6 Ways to Support LGBTQ Students During the First-Year Experience

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windmeyerI was born and raised in a rural town in Kansas and went to a small liberal arts college. Although I never realized until I was a teenager, my family was low-income, and my parents worked hard to provide everything for my sister and me. My dad worked at a plywood factory, and my mom had a job on the Iowa reservation where many of my aunts and uncles lived. My mother’s side of the family was mixed race, a combination of Mexican, American Indian, and Irish. I never knew much of my ancestry and passed as white among my peers in high school. All I knew as a teenager was how important it was for me to go to college — and that is what I wanted to do. Make my family proud.

As a first-generation college student, I didn’t know what to expect from the experience. The idea of higher education seemed so remote at the time. Financial aid, scholarships, and testing were all things I had no concept of — the systems and the requirements. But little did I know my biggest struggle in college would be inside me, coming to terms with my sexuality.

I did finally come out my sophomore year, in 1992, as gay. No one had prepared me for it, and at the time, it was not something my family would have easily understood, much less accepted. Hashtags and “it gets better” slogans were more than 18 years away. Rural America had little to offer a gay kid. Nevertheless, I was extremely lucky to find support on campus from fellow students, key staff, faculty, and administrators.

For the last 20 years, I have devoted my personal and professional life to LGBTQ campus issues. Indeed, college campuses are changing — some more than others. I know that the first-year experience for LGBTQ students is crucial for finding support and acceptance, and finding these should not be left to luck or chance. The following list highlights six ways you can support LGBTQ youth during their first-year experience on your campus; it reflects lessons I learned, as well as tips from LGBTQ students.

Be visible through Safe Zone. Safe Zone is a program developed to teach people how to be effective allies to LGBTQ people. By participating in the program, your office, classroom, or residence hall becomes a “safe zone,” meaning a place LGBTQ students can talk about or present themselves as their true gender identity or sexuality without fear. First-year students look to the surrounding environment for help, and Safe Zone is a perfect way to be visible. If you don’t have one, contact Campus Pride, and we can help you start one.

Push for an LGBTQ institutional commitment. No campus is perfect or completely LGBTQ-inclusive. First-year students who are LGBTQ may identify, need, or want specific programs or policies that make them feel safe or welcome on campus. Their academic experience is affected by LGBTQ bias or harassment they may feel or experience related to their sexual or gender identity. Be an advocate, and help them make a difference.

Lead by example inside and outside the classroom. What you say and don’t say affects how first-year students perceive the campus climate. Use inclusive language and terms — as well as diverse examples, including authentic representations of LGBTQ people — in communications. Be sure to ask for students’ preferred names the first day of class, in addition to preferred pronouns; then use them. Set a clear standard of civility and respect in your classroom, and it will carry beyond to the entire campus community. Administrators, faculty, and staff create the world an LGBTQ person lives in on campus.

Help LGBTQ students know they are not alone. Coming out as LGBTQ or as an ally and being a campus administrator or a faculty or staff member may be difficult. Even if you don’t immediately see LGBTQ students around you, rest assured, they are there. First-year students who might be LGBTQ are waiting to identify with someone who is also LGBTQ. Every day that you live proudly and openly as LGBTQ, or as an ally, is another day that a student who may be struggling with his or her identity might see you and become inspired to live openly as well. Being an ally is valuable to these students, and your presence is absolutely necessary.

Support the whole student. None of us exists as purely one aspect of our identity. Additionally, college is a time when we often begin to understand our whole self, all of who we are — our sexual and gender identity, our faith, our race, and our physical traits. Remember to support students at all of these intersections; this effort will lead to a deeper relationship that will help first-year students when they may need someone to talk to or confide in.

Ensure access to LGBTQ-affirming healthcare. Mental and physical health is important to ensuring LGBTQ students’ success at a college or university. A first-year student may experience a rough transition being LGBTQ and living openly on campus. The LGBTQ community has specific needs, and finding an LGBTQ-affirming doctor or therapist can be crucial to a student’s well-being. Students who have campus insurance policies should be covered for treatments necessary for maintaining mental health or for medical transitioning.●

Shane Windmeyer is the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the leading national educational organization for LGBTQ and ally college students and campus groups; he is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Campus Pride is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more about Campus Pride and how to start a Safe Zone, visit campuspride.org. Special thanks to Allison Marie Turner for writing assistance; she is an alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Summer Fellow for Campus Pride.