcasing the welcoming environment of your school.

In addition to backing queer advocacy and scholarship, LGBTQ+ students can find support for their expression and creativity through artistic and cultural gatherings. These events provide a platform for students to showcase their talents and celebrate their individuality, fostering stronger bonds and building a sense of community.

Like every other department, the university’s communications team must maintain constant dialogue with the LGBTQ+ community, whether through regular meetings, focus groups, or advisory boards. By actively requesting input and incorporating feedback from LGBTQ+ students, communications staff can most effectively learn about their needs and elevate their cause.


5.  Educate the Whole Community and Staff

Inclusion efforts can only progress at the necessary pace when everyone is on board. 

Advocating for LGBTQ+ rights cannot fall solely under the responsibility of queer students and those directly affected by bigotry. Educating everyone on campus – especially the cisgender and heterosexual members of the community – is indispensable.

By promoting workshops, roundtable discussions, and other opportunities for the entire community to engage with LGBTQ+ advocacy, universities can keep up with the most urgent issues and create pertinent strategies to improve the academic experience of queer students.

Furthermore, establishing safe spaces for students to freely express themselves and facilitating open communication between the queer community and university staff members enhances the sense of belonging and safety for enrolled students on campus. This also showcases a firm commitment to LGBTQ+ well-being, which can resonate positively with prospective students.

When it comes to supporting students who regularly face discrimination, every action counts. As Kristen Renn, a professor at MSU, stated, “In a world of microaggressions where you are consistently being misgendered or hearing homophobic comments — when you have these pockets of microaffirmations, they become really important to well-being.”

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