Over the past eight years, American legislation has become increasingly inclusive of equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and extended community (LGBT+, which includes those who identify as queer, pansexual, asexual, gender-nonconforming and more). This reform has been accompanied by highs and lows, taking the form of an unforgettable Pride month in 2015 and the abominable Pulse nightclub tragedy last year. National events and legislation effect LGBT+ students' school experiences greatly, as evidenced by the polarization that Title IX (the Department of Education-sanctioned law amended to make universities address sexual violence and sex discrimination) created between Christian universities and their relationships with LGBT students in 2014. Now with a transition to a completely different type of President -- a celebrity with roots in business rather than politics -- many college students may be experiencing a sort of culture shock. After all, a large portion of college-age students' lives have so far played out with Barack Obama in office. Campuses are a great place to find support, while also making moves to protect the progress that Obama made for LGBT+ rights. College students can also help defend the community against the policies detrimental to LGBT+ people that President Trump's legislators have vocalized, which will be elaborated upon in the coming subsections. First, it is important to note that protecting LGBT+ rights is futile unless you know what they are and how they've changed throughout history.
LGBT+ Activism and College Students: A VERY Condensed History
In New York, gay life flourished in Greenwich Village and Harlem during the 1920s Renaissance. However, nationwide advocacy groups didn't particularly emerge or gain traction until much later, during the civil rights movement, and were lead by college students.
"The first gay-rights organization, the Mattachine Society, can be traced to a 1948 “beer bust” bull session involving Harry Hay ... and several gay undergraduates at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles." - Kenneth Jost, author of "Gays On Campus"
According to the American Psychological Association's History of Lesbian, Gay, & Bisexual Social Movements, Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigation of gay people holding government jobs (during the early 1950s) sparked a greater awareness towards the need for fair LGBT+ treatment in "mental health, public policy and employment." When policies outlawing racial discrimination gained traction during the civil rights movement, some of first gay rights demonstrations were held by college students. During the 1960s, college students were an important proponent of radical social change concerning people of color, women and the gay community.
"In 1966, students at Columbia University sought to form a chapter of the Mattachine Society, but the society's leaders rebuffed them. So the dozen undergraduates instead formed the Student Homophile League, the country's first campus gay-rights organization." - Kenneth Jost, author of "Gays On Campus"
These societies gained prevalence on campuses, and provided backing for the turning point of gay liberation. In June of 1969, patrons of a popular neighborhood gay bar -- the Stonewall Inn in New York -- fought back against ongoing police raids. Drag performers, minorities and transgender patrons played a pivotal role in the Stonewall Riots, such as leaders like Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman of color; and Sylvia Rivera, a 17-year-old non-binary drag queen.
In 1978, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after running three times. Before he was assassinated in 1978, Milk was instrumental in preventing Proposition 6 (the Briggs Initiative) from becoming law, which would've prevented LGBT+ teachers from working in California public schools. Many college students, including those of the University of California Santa Cruz, traveled to San Francisco to join "40,000 others in a candlelight vigil the night of Milk's death." Much later in California (2008), another proposition - Proposition 8 - got a similar response by college students.
"Thousands of college students participated in a nationwide protest of the passage of Proposition 8, the state bill in California that revoked the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, in some cases serving as the sole organizers of the protests in their respective cities, including Pittsburgh." - Claire Morgenstern of Carnegie Mellon's Student Newspaper
LGBT+ students are still leading the charge for equal rights at their respective colleges - especially campuses that are religiously affiliated. Gordon College, a university that is unmistakably Christian, made it clear that being LGBT+ was "explicitly condemned by both God and the college code of conduct." There was no conversation about the issue, until a student alliance called OneGordon was formed, which made sure the president of the university was held accountable for complying with then-president Obama's Non-Discrimination Executive Order.
"Now people are talking about [LGBT issues] all the time, and the university can’t pretend that there aren’t gay people who attend the school." - Paul Southwick, founder of George Fox University student group OneGeorgeFox
With an increasing number of LGBT+ student groups and national organizations appearing on all college campuses, both progress and threats towards equal rights for the LGBT+ community receive ample attention by students. Public demonstrations often gain momentum on college campuses, where students are some of the first to organize protests and celebrate victories.
Obama's Impact on LGBT+ Policy
Although largely significant and incredibly exciting, marriage equality in all 50 states isn't the only LGBT+ policy milestone that was achieved during the Obama administration. Obama made steps towards equal protection for LGBT+ Americans through multiple other measures, earning himself a spot on the cover of Out Magazine's 2015 Out100 cover - the first U.S. president to do so. This definitive list of everything Obama has done for the LGBT Community includes some of the following milestones and more. In 2016, Obama named the first LGBT+ national monument the Stonewall Inn and surrounding area. Under his Affordable Care Act, signed in 2010, Obama made it so health insurance companies could not discriminate based on sexual orientation. He also released the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the U.S., ended the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy and had the first transgender presidential appointees.
Maybe most relevant to the mental wellbeing of LGBT+ students, Obama's administration ordered all U.S. schools to allow transgender students access to the bathroom that matches their identity. He also passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, making it a federal crime to assault an individual because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. One of the men this law was named after, Matthew Shepard, was a student at the University of Wyoming. At 21-years-old, he was beaten, tortured, and left to die by two homophobic men that offered to give him a ride home from a gay-friendly bar. Matthew Shepard's story lead to increased legislation against hate crimes.
Political Threats to LGBT+ Students' Rights Today
With the election of a new president, Americans are unsure as to how far the aforementioned acts will be protected and continued. With many conflicting statements from President Trump about LGBT+ policies, it's hard to predict what he'll do next in regards to equal rights.
The White House wrote in a statement on January 31st, 2017, “President Donald J. Trump is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community. President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights. The president is proud to have been the first ever G.O.P. nominee to mention the L.G.B.T.Q. community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression.”
The occasion for this statement was an announcement that President Trump would not backtrack on Obama-era protections for LGBT people working in the federal government. As encouraging of a sign that Trump's announcement was, his legislators, on the other hand, have histories that indicate they may have plans to undermine the LGBT+ community, and rescind the protections offered to students in particular. Although Vice President Pence's troubling past with anti-LGBT ideas is already pretty well-known, it is important to understand that President Trump's other legislators share similar beliefs.
Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a controversial statement in the White House briefing room on February 2nd, saying that the “pendulum” has swung away from religious people “in the name of political correctness,” stirring worries that the president may not explicitly discriminate against LGBT+ citizens, but instead issue an executive order on “religious freedom” that would condone discrimination. It certainly doesn't seem like this metaphorical "pendulum" has swung nearly enough in the direction of those being punished for their sexual orientation.
President Trump has also chosen the "anti-LGBT fundamentalist" Jerry Falwell Jr. to head a federal task force on Department of Education policy. Falwell is the president of Liberty University, where the code of conduct states that “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural born woman are not permissible.” The university has hosted several anti-LGBT events, according to the Advocate.
Congressman Mark Takano of California issued a statement against Falwell on February 1st. “As a gay man, I am enraged that his anti-LGBT rhetoric is being rewarded with a leadership post. As a former teacher, I am deeply concerned for students who will inevitably be exploited by unregulated for-profit education companies. And as an American, I continue to be appalled by President Trump’s pattern of selecting unqualified ideologues to guide national education policy.”
“Jerry Falwell Jr. espouses an extreme anti-LGBTQ and anti-science worldview. He poses a real threat to our community, especially young people who should have a fair opportunity to learn free from discrimination and prejudices." - Mark Daniel Snyder, Equality Federation spokesman, for the Advocate
Finally, Campus Pride, the leading national educational organization for LGBT+ and ally college students, publicly denounced Falwell's appointment for being "truly frightening for all Americans who value diversity, campus safety and LGBTQ inclusion within higher education."
Newly appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has many wondering what she has in mind concerning the current protections of LGBT+ students. Despite being associated with multiple previous donations to organizations that support conversion therapy and are anti-marriage equality, and a speech where she said marriage was between one man and one woman in 2004, DeVos denies that she is anti-LGBT. However, many doubt her honesty.
"During her confirmation hearing, DeVos rejected anti-LGBT views, saying she’s “never supported” conversion therapy and the anti-LGBT donations were from her family, not her or her husband. (According to the American Federation of Teachers, a foundation run by DeVos and her husband contributed $100,000 to the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, which opposed same-sex marriage.)" - Chris Johnson for the Washington Blade
Eliza Byard, the head of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an advocacy group for young LGBT+ students, expressed concerns over what DeVos did not say during her confirmation hearing. Byard ended up making an important statement about the multiple different identities that LGBT+ people can have.
"While we are relieved to hear DeVos rejecting the dangerous and thoroughly discredited practice of conversion therapy her family has previously supported, it was chilling to hear DeVos dodge questions about whether she would keep essential protections for transgender students, and basically refer all other civil rights protections for students with disabilities, students of color, and religious minority students 'back to the states.' ...Conversion therapy is not the only issue of concern for LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ youth come from many communities and have many identities — identities that U.S. civil rights law is designed to protect." - Eliza Byard
Along with everything left unsaid, DeVos has a plan to "move $20 billion out of public schools, where LGBT kids are guaranteed equal access to education, and into private schools, where they are guaranteed nothing whatsoever."
Protestors are already showing their discontent at her appointment, which has included physically blocking her from entering a public school.
President Trump's pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, twice voted against the hate-crimes laws he is now be expected to enforce. Within his first 48 hours on the job, Sessions decided to "withdraw a request to halt an order against the Obama administration’s protections for transgender students. This action will effectively continue to halt the protections nationwide."
Finally, Tom Price, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, has called laws protecting reproductive and LGBT+ rights “a huge cost-driver.” Additionally, he has voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, and called the Obama administration’s directive giving trans students access to restrooms corresponding with their gender identity an “abuse and overreach of power."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 172 hate crimes have already occurred at colleges and universities in the month following Trump's election. Not only are LGBT+ students affected by President Trump's national appointees, but there are ongoing localized events that are making waves in the gay community.
Other Recent College-Based LGBT+ Issues
Most other controversial LGBT+ discourse lately has been thanks to openly gay Milo Yiannopoulos, who is an editor at far-right Breitbart News. According to Dan Lieberman for CNN, Yiannopoulos "has made disparaging remarks about Muslims, minority students, members of the transgender community and other groups - all in the name of free speech and the fight against political correctness. His many detractors say he is a hatemonger. But Yiannopoulos believes he offers an important perspective that is missing at universities where liberal ideas typically go unchallenged." If you're unfamiliar with Yiannopoulos or the nature of his college visits, you can read Milo Yiannopoulos, Hate Speech, And Campus Protest: A Primer.
Recently, the University of California, Berkeley, decided that the Berkeley College Republicans had the right to host Yiannopoulos as a speaker on campus. The night he arrived, however, 1,500 people showed up to protest.
"Some [were] carting a giant, homemade dove to symbolize their peaceful intentions. But just after sundown, the protests turned violent, as roughly 150 black-clad, anti-fascist radicals with clubs and shields lit fires, hurled Molotov cocktails, smashed windows and caused enough of a scene to achieve their objective: deny Yiannopoulos the opportunity to spread what they view as dangerous hate speech." - Matt Saincome for The Rolling Stone
Many LGBT+ students do not align with Yiannopoulos' conservative views, and in a past interview with comedian Joe Rogan, the out editor has said, "If I could choose, I wouldn’t be a homosexual. That doesn’t make me self-loathing."
Meanwhile, at Tufts, half of the members of a sorority have recently walked out "after its international parent organization discouraged members to extend a bid to a transgender woman." According to The Daily Dot, "this is not the first time trans students have been scrutinized with regard to Greek life. In 2015, trans student Ryan Bishop found he was ineligible to join the Ohio Wesleyan University’s chapter of Chi Phi because membership was open only to those who were 'male as defined by valid legal documentation.'" This article in Cosmopolitan, focusing on a trans woman's experience with sororities, captures the prevailing negative opinions that transgender students still face when attempting to get involved in Greek life on college campuses.
According to The Nation, in response to current events in the Trump administration and on a local level specific to college campuses, "rights advocates say that the future of LGBT youth rights will depend on how local communities proactively work to foster a more inclusive school culture." This "inclusive school culture" begins with student organizations that allow LGBT+ students an outlet to feel protected and encourage equal rights activism.
To get involved in the fight to protect current LGBT+ rights at the college level, look into some on-campus organizations. These are your best bet as a resource around your university specifically. Listed below is a range of organizations for LGBT+ students and allies that serve as exemplary models to encourage discussion and social awareness.
Because it is described so well on their Facebook about page, here is Created Equal's mission.
- "Created Equal is a political activist organization that emphasizes critical thinking about issues of inequality. Through coalition building, we can use collective resources to creatively express multiple points of view, and implement projects to aid in spreading awareness and social change. All people, who represent a diversity of perspectives, races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other identities and experiences, are more than welcome to attend and join this organization."
According to Ithaca's website, Created Equal works to "design and implement projects on a local, state and national level, which will address issues and provide solutions to problems facing LGBTQA people on the Ithaca College campus, the larger community, and the United States as a whole." This organization embodies the approach to social change that college students should be taking today. Understanding current roadblocks to full LGBT+ equality can help student groups come up with ways to make their own campuses more inclusive, and create solutions that can be beneficial on a national level. Encouraging all perspectives offers unique opportunities for intersectional input and a range of student experiences.
According to Stephen Weiss for Rutgers' student publication, the Daily Targum, LLEGO functions as support system and family for the LGBTQ community and people of color. Besides the general experience of being a certain race or subset of the LGBT+ community, the student group often discusses political issues, gender identity, economic status.
“LLEGO provides a platform for us to talk and discuss these issues in an educational way. We are doing research and providing programs, and when we sit and are able to talk about certain things we are able to sort of have a safe space as well as be informed on current LGBTQ issues.” - Rosario Jimenez, LLEGO treasurer
The organization addresses the culture of intersectionality that the LGBT+ community has been built on, which is important considering the erasure of people of color in early LGBT+ movements and the tendency of politicians like DeVos to ignore the presence of other identities in the lives of LGBT+ Americans today.
Transgender UCLA Pride (TransUp)
Transgender UCLA Pride is a "social, support, and advocacy group for transgender, genderqueer, gender questioning and allied members of the UCLA community." They focus on finding social equality through discussions and information. A quick look through their Facebook page shows the wide range of educational material TransUp offers, such as self-defense techniques, trans health resources, LGBT+ policy information, and discussion about trans history. They've also hosted “art TRANSforms us” a three-day event on UCLA’s campus, featuring transgender artists, a documentary screening and interactive workshop.
Just joining a campus activism group and showing your support for the LGBT+ community is a huge step towards fighting the prejudice of students against the LGBT+ community. There's strength in numbers, and joining together to take action is extremely powerful.
Getting involved with national organizations aimed towards college students is yet another way to make your presence count in support of the young adult LGBT+ community. National organizations have the scope to influence national decisions.
Campus Pride is a national nonprofit organization for student leaders and campus groups, working to create a safer college environment for LGBTQ students. According to their Facebook,
"The organization is a volunteer-driven network “for” and “by” student leaders. The primary objective of Campus Pride is to develop necessary resources, programs and services to support LGBTQ and ally students on college campuses across the United States."
Today, many campuses are looking for ways to become safer and more LGBT-friendly. Campus Pride offers resources to help such as a Summer Leadership Camp for students, an LGBTQ-Friendly College Fair Program, a National Clearinghouse for information on LGBTQ Fraternity & Sorority Issues, and a Stop The Hate initiative on campuses. Students can also get involved by donating or requesting a speaker from Campus Pride to come to their school.
The American College Personnel Association's (ACPA) Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Awareness (CLGBTA)
The Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Awareness (CLGBTA) is a group within ACPA focused on "increasing awareness, eliminating oppression, and providing support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in higher education - for faculty, students, and staff." Their goal is to further competencies related to "campus climate, equity, identity development, research & scholarship, and program development for the LGBTQ community."
CLGBTA's core values are education, advocacy and networking. These are three elements of social change that provide a more inclusive environment for LGBT+ college students and staff members to discuss current issues and celebrate identity. Get involved by applying for a CLGBTA Grant for your campus, the purpose of which is to provide funding and support for LGBT+ students, faculty and staff. This is done through student organizations, offices or other initiatives on college campuses in an effort to bring about LGBT+ awareness and educational opportunities. They also accept donations.
Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
"The Human Rights Campaign represents a force of more than 1.5 million members and supporters, joined together in common purpose. Our strength is a direct reflection of the willingness of these Americans to become personally involved in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer equality." - Human Rights Campaign website
Probably the most general LGBT+ rights organization, HRC focuses on various areas of LGBT+ equality including sections on its website labeled Campus and Young Adult, Communities of Color, Transgender Children and Youth, and Federal Advocacy. The Federal Advocacy page is especially helpful in understanding the scope of the HRC - it "works with every branch of the federal government to ensure that LGBTQ rights receive the attention and respect they deserve." The entire website is a goldmine of educational content, however, that page in particular offers information on our elected officials, current federal legislation, and even gives out a "Congressional Scorecard" that rates elected officials on how equality-friendly they are.
The HRC offers scholarships for the LGBT+ community, while the Campus and Young Adult section offers ways to get involved with the HRC as a young person. These include obtaining youth membership, donating (or shopping for some of the cute LGBT+ merch they have, including that Make America Gay Again hat), or attending the Time to THRIVE conference that sets out to promote the well-being of LGBT+ youth.
Asexual Outreach, Black Youth Project 100, and the Bisexual Resource Center are all additional and more identity-specific resources for those in the LGBT+ community. All of these resources are powerful outlets to show LGBT+ support in numbers through donations or by sharing personal stories.
The Work Is Never Done
"The way we're going to keep moving forward is for people to keep engaging, to keep fighting, to keep demanding justice." - David Stacy, government affairs director for the HRC
The HRC's Ways You Can Make A Difference page is full of extremely helpful suggestions on where to start or continue getting involved in protecting progress for LGBT+ Americans. Too many people have been involved in the fight for equal rights throughout history to revert to an even more intolerant past. Join campus or national organizations, attend equal rights protests, call legislators (text MY CONGRESS to 306-44 to find your members of Congress, so you can call them directly any time equality is in danger), go to or create support groups, donate, vocalize your support across campus and defend LGBT+ rights online (like when your homophobic great-aunt makes another ignorant Facebook post). Listen to the stories of intersectional LGBT+ people in order to validate their experiences and understand their needs. Below is a personal favorite video -- a speech at University College Dublin by American screenwriter and LGBT+ rights activist Dustin Lance Black. He recounts how the personal stories of his gay friends in college changed the deep-seated homophobic views of his "good, Mormon, Southern mother" and made her more accepting of the LGBT+ community.
Share your stories. You never know who they could reach and whose hearts they can change.
Read the rest of Fresh U's series on college activism below:
Lead Image Credit: Elvert Barnes via Wikimedia Commons