The End of Campus LGBTQIA+ Lifelines

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Photo courtesy of Elyssa Fahndrich

For years, LGBTQIA+ resource centers on college campuses have served as havens for their communities and allies to gather, learn, and advocate.

However, after Florida and Texas lawmakers passed sweeping legislation in spring 2023 to end official DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts and ban affiliated offices at state public universities, LGBTQIA+ individuals on these campuses have been left reeling from the recent elimination of many critical programs on which they have come to rely.

The closure of LGBTQIA+ resource centers — or pride centers.— in particular has sparked protests, discussions, and reflections on their importance in fostering a safe and welcoming environment for these students. The loss of these vital support systems has left many feeling vulnerable and afraid.

Students at the University of North Florida (UNF) protested the closure of the school’s LGBTQ Center. (Photo by Justin Nedrow, Spinnaker Media Photographer)

At the University of North Florida (UNF), the shutdown of four diversity centers, including the LGBTQ Center, was met with student protests. In recent years, UNF had been ranked by the nonprofit Campus Pride as among the top colleges in the U.S. for LGBTQIA+ students.

“I believe this is an infringement of student rights,” Violet Lester, a UNF student, said during the protest. “[It is] not just the community center that will be missed, but the security that students have in the rights of being themselves, the rights of embracing themselves, and having that community that was there.”

Fortunately, some public institutions in the state, including Florida International University (FIU) have, so far, avoided closures of their pride centers. Given that Florida’s mandate only prohibits DEI efforts that are supported by state and federal funds, schools that finance such programs through alternative means, such as student fees, outside grants, or community donations can remain open.

“There may be Florida campuses that have found ways to continue in quieter, more obscure ways to support their students, their LGBTQIA+ programs and other diversity work,” Shane Mendez Windmeyer, the CEO and executive director of Campus Pride, wrote in a blog after the state’s anti-DEI law passed in 2023.

In spite of the barrage of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation coming from Florida lawmakers, many administrators, staff, faculty, and students at FIU have remained steadfast in their support of the university’s Pride Center, which is run through the Centers for Student Engagement. At a recent Miami Beach Pride parade, FIU President Kenneth Jessell, PhD, commended those who have worked to maintain and organize funding and events — such as Lavender graduations.— for the center.

In support of the LGBTQ Center, UNF protesters
set up a variety of Pride flags on campus.

“This doesn’t happen by chance,” Jessell said at the parade. “It takes a lot of people and a lot of work to get to where we are today. …Your commitment, on a daily basis, in ensuring that there are safe places at FIU for LGBTQ+ Panthers never goes unnoticed, especially during these difficult times.”

With similar anti-DEI legislation in Texas, The University of Texas at Arlington quietly disbanded its LGBTQIA+ program. Student employees of the program also protested the decision and expressed disappointment and concern over the sudden removal of resources and support for LGBTQIA+ students on campus.

The University of Houston and Texas A&M University also announced the closures of their LGBTQ Resource Center and Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and the LGBTQ+ Pride Center, respectively.

Though anticipated after the bills’ passage, the decision to shutter these centers was still a blow to many students, faculty, staff, and alumni given their significance as safe spaces and resource hubs. These centers play crucial roles in providing counseling and support, education and training, and advocacy for LGBTQIA+ students.

They are also key to community building on campus, which helps students develop a sense of belonging and improves academic performance and retention, according to the commentary “Why LGBTQ+ Campus Resource Centers Are Essential,” written by researchers from The Ohio State University and Lehigh University.

“Their presence (along with other LGBTQIA+ resource groups) is correlated with lower levels of discrimination, less distress, and increased self-acceptance among LGBTQIA+ students,” the commentary reads. “LGBTQIA+-affirming services and campus environments are crucial for the well-being and academic success of these students. It is the responsibility of all university community members.— administrators, faculty, and students alike — to advocate for continuity in these services.”

Notably, the programs offer essential mental health access to a population with a higher risk of suicide, depression, and mental illness.

Vital LGBTQIA+ resources at the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Houston were disbanded following the passage of anti-DEI legislation in the state.

Among 18-to-24-year-old LGBTQIA+ youth, 34% considered and 9% attempted suicide within the past year, according to The Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People. Those within that age range also experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression at a rate of 64% and 50%, respectively. The mental health of respondents also ranked consistently worse in states that had passed or were considering anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation.

While some of the functions of LGBTQIA+ centers have been absorbed into student- or community-led organizations, their termination has raised broader discussions about the impact of legislative changes on LGBTQIA+ communities in educational settings. Experts argue that these shutdowns.— and the laws they stem from.— undermine campus efforts to promote inclusivity, safety, and support for marginalized groups, particularly LGBTQIA+ students. Given that conservative-controlled states continue to push anti-DEI legislation, there are concerns that even more resource centers could be in jeopardy.

In response, students, faculty, and other advocates emphasize the need for continued support, increased awareness, productive activism, and consistent engagement to ensure that all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported in their education.

“We all want [students] to have the best experience while they’re here and to graduate successfully,” said Monica Johnson, director of the Women’s and LGBTQA Resource Centers at Bloomsburg University. “Creating community for them on campus, helping them to find space where they feel like they belong and are seen, and providing opportunities for education to students who aren’t part of these communities but are supportive and want to learn — in my mind, that’s all part of student success and persistence.”