Anti-LGBTQ+ state laws will have an impact on higher ed, experts say

With state legislators filing more than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ state laws for consideration in 2021 and 2022—including bans on sports participation by transgender and nonbinary students, bills requiring people to use bathrooms according to their gender assigned at birth, and prohibitions on provision of gender-affirming healthcare—experts are warning that although most of the laws don’t directly target colleges and universities, their impacts will still be felt in higher education.

What anti-LGBTQ+ state laws mean to higher ed

The laws, often specifically targeting K-12 education, are “conveying to LGBTQ+ students that they are unwelcome in their learning communities,” says Dr. Margaux Cowen, chief program officer at the Point Foundation, a nonprofit that provides college scholarships and support to LGBTQ+ students in the U.S. As a result, “we’re excluding students at the K-12 level from the experiences that are fundamental to their college preparation and success as well as to their identity formations.”

Meanwhile, laws banning trans girls and women from playing women’s sports in high school “will interrupt and mediate the college-going process for trans girls,” says Dr. Z Nicolazzo, a trans person and an associate professor of trans studies at the University of Arizona. “If trans girls don’t feel like education is a space for them and face barrier after barrier just to be themselves, then I would assume they actually would be trapped out of higher education before they even get to higher education.”

Dr. Mario Suarez, assistant professor at Utah State University and a trans educator who previously worked in K-12 schools in Texas, also worries that legislation focused on K-12 schools can influence college students, faculty, and staff. He warns against assuming that “K-12 schools do their own thing and higher ed folks have more freedom to do what they want,” noting that “what is impacting K-12 education will impact higher education.” For example, the Wyoming Senate passed a budget amendment seeking to stop funding for the University of Wyoming’s Gender and Women’s studies program because of its emphasis on queer, feminist, and social justice theories, The Hill reports. The amendment eventually died in the House, but scholars expect similar bills to emerge across the country.

Supporting LGBTQ+ students

In response to anti-LGBTQ+ state initiatives, Nicolazzo says advocates and educators can reach out to LGBTQ+ students to ask them what they need. “I think often higher education leaders and people in K-12 administration think they know the answers, but really my work shows that trans students, faculty, and staff know what we need best.”

Nicolazzo also suggests school leaders facilitate the formation of LGBTQ+ communities. According to Nicolazzo, transgender students in higher education have “familial and familial-like relationships with people who saw them as they were,” even in environments that weren’t originally created with those communities in mind. “What would it mean to pull trans students together for a meal?” Nicolazzo asks. “These are vital steps that can be taken to listen more and to make sure we’re really centering trans students of color, trans women, and trans girls in particular.”

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