Diversity and Democracy

LGBTQ Campus Climate: The Good and the Still Very Bad

Throughout the United States—in elementary and secondary schools and on college and university campuses, in communities, in homes, and in the media—issues of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism are increasingly "coming out of the closet." Some young people are developing positive identities at earlier ages than ever before. Activists are gaining selective electoral and legislative victories. In academic circles, greater emphasis is being given to queer theory as writers, educators, and students analyze and challenge current constructions and categorizations of sexuality and gender.

In the midst of these progressive advancements, however, conditions related to campus climate often remain difficult at best for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students. Over the past few decades, comprehensive research reports (see, for example, GLSEN 2009) have shown that sexual and gender minoritized students in our nation's primary and secondary schools remain at significantly increased risk of harassment and bullying not only by their peers, but often by school faculty and staff. Many school districts have been leading the way in addressing these issues. But much work remains to be done, from primary through higher education, if educational institutions are to avoid reproducing and reinforcing inequities.

The Educational Impacts of Climate

Students who are the targets of harassment and attack by their peers can experience increased school absenteeism and academic difficulties, including slipping grades. They are more likely to drop out of school. They also have increased risk of alcohol and drug use and abuse and associated physical symptoms. These students often experience serious mental health problems including depression, anxiety disorders, increased fear, withdrawal from family and peers, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), low self-esteem, poor body image, and suicidal ideation, attempts, and completion. (For more on these topics, see Anderson et al. 2001; Craig 1998; Hershberger and D'Augelli 1995; Rigby 2002; Ybarra and Mitchell 2004.)

Research suggests that these findings are particularly relevant in the realm of higher education. In the early 1990s, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force discovered that fully one-fifth of all reported incidents of harassment and violence directed against LGBTQ people in the United States occurred on college and university campuses (NGLTF 1992). These findings should be of concern to all members of the campus community. Ultimately, when the campus climate is unsafe and unwelcoming for any segment of the community, the entire community is affected—for in the final analysis, we are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.

2010 State of Higher Education

My coresearchers Sue Rankin, Genevieve N. Weber, and Somjen Frazer and I recently conducted the comprehensive study 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People, sponsored by the Q Research Institute in Higher Education of the national organization Campus Pride. Our results indicated that LGBTQ students, staff, faculty, and administrators remain at significantly higher risk, compared with our study's control group of their heterosexual and gender normative counterparts, for harassment at US colleges and universities.

The online study comprised 5,149 participants who identified along what we referred to as a "queer spectrum" ("lesbian," "gay," "same-sex loving," "bisexual," "pansexual," "asexual," "questioning," and other terms indicating sexual identity) and a "trans spectrum" ("transmasculine," "transfeminine," "gender nonconforming," "cross-dresser," "tranny boi," "gender queer," "pre-op," along with other terms indicating gender identity and expression). Participants included students, staff, faculty, and administrators representing all fifty states and all institutions included in the Carnegie Basic Classification of higher education.


Selected Recommendations: Curriculum and Academic Affairs

The following is a small selection of recommendations for improving campus climate via the curriculum and academic affairs. These practices should be implemented in concert with inclusive policies, training, services, and other measures.

  • Issues relating to LGBTQ people should be formally and permanently integrated into existing courses across the curriculum.
  • Speakers on LGBTQ topics, and particularly those who present scholarly research on LGBTQ topics, should be brought to campus regularly.
  • Courses dealing specifically with LGBTQ issues in the humanities, natural sciences, education, social sciences, and other disciplines should be established.
  • All multicultural education should be inclusive of the issues, history, culture, and experiences of LGBTQ people in the United States and worldwide. Multicultural awareness (social diversity) courses should be mandatory for all students at some point during the undergraduate years.
  • Institutions should develop, support, and sustain LGBTQ Studies, Queer Studies, or Sexuality and Gender Studies programs (preferably departments) with degree-granting (Certification, AA, BA, Masters, Doctorate) capabilities.

For a complete list of recommendations, contact Warren J. Blumenfeld at wblumen@iastate.edu.

Seventy-one percent of respondents expressed relative comfort with their institutions' overall campus climate, 77 percent with their department or work unit climate, and 65 percent with the classroom climate. But 31 percent experienced a difficult or hostile campus climate and 21 percent experienced some form of harassment related to their sexual identity or gender expression. Along the queer spectrum and the trans spectrum, 13 percent and 43 percent respectively feared for their physical safety, and 43 percent of queer spectrum and 63 percent of trans spectrum participants concealed their identities (stayed "in the closet") in an attempt to avoid intimidation. These rates were significantly higher for queer and trans spectrum respondents of color.

These findings had significant consequences for participants' educational experiences and even their ability to participate in higher education. Thirty-three percent of participants along the queer spectrum and 38 percent along the trans spectrum seriously considered leaving their campuses. Study participants attending unwelcoming and "hostile" campuses reported lowered interest in remaining at their current campuses and discouraged future students, staff, faculty, and administrators from attending. They also experienced lower educational outcomes and more negative identity development issues, including low self-esteem and compromised emotional, mental, and physical health.

Recommendations for Best Practices

In the report, my coauthors and I suggest a number of possible best practices to improve campus climate for LGBTQ students, staff, faculty, and administrators. These include, but are not limited to, campus climate and needs assessments, inclusive policies, training and development options, services including counseling and healthcare, housing options, appropriate and timely responses to anti-LGBTQ incidents, and inclusive curricular and cocurricular education (see box for selected examples).

LGBTQ students remain integral and vital members of our campus communities. Our research has conclusively exposed inequities, and possible best practices can provide options for improvement. We encourage all schools to expand their efforts and to appreciatively raise the level of discourse in working to secure the safety and the equity of all people, including LGBTQ students, staff, faculty, and administrators. In this way, schools may more fully reach their mandate of providing the best quality education for all students.

For a copy of the 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People, visit http://www.campuspride.org/research.


Anderson, Mark, Joanne Kaufman, Thomas R. Simon, Lisa Barrios, Len Paulozzi, George Ryan, Rodney Hammond, William Modzeleski, Thomas Feucht, Lloyd Potter, and the School-Associated Violent Deaths Study Group. 2001. "School-Associated Violent Deaths in the United States, 1994–1999." JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 286 (21): 2695-2702.

Craig, Wendy. 1998. "The Relationship among Bullying, Victimization, Depression, Anxiety, and Aggression in Elementary School Children."Personality and Individual Differences 24 123–30.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network). 2009. National School Climate Survey. New York: Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.

Hershberger, Scott L., and Anthony R. D'Augelli. 1995. "The Impact of Victimization on the Mental Health and Suicidality of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youths." Developmental Psychology 31, 65–74.

NGLTF (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) Policy Institute. 1992. Anti-Gay / Lesbian Violence, Victimization and Defamation in 1991. Washington, DC: NGLTF.

Rigby, Ken. 2002. New Perspectives on Bullying. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Ybarra, Michael, and Kimberly Mitchell. 2004. "Youth Engaging in Online Harassment: Associations with Caregiver–Child Relationships, Internet Use, and Personal Characteristics."Journal of Adolescence 27 (3): 31936.

Warren J. Blumenfeld is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University.


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