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Making the transition from a high school environment to a college environment is a challenge for everyone, and there are many factors that will influence your decision. Money, location, school size, and academic reputation are some of the factors that a high school junior or senior would traditionally consider when looking over his or her college choices. There are many books and other resources available on which colleges fit particular students. But there is very little, if any, information available on which colleges are a good match for a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) student, and which colleges only serve to make the LGBT student more isolated. The more comfortable you feel in college, the better you will do, and the more enjoyable your college years will be. The choice to be open about your sexuality shouldn't be made by a college environment that is unfriendly towards LGBT students.
There are no particular types of colleges that are LGBT friendly (or not). Some small rural colleges are LGBT friendly, and some large urban universities aren't friendly. Some LGBT friendly schools are expensive, and some are not as expensive. Determining whether a school is LGBT friendly is something that takes time, and there is no widely accepted rating system such as the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings that takes the 'gay friendly' factor into account. Below, we have compiled some of the factors you can possibly use to determine whether a school is LGBT friendly.
One of the first things to look at is the school's non-discrimination policy, which can be found in the college or university brochure, website, or printed on other materials that the school has sent you. If you can't find this policy or statement on any of the materials from a certain college, you might e-mail or call the college to ask if they have one. Here is a sample non-discrimination policy from the University of Utah:
The University of Utah is fully committed to affirmative action and to its policies of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in all programs, activities, and employment with regard to race, color, national origin, sex, age, status as a person with a disability, religion, sexual orientation, and status as a veteran or disabled veteran. The university seeks to provide equal access to its programs, services, and activities for people with disabilities. Reasonable prior notice is needed to arrange accommodations. Evidence of practices not consistent with these policies should be reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, 801-581-8365 (V/TDD).
When looking over these policies, take note of the protected classes. U.S. Law mandates race, color, religion, and national origin, and the inclusion of these classes is simply showing that the college or university is abiding by the law. You should look for sexual orientation, and gender expression to be included in these policies. If this is not included, this could be an indicator that the school isn't as 'LGBT friendly' as other schools. The fact that sexual orientation and gender expression is not included would mean that should you be a victim of anti-gay or gender biased discrimination, you would have no recourse with the college. If it is included, this is a sign that you at least have some minimal recourse should you be the victim of harassment or discrimination. If the policy is clearly stated on all printed materials, this can be in indicator that the school views its non-discrimination policy as more than just a required paragraph. If the policy is in place, but it takes you a week to find it, then this could conversely be a sign that the school doesn't highly value its non-discrimination policy. If you fail to find the policy on printed materials, or through the internet, then ask the student coordinator of the LGBT group on campus or the director of the LGBT resource office where the policy is printed. If the school has a non-discrimination policy, but does not appear to have any LGBT student groups, resource centers, or the like, then you'll have to look at other aspects of the school to determine the LGBT climate of the school before you visit (or attend). This is something that you should determine for yourself, and this policy should not be used as a litmus test of sorts when applying to colleges; it's just another thing to look at.
Another policy to look for in a college or university is whether they provide domestic partner benefits for faculty, staff, and other full-time employees of the college or university. These are benefits that are similar to the medical, financial, and insurance benefits a legally married heterosexual spouse of an employee would be entitled to. If a school does not have sexual orientation in the non-discrimination policy, then chances are the school doesn't have domestic partner benefits for its faculty, staff, and other employees. Since a school can be very LGBT friendly, and still not have domestic benefits, this is a less accurate indicator of whether a college is friendly to LGBT students or not. At some schools, these benefits have implications regarding married student housing, and also in terms of medical coverage for a student's partner, should the student opt to use the school's medical program. If a school has these benefits, it will be reflected in the diversity of faculty the school has. LGBT faculties are more likely to have a positive work environment with these policies in place, and having a content faculty and staff translates into a better experience for students. To find out whether a school has domestic partner benefits, you can ask almost any faculty member (since they are the ones who would benefit from such a policy), or you can ask the head of the LGBT student group or LGBT resource center at the school.
One last LGBT positive policy a school may have could be found in the school's anti-harassment material. Most of the time, colleges and universities have a policy that prohibits harassment because of race, ethnicity, national origin, and the like. If this policy includes sexual orientation, this could be another indicator that the school cares about its LGBT students.
There are still very few schools that have certain policies that either prohibit "homosexual conduct," or that have taken action to prevent a LGBT group from forming. These schools are a dying breed of social institutions, as more and more people realize that it's in everyone's best interests to be open and welcoming towards LGBT students. In the rare event that you encounter a school with a discriminatory policy, this should be cause for alarm. If the school you are looking at has a policy of discrimination against gays (they may very well phrase it differently), unless there is something else that only that school can offer, look elsewhere for your college education.
Beyond things that are written in books, or domestic partner benefits to faculty and staff, some colleges and universities have some sort of recognized organization, office, or resource center that is dedicated to LGBT students, or has a broader 'diversity' office or center which has a staff member who works either part-time or full-time on LGBT issues on campus. The University of Utah has the LGBT Resource Center, which is located in the University Union room 409. Often separate from this is a student created and/or student run organization composed of LGBT students and straight students that support them. These student organizations may plan and execute events on campus, hold support group meetings for LGBT students, have socials and parties, and/or may serve as groups that foster political activism. You can find these groups by looking through the directory of student organizations.
As one might imagine, the larger the school, the larger the student organization will be, and the more funding will be available for LGBT student resources (hopefully). Small LGBT friendly schools often have a simple student run organization and maybe a single staff member who dedicates some of his or her time to issues surrounding LGBT youth. Larger LGBT friendly universities, sometimes with tens of thousands of students, often have several student-run organizations that are centered on LGBT life, and the larger schools may have more elaborate LGBT resource centers, with paid staff and student volunteers, and sometimes even a small community center dedicated to LGBT students. You should also inquire whether the school financially supports the student organization. A school should support its student run organization the same way it supports any other organization on-campus. When considering how LGBT friendly a school is, you should consider how much it offers to its LGBT students relative to the overall size of the school. You should expect a larger school to have a healthy LGBT student group that receives the support of the school administratively and financially. You shouldn't expect a very small LGBT friendly college to have a community center designated solely for LGBT students, but you should expect a school to have a student-run LGBT organization on-campus. If a school doesn't have any organization at all, this might be an indicator that the school isn't friendly to LGBT students.
Another possible indicator of whether a school is LGBT friendly or not is whether the school has a designated committee or group of faculty/staff that serve on a board or school commission about sexual orientation. There are several ways to find out if a school has such a commission. First, you could ask one of the staff in the school's admission office, as they generally know who is who on campus. You could also inquire about such a commission by asking the head of the LGBT student group or LGBT resource center on campus. You could ask a student at the school who is LGBT or gay friendly, or lastly, you could ask for a list of all faculty and staff groups and look over it and see if you find anything with sexual orientation, gay, etc. in the title of that group or commission. Many LGBT friendly schools no longer have these commissions, as these commissions have sometimes evolved into a LGBT resource center, or a student-led group, so the absence of a faculty/staff LGBT commission by itself doesn't mean much. If a school doesn't have a student-led group, a resource center, or any sort of commission, you can look to other factors to find out if the school is cool with LGBT students.
Another way to find out what the climate of a school is like for LGBT students is to simply go out there and talk to the students themselves. There are many ways to do this. If you are already out and don't mind getting your feet wet, ask a random student. Ask them if there are any LGBT students at that particular school and see how they respond to that question. If they go on and on about their best gay friend and all his or her good times together, then you've obviously found out that there is at least one LGBT person at the school. If they say 'yes', but are either offended or confused, don't take this the wrong way. Almost every school has at least a select few students who haven't been exposed to any LGBT people growing up, or come from conservative backgrounds, or are conservative themselves, and you may have just asked the wrong person. Go to the school's website and see what information the website has on LGBT life at that school. Ask several different people at different places on campus. There might be areas on campus commonly frequented by LGBT students. These are all things you can possibly find out by putting a foot out there and asking people.
If asking random people questions isn't your idea of a cool afternoon, then look for LGBT people in places you already know they might be, such as the weekly meeting of the student-run LGBT group. You might consider calling or e-mailing the LGBT resource center (if the school has one) and ask to talk to some people. Chances are the people in the resource center will be happy to help you find students to share some of their experiences with you.
The University of Utah has set-up a program called Queer Peers where people can anonymously ask questions to students that self identify as a member of the LGBT campus community. Once you do find a LGBT student to talk to, don't be afraid to ask questions about LGBT life on campus, policies on harassment, and/or what experiences they have. Many LGBT students at some schools would be thrilled that you are truly interested in coming to their college (everyone loves to brag). Remember that the only dumb question is the one you didn't ask. The more honestly you ask, the more honest your answers can be. You could end up going to this school for years, so you have a right to know what LGBT life at that school is like.
Just as you want to find other students who are LGBT, it can be very affirming to find and talk to faculty and staff at a school that are LGBT. Every school has LGBT faculty, it's just a matter of whether they make their sexual orientation public, or, like many in the academic world, keep their sexuality a secret for a whole variety of reasons. You can find faculty and/or staff who are out several ways. If the school has a commission on sexual orientation, or a related topic such as a diversity committee, contact the faculty that serve on that commission or committee. If a faculty members serves on a school commission for LGBT students, then they are obviously at least somewhat friendly towards LGBT students, so that would be a good place to start.
You can also go to the student group or resource center (if applicable) and ask if they have any lists of LGBT-friendly faculty. Since these lists are often confidential, they may not be comfortable revealing information from that list without talking to you first. One advantage of talking to LGBT and gay-friendly faculty is that they often have been within one school community for many years, and can speak to a 'gay history' of the school. They give you some insight about how the campus is now around LGBT issues, but they can also give you some idea what the campus was like five, ten, twenty or more years ago. Sometimes a school's history can give you some idea of what to expect four years down the road when you are nearing your college graduation.
If being LGBT is something that you want to make an active part of your college education, there are some schools that offer courses in the rapidly expanding field of gay and lesbian studies (sometimes called queer studies, thought, or theory). Some schools have this as an entire department (i.e., Department of Gay and Lesbian Studies), and some schools have a collection of gay studies classes under another department, such as Anthropology, Gender Studies, or Sociology. NYU has created the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. For more information, some other schools have LGBT courses throughout the range of other courses that they offer (i.e., a class on gay business, or a course about LGBT language). To find out whether a school offers these courses, simply go over the school's course guide, and look for classes that have gay in the title of the class, or address LGBT issues. To find out what courses are offered at the University of Utah please contact the Gender Studies office at or the LGBT Resource Center. While each school has a unique way of organizing and cataloging classes, the question becomes how much support does the school give to students who wish to pursue study in gay studies. If gay studies are of little or no interest to you, then this may be of no direct consequence to you, but the fact that the school has gay studies could be an indicator that the school is gay friendly. If you have a penchant for social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, or gender studies, and want to incorporate them with the exciting field of gay studies, then you might give preference to a school that offers courses in gay studies.
While it is important to seek out what resources the school has for LGBT students, what the social climate is like for LGBT students, and other information explicitly for gay students, you should also look at the places that every college student experiences, regardless of sexual orientation, such as the dining hall, dormitories, library, and study spaces. These are some of the stereotypical hallmarks of the "college experience," and just about everyone spends at least a year or two living on campus, eating in the dining hall, and spending those late nights in the library studying. In turn, these different venues will be the spaces you spend countless hours in over what could be several years. These should be spaces where you feel comfortable eating, studying, sleeping, and socializing.
Finding out how safe these spaces are to be LGBT may be the most difficult task in determining how LGBT friendly a college actually is. Since you will be the one attending the school, give the entire campus a look with a close eye. For example, look at what graffiti students have written on the walls, both interior and exterior, and in the public bathrooms. If there appears to be a significant amount of anti-gay graffiti in conspicuous places, this could possibly indicate that those who view it are indifferent to these hateful remarks. Look at the materials other college groups have posted on the many campus bulletin boards. See if materials related to LGBT groups and events have been defaced. As well as using your eyes, use your ears and try to listen in on some student conversations, and listen to tell if they use derogatory terms about people who are LGBT, and if they do, how many and in what context. See if the faculty or staff reprimands students for using anti-gay remarks. If you talk to LGBT students at a particular school, ask them how often they hear these remarks, what is done about them, and whether they have ever had any derogatory remarks directed at them personally. Does the university keep track of harassment cases, and are the cases easily accessible to find out how often they occur?
Another place to inquire within a school is the training that is required to be a resident assistant in the dorms. You can find out about this from the LGBT student group, the LGBT resource center on campus, or the housing and residential education office. Students (usually juniors and seniors) who are resident assistants are all trained over the course of one week to over one month, depending on the school. It is reasonable to expect that all resident assistants have some minimal training in issues facing LGBT students. Also make a quick visit to the student health center or clinic. Look at the brochures that are available for students to take free of charge. See if they have brochures on such topics as HIV/AIDS, safe gay sex, male rape, and others. If you want to get your feet wet yet again, you might want to ask someone in the health center if they offer free HIV testing, free condoms, and the like. These may be small details, but all the details put together make up how the school relates to its LGBT students.
So far we have discussed many different aspects of how to determine whether or not a school is LGBT-friendly. One of the greatest features of a school may be its location, be it urban, suburban, or rural. You should first look for a college in the setting you want. There are both urban and rural areas that are gay-friendly, which in turn means the town or city might be more welcoming to LGBT students coming there for college. After you finish your exploration of the school itself, venture into the town or city where students from the school go and spend time in when they are not on campus. You can find this information out from reading the school's printed material, talking to students, or talking to a representative from the school's office of admissions. Sometimes this information may be obvious, other times students may travel via car or public transportation to socialize in places that can be many miles away from the school's physical campus.
Look at the places students go and socialize off-campus as if you were looking to move somewhere, because you will have two homes when you go away to college: the school's campus, and the towns and cities that students from that school go to and socialize in. We've discussed the first 'home' quite a bit, and the second home is one that is a very personal decision. Some people like living in the city, where some people like living in the country. While some colleges may be friendly to LGBT students and others deny they have LGBT students, information about gay life in most cities and towns has been well-documented in books, magazines, and the Yellow Pages. Here in Salt Lake City a major source for finding out about the LGBT Community is the Utah Pride Center.
When you go and look at what the school offers in terms of off-campus social opportunities, keep in mind the things you enjoy doing now. If you enjoy drinking coffee in a non-Starbucks coffeehouse, look for those. You should also do research on the internet to see what venues (bookstores, restaurants, nightclubs, and neighborhoods) near the college are places that cater to a LGBT audience. Large cities tend to have more opportunities than small towns, but as the old proverb goes, "It's quality, not quantity." Another place to look for information on the social climate of a certain town is the political affiliations of the majority of residents that live there. If most of the people in that town are very socially conservative, then realize those affiliations will work their ways into the social fabric of that town or city. Likewise, if the town has ordinances requiring all employers to have domestic partner benefits, it would be reasonable to assume that a majority of the town supports gay citizens, which you would be one of, if you choose to attend school there. The choice of whether you prefer an urban or rural environment is one that only you can make.
The college decision, regardless of your sexual orientation, has never been an easy one. Choosing a college can be daunting simply because there are so many different schools out there. You probably didn't have a choice as to what high school you went to, and even if you did, the choice was probably limited to under a dozen schools. There are thousands of colleges and universities in this country, and even more if you choose to study outside the United States. Does everyone always make the right choice? No, but if you make a mistake and want to go somewhere else, almost every school accepts students for transfer admission, which is when students who are already in a college apply to another college. Many times students who transfer colleges start their new college as a sophomore or junior.
What we have compiled here about finding a LGBT friendly school should help you in your college quest, but always trust yourself over anyone else. If a certain college or university doesn't appeal to you, for whatever reason, don't go there. There are so many colleges and universities out there so be sure not to settle for a place you don't want to attend. You really can have a great college experience, whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight.
Adapted from GLBTA Resource Center at American University, written by David Grossman, edited by Charles Milne.