Creating A Culture of Care For LGBTQ+ Students in Higher Education Settings

It is well established through both theory and research that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning + college students (also referred to in this piece as “Queer”) are at elevated risk of substance use and experiencing consequences of use; however, they are less likely to use prevention and intervention services compared to their heterosexual peers. They may not feel safe because of previous negative experiences with campus primary care and mental health professionals and fear of being disciplined for using substances, as well as having experienced discrimination and stigma within the context of their institution of higher education.

As preventionists, we can implement strategies using a comprehensive public health framework to support LGBTQ+ students experiencing substance use concerns and promote a culture of care for our students. Below are four key strategies that may help to promote such a supportive and welcoming campus environment.

  1. Recognize and Address the Potentially Stigmatizing Effects of Our Language

Stigma and discrimination may not always be obvious in the institutions where we work; however, they are often present and reinforced through the language we use. Therefore, it is important to recognize stigmatizing language and instead encourage the use of language that does not discriminate against Queer students. Stigmatizing and discriminatory language come in many forms, including microaggressions, or everyday verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights that can be intentional or unintentional and convey hostility (Sue et al., 2007). Microaggressions have significant mental and physical health ramifications, and it is therefore important for prevention professionals to identify and consider confronting such microaggressions when they occur.

Further, labels and words often pose additional barriers that prevent Queer students from engaging in critical campus services, such as substance use support. Just as stigma is perpetuated through language, we  can create a culture of care by using inclusive language within the context of our service settings and our broader institutions of higher education. If microaggressions and stigmatizing language are barriers, inclusive language is the bridge to forming new connections. Below are examples of inclusive alternatives to stigmatizing language.

  1. Understand the Unique Stressors and Discrimination Queer Students Face

To create a culture of care for our Queer students, it is important to understand the unique stressors and discrimination they experience, both in the world and on our campuses and recognize the link between these experiences and the elevated risk for substance use among these students. These include:

  • Discrimination and Harassment
  • Financial Stress
  • Anti-Trans and Anti-LGBTQ+ Laws/Policies
  • Being Out on Campus
  • Experiencing Lack of Community on Campus
  • Seeking Medical Care in a Non-Gender-Affirming Environment

While these stressors are not necessarily unique to LGBTQ+ college students, these students' marginalized identity increases the complexity and negative effects of these stressors. Further, holding multiple marginalized identities (e.g., race, disability status) may exacerbate these stressors. As prevention professionals, it is critical for us to remain aware of the effects of the above stressors on our students and offer resources for support when indicated through timely and responsive referrals to campus and community services.

  1. Create Safe Spaces for Students

It is important for Queer students to have spaces on campus where they can be their authentic selves and feel safe. Historically, “gay bars,” or bars that are intentionally marketed as Queer bars or predominantly serve Queer communities, have had a presence in Queer culture, acting as a safe haven for Queer people to find community and be themselves, undoubtedly affecting the prevalence of substance use and substance use disorders within this community. Therefore, it is important to recognize this increased risk and begin to try to create more spaces for Queer college students that do not center around substances. Alternatives to consider may include the following:

  • Implementing explicit nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Promoting campus programming that includes awareness and acceptance of queer diversity and experiences
  • Reviewing and revising campus documents and policies that may perpetuate binary views of gender and heterosexism
  • Investing in hiring, promotion, and retention of LGBT individuals
  • Supporting and increasing accessibility to gender inclusive infrastructure (e.g., restrooms, housing, healthcare)

Although the above recommendations can help to promote a culture of safety and thriving for Queer students in general, the best way to assess campus culture is to administer surveys assessing the campus environment and climate at one’s own institution of higher education. Survey data can help to identify needs and assist in planning of specific strategies and action steps to mobilize the changes that are most relevant to the needs of specific campuses.

  1. Celebrate the Successes and Achievements of Our LGBTQ+ Students

Finally, it is important to remember and honor the inherent resiliency of Queer individuals. Queer people have been around as long as the human race, creating a rich history of culture, resilience, and connection. There are several steps that may be taken to acknowledge and honor this rich history on our college campuses:

  • Adopting a strengths-based approach when working with students
  • Highlighting LGBTQ+-focused  events, history, leaders, students, staff, and faculty in newsletters, promotional materials, and other campus communications
  • Celebrating the achievements of Queer students on your campus

As long as we as higher education professionals continue to strive for equity and make individual and collective efforts to better serve our LGBTQ+ students and help them achieve their goals, we take critical and significant steps to enhance the well-being of our entire campus communities.

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