Diversity and Democracy

Civic-Minded Practices for LGBTQ Student Success

Current discourses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues in the United States, whether supportive or repressive, spill into our campus environments, with implications for the curriculum, the cocurriculum, and the classroom. Institutions that engage with these discourses by modeling strong and inclusive civic practices can help students develop perspectives and mindsets built on democratic principles—and in the process, create more welcoming climates for LGBTQ populations. In this article, we describe the relationship between civil discourse, campus climate, and LGBTQ student success, and recommend campus practices that are inclusive of LGBTQ students.

Campus Climates for LGBTQ Student Success

As we recently discussed in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education (2014), campus climate can be defined as "the cumulative attitudes, behaviors, and standards of employees and students concerning access for, inclusion of, and level of respect for individual and group needs, abilities, and potential" (Rankin 2005, 17), and is additionally affected by institutional policies and practices (Reason 2013, 41).

Basic safety is paramount to supportive campus climates (Higbee, Siaka, and Bruch 2007). Rankin (2005) notes that many LGBTQ students, particularly those with multiple minority identities, feel socially or emotionally isolated due to harassment, assault, and intimidation that occurs on campus and through social media. Check and Ballard (2014) note the importance of intellectual safety, which stems in part from inclusive classroom environments and curricula that attend to "LGBTQ facts or histories" (7). Because negative campus climates, including those "perceived to be discriminatory," have been associated with "decreased likelihood of persistence" for all students (Reason 2013, 41), the entire campus community bears responsibility for creating supportive climates for LGBTQ student success.

As Kuh et al. (2011) argue, student success efforts can become sustainable "when institutional leaders and others are committed" to the cause (13–14). For LGBTQ students in particular, success hinges at least in part on the meaningful engagement of faculty, staff, and administrators with issues relevant to these students' lives. Also important are campus-wide opportunities for civil discourse and civic engagement around issues affecting LGBTQ students.

Inclusive Campus Practices

Over recent decades, many faculty and student affairs practitioners have come to understand the benefits of being inclusive and culturally responsive in terms of race, ethnicity, and class. Yet many educators and practitioners still struggle to connect these practices with LGBTQ student identities. Because students' sexual and gender identities factor into how they interact with faculty and peers and experience campus climate, practitioners must intentionally create the conditions for positive academic and social engagement. To this end, we suggest several inclusive practices below.

Demonstrate the institution's commitment to LGBTQ issues and support for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Campus leaders should ensure that policies and administrative actions speak to the value of sexual and gender diversity in the community. This includes supporting LGBTQ and queer resource centers that provide safe spaces and expertise on LGBTQ issues, and naming sexuality and gender identities in policies designed to counter bias, harassment, and discrimination. To monitor the impact of these and other efforts on student recruitment, success, and retention, admissions and institutional research offices should consider including LGBTQ self-identification as an option in data collection and matriculation procedures (Newhouse 2013).

Create an engaged campus culture. Campus leaders should encourage students, staff, and faculty to organize events that offer diverse perspectives on gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality, and should reward such work through promotion and incentive policies (including for contingent faculty). A parallel goal should be to build attendance among faculty, staff, and students of all sexualities. Partnerships with other identity-based campus groups (e.g., multicultural or religious student groups) can facilitate broad campus engagement and inspire conversations about intersectional identities (Rankin 2005).

Take safety and civility seriously (Higbee, Siaka, and Bruch 2007; Rankin 2005). Institutions must define and enforce campus policies that address safety, bias, and discrimination, creating well-publicized mechanisms for incident reporting and a team trained to respond swiftly and productively. Campus leaders must also create space for dialogue about incidents affecting the community, modeling civility around issues of sexuality and difference.

Provide mentoring opportunities for LGBTQ students, and create points of connection between LGBTQ faculty, staff, students, and their allies (Leider 2000). Mentoring that validates students' transition to and belonging on campus can boost LGBTQ student retention and academic integration. LGBTQ and queer resource centers are critical to creating and facilitating such programs, with staff who can offer proactive outreach and match mentors and mentees (Poynter and Washington 2005). These centers can also offer guidance and resources to LGBTQ and ally students seeking to launch or get involved with community service or campus–community action projects.

Use integrated curricular and cocurricular learning opportunities to help students reflect on their own intersectional identities. Edwards and Brooks (1999) observe that "learning more about our sexual identities can create new knowledge about ourselves, about our differences, about our own humanity, and even about how learning is created or suppressed in our society" (55). As students integrate knowledge across experiential and in-class learning opportunities (e.g., learning communities, service opportunities, collaborative projects) and across facets of identity (religion, race, sexuality, class, gender, etc.), they develop more complex perspectives, greater relational capacities, and more advanced empathy (Zaytoun 2005; Poynter and Washington 2005). Exposure to individuals, organizations, or scholarly and artistic works that speak to sexual and gender diversity can productively challenge students' stereotypes and social norms (Abes and Jones 2004).

Create faculty development opportunities. Faculty and staff often need space and support to explore how to address issues of sexuality and gender in their disciplines. Opportunities for curricular and activity development are key to changing campus culture and increasing the number of venues that address LGBTQ issues. Professional development programming should avoid tokenism (Newhouse 2013) and binaries, and promote identity as multifaceted and intersectional. Faculty who teach in the digital classroom can be encouraged to model civil discourse by establishing rules for online discussion boards and connecting course content to current LGBTQ issues using Twitter hashtags.


All students deserve the opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally in college—and all students can grow intellectually and ethically from exposure to curricular and cocurricular experiences that highlight the importance of sexuality and gender to individuals, society, and civic life (Zaytoun 2005). By building safe conditions for students to learn about diversity across sexuality and gender lines, colleges and universities not only support the success of individual LGBTQ students, but also produce graduates who can engage across difference with greater respect, empathy, and civility—ultimately contributing to transformation in the public discourse.


Abes, Elisa S., and Susan R. Jones. 2004. "Meaning-Making Capacity and the Dynamics of Lesbian College Students' Multiple Dimensions of Identity." Journal of College Student Development 45 (6): 612–32.

Check, Ed, and Katy Ballard. 2014. "Emotional, Intellectual, and Physical Violence Directed Toward LGBTQ Students and Educators." Art Education 67 (3): 6–11.

Dolinsky, Rebecca, and Heather McCambly. 2014. "LGBTQ Student Success in Higher Ed: Collaborating with Diverse Practitioners." Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, July 23.

Edwards, Kathleen, and Ann K. Brooks. 1999. "The Development of Sexual Identity." New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 1999 (84): 49–57.

Higbee, Jeanne L., Kwabena Siaka, and Patrick L. Bruch. 2007. "Student Perceptions of Their Multicultural Learning Environment: A Closer Look." In Diversity and the Postsecondary Experience, edited by Jeanne L. Higbee, Dana B. Lundell, and Irene M. Duranczyk, 3–24. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

Kuh, George D., Jillian Kinzie, John H. Schuh, and Elizabeth J. Whitt. 2011. "Fostering Student Success in Hard Times." Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 43 (4): 13–19.

Leider, Steven. 2000. "Sexual Minorities on Community College Campuses." ERIC Digest, March. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED447841.

Newhouse, Maria R. 2013. "Remembering the 'T' in LGBT: Recruiting and Supporting Transgender Students." Journal of College Admission 220 (Summer): 23–27.

Poynter, Kerry J., and Jamie Washington. 2005. "Multiple Identities: Creating Community on Campus for LGBT Students." New Directions for Student Services 2005 (111): 41–47.

Rankin, Susan R. 2005. "Campus Climates for Sexual Minorities." New Directions for Student Services 111 (Fall): 17–23.

Reason, Robert D. 2013. "Creating and Assessing Campus Climates that Support Personal and Social Responsibility." Liberal Education 99 (1): 38–43.

Zaytoun, Kelli D. 2005. "Identity and Learning: The Inextricable Link." About Campus 9 (6): 8–15.

Rebecca Dolinsky is a program manager and research analyst at the Association of American Colleges and Universities; Heather McCambly is a program associate at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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