Amid the evolving nationwide movement for LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance, colleges have become areas where the struggle for equality and inclusivity continues to play out. Much of the available research concerns the benefits of racial and ethnic faculty diversity in higher education. To expand the conversation, this blog post centers the experiences, needs, and significance of LGBTQ+ workers in postsecondary education. The power of queer staff and faculty representation can add to a student’s sense of belonging for transgender and queer students — a crucial component of student success. It’s estimated that more than 25% of LGBTQ+ employees are closeted at work; however, the advantages of being publicly out inside of the classroom are seen as fighting for one’s identity, modeling authenticity and freedom, and emphasizing community connection. The power of queer staff and faculty representation at the college level provides benefits for colleges and a sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ college students. These benefits of LGBTQ+ representation and support can be seen as better academic engagement, performance, and academic success for all students.

For people who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, those who do not identify within the gender binary, or are transgender experience levels of disparities and inequities at higher rates especially for people of color. It’s important to keep in mind the United States is built within a cis-hetero Eurocentric framework, therefore people who present and are perceived as cis hetero meet societal expectations can receive the benefits and protections of that system compared to those who do not and those who have intersectionalities. In 2023 alone, a record of over 220 bills specifically targeting transgender and non-binary people were introduced and over 70 anti-LGBTQ+ laws have been enacted. This is important to note due to the benefits of having a diverse college campus and the concerns when there is low LGBTQ+ college support and representation.

Historic Institutional Change for LGBTQ+ College Students

Much like other student activism in the early 1970s, advocacy for queer communities also came to college campuses. Queer student advocacy came in response to campus incidents and resistance from institutional actors. In 1978, against the backdrop of the American Psychiatric Association (AP) diagnosing homosexuality as a mental disorder, there were over 200 campuses gay and lesbian groups founded across the nation. Today, there are over 2,000 campuses with LGBTQ+ student groups and over 150 campuses who have professionally staffed LGBTQ+ Resource Centers. These resources and centers add to LGBTQ+ faculty and students feeling a sense of belonging and provide a more inclusive college experience. Many campuses can take it a step further by institutionalizing and supporting programs and resources for LGBTQ+ students and faculty.

State Support and Attacks on LGBTQ+ Mental Health

When states support their LGBTQ+ community and when LGBTQ+ staff and faculty are represented in higher education, it can help with identity recognition. California has been passing legislation that supports the queer community in education. The passage of AB 5, sponsored by assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles), sets implementation timelines for required LGBTQ+ cultural competency training by public school teachers and staff. There are several bills that the Trevor Project is tracking that can affect the LGBTQ+ community. The more queer and trans students who see themselves represented in higher education adds to community building, mentorship, and more. In addition, when state level LGBTQ+ protective policies are present it leads to a decrease in anti LGBTQ+ bullying, an increase in GSAs (Gay, Straight Alliance) and other social supports, lower levels of internalized homophobia, and more. Lastly, these protective policies can benefit schools by providing more legal protections for LGBTQ+ staff and faculty, support and connection for LGBTQ+ students, and inclusivity for all students.

Other states that are attacking the LGBTQ+ community can impact college representation of LGBTQ+ staff and faculty in conservative states. When a college or university is in a conservative state, the push for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at the state level increases and therefore decreases support for LGBTQ+ faculty or staff at a higher education institution. Over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures and more are being tracked currently.

Mental Health for LGBTQ+ Youth

Discriminatory institutional policies against the LGBTQ+ community leads to mental and emotional impacts that can further impact LGBTQ+ youth as diagnoses such as increased stress and depression are on the rise — these disparities can increase when there are other intersectionalities to someone’s identity such as race. These discriminatory policies lead to a lack of inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff leading to a lack of a sense of belonging and a lack of support between themselves and non-LGBTQ+ members in the classroom.

Mental Health for LGBTQ+ Staff and Faculty

Creating a more inclusive environment better for LGBTQ+ staff and faculty can also improve campus climate. Currently, LGBTQ+ people on campus do not feel a sense of belonging due to areas that still need inclusivity despite the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court landmark ruling that protects gay and transgender workers from employment discrimination. While there has been limited success in reporting, most queer workers do not report negative comments spoken about queer people because of potential damage to working relationships — the lack of success in reporting furthers homophobia and transphobia on campuses across the nation.

College campuses can also become more equitable when there is visible LGBTQ+ representation in higher education and a commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ faculty and staff. The balance of being an out professor as a member of the LGBTQ+ has its challenges and benefits. In Canada, the “Lesbian and Queer Women Professors Disclosing in the Classroom” study identified that lesbian and queer women professors have a challenge in each class: whether to disclose their sexual identity as those who share their sexuality face entrenched obstacles due to their minority status as women in academia. This dilemma can put LGBTQ+ people in a bind, especially if there is no outward direct support for LGBTQ+ people from the institution or supportive services.

The Power of LGBTQ+ College Representation and Support

Even though there has been past institutional change to support queer visibility on college campuses, there is still room for growth. Due to recent state attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, policymakers and stakeholders need to advocate for and protect LGBTQ+ rights and inclusivity on campus — otherwise, student success and sense of belonging will continue to decrease. Historically, university faculty and staff have done the bulk of the work when it comes to implementing LGBTQ+ initiatives on campus, but these institutions should not be placing onus on those who require the supports they are advocating for. Colleges and universities need to align their intentions to improve the experiences and meet the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals on their campuses. When LGBTQ+ students have supportive higher education policies that are queer-inclusive and access to on-campus LGBTQ+ services and resources, it makes for a more positive campus environment for queer faculty and staff.

To further support LGBTQ+ faculty and staff, universities and colleges must implement identity recognition, queer trans and nonbinary initiatives, workshops centering the lived experiences and needs of LGBTQ+ faculty, professional development, non-discrimination policies, LGBTQ+ leadership, mentorship for students and staff, and more. While the majority of this work is for institutions to implement, policymakers must advocate for improvements in higher education and increase funding for resources and initiatives. This is important because when educators can be themselves, it can help other students who are not out or who are developing their sexual identity feel encouraged and supported. Moreover, when intersectional groups have representation on campus, every student benefits and further fosters a supportive campus climate for all students.