Ah, college! Whether you’re new to a local campus this semester or you’ve been before, there’s something about the teeming possibilities in a university or college atmosphere. Maybe you’ve sensed it before, wafting through the air—not necessarily the feel of “classroom learning,” but maybe the sense that peoples’ eyes are being opened for the first time. Maybe even opened to new sexual identities and ways of expressing gender.
Many teenagers (and nontraditional students) find that they have their assumptions, beliefs or understandings about others strongly challenged in higher education. Just remember that having your beliefs challenged doesn’t mean they have to change.
Conservative groups sometimes accuse liberal “activist” professors of trying to brainwash youth, but after working on a college campus for the past nine years, I’ve observed that students are more likely to experience challenges to their upbringing because of what they witness beyond the classroom—in the student center, in an extracurricular program or in the quad.
Going to college offers innumerable possibilities for doing what Jungian psychologists call “individuation.” The rest of us simply call it “finding ourselves.” For roughly 3 to 5 percent of the population, this means they may begin, or continue, the process of coming out. I know this is 2014, not 1994, and kids are more comfortable than ever about coming out at a younger age, but there’s still a process of self-discovery that occurs after we’ve entered adulthood.
When I enrolled in college at 18 years-old, I didn’t know it, but I was still six years away from coming out as gay. Sure, I knew gay students, but I never imagined they were like me, or I was like them. I didn’t even have the capacity to find out more about myself at the time. But if the university where I went for my undergraduate degree had an LGBT student group in the ’90s, I may have had the opportunity for self-discovery sooner.
Many national organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign, PFLAG and especially Campus Pride, offer online resources for gauging campus equality and support for coming out at major universities and colleges. Here are a few important factors to consider when you’re enrolling or heading into to the first week of classes:
Institutional policies are definitely important when it comes to ensuring your well-being. If your college or university does not have policies that prohibit harassment or discrimination toward LGBT students, faculty or staff, you may want to look elsewhere.
Search the school’s student code of conduct handbook and employment policy for phrases like “sexual orientation” or “gender identity/expression,” which ensure administrative support for an inclusive environment. Supportive policies do not guarantee an environment free from problems, but they do offer a way to address harassment or discrimination if necessary.
LGBT Student Groups/Gay-Straight Alliances
Ideally, you’ll find support both within and beyond the classroom and, if you’re lucky, some of that support will come from Student Life. Check out the campus calendar for regular events that improve awareness of LGBT issues, such as National Day of Silence, HIV testing, National Coming Out Day and Pride celebrations. Also learn which registered student organizations are available for LGBT students and allies. Most local campuses have at least one group. The PRIDE Center in San Antonio also offers extensive resources for the LGBT community.
Discover your campus’ procedures for reporting discrimination and hate crimes. Even if the policies for the institution aren’t as LGBT-friendly as they could be, a clear reporting process is required under federal law. In April 2014, the Department of Education released guidelines that specifically extend Title IX, which requires schools to address sexual assault and gender-based discrimination to transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
If you plan to live on campus, see if LGBT options are available. Is the campus’ student housing staffed with Resident Assistants who are trained and sensitive to the needs of LGBT students? If you are a transgender student, be sure to inquire about unisex dorms and other accommodations.
Out or Ally Faculty and Staff
It’s important to find others like you among faculty and the staff. (This doesn’t mean they have to be—or should be—role models.) Ask the Student Life office, the counselors and academic advisers if they know of faculty or staff who are LGBT or LGBT-friendly. They don’t have to be LGBT themselves—just open to other identities and orientations and willing to converse intellectually about coming out and finding out more about your identity.
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