The Myths & Realities of ‘It Gets Better’: How to Prepare Yourself for Autonomy as an LGBTQ Student
In 2010, journalist Dan Savage and his husband began the It Gets Better project. Initially a video that Savage used to explain that life would get easier for gay and lesbian teens when they became adults, it became a movement; renowned speakers, including President Obama and Ellen DeGeneres, have recorded over 50 videos in total that have garnered millions of views.
Today, the project sticks to its stated mission, but also opens itself to all members of the queer community and seeks to create the necessary change to make the world a safer place. Since LGBTQ individuals are more likely to experience depression, violence, prejudice, and suicide, It Gets Better serves as a resource and community for young people at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives.
A recent study conducted by University of Arizona faculty found that LGBTQ college students who tried to manage stress by either changing schools they don’t feel welcome in or relying on cognitive strategies (like simply envisioning a better future) did not have as much success as students that connected in concrete ways to local or national LGBTQ communities.
The It Gets Better project was not directly cited, but in subsequent discussions the researchers acknowledged that its efficacy depends on how it is used — if just a far-off hope for students, it’s less effective, but as a community, it can provide lasting support.
In truth, even though LGBTQ students face a society that has progressed towards openness in some areas, there are still challenges that they will face through high school and beyond. A more accurate prediction than “it gets better” is “you get better,” or more appropriately, you must help yourself to become as healthy and independent as possible to face the challenges ahead.
With this in mind, choosing a college that is a good fit academically and socially is of critical importance for LGBTQ students. Going to a school where a student feels unwelcome, bullied, or unsupported (which is more common for an LGBTQ student) will not only fail to build self-esteem but may also create long-term, long-lasting emotional struggles.
At CollegeVine, we’re most interested in enabling you to own your college path and take charge of what you want. Read on for more advice on how to get started on the path to full autonomy for college and beyond.
Research, Research, and More College Research
We can’t stress this enough. Aside from standard metrics like size, majors, fit, and extracurriculars, the community and environment of a college is a must-know for LGBTQ students.
The Princeton Review even has a list of top schools that are particularly open to LGBTQ individuals (their 2018 ranking is forthcoming, so be on the lookout for it). There are also resources from a variety of sources that offer lists of colleges that are particularly welcoming for LGBTQ students. College lists aren’t always totally unbiased, so be sure to check multiple sources and do your own research as well.
Several Ivy League institutions, including Princeton and MIT, have active and encouraging LGBTQ communities that are officially supported and recognized by the university administration — which is a critically important aspect of LGBTQ life at any college. Official sanction by the college means that funding and support will likely be available for university clubs and groups, and it often speaks to a more tolerant campus environment either holistically or in the communities it serves.
Find Support Outside Your Community
If you don’t have support from your local community before heading off to college, try to find an outside entity that will offer support as you prepare for college. Check out GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students in K-12 education. It provides information about local schools and groups that can provide assistance, as well as national resources if nothing local is available.
Look for Tuition Assistance
Researching schools that offer tuition assistance and scholarships will also be essential. Some schools offer LGBTQ scholarships, and the Point Foundation serves as the national LGBTQ scholarship fund. Such scholarships can be purely need-based but many provide resources to students that would not get them elsewhere. There are also scholarships available for students who are LGBTQ and also minorities (including Asian Americans and African Americans).
It’s not uncommon for students to think that a strict and rigorous college environment that is not openly welcoming of alternative lifestyles might help them somehow “rein in” their impulses. It’s critically important to know that a controlling environment (whether because of religion or some other reason) is rarely a good fit for an LGBTQ student. There can be passionate LGBTQ advocates in such environments, but it is almost always the minority voice among a larger environment that can be antagonistic.
Know the Environment You’re Signing Up For
The same idea applies for a major and general location. We encourage all students to pursue majors that offer practical benefits while also enabling them to pursue their passions, but for an LGBTQ student in particular, working to maximize success includes seeking out opportunities for a supportive environment within a department and the larger community.
In practice, this looks like doing informational interviews with the people that you will spend time with (including faculty you hope to work directly with), discovering LGBTQ college resources outside of the school, checking local news stories, meeting supportive people before you get there, and as much additional prep as you can.
Talk Through Challenges with People Who Can Help
Communicating with those who understand and have gone through similar issues is also critical. If family and friends are supportive, great, but if not, there are others who might be able to help.
Does your school have a good counselor? Is there an LGBTQ group for adults in your community? What about opportunities on social media platforms? Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and even Reddit each have active communities that encourage participation and questions.
For example, colleges will often have their own Facebook groups for LGBTQ fraternities, sororities, clubs, or general open groups, in the case of colleges like the University of South Carolina. Some of these are closed, but for those that are not, you can potentially make friends and learn about the events you can attend before and when you attend that school. There might even be an orientation you can join when you visit the school for the first time or when you arrive as a freshman.
For those that want to help you but don’t know how, there are plenty of online resources, including this roundup via the CDC, that help explain issues, provide resources for common struggles, and pull together advocacy resources. If nothing else, educating yourself about these issues will serve you well in the future.
You can also seek out mentors. We’re not just talking about well-known people to look up to, but also people who are local and living proud, fulfilling lives. What did they do to get there? Who can they rely on, from partners to mentors to their communities? How can you begin to model your life in a similarly healthy and positive way? Can you ask for their guidance?
Near-peer mentoring is one important way to identify someone you want to emulate and who can offer unparalleled advice on how they were able to thrive. For more, check out this CollegeVine post on the benefits of this type of mentoring.
Create Safe Spaces for the Present and Future
No matter what, creating a space (either online or in person) that can connect you to others like you and allow you to voice your worries and fears is extremely important during this time period and beyond it.
There are many different paths to becoming an “out” LGBTQ person, and different ways to manifest that identity in adult life. Self-awareness is key: take a good, hard look at yourself and see who, where, and what makes you feel most happy and comfortable. Follow that intuitive knowledge to discover what environment you’ll thrive in the most; one that provides a basic level of safety and security but also allows you to test your limits and fears is a good place to start. And if, worst-case scenario, your research turns out to be wrong and the environment isn’t what you expected, transferring schools can be challenging but not impossible.
The sooner you start research and seek out opportunities beyond what’s immediately available to you, the more powerful you’ll feel.
If you’re interested in developing a relationship with someone who can help you with issues like this, consider working with the CollegeVine Mentorship Program. Our mentors are current students at elite colleges that have found ways to cultivate success in their own academic and social lives. Their ideas and insights can provide a powerful model to emulate, maximizing the chances of success. Plus, they’ll have lots of ideas to help you along your chosen path.