Oscar Santiago Perez is very tired. They are not tired because of their course load at the University of Florida, where they are studying political science and criminology, or because of their student government work.
Santiago Perez said it’s the barrage of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, rhetoric and violence that has intensified throughout the past year that has left them feeling so tired and drained that they are becoming desensitized.
“These politicians, these people in power just repeat these falsehoods and narratives that are actively harming myself and members of the community,” Santiago Perez said. “Oftentimes, I feel powerless to do anything about it.”
This year alone, state lawmakers have filed at least 340 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and at least 25 have passed. These include policies that would restrict queer and transgender people from accessing healthcare, limit educators from teaching about LGBTQ+ identities in schools and prevent athletes from playing sports on the team that corresponds with their gender identity.
Beyond legislation, the United States Supreme Court hinted at potentially reconsidering the case that led to the constitutional right to same-sex marriage in 2015. And most recently, a gunman killed five people at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. These are just the things that have made national news.
Though few pieces of legislation and acts of violence targeted higher education directly, experts say LGBTQ+ college students are suffering from the national pile-up of negativity.
Keygan Miller, the public training manager at The Trevor Project, a LGBTQ+ advocacy group, said that even if students don’t live in places where there is anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, rhetoric or violence, they still absorb it every time they turn on the TV or open social media. Miller said young people are left thinking about their peers who are being directly affected, and wondering whether they will be targeted next.
In a survey done in the fall of 2021 by The Trevor Project, about two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth said that legislation targeting transgender people had negatively affected their mental health. The same was true for about 85 percent of trans and nonbinary youth surveyed.
Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and sentiments have intensified since this study was done, and Miller said they believe that queer and trans young people continue to be concerned and affected.
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And LGBTQ+ college students – and youth in general – are already at an increased risk for poor mental health and suicide, which can be related to experiences of discrimination, marginalization and lack of acceptance. Another Trevor Project analysis, released in September, showed that queer and trans college students who had access to LGBTQ+ specific support services were less likely to consider or attempt suicide than students who did not have these resources.
“We think about if you could change one small thing in history, how much of a difference that would make,” Miller said. “With our college students in particular, it might be that one professor who’s just affirming; it might be offering that support group after a tragedy. It might be mentioning crisis services on a website.”
Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and the press secretary of Equality Florida, said that anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric “creates a toxic, hostile environment toward them that just does not allow them to be mentally, physically, emotionally present for their education.”
He said that even if a college community is accepting, it can be hard for LGBTQ+ students to open up if their experiences up to that point have led them to believe that something is wrong with their identity.
“When you tell young queer kids that there’s something wrong with them because of who they are, or that their identities are something to be hidden away or that LGBTQ people are like a contagion or a virus that you’re trying to eliminate; when you pummel young people with that message for 12 or 13 years of their young lives, of their educational journeys, it becomes very difficult for them to unpack that when they get to college.”
Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida
“When you tell young queer kids that there’s something wrong with them because of who they are,” he said, “or that their identities are something to be hidden away or that LGBTQ people are like a contagion or a virus that you’re trying to eliminate; when you pummel young people with that message for 12 or 13 years of their young lives, of their educational journeys, it becomes very difficult for them to unpack that when they get to college.”
Wolf started a nonprofit to help fund Gay Straight Alliances in K-12 schools and provide LGBTQ+ students with college scholarships, in honor of his friend Drew Leinonen, who was killed in the Pulse shooting.
Leinonen had started his high school’s first GSA and, Wolf said, “was a catalyst for most people in our social circle for them to learn to be comfortable with themselves, to feel safe in society for the first time.” Supporting GSAs, he said, both honors his friend and helps to reduce the students’ risk of suicide.
Related:In the wake of ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ LGBTQ students won’t be silenced
Matt Mustard, a senior strategic leader at the education consulting firm EAB, said that colleges should consider the broader benefits to helping LGBTQ+ students thrive.
“If we are not living out our commitment to equity and also proactively having that conversation with prospective students and other institutions, we are missing out on that many more bright, young, talented students we can enroll,” Mustard said. “For our schools that are intentionally, or with the best of intentions and poor execution, excluding our students, it will be harder and harder to compete with those that are getting this right.”
Mustard said college leaders should also consider the community beyond the campus. Whether students are safe and accepted off campus matters, too, he said. And colleges can take advantage of partnering with community organizations that already serve LGBTQ+ people to ensure that all students have the resources they need.
Related: OPINION: Three ways to turn schools into safe learning environments for LGBTQ students in post-Orlando America
Santiago Perez said they are grateful that the University of Florida and Gainesville are overall pretty accepting toward LGBTQ+ people. But they were jarred and disheartened to learn that the local pride center had been vandalized this fall, when someone threw a rock through the window. (The police are investigating it as a hate crime.)
“It just shows that there’s still hate within our community, even in what I would consider a pretty progressive city,” Santiago Perez said. “It is just a reminder for me, and probably others, to always be vigilant and to not let our guard down when it comes to protecting ourselves.”
Alex Noon, a second-year law student at the University of Florida, is trans and said that even though some faculty and staff members are supportive, there have also been instructors who have deadnamed him in class. Having to wonder when that will happen next, while also thinking about all the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and sentiment in Florida and around the country, is a burden, he said.
“It’s a huge mental weight that a lot of queer people now have to deal with tenfold,” said Noon, who also leads the LGBTQ+ affinity group for the law school. “A lot of people just exist as they are and then do their school. But to be queer or trans or anything under the LGBTQ identity and be dealing with emotional and mental exhaustion – plus, then having to still give yourself enough energy and resources to complete schoolwork – is really difficult.”
This story about LGBTQ college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.