In celebration of LGBT Pride Month, Springer Publishing Company is recognizing the importance of LGBT acceptance and equality on college campuses. The following article is adapted from College Student Mental Health Counseling by Suzanne Degges-White and Christine Borzumato-Gainey.
Adolescents transitioning to college encounter a variety of new experiences socially, academically, and emotionally. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) college students have additional factors, their sexual identity and orientation, that can greatly influence their college experiences. For many, college is a time during which they strengthen or begin to develop their identity as LGBTQ. In addition to the average stressors and nuances of college life, LGBTQ college students must also attempt to function in an environment that may be homophobic, heterosexist, or generally uneducated about minority sexual orientations. Although there is a surprisingly significant amount of research concerning various aspects of LGBTQ life on college campuses, adequate sample sizes are often hard to obtain because of the hesitance of some students to identify themselves as LGBTQ.
Some students fail to identify themselves as having a nonheterosexual orientation based on the fear of how their classmates will receive the information. In a report funded by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, researchers found that approximately 74% of those surveyed considered their campus homophobic, and 60% surveyed said they concealed their orientation at some point in their college career in order to avoid discrimination. However, depending on the campus culture and the proximity to family or active LGBTQ cultural centers, there is a great variability in a student’s willingness to come out on campus. Concealing one’s sexual orientation is difficult and taxing emotionally and physically.
The amount of support or acceptance found on college campuses depends on demographics and geographical location, but even on campuses where there is a general sense of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, students often are hesitant to show active support, such as speaking out publicly in favor of gay rights or student concerns. Even on campuses with active Gay–Straight Alliances or other LGBTQ-related organizations, students may not experience peer relationships in the same way as their heterosexual counterparts. Research shows that as students progress through the years of college, they often consider themselves more accepting of those with different sexual orientations. No one is sure exactly how a shift to a more LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere occurs, although some believe this to be a result of interactions with LGBTQ self-identified faculty or students and others believe it may result through increased knowledge related to human sexuality and variance, perhaps through a course on this topic.
The decision to come out is a very personal choice and counselors are often the first individuals to learn of a student’s minority sexual identity concerns or acknowledgment. Thus, it is essential that the campus counseling center be visibly open and supportive of their LGBTQ students. Depending on a person’s family demographic identity (ethnicity, faith, geographic location, etc.), the coming-out process may be first attempted once a student arrives on campus. While many students wrestling with sexual orientation identity feel a sense of freedom upon leaving their hometowns and their high school identities, others may continue to feel bound by family and social group expectations. For students who need support in their sexual identity development, it is important that they are aware of their campus and community levels of acceptance and tolerance of diverse individuals.
Helping students find a safe outlet for social activities and interaction with other LGBTQ students can be an important effort at helping these students gain social confidence and support. If schools sponsor LGBTQ organizations, they should make students aware of the resources offered by the group and build an alliance between the group and the counseling center personnel. If no organization exists, students may investigate the campus climate to determine if an “invisible network” exists for LGBTQ-identified faculty, staff, and students, or if they may need to spearhead efforts to establish an ally group. Being aware of the culture of the school and the local community will help develop a resource and referral list for local LGBTQ organizations. Young adulthood is a time in which freedom is increasingly given, and for many college students, this is perceived to include sexual freedom, both in terms of exploration and identification. It is vital that college counseling centers provide relevant, accessible information and materials.